Kids and Dogs Make Life Better for an Alaskan Community


I joined leading pet experts at Purina’s Third annual Better With Pets Summit, last week in New York. The day-long summit explored emotional wellness and the evolution of the human-animal bond.

Read more about the Summit: How Well Is Your Pet? Physical and Emotional Wellness in Pets

Through our interviews and research for our TV Documentary, we found evidence of how powerful the human-animal bond can be and how dogs make a difference in the lives of many. The Summit Opening Keynote gave another wonderful example of how Kids and Dogs Make Life Better together.

arleigh dog

Arleigh and his dog

Arleigh Reynolds Opening Keynote Speech – the human-animal bond in Alaska

Purina Senior Research Nutritionist Arleigh Reynolds gave his opening keynote speech on research regarding the human-animal bond in Alaska. It was fascinating to learn about the impact having positive interactions with dogs has had on Alaskan children’s development and sense of community.

Reynolds announced that Purina will donate $50,000 to The Frank Attla Youth Program – a program developed to help at-risk youth in rural Alaska and improve care for sled dogs initiated by George Attla and his partner Kathy Turco.  Sled dog racing is a popular sport in Alaska and northern Canada and George Attla was a well-known Sprint Dog Mushing legend. Reynolds himself is a keen Musher.

“By pairing at-risk youth with working dogs in rural communities, this remarkable program has managed to alleviate some damaging social problems. Through curriculum, training and hard work, students reignite a passion for their heritage and learn many valuable life skills in the process, all while bonding with working dogs. The program has helped decrease social issues such as violence, drug use, and teen pregnancy and is credited with improving the emotional wellness of students.” source Purina 


George Attla – the “Huslia Hustler” – a Racing Legend.

George Attla overcame illness, physical problems and adversity in his youth to become an incredible dog breeder and racer living in Huslia, Alaska.  Attla ran dogs into his eighties and won many races. He was known as the “Huslia Hustler” during his prime racing days. Attla won his first of 10 Fur Rendezvous sled dog races in 1958, at the age of 24.  In the following years—with grit and determination and his knowledge of dogs—he won nine Tok Race of Champions titles, eight North American Open Championships, eight Koyukuk River Championships, and 10 International Sled Dog Association unlimited class medals.

History and Tradition

Dogs had been a part of the lives of Attla’s people since before memory. There have apparently been several top-notch dog drivers from the Koyukuk River villages. “He came by dog mushing naturally because of where he was raised and because his parents knew more about dog mushing than he believed he’d ever know in his own lifetime,” Iditarod education director Diane Johnson Johnson wrote on the Iditarod website. “George enjoyed dog mushing. It was his way of life and driving a dog team and racing dogs was what he really enjoyed doing.”

However with the ready availability of snowmobiles, dogs were no longer needed for transport and young people were not learning about racing and dogs.  In some of the small rural communities in Alaska, kids and youth had become less connected with elders and tradition. Many faced not only the harsh environment, but also issues such as violence, substance abuse, depression, unemployment and teen pregnancy.

George started thinking about his yard full of dogs and how to engage youth in his home of Huslia. Having been involved with dogs for most of his life, he understood the benefits they provide to a person’s mind and body. George wanted to share his knowledge with youth. He advised and loaned dogs to young mushers. He wanted to inspire some kids to participate in the  Junior North American Dog Sled Races in North Pole.

“I don’t think the kids really understand the importance dogs had in our culture,” Attla said. “We want to bring back the pride people had in their dogs.”  Iditarod website.

He talked about building community collaboration for healthy, happy youth at the Alaska Federation of Natives Elders and Youth Conference.

sled dogs

The Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care Program

George developed the program to engage youth with Kathy Turko and named it after his late son Frank. It is focused on teaching youth about caring for dogs, the science behind it, and how to race dogs. It features hands-on training in the four dog kennels in the Huslia area. Attla was a coach and inspiration and worked at instilling pride and committment.

The community of Huslia has embraced the program. It has reportedly attracted more than 30 middle-school and high-school students and been expanded to younger children too. High school students in the program are enrolled in a veterinary science class, while middle school students are enrolled in a math and science class. High school students are receiving dual high school and college credits for completing the class. The program includes two field classes per week working with local kennels in Huslia.

The youth from Huslia had to decide who to send to the first races. They elected four students to participate. Thomas Henry raced in the six-dog class, while Attla’s granddaughter, seventh-grader Jazmyn Vent, ran in the four-dog class Tuesday afternoon. Other kids served as served as the handlers for both teams.

Attla reportedly said Teresa Cox, Principal at Huslia’s Jimmy Huntington School, is the person who made the program happen by embracing it and making it part of the school’s curriculum. According to Cox,  the youth are learning to feed dogs, learning about nutrition, and how to hook the dogs up to a harness. They are also learning to work as a team.

Teresa said  “They come back so excited.” They are learning how to race and handle dogs, how to become race marshals, race timers and checkpoint volunteers.”

Remembering with Pride

On February 15, Attla passed away peacefully at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage after a brief battle with cancer surrounded by family and friends. He was 81. As he passed, his grandnephew, Joe Bifelt, was readying for the Fur Rendezvous Sled Dog Race. Bifelt races his granduncle’s team. He attended the Summit so I had the pleasure of meeting him.

Susie and Joe

Attla was the subject of a movie (“Spirit of the Wind,” 1979) and of a book (George Attla: The Legend of the Sled Dog Trail, 1993).

Racing Toward Recovery:The Extraordinary Story of Alaska Musher Mike Williams Sr.

Another successful Musher that dogs have helped is Mike Williams.

Williams said of George “To young Alaska Natives, he’s a fine example of how an Alaska Native can succeed and become an all-time champion, that if you get your mind focused on succeeding and work hard at it, good things will happen.”

In his  book, Racing Toward Recovery:The Extraordinary Story of Alaska Musher Mike Williams Sr. (co-written by journalist Lew Freedman and published by Alaska Northwest Books) Williams writes that mushing is keeping alive an important part of Alaska Native culture. He also writes about mushing to promote sobriety.

“He was glad I was telling my story,” Williams said. “He wanted young people to be free of substance abuse, and he felt education was an important part of the process.”

RELATED Source :Mike Williams Races Toward Recovery

Dogs Make Life Better

The program helps students gain confidence, valuable life skills and self-esteem by introducing dogs into the school curriculum. This gives students the opportunity to create unique bonds with the dogs and teaches them how to care for them.  So far the program appears to have been a big success. The dogs are truly making a difference and the students are also impacting the dogs. By pairing dogs and kids, this program has done an incredible job of empowering and connecting a community. I’m excited to see how Purina’s donation will help them go even further.

Read: How Dog Mushing Helps Village Youth

Share your stories about the people who are transforming their communities by bringing people and pets together.

With your help and support programs like these thrive and show how life is #BetterWithPets.



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  • What a fantastic program, thank you for sharing! Love that the program has been introduced into the school curriculum and had such a positive effect on the young people. Wish we had more dog related programs for young people here in the UK!

  • I love this program and the positive impact it’s having on the kids. It was great seeing you at Better With Pets too!

  • One of our local shelters has our local Boys’ Home do obedience training with their dogs. It helps to get the dogs a forever home since they have had basic training. ☺

  • That’s a really neat program. I haven’t heard of it before. The counselors at the shelter have told me the kids are calmer after Mr. N visits.

  • What a great program. Thanks for sharing about it. Pets definitely make life better!

  • Bravo! You did such a fantastic job covering Dr. Reynold’s work with the program! Great post, we’ll be sure to share it.

    • Profile photo of Talent Hounds

      Thank you so much- I think it is such a great story to share. They are expanding to 14 more schools with similar programs apparently.

  • That sounds so very, VERY interesting! Thanks so very much for sharing it with us. purrs


  • I was just talking about sledding, Husky’s and Alaska to someone the other day! I must forward this post to her. Such a fantastic program, thanks for sharing.

  • This was very interesting. It seems like a great program.

  • Thanks for sharing this with all of us. This is such a great program. We’re glad it’s helping the kids in school. 🙂

  • What a great program. We need more dog related programs like this for the youth.

  • Fantastic post about a wonderful program. I’m sharing this over on my FiveSibes media!

  • Wow- I love programs that teach children how to care for animals properly and how to enjoy life together with them. This sounds like something that will have a positive impact on those youngsters for years to come and for their dogs too.Way to go Purina and all who help make good things happen for people and pets.

  • Thank you so much for sharing about this program. I have been wanting to learn more about it. It sounds like such an excellent opportunity for kids, and it’s wonderful that Purina made a donation to help the program continue to be a success!

  • What a great legacy!

  • What a great program. This is such a positive influence on the younger generation. I can only hope that with enough people such as yourself spreading the word, we will someday have a generation “pet”. The world will then be a much better place for kids and animals.

  • What an interesting video! I’m glad that this program is getting financial help from Purina as it seems like it is making a positive impact on the community.

  • Thank you for this wonderful post and for sharing these resources. I’ll be visiting the Iditarod web site for sure. Since getting my Husky 6 years ago & learning about the breeds history I have dreamed of visiting Alaska during the Iditarod, its my dream vacation! I’m so inspired by the work being done with Alaskan youth. My Husky and I are a therapy dog team, we help children improve reading skills in Chikdren Reading To Dogs programs. Through our volunteer work I get to see first hand the positive impact dogs have on people, especially kids.
    Love & biscuits,
    Digs Luv Us and We Luv Them

  • Sounds like a great program!

  • What a wonderful program and thanks for sharing. Dogs make such an incredible impact on our lives, it’s truly amazing!

  • You did such a grab job covering the program – your write-up inspires and shares so much great information! I found this part of the #BetterWithPets program so moving. I covered it as well. It’s important and needs to be shared far and wide!

  • It is great that Purina is doing so much to help the troubled youth in Alaska. Pets really do make that much of a difference in people’s lives. Very interesting story!

  • This is a wonderful program. I love when a community gets involved and that way, press can take notice, too.

  • Great post! My humans went on their honeymoon in Alaska and were able to see a lot of sled dogs!!! 🙂

  • The story of Frank Attla and the people of Huslia was a phenomenal story thread at the #BetterWithPets summit. I was thrilled that Purina made such a generous donation to a program that is literally saving lives.