Alpha Dog!

ImageForest Lake teen is building a top team of dogs for winter dogsled races

  • Article by: KELLY JO MCDONNELL  , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 – 10:34 PM

Ashley Thaemert was 10 years old when her grandfather built her first wooden sled.

The 17-year-old Forest Lake High School senior has been hooked ever since.

She gobbled up books about mushing, watched shows and insisted people help her out and teach her about racing. Not just any racing — racing dogs.

“I was fascinated with them,” Thaemert said. “Mushing and being with the dogs is one of the only things in the world that can really get me excited and talking. I could talk to someone about it for hours and never run out of things to say.”

That enthusiasm bubbles over into her busy teenage life. Thaemert is adamant about making time for her dogs in between school, a job and her other activities, including her spot on the Forest Lake Area High School danceline team.

When Thaemert started to build her team four years ago, she reached out to a Princeton breeder of Alaskan malamutes, some of the biggest, strongest dogs of the mushing world.

Her first puppies included Suka and London.

Her team now consists of four additional dogs, Saffron, Echo, Akira and her dad’s dog, Nanuq, each with their own personality.

“Suka is my big, calm giant boy, but he gets extremely excited about mushing and starts jumping around like a puppy again as soon as we hook up. London is a hyper sledding fanatic, and there’s no calming him down when I go to hook the dogs up. He has to be hooked up last, because he pulls so hard and gets so excited that he breaks stuff. Echo is my speed racer dog, and Akira is the crazy one. She’s been the challenge to train, as she’s wicked smart and a little Houdini. But she’s a fantastic working dog and pulls really hard,” Thaemert said.

From the beginning the slight, 100-pound Thaemert had to work to be “alpha dog.”

“They need to know who’s in charge or there will be fights and lots of problems. When they were little I would flip them all on their backs and hold them down lightly to establish my role as alpha,’’ she said. “These are big dogs, they can pull up to 300 pounds, and they are very close to wolves with the way they operate as a pack. If you have a dog that can’t calm down, you’ve got a real problem.”

But handling dogs doesn’t seem to be a problem for the teenager, said her mentor Ken Davis, competitive musher and owner of Elfstone Kennel in Twig, Minn.

“I was impressed right away,” Davis said, “especially with the type of dogs that she has. These are big, strong dogs…. They’re built for the Arctic and bred to run all day long. However, they’re not built for racing or speed.”

Davis explained that Thaemert is trying to train her dogs to race, and has done well. She placed second in her class in her first race last October in Wausau, Wis.

“She’s one of those kids that is rare in my book,” Davis said. “She’s going to go somewhere.”

Trying to trying to balance her busy schedule is a challenge.

After school, she hustles home to take care of the dogs, and then hooks them up for training. It takes her about 20 minutes to hook up the dogs by herself, but half that if her brothers Skyler and Logan and sister Carissa help. Her parents, Christopher and Mary Kay Thaemert, as well as her grandpa, Craig Thaemert, support her efforts, too.

After training for a few hours, she heads in the house to start homework. “It gets to be a late night,” said Thaemert. “Next year should be easier after I graduate.”

Thaemert works part-time at the Chuck & Don’s Pet Store in Forest Lake. She said it brings in a free bag of food once a month — it takes around 30 pounds of high-calorie dog food a week to feed her team. She said her job also has helped her learn how to better care for her dogs.

So, what’s next? Graduation, some travel and pursuing a degree in veterinary orthopedic surgery, she hopes. And racing.

Thaemert is expanding her team by adding two puppies to be ready to race by next winter. She would like to work toward larger races, such as the Beargrease in Duluth, the St. Paul Winter Carnival Race or the MushforaCure on the Gunflint Trail.

“It’s the most peaceful feeling — there’s nothing in the world like it,” she said. “I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s just one of those things.”

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