Visually challenged dog heads up musher's team

Posted: Tuesday, March 11, 2003

KALTAG -- A casual observer might overlook the milky left eye of the dog leading Frank Sihler's team in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. But the Wasilla rookie wastes no time telling acquaintances that Wiley is 10 years old -- and visually challenged.

''He's completely blind in one eye and can see only shadows with the other,'' Sihler said. ''But he has special talents. He listens to me and he wants to be a leader.''

Sihler is lagging near the back of the field, but he won't lay all the blame on Wiley. His whole team is running slowly, Sihler said as he packed up his gear Sunday night to end the first of two stops in Kaltag.

''It's not only him,'' he said, stroking the tri-colored Alaskan husky bedded down on straw. ''The problem is that the other dogs are more recreational rather than a race team. Wiley is mellow, but he has the heart to go.''

Race veterinarians say a blind sled dog is not unheard of, although a blind lead dog might be in a class of its own.

''It looks like he has a cataract in the one eye,'' said John Clader, a volunteer veterinarian that checked Wiley in Kaltag. ''I don't know if he's completely blind because he's doing fairly well.''

Sihler knew about the dog's condition when he bought him from a neighbor two years ago for $50 to build a recreational team for his wife, Claudia Sihler. Wiley was already well-trained on a mushing harness. When his wife pulled a shoulder muscle and gave up mushing, Sihler moved Wiley over to his Iditarod training team. Thus began the dog's Iditarod career, at age nine.

Some of the race has been rough-going because of Wiley's disability, particularly along icy sections of the Yukon River. Sihler applies his sled brake to emphasize voice commands, but braking on icy sections doesn't work, so the dog doesn't always get the message.

''If there are many trails to choose from, Wiley really gets confused,'' he said.

Still, Sihler is impressed with the husky's stamina and urge to run.

He had planned to run Wiley only the first 300 miles of the Iditarod, but the dog remains strong after nearly 500 miles, although a wrist sometimes stiffens up because of age.

''I don't know if he will make it all the way to Nome,'' Sihler said. ''He's already gone 200 miles over my expectations.''

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