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Dog Handler Extraordinaire

Every so often I meet someone who dazzles me with their talents, passion, and drive. I'm not easily impressed unless this individual is also extremely hardworking. But when they are also diligent, industrious, conscientious, committed, dedicated, devoted, determined, enthusiastic, steadfast, and seemingly tireless, I'm blown away.

These past few months of living in Alaska and specifically at Camp Battle Dawgs, I met many hardworking individuals. At the moment one in particular stands out. Her name is Shantel Wiley, and she is the Battle Dawgs racing dog handler extraordinaire.

And did I mention she is beautiful?

Yup. Inside and out. That's why the dogs respond to her and obviously love her. I'm totally blown away by her work ethics and enthusiasm about her job and dogs in general.

Rick and Jen were still out of town on a family emergency when Shantel showed up, so I was the fortunate person who met her first. When she told me she was a widow, a veteran, and a Veterinarian Assistant - I was further impressed. When I saw her cabin, with no running water, I wondered:. How does a girl do that? And with a smile? She decorated that cabin as if it was a mansion on a mountain. To her, it is. It's home. It's comfortable, warm, and cozy.

The first time Shantel pulled in the driveway, I was curious about her, in every way. She had three dogs with her. My first thought was, "Just what we need. More dogs." But these dogs live in her cabin with her, (Wylie, Clover, and Kimber) and you can feel the love between human and dogs. My bedroom window faces the dog-yard and Shantel's place, so I watch with complete interest and awe as she goes about her daily work of taking care of the 60 plus sled dogs that "sing" to each other and anyone who listens - 24/7.

In the middle of the night when the dogs bark warnings that something is wrong, Shantel is the first one out to the dog-yard to see and chase off the coyote, wolf, or moose. Rick is right there too. There is deep love for each and every one of these dogs. Each and every dog is known by name, personality, and attitude by Rick, Jen, and now Shantel.

Rick Casillo, is the founder of Battle Dawgs, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping combat wounded veterans with traumatic brain injury, physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, and possible suicide. He and Jen live on 640 acres, nine miles of trails, cabins, dogs, volunteers, visitors, warriors, moose, bears, wolves, lynx, coyotes, ravins, eagles, fox, rabbits, grouse, salmon, trout, rivers, and a mile and a half driveway that I refer to as "a near death experience."

Rick runs the Iditarod, the grueling 1000+ mile sled-dog race from Anchorage to Nome Alaska. He is preparing to run again in 2021 and Shantel Wiley joined the team to help feed, groom, and train the Alaska sled-dogs in preparation of this race. I told you about it two years ago when my friend, Lynne and I went to Nome to watch the teams cross the finish line.

Shantel wants to run the Iditarod some day. Her goal is to be the next Battle Dawgs Iditarod runner. For now she is learning how to do everything. Even scooping the poop and taking it to the poop-pit. She hooks up the dogs to the rigging and runs them in preparation/training - for now up to 30 miles a day. She runs several different teams, so they can choose the right dogs for the upcoming race.

As I watch her and the sled-dogs disappear over the ridge, running the trails, I feel the thrill of watching the race. The dogs are happy and thrilled to be running. Did I mention the temperatures are now below zero? No one, but me, seems to notice. This is when I realize just how much of a city-girl I really am. This is when I reflect on how amazing Shantel Wiley really is.

Where did a young, beautiful, talented lady like her, come from?

Wisconsin. Shantel grew up in a farming, fishing village in Wisconsin, so this Alaska experience is nothing new but it is more intense. When she was 18 years old, she moved to the city and was a surfer, beach girl for 15 years, however, it didn't ruin her love of the outdoors. She joined the Navy and served on the USS Enterprise in Rhode Island, South Carolina, North Carolina, and even Norfolk, Virginia.

Shantel has known a lot of tragedy. Her military husband was killed in a motor cycle accident. Her best friend, her mom, died a year later. Her dog Buster died, and then her friend, Ryan. During these times she went to school majoring in business and culinary arts, and then switched to medicine becoming a Certified Medical Assistant.

When Buster died she went to work at the clinic and became a Veterinary Assistant, doing what she used to do on people - she now does on dogs. Dealing with grief was something very constant for Shantel, but it seemed life always had a plan for her and she followed it. She was a gym manager and started a non-profit. For every pound someone lost, a pound of food was donated to the homeless. Heart of gold.

Next she decided to compete in a triathlon in Alaska. She fell in love with Alaska and immediately moved here. Shantell was drawn to the dog races - the Iditarod and quickly volunteered at the races and fell in love with the dogs.

"That's me in a nutshell," Shantell smiled. She started out in Wisconsin, working on a farm, and is now in Alaska living off the grid with a goal to run a sled-team in the Iditarod. No one doubts she will do it. After that? "Who knows," she said. "Ill probably finish life back on the beach ... someday."

While we were talking, the dogs outside were howling. I wondered what was wrong and she smiled her lovely smile and said, "those are group howls. Group howls are happy howls. The love the cold weather. They have new straw in their cabins. They just finished eating."

Good to know. Humans should be more like sled dogs and be content with what we have. Like Shantel Wiley. I'm just happy to know her.

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