Pets

Retired from racing, sled dogs are finding new homes with help from an Alaska nonprofit

August Fund, Julie St. Louis, Sled Dog, dog rescue, dog shelter

Just call her the fairy dogmother.

By helping hundreds of sled dogs find retirement homes, Julie St. Louis has earned the title.

From Aug Dog Headquarters in Chugiak, St. Louis runs the August Fund, an adoption agency for furry seniors.

A freelance writer, she didn’t wake up one morning and decide it was her destiny to be the director of a canine nonprofit.

“I had multiple careers before I went to the dogs,” she said. “If somebody had told me years ago that this is what I’d be doing ... um, yeah. I mean, I’ve always loved dogs, but I had no idea this is where I’d be right now.”

After a brief career in the television industry, St. Louis became a freelance writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing outreach and education for the migratory bird management office.

The job included annual assignments to Alaska. She eventually settled in Girdwood and opened a pet supply shop.

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Her involvement with dogs started not with huskies but with beagles.

“I had two beagles that I brought with me from Virginia, because I was doing beagle rescue there,” she said. “(I) love beagles, absolutely adore them because they’re very ornery, stubborn food hounds.”

[4 dogs boarded a bus in Skagway. The internet rejoiced.]

Running the shop led to her meeting Nic Petit, who is now an Iditarod veteran but at the time was just starting out as a musher. When one of his dogs, August, suffered a broken leg, St. Louis started the August Fund to raise money for August’s vet bill.

And so a bad break for August led to a great break for countless dogs as St. Louis discovered her gift for connecting dogs in need of help with people who wanted to provide it.

St. Louis had been fundraising for Petit’s inaugural Iditarod attempt in 2011, but after her campaign to help August, she decided to focus on dogs.

“It was a fund to fix one dog’s leg,” she said. “And then from there it became, hey, all these people in Girdwood and other places were like, ‘You know, we’d rather give you money to help the dogs than help this guy run Iditarod.’ ”

Petit had been working with longtime musher Jim Lanier of Chugiak, and he encouraged St. Louis to consider helping rehouse some of the dogs in Lanier’s kennel. She and Jeannine Armour, who cofounded the August Fund, did just that. Armour, who lived in Portage at the time with her boyfriend, adopted August after a surgery repaired his broken leg.

While St. Louis said the aging dogs at Lanier’s kennel were treated well, that’s not necessarily the case with all kennels. But due to their training, the dogs are often ideal candidates for adoption.

“All these dogs ... are super smart, and really well-socialized because all these people are handling them at races and they’re around crowds,” she said. “What kind of end is that? They don’t deserve that. They deserve a better retirement.”

August Fund, Julie St. Louis, Sled Dog, dog rescue, dog shelter

Doing right by their dogs

St. Louis, who started the August Fund about a decade ago, is quick to point out that most mushers handle transitioning their dogs out of competition responsibly.

“It’s not all mushers,” she said. “We don’t call ourselves a rescue. The majority of the dogs don’t necessarily need a rescue. They’re well taken care of, they’re well fed. They get exercise, they’re athletes. So we consider ourselves a rehoming service.

“In some cases we do rescue. In some cases, there are wannabe mushers who came up here from the Lower 48, thought they wanted to run Iditarod, had no idea what they were getting into, and they get a bunch of dogs from a musher who’s happy to hand you a bunch of dogs he’s not using, and then the next thing you know, you’re in over your head. So, those often are rescues.”

Some mushers contact St. Louis as their dogs near retirement age. Others have the wherewithal to put the dogs they’re phasing out into good hands themselves.

“There are also mushers who for years, before even August Fund was even around, already had their own rehoming programs,” she said. “Like Matt Failor’s sister helps him rehome their retirees to friends and family. Martin Buser for years has always done a dog rehoming of his dogs. And Aliy Zirkle, she was always rehoming to her fans and friends.”

St. Louis cites Bill Cotter of Nenana as one of the mushers who recognized early on that the August Fund could provide a valuable service to the sport.

“It’s kind of hard to send somebody five hours from Anchorage to look at a dog they might or might not want,” St. Louis said. “And Bill would rather we help select. So he sends them in to us, and I’ll foster them.”

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She said they spend around $250 a week on food and supplements for the average of around 20 dogs that the fund supports. Since the dogs are older, they try to keep adoption fees low and offer a single fee of $250 for anyone who adopts two dogs.

Plenty of dogs have found homes in Alaska. But St. Louis said they’ve also found homes for the retirees in New York, Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and the Pacific Northwest. People from as far away as the United Kingdom and Finland have adopted dogs through the program.

August Fund, Julie St. Louis, Sled Dog, dog rescue, dog shelter

Finding the right fit

St. Louis said their careers in the harness make sled dogs especially suitable to being adopted and adjusting to new situations.

“They are the most adaptable dogs,” she said. “They might not know the basic pet commands like sit, stay, down, roll over, all that stuff. And they do need, in a lot of instances, to be housebroken, but it doesn’t take very long. If you focus on it for a few days to a week, they’re good. They learn so fast.”

One part of the equation for St. Louis when she’s trying to find a match is putting the right dogs with the right people.

For Joe Davis, an infantry officer in the Army at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson who works with Alaskan Command, he found a running buddy.

Annie came from Bethel after a musher passed away, and now serves as motivation for Davis.

“She obviously likes to get out and run too,” said Davis, who lives in Eagle River. “I kind of feel guilty if I don’t get her out to run as well. It’s easy for me to skip out on my mileage goals, but I kind of look at her and say, ‘Well, I need to at least take her for a run.’ And then once you kind of get going, it’s easier to keep those miles going.”

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Some adopters look to the August Fund to find simple companionship — for themselves, and dogs they already have.

Chugiak resident Jackie DeCoup adopted 13-year-old Lizzie through the August Fund in 2020 to keep her dog Opus company. When Opus had to be put to sleep recently, the retired FBI agent said, “Lizzie was despondent ... so I thought well, I’ll contact the August Fund. ... I don’t care what kind of dog it is. I just love sled dogs.”

Zorra and Coo, both 10, came to Greg Patz and his wife, Edy Rodewalde, through the August Fund and went right from one harness to another. The couple is retired in Anchorage and both skijor, and Patz said retired sled dogs make great skijoring partners.

“They’re experienced at pulling They know what it’s all about,” Patz said. “When we put the harnesses on them, they know what to do. They took right to it. There was virtually no training required. They’re really good for us. It’s nice to be able to take care of them and give them a nice home.”

August Fund, Julie St. Louis, Sled Dog, dog rescue, dog shelter

Anchorage residents Laura and Todd Atwood also have two Aug Dogs. Stripe, an 8-year-old female, is a retired sprint racer. Gordon, 11, is an Iditarod finisher.

Laura says Stripe was a very shy, timid dog when they got her in 2021.

“It took a while for her personality to come out,” said Laura. “And who knew what a big personality was hidden in there. She’s a very smart dog, a really funny dog — she’s really entertaining. I train with her now, we do a lot of trick-dog training and she loves to train. She catches on really quickly, so we just really enjoy her and having watched her just blossom.”

The couple adopted Gordon in June, and Laura says that “Gordon cracks us up.” Despite an arthritic shoulder, “anytime we say, ‘Let’s go on a walk,’ or we head toward the door, Gordon is right there and ready to go. Nothing holds this one back.”

Anyone interested in donating to the fund or sponsoring an adoption can visit theaugustfund.com/donate.html.

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Casey Brogan

Casey Brogan is a copy editor and page designer at the Anchorage Daily News.

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