Gakona musher Zoya DeNure leaves the starting chute during a race in Glennallen last season. DeNure, who is signed up for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, is unusual in that many of the dogs she races were rescued from animal shelters. "My primary focus is training (and) racing rescued sled dogs and bringing those selected dogs into the main team for a top finish," DeNure said. Of the 46 dogs in her kennel, 29 were rescued.
Photo by Joseph Robertia
Just like the other 26 mushers signed up for the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race, Zoya DeNure will have huskies barking and wailing excessively, lunging in harnesses and generally working themselves into a fit of excitement as they prepare to run. There is one exception, though -- most of her dogs came from the pound.
“My primary focus is training (and) racing rescued sled dogs and bringing those selected dogs into the main team for a top finish,” DeNure said.
At her home in Gakona, which she shares with her husband and former Yukon Quest champion John Schandelmeier, DeNure maintains a 46-dog kennel, of which 29 were rescued. Some came from shelters or are picked up after a musher calls with an unwanted dog. Still others, like Henry, were just dropped off.
“Henry is a favorite story,” DeNure said. “Henry was 15 months old when rescued from a bullet. He was taken from a dog lot in Trapper Creek, where he was tied to a tree, no interaction with people, barking constantly and nervous.”
DeNure said it took three months before she could even get close enough to Henry to pet him, but after she made that contact and displayed her intention to not harm him, things began to fall into place in leaps and bounds.
“Threemonths later, Henry was running lead with more confidence. Less than two years later Henry led across the Yukon Quest finish line, and two weeks after that, he finished a 200-mile race (Chatanika Challenge) in first place,” she said.
While Henry’s story is one of success, DeNure said not all rescued dogs go on to be part of championship teams.
“Some of these dogs go on to make great distance dogs and some do not,” she said, adding this decision is made after a lot of time -- as much as nine to 14 hours a day -- and careful consideration.
“Each dog is unique in her or his own way. Some are more physically talented than others, and some of these dogs that lack that great conformation have that strong head and mental state to make up for those areas where they might physically lack elsewhere,” DeNure said.
For those that don’t go on to race with her or Schandelmeier, DeNure said all effort is made to place them in skijoring homes, with sled dog tour companies or in situations where they can be a house dog.
DeNure said there are many ups and down, both mentally and emotionally, to not just running, but racing rescued dogs.
“The pros (are) it’s quite rewarding to work with these dogs that were once thrown away, now running successfully in mid-distance races. These dog are happy, secure, loved and honored for the work they do,” she said.
“The cons (are) we can’t save them all, and we can’t convince everyone that this really works,” she said.
DeNure said through time, patience, faith and more top finishes, she hopes more mushers will believe in her efforts.
“It’s success on the race trail that sells to our competitors,” she said.
DeNure will run the T-200 for the first time and said she’s looking forward to the race.
“My goal is to finish with healthy dogs,” she said.
In the long run, DeNure said she will keep facing the challenges of rescuing dogs and, as she puts it, “raising the awareness of a very legitimate issue within the sport an issue that needs to be addressed.”
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