Learning leadership from snow dogs

Every year Inglewood woman Moira Shepherd travels to Alaska to live, work and play with 50 beautiful sled dogs. Taranaki Community News caught up with her to discover what the dogs have taught her about being leading a pack, and why she keeps bringing them home to Taranaki.

Hi Moira! You spend three months of the year in Alaska. Can you tell us all about what you do over there? 
I’m very fortunate to travel to a township near Fairbanks during their northern winters, when it’s summer here, to live and work with 50 sled dogs at one of the most successful professional racing kennels in Alaska.

I’m involved with all aspects of dog care including feeding and training the dogs – and scooping lots of poop. Socialising the youngsters and playing with puppies, is one of the best parts of the job.

Most recently my role has become more general kennel management such as sponsor liaison, race logistics, keeping the kennel supporters and fans up to date through blog posts, social media and race coverage, and running the dog fan club. I do a little bit of everything.

When did you first visit Alaska and what keeps you going back year after year? 
My first visits to Alaska were as a volunteer for a couple of sled dog races, first in 2010 and then in 2012. I became fascinated with the relationship between the humans and their dog teams and I wanted to find out more about that, and experience it myself. I volunteered to help for six months at SP Kennel, initially just for one winter. My first season there was 2012-13 and I have been back to SPK every year since then.

I love so much about that world – the dogs, the people, the environment, and mostly that I’m never wishing away my week, waiting for the weekend. I decided that I would do whatever job I could while home in NZ to ensure I could keep going back.  That meant doing fixed term contract or temp work that allowed me to have NZ summers off.

What are some of the challenges in Alaska and how do you face them?
The obvious challenge is the climate. It can get frigidly cold at that time of year and it is dark for long periods. But, with the proper clothing and taking sensible precautions it’s bearable.

Having visited for nearly ten years I have noticed a shift in the climate though. To me, Alaska displays very tangible evidence that the climate is changing . Many of the early season dog races have been cancelled in recent years due to a lack of snow, and the daytime temperatures in late winter/early spring are higher than they were a few years ago. This means the season of ideal conditions for running dogs is getting shorter and that is of concern, or it should be, because of the wider implications for the planet. 

Another challenge for me is a lack of summer. I haven’t had a whole summer season since 2010-11, but luckily I’ve always preferred winter to summer. I’ve eased that particular challenge the last couple of years by flying to Fairbanks via Honolulu and spending a few days in Hawaii.

Do you fall in love with the dogs and want to bring them home? 
Of course! Oh my goodness, it is really hard to leave them when I come home. If I am talking to a fan or supporter about a particular dog I find myself saying “oh, she/he’s one of my favourites” about every dog in the yard. They are all individuals and I have a unique relationship with each one dog depending on how much time I’ve been able to spend with them.

Back in 2015 I brought Spicy, a 10-year-old retiree home to Inglewood and she lived out her final years with my family. This September another retiree will join us – Lydia. I’ve known Lydia since she was eight weeks old and we have a strong bond so I couldn’t say no when the opportunity arose to bring her home with me to NZ.

She is currently undergoing all the vaccinations and testing that MPI require then will spend ten days in quarantine in Auckland before she can finally come home.

Lydia


What have you learned from the dogs, and how are you putting that to good use?
I have learned so much about life from the dogs and continue to discover new things from them, year after year. I’ve learned leadership skills from being responsible for a team of sled dogs, teamwork skills from watching how the dogs work and play together, and individual life skills from the dogs that translate into my own life. 

For example Spark is always having fun, even when he is working hard. He’s a champion and he makes everyone around him smile. He reminds me to take what I do seriously but to enjoy it at the same time.

I started informally sharing some of what I learned with my friends and family and had an epiphany that these lessons would be of value to everyone. I combined what I had learned from the dogs with my professional experience and training to develop a series of Sled Dog Life Lessons workshops for businesses, organisations and individuals.

What kind of people are your workshops suitable for and how have people responded to these kinds of workshops in the past? 
I have several different workshops aimed at different audiences. Life Lessons is great for every audience and I include aspects of this in all my workshops. Some of the basic concepts are relevant to many situations in life — such as the importance of finding a coach or mentor, or appreciating that everyone is an individual with different strengths and skills.

I’ve developed a workshop I call a Winning Team workshop and I’ve delivered it to businesses, government departments and community organisations – really it’s great for anyone who works in a team of any sort – work, sports, clubs, social. Teamwork principles such as having a common goal and supporting your team mates are relevant to human teams as much as they are to sled dog teams.

Spark

My leadership workshops are suited to anyone who is leading or managing a group of people, albeit a business or a community group. They are especially useful to aspiring leaders. I’ve taken the skills necessary to lead a team of canine athletes and applied them to humans – it’s a natural fit and relates directly (even scooping metaphorical poop).

I’ve had really positive feedback from attendees, mostly about the narrative style of the presentations. Research tells us our brains are more engaged when telling or hearing stories and I know from personal experience of the seminars and workshops I have attended, it is the ones with a particular story or a left-field approach that I remember best.

You have a workshop coming up this month. What are the details?
I’m holding a public Life Lessons workshop on Thursday, June 27 at Manifold Co-working Space. I’m excited to be sharing these lessons with a wider audience.

Tickets are available through Eventbrite or through my Facebook page, which has more details of the event.