The Iditarod is one of the most grueling sporting contests in the world. This 1,000 mile trek through the treacherous conditions of Alaska requires extensive training – not just on the part of the dogs, but the mushers, too.
The 2021 Iditarod was unique for a number of reasons. Set against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, this year’s race posed logistical and technical difficulties for everyone involved. As with other sporting events taking place during the pandemic, restrictions meant that no spectators were able to attend the traditional ceremonial opening in Anchorage. The race was also run on an unusual route – running back-to-front.
Matthew Failor has been a regular competitor in the Iditarod since 2012, running dogs under his 17th Dog team. Failor has seen success in the sport of mushing, winning the Kuskokwim 300 in 2019 and setting a new speed record in the process.
For some great additional bonus content to accompany the Iditarod series of podcasts on A Life of Dogs, Caitlin Helfer spoke to Failor (over Zoom – where else, these days?) for an interview. She found out how Failor got interested in sled dogs in the first place, what is involved in the training process for a race like the Iditarod, and how the 2021 race was so different from any of its predecessors.
Watch the full video interview (transcript below):
Make sure you stay tuned to A Life of Dogs in the coming months! We’ll be adding new content to our Iditarod series with further episodes focusing on specific aspects of the race, with more fascinating interviews and insights into the inner workings of the Iditarod.
A Life of Dogs Podcast – Season Two Bonus Content
Interview with Matthew Failor
Caitlin Helfer: So I guess first things first, one, how are you feeling? You just had a major surgery?
Matthew Failor: Oh, I feel pretty good. I had a total right hip replacement. I’m only 39 years old, so that’s kind of a young age. For whatever reason, my bones in my femurs have been growing in a pointy — like the tops of the femurs have been growing in a pointy like shape which carved away the cartilage so I had nothing left. It was extremely painful and bone on bone. So this Iditarod was super challenging because I couldn’t really do much as far as my athletic ability. I couldn’t run, and I couldn’t kick with my leg to kind of help propel the sled. So the dogs had to do a lot more work. But the surgery was great. It was about two weeks ago and I’m in physical therapy. I have a walking cane, which is pretty cool. I look like an 80 year old man walking around now, but I’m getting better every day.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s good, you’re healing fast then.
Matthew Failor: Yep, nine weeks and the titanium rod and the bone should be completely healed and grown together and I should be fine.
Caitlin Helfer: Awesome. You’re from Ohio originally right?
Matthew Failor: Correct.
Caitlin Helfer: How do you get into sled racing, sled dogs?
Matthew Failor: Well there’s not much dog mushing going on in Ohio. There are like little pockets throughout Ohio where there are recreational mushers or people that do summer, mushing with their pet dog. They’ll hook them up to their bicycle or skating, like rollerblading or something. I heard about it through a good friend of mine who I went to high school with. When he went to college, he got a job in Skagway, Alaska, which is down in the south eastern part of Alaska. And there are cruise ships that kind of go up that coastline. And all the cruise ship passengers want to go dog mushing and so they hired him as a college student to help handle all the sled dogs. He came back home and told me all about it. And I applied and got the same job but I got a job in Juneau. And that was 2006. And I was going to Ohio State at that time, so I would go to school, in the summer I would go to Juneau and work the tourism industry as a dog handler. Not knowing anything about dog mushing, I was just harnessing, and brushing, and socializing the dogs, and scooping up their poop, obviously. Yep, that’s always part of it. So I did that for – Well I’ve been in the tourism industry ever since. So for the last 15 years, I’ve been working tours in the summer and over the winter, ever since 2006. So that’s kind of how I got into it.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s crazy.
Matthew Failor: It’s wild, you never know man. You never know what door is going to open once you graduate from your class. And like you said, you’ve already been to Cuba, and you never know where you’re going to go.
Caitlin Helfer: No, not at all. So you just got interested in the sport of it by being out there all the time and seeing it?
Matthew Failor: Yeah, you know, I mainly got into it because A –I love dogs. It doesn’t matter what kind of dog, it can be a Pomeranian or a Husky. And I really like just being outside. I feel more comfortable outside then maybe like a desk job. So dog mushing, I never thought I could make a living from it. I thought it would just be a summer thing to kind of get me to my next career. And one thing led to another. We started…
Caitlin Helfer: And now it’s your career.
Matthew Failor: Now it’s my career. Yeah. So we have 50 dogs. I have two guides. My wife and I have two guides and 50 dogs, and we all live here on site. And we give tours every day, rain or shine. And then we race the dogs in the winter when our racing season is at its height, which is in the wintertime.
Caitlin Helfer: Okay. So what are some of your biggest accomplishments with racing?
Matthew Failor: What are some of the basic what?
Caitlin Helfer: Biggest accomplishments on the racing side?
Matthew Failor: Well, so we finished 9 out of the 10 Iditarod’s that we’ve participated in which I’d love to finish 10, but we didn’t finish one of them. That’s a whole other story. There are a lot of other races besides the Iditarod. The Iditarod is 1000 mile race and then there are dozens of 100, 200, 300 and even 400 mile races. And so there’s a 300 mile race called the Kuskokwim 300. Usually, it gives you the race’s name, and then the number following it is how many miles it is. So the Kuskokwim 300 takes place on the Kuskokwim River. And that’s considered to be one of the fastest and most competitive races in [inaudible 07:55].
Caitlin Helfer: Oh really?
Matthew Failor: Yeah. And so we actually won that one in 2019, but we did it in a way where we broke the speed record and it was a 25 year standing speed record. So that was pretty cool. That’s a testament to how athletic and fast our dogs are. And the year before that we were awarded the Humanitarian Award from the same race. So in 2018, the veterinarians — and on every race, there are volunteer veterinarians that donate their time and expertise to make sure the dogs are okay. They awarded us the Humanitarian Award, which means they thought we took the best exemplary care of our dogs out of the whole field. So that was pretty cool.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s really cool.
Matthew Failor: And then we’ve been able to get that award in two other races as well. So the Willow 300, the Copper Basin 300 and the Kusko 300 we were awarded the Humanitarian Award. So those are some of our highlights in our small career. Just about 10 years of racing.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s incredible to me. So with that, you were saying how that one was like a much faster race? Do you have to race different dogs? Or are they the same dogs that you would use in say, the Iditarod or one of the longer races?
Matthew Failor: They’re actually the same dogs.
Caitlin Helfer: Okay.
Matthew Failor: So there’s the Iditarod which is considered long distance, a 300 mile race is considered mid-distance and then 100 mile race and shorter is considered a sprint.
Caitlin Helfer: Okay.
Matthew Failor: And we’re a long distance kennel. So our dogs have to be a little more of a hybrid, where they can run the 1000 mile and all the other ones. But if you were to talk to a different musher who maybe just focuses on 300 mile races, but they don’t want to touch Iditarod, their dogs might be a little different. They might be built more for speed, maybe shorter hair and a deeper chest so they have better lung capacity. They might be going a little faster and they wouldn’t do well in the 1000 mile race but ours are hybrids, they can run in all different types.
Caitlin Helfer: They can run in all of them. Do you have to prepare differently for the shorter distance runs from the longer ones or is preparing for them a similar process?
Matthew Failor: You know, it’s kind of a similar process, but that’s the chicken and the egg question, [inaudible 10:26]. At some point, you have to figure out what your dog needs in order to do the task at hand. Does that mean it needs three months of training, or just two months of training? And every dog is totally different, even within the litter. You can have a completely line bred litter, but some mature much faster than the other ones. So it’s hard to figure out sometimes.
Caitlin Helfer: So then do you breed your own at your kennel?
Matthew Failor: We do now. Yep. So my wife and I we have a diverse enough kennel to where we have a good breeding stock, to where we won’t — Anytime you line breed it is inbreeding. If you want to have a lot of Belgian Malinois or whatever it would be considered inbreeding but in the dog world we call it line breeding. But we have a safe enough genetic pool to where we’re not going to get any side effects that would be considered unhealthy. Our breed we don’t get hip dysplasia, we get a low, low case of arthritis, and we get no cataracts, all of those problems we can weed out in the selective gene pool, where we can pick the best healthiest ones?
Caitlin Helfer: Yeah. What kind of dogs do you work with, or breed primarily?
Matthew Failor: So our dogs that we have here at the kennel are called Alaskan Huskies. That’s not a purebred dog. In our sport, in dog mushing, the only purebred dog that people would use [inaudible 12:02]. Like we established you can use any dog, but within the sport if you’re trying to be competitive, there’s the Siberian Husky, the Malinois, maybe even the Samoyed and then the Alaskan Husky. The first three are purebred. The last one, the Alaskan Husky is not a purebred dog. So they look like a melting pot. There’s red ones and brown ones and gray ones.
Caitlin Helfer: And I know that a lot of them, it just looks like a bunch of, in my world, mixed breed dogs because it’s not what I’m necessarily used to. But that’s why it just seems like a lot of them are more mixed breeds than there are purebreds anymore.
Matthew Failor: They are totally mixed breed. We do have competitors and friends that only want to run Siberians. But they are at a huge disadvantage, because their gene pool is so small. They can only breed — like if there are 10,000 Siberian Huskies in the world, they can only breed out of that 10,000. But the Alaskan Husky there is a ton of them because the breed is so diverse.
Caitlin Helfer: Really? That’s pretty cool actually. I wouldn’t have thought of it that way. The dog world they make out purebred to be up here somewhere.
Matthew Failor: You’re right. When I came from Ohio, I was in the same — we had Labradors and it was all about pure breeds. Think of it like in terms of some sport in North Carolina. If it’s NASCAR racing or basketball, the Tar Heels, if they only drafted players from North Carolina, they would have a pretty good team. But if they went outside the state line and started getting other players, their genetic pool would get so much better.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s just crazy to think about, but it makes a lot of sense. And like looking back any mixed breed dog I’ve had throughout my life has been 100 times healthier than most of the purebreds. I have two right now that I’m constantly watching for signs of either hip dysplasia, or —
Matthew Failor: It’s okay. No, it’s all good.
Caitlin Helfer: We just got released from class and now all the dogs are getting some running time.
Matthew Failor: That’s totally fine. The one stipulation for our breed, if you want to get them in a race, they have to have a double coat. So you couldn’t just take a German Shorthaired Pointer and say, alright, this is a sled dog. You would have to breed that one to a husky to have a double coat.
Caitlin Helfer: Is that because of the weather, just the temperatures?
Matthew Failor: Yep. So there are a bunch of things in place to make sure the dogs are going to be okay. So I think this is my wife Liz coming in. So you had the dogs now I got…
Caitlin Helfer: Yeah. Hello! Yeah, one of my dogs, they let out so she keeps checking in on me and she’s like why are you sitting in the corner? So, I guess with all that then, when did you start your kennel? How long has your kennel itself been open?
Matthew Failor: My family and I we kind of, with a lot of help from my family, we started in 2013. And Liz and I got married last year, so we’ve kind of just been evolving it over the last few years.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s awesome. How long does it take you to prepare for, I guess, the Iditarod itself? How long would it take you to prepare? I know it’s kind of like a long process with other races mixed in but…
Matthew Failor: Well as you know, owning a dog, training never stops. It’s kind of like owning — not owning a kid but having a child. It’s kind of like the training you can’t just shut it off, you can always teach an old dog something new, and that was debunked on MythBusters. But if you really get it down without like the philosophical side of it, training for the Iditarod usually starts in the fall, where we start looking at the temperature. The temperature starts to get colder, which usually means that the dogs can run a little bit longer. When it’s warm, our sled dogs don’t react to the heat that well. So we have to wait till the temperatures get a little colder. So usually October right around there, we start training.
Caitlin Helfer: What’s warm for you guys?
Matthew Failor: Anything above 40 degrees would probably be warm. And this is all from a dog perspective.
Caitlin Helfer: Right. No, absolutely.
Matthew Failor: But keep in mind, I have some dogs that have short, white coats, and then I have dogs that have black thick coats. So those dogs, the black thick dogs think it’s really hot when it’s 32.
Caitlin Helfer: That makes sense.
Matthew Failor: It’s different, yeah.
Caitlin Helfer: I have a Malinois and a long haired German Shepherd. The long haired German Shepherd is feeling it a lot quicker than the Mal is.
Matthew Failor: Exactly. And that’s the whole point; you have to know your dogs.
Caitlin Helfer: Right. No, absolutely. Because I mean, I’ve met long haired dogs that outlast short haired dogs too, it just depends on what their conditioning is at any given time.
Matthew Failor: Totally.
Caitlin Helfer: So I guess, for the real random question in my head, what does your everyday life look like, with training the dogs and…?
Matthew Failor: So like today, for example, racing is over. The last race of the season took place — there is one big race after the Iditarod. Iditarod takes place first week of March and then the first week of April, there’s a 400 mile race. We’ve never participated in that one, but that’s usually kind of the end of the long distance racing season. So right now, a typical day is we wake up around 7am, let all the pet retired dogs out of the house, which usually is 2-5. And then we go outside and feed, water and scoop the yard. So we have a kennel of 50 total dogs and they live outside, that takes half hour and of course if you want to hang out and pet them more during breakfast that could take an hour. Then we come inside get breakfast and then we start running them around 10am, usually 2-3 hours after they get their meal in the morning we can start exercising them. And right now we’re at the end of the tourism season. So we’re still getting people that are traveling here. They’re jumping through all the COVID restrictions to get to Alaska, and we can give them sled dog rides. Now that’s usually about a 5 mile ride and they can either sit or we can teach them to stand and mush their own sled.
Caitlin Helfer: So when I visit Alaska I need to come find your kennel because I think that sounds phenomenal.
Matthew Failor: Oh, it’s great. People say they’re life changing tours because they get to actually feel the raw power of the dogs pulling. So we’ll do that from 10am and our latest tour can go till 7 o’clock at night. And it’s just hit or miss depending on how many people want to come.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s awesome!
Matthew Failor: And so that’s every day. Some days we have one guest show up and some days we have ten guests show up. It just completely depends.
Caitlin Helfer: As with everything in the dog world. Did you have any issues adjusting, sounds crazy. Weather to me is always like — it’s crazy how so many different places are affected, but like moving from Ohio to Alaska, did that affect you? Did it take you a long time to adjust to it?
Matthew Failor: I think so. Yeah. I remember when I first made the move; I was so confused because it was the middle of winter. But when I made a full time commitment, I said, okay, I’m going to live in Alaska for the full year; as opposed to just coming up for the summers, it was dark. Oh, here’s one of my… So that’s one of the matriarchs of the kennel. In winter, its dark for more than half a day and in the summer time the sun is up for 18 or 19 hours. So that was really strange to get used to the light difference. And then the cold, coming from Ohio, I don’t think I’d ever felt anything below 10 below zero. I mean, it’s 40 below zero on a regular basis up here, that’s really cold. So you have to learn how to manage what you wear. You can wear cotton down there and feel pretty good in the south. But nobody wears cotton up here because of that moisture that it builds up; you got to get it away from your skin. So wool, it’s just a totally different layering system.
Caitlin Helfer: I don’t like the cold. I like to pretend I like the cold and I don’t like the cold.
Matthew Failor: I don’t like the cold either but the dogs do.
Caitlin Helfer: That is true. That blows my mind. It gets so cold up there and it’s something I didn’t realize until like following the Iditarod and looking up into like the weather conditions and how much they kept talking about it. I’m like, you guys are talking about it being warm and it’s like 10 degrees outside.
Matthew Failor: I know. Yeah, you do get used to it. Once you go through the winter, and its zero, 10 below, it warms up to 20 above or 30 above. And next thing you know, you’re just in a hoodie, but it’s still 30 degrees, and you’re totally fine. So you have to be careful.
Caitlin Helfer: It’s 65 here and I’m wearing a hoodie today. My body is not used to it at all. What is like the difficult process of owning, I guess, both the kennel and just training the dogs that you have?
Matthew Failor: Well, it’s changed over the years. Like six or seven years ago, it was just me and 20 dogs. It was just me, I was a single guy and I only had 20 dogs. And that was my main concern. It was always how am I going to afford 20 dogs for the year? That was my main objective. It’s slowly evolved over the years now. Now it’s no longer just me. My wife and I we have a business and so it’s how much money do we need on a daily basis to be able to run this thing? You don’t want to look at the dogs like there are a number because that makes it sound like you don’t care about the dog, but at some point you literally need X amount of dollars to afford this many dogs.
Caitlin Helfer: Oh, absolutely.
Matthew Failor: You know what I mean?
Caitlin Helfer: I do. Because I go crazy and I have six.
Matthew Failor: Yeah, I never in a million years, like 10 years ago, I was oh, there’s no way you can — But we’ve been able to create a lifestyle to where we can just have this many dogs because there’s still a demand for tourism where people want to come meet them. Our kennel license says 50, we had an animal; basically like an animal control officer come here and inspect the dogs make sure they’re healthy. Where do you put all the dog waste? Does every dog have access to clean, healthy water? Where’s the food? Where do you store the food? What’s your emergency evacuation plan if there’s a forest fire? So we have to be able to take all 50 dogs at once and be able to move them. So we have a big enclosed trailer and all 50 dogs can go in the trailer, they all have their own cubby. So there are all these steps in place to make sure you can have a kennel of that size and thankfully, we have all of that stuff in line. We have all the records, all of the rabies shots and lineages. I got all the pedigrees, 10 generations back. So it’s a bona-fide like really cool business where — I don’t know, I guess as an adult, my perspective has just changed to make sure the dogs are happy and healthy, and can I afford them.
Caitlin Helfer: Right. No, absolutely. I mean, that’s my dogs back home on a much obviously smaller scale, because I have six.
Matthew Failor: Six is a lot.
Caitlin Helfer: I’ve [inaudible 24:45] kennel dogs and they don’t want to do anything but be in a kennel. If I let them wander the house, it’s like that’s the end of the world for them. They’re outdoor kennel dogs and if the weather’s real bad, storms and stuff, they go in the basement in their kennels and they’re the happiest. Then I have, let’s see, I’m running a FEMA dog right now, I have my puppy he’s my long haired Shepherd who he’s a puppy. And I got two pets, I have a service and then I have just a regular pet dog. He failed service dog school as a puppy. I mostly have Shepherds. I never thought they were going to be my breed and now German Shepherds are my breed.
Matthew Failor: Are these German Shepherds, were they were they bred in Germany? Or are these like the American version?
Caitlin Helfer: So I have my fiancé’s retired police dog and he was bred and born in Slovakia. We got him at 18 months. I have an American line. He was born in the US. One of the best honestly looking American line German Shepherds I’ve seen. He just didn’t have it; he didn’t make the cut for service dog. He’s kind of scared of everything, even of his own shadow. You walk him outside and he’s afraid if it’s not his yard, he doesn’t like cars, stuff like that. I have Tango the puppy. He was born here; both of his parents came from Czech Republic. But he was bred by a breeder who I’ve known for a long time. I’ve wanted one of their dogs for a long time. But like you were saying, I didn’t feel like I had the means to take care of and pay for it. I was working 12 hour shifts and that wasn’t fair. And then my Malinois as far as I know, she’s purebred. I actually just got her. I flew out to Colorado, maybe three weeks ago, four weeks ago, and picked her up. I’m still learning her. She’s three. She’s psycho, she’s over there destroying a tennis ball.
Matthew Failor: How is that integration process bringing her into the pack?
Caitlin Helfer: She’s very, very in the dog world submissive. So she’s meshed so far just fine. She hasn’t met three of my dogs, they’re back at home. I have three of them currently down here. I’m sending one home next weekend. He’s my service dog; we call him the baby of the family because he’s just a big baby. He can do a lot. He was an agility dog for a while until he couldn’t figure out weave poles. He’s a great dog; he’s a mutt, he’s my mix. He’s a Border Collie something mix, and he runs my house. He was my smallest dog and he was my alpha of the pack. That’s all he cared about, was making sure all the other dogs were in line. But him and her got into it, I think twice and ever since then they know their spots. And other than that, I mean, they’re good. There was another one she had to compete with since a puppy and well, he’s five month old puppy.
Matthew Failor: Sounds like a good family.
Caitlin Helfer: We’ll see how she does when we get back in June. And she meets — I don’t think she’ll have an issue. She just very submissive, other dogs come at her, she kind of just bows down and goes and does her own thing. She’s crazy.
Matthew Failor: Well, congratulations on getting engaged.
Caitlin Helfer: Oh, thank you. It happened as soon as I got back from deployment.
Matthew Failor: That’s awesome.
Caitlin Helfer: So that’s a new thing, and then I left again.
Matthew Failor: Was that within the last month or two that you got engaged?
Caitlin Helfer: I got engaged on Thanksgiving, so November, and then I left January 1st.
Matthew Failor: Oh, that’s exciting. Congratulations.
Caitlin Helfer: Thank you. I appreciate it and congratulations on getting married.
Matthew Failor: Thank you. Really happy.
Caitlin Helfer: Sounds like it. It’s awesome. And it seems like you guys have a lot in common.
Matthew Failor: We do. Well, of course we do. But my wife Liz she didn’t come from a dog background. Her family, they had a pet dog growing up, so in that sense, like a typical, had a dog in the family. But the whole owning a kennel is something new to her. And then she’s from a journalism background. She went to school and was a professional news anchor. And so she was on the morning news here in Anchorage when I met her, and then COVID and some other things happened and that news station, they closed and everybody basically lost their job. She didn’t have a job with the new News Agency that absorbed her current news station, and that forced us into opening our own business. So we opened our business, which is called Alaskan Husky Adventures. I’ve always had the sled dogs, but it was more of a racing thing. And once Liz lost her job, we said hey, why don’t we put our dogs on display year round. And so Liz and I, that kind of spawned that.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s so awesome.
Matthew Failor: We found that we have even more in common now where we own this business together. So in the weirdest way, it’s been a blessing in disguise that — you don’t ever wish anyone would lose their job, there’s another possibility around the corner, of something happening.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s incredible.
Matthew Failor: During a pandemic too, I mean, trying to start a business. But we’ve been pleasantly surprised at still the amount of people that want to travel despite going through all these hoops.
Caitlin Helfer: Are there extra precautions coming up to Alaska versus just traveling throughout, I guess, the main part of the United States.
Matthew Failor: You know there is, and it’s one of those evolving things. Over the last year, there was a shutdown. You weren’t allowed to drive through Canada. So it was strictly through air, no one was allowed to actually like drive through Canada. So that was shut off. I don’t really know if that’s open now, the border. But it’s something that’s kind of slowly coming back out now. A lot of people are getting vaccinated here in the cities and the rural villages. So our biggest kind of punch to the gut is the cruise line industry. A lot of people rely heavily on the cruise ship passengers. And they have already canceled most of the season coming up. So…
Caitlin Helfer: Crazy. I know my parents have a cruise plan for Alaska and it’s been put off twice now and they’re like, we’ll go whenever they tell us.
Matthew Failor: If they want to fly in they’re allowed to do that. But yeah, the cruise ship industry is really getting hurt.
Caitlin Helfer: It’s unfortunate.
Matthew Failor: It is.
Caitlin Helfer: It slowly seems like everything is starting to come back and open up. I’m fingers crossed.
Matthew Failor: Me too. We really hope that the world wakes back up.
Caitlin Helfer: So then I guess with COVID, I do have a couple questions that just kind of revolve around this past race this year, with it being different. I did a lot of research on the Iditarod but of course this year’s race was quite a bit different. So there’s a whole lot that I don’t even think that you could even find online if you tried to look it up. But I guess in your opinion, how was the gold trail loop different from just the traditional route. In the sense of it was a loop but what I guess was different on your end?
Matthew Failor: So the main difference was, well, in the history of the Iditarod, it started in 1973. It’s never been traveled in reverse. So there are sections of the trail where we go down and it’s a pretty steep drop on some of the mountain passes and some of the gorges. Now they’re asking us to turn around and go up some of those spots. And it was challenging. The dogs did it just fine. But as the human, we knew we just went through a really treacherous technical spot. And so the entire race, you’re just counting the miles before you hit those same spots the other way. So you kind of have to turn your brain off and think like a dog. Like, I’m not worried about tomorrow, I’m just worried about right now. Yeah, it’s like I’m in the moment and I don’t really care what’s around that corner. But it’s hard because you know what you just went through, you know where you crashed and so you got to go through it again. And then also the other thing that was different was we would have head on passes. So a dog team is coming and we have to pass them because we are sharing the same trail. Most of the time the dogs will pass just fine, but if the trail is super narrow and windy and technical, you have to be a really good dog driver and your dogs have to be really, really good about minding their business and going right on by.
Caitlin Helfer: I guess I didn’t notice that there were any issues with the head on because that to me was almost like terrifying to think of. You got two sleds of dogs going head to head with each other, when they’re not used to it.
Matthew Failor: Totally. I have a dog named Motorhead and he is like the Belgian Malinois you have, where he’s just totally submissive in the dog world. He’s probably more scared. He sees another team, he starts jumping on his back feet and he’s like, looking around while running. He’s like jumping and looking. And then as soon as they get close, he just stops. And so my team would just stop and pile up. So I would have to stop and I would kind of line my dogs out. And get off the trail in the deep snow so I could allow the other team to go by. That happened a couple times where my guys just got scared for whatever reason, maybe they were startled, maybe we weren’t going fast enough. There are so many things. But then the other half of the time, I had a really strong front end. And they just motored right on by, just like two cars passing on the highway, they were fine.
Caitlin Helfer: Okay. I mean, that makes sense. It’s just not something that you would think of, I guess preparing for in the sense because it’s not normal.
Matthew Failor: Totally, it depends on their mood too. Sometimes they’re super confident and sometimes they can get spooked and mentally shut down.
Caitlin Helfer: At the end of the day, they’re still living creatures.
Matthew Failor: Totally.
Caitlin Helfer: So were you able to develop like a different strategy for this new route in comparison to like other years?
Matthew Failor: Yes, yeah. Because since it was a different route, they changed the rules. You have to take a mandatory 24 hour break on the Iditarod. And this year, since it was an out and back, normally, you can take it anywhere you want at any checkpoint. But this year, they told you, you could only take it between a certain amount of checkpoints. They wanted to kind of keep everyone in a certain area. So that was different. And then you had to take another eight hour break. And then finally, you have to take an additional eight hour break. And so those entire mandatory breaks, they told you where you had to take them.
Caitlin Helfer: Oh, really?
Matthew Failor: Yep. So that kind of changed our strategy a bit. And then some of the other checkpoints, you can normally send out about 50 to 100 pounds of supplies. Some of those checkpoints, they said we weren’t allowed to send supplies to there. So that meant that you had to pack more in your sled before you got there. So it just depends, it means that you have to start camping in different places and carrying more gear and changing your strategy in that sense. So things did change, because it was a different course.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s understandable, because they completely changed it. It’s not what you guys are used to doing at all. Do you feel the same sense of accomplishment with the race being shortened to the loop or do you still feel just as accomplished with the new challenges that it presented?
Matthew Failor: It was totally different. I mean, it didn’t feel like the Iditarod to me, because for the nine previous Iditarod’s we were going north to Nome. And you get to stop in these villages and see your friends. But because it’s COVID, we weren’t allowed to interact with anyone. And we were going back, so it just didn’t feel the same. And because of that it didn’t feel like the same accomplishment. But they deterred crowds from gathering at the finish line. So it was less of a party in that sense of people cheering and congratulating you. So there’s a sense of accomplishment, and it felt great to do it but it just wasn’t the same. So again, it just didn’t feel the same.
Caitlin Helfer: No, I can understand that. And the distance was shorter than normal as well. Was it not?
Matthew Failor: Yeah, it was about 120 miles shorter, I think somewhere around there, which is about a full day, another full day of racing.
Caitlin Helfer: So based off that I’m assuming you prefer the traditional route better than the loop route?
Matthew Failor: I do. Yeah. I’m a big…
Caitlin Helfer: Any particular reason why?
Matthew Failor: Just the history. And also — I mean, in the military, you can probably appreciate this idea of always moving forward, never giving up, just kind of adapting and overcoming and achieving, that whole idea. And it’s weird to go out and then just like, okay, now we’re going back and…
Caitlin Helfer: It’s just a different feeling.
Matthew Failor: If that was the Iditarod every year I’d be cool with it. But since I’m a traditionalist, it’s just totally different.
Caitlin Helfer: There’s history behind the original race, and it’s like, just continuing on with that.
Matthew Failor: For sure.
Caitlin Helfer: Do you feel like COVID had a major impact on the race? Like with the lack of spectators and less staff being out there?
Matthew Failor: Most definitely. It affected Iditarod in every capacity. From spectators to allowing us — to well to keeping us going into the native communities. Tourism coming up, like everything. We were COVID tested at multiple checkpoints. Yeah, it affected every everything.
Caitlin Helfer: I assumed it was just one of those like, how did it like — I mean you guys are used to having all the spectators out there and having people that you can stop in and I just couldn’t imagine doing it. It’s kind of like the rest of the sports out there with the empty stadiums and stuff, it just wouldn’t feel — it just feels different.
Matthew Failor: That’s kind of what we likened it to. I mean, they’re basketball games with fake cardboard cutouts. And now they got fake applauses when they make a basket. It wasn’t manufactured in that sense but I do have competitors that have set up mannequins out on the trail to mimic people because there are normally people waving and shouting, so the dogs need to see that stimulus so they get used to it.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s cool. That’s good for them that they even thought of that, because it is different for the dogs if they’re used to people being out there versus if they’re not.
Matthew Failor: Exactly, yeah. And then when they do see someone shouting and waving a flag, some of the young ones might get spooked.
Caitlin Helfer: No, absolutely. It’s different for them. They’re definitely creatures of habit. I guess I’ll just end it off with what’s your most memorable experience from this year’s race?
Matthew Failor: Oh, that’s a good question. Okay, this is easy. So that same dog Motorhead, every year the team is different, even though it’s — I mean, Motorhead is five years old, and so he’s run four Iditarod’s, this was his fourth Iditarod. I have never, ever led Motorhead in a race, ever. He is not what we would consider a lead dog. Although, during training, every single dog we have in our kennel will get a chance and lead because we want to teach them that, leading is fun. It’s cool to be the dog up front where you get to steer the team and listen to the commands. But he is really shy. And when he sees another dog, like I said he shuts down mentally, he overthinks things. If a dog gets an injury on the race, it’s called returning a dog. So throughout the event, if one dog can’t continue, you’re allowed to send that dog home. I had to send some of my best leaders’ home because of certain things. And next thing you know is I need some of these other dogs to step up. And so I tried Motorhead out in lead, and he did a phenomenal job. Oh my gosh, look at that goat.
Caitlin Helfer: You never know what’s going to be wandering around.
Matthew Failor: Is that a Belgian Malinois goat or what?
Caitlin Helfer: Oh, it’s something. His name is Finn and he knows how to break out of — he has a kennel, because he gets out of wildlife enclosures.
Matthew Failor: Is that a is that a goat for milking or..?
Caitlin Helfer: No, the owner takes in some animals. So we have three goats, a horse, a mini-horse and donkey, a bunch of chickens. It’s great for desensitizing dogs.
Matthew Failor: That’s awesome.
Caitlin Helfer: But Finn over here. He wears a collar because he breaks out of kennels.
Matthew Failor: Oh, so you got to like chain him up.
Caitlin Helfer: You got to put a collar on him to walk him back and he likes to terrorize the dogs every once in a while and chase them around. He’s doing that right now. That’s why he’s over here.
Matthew Failor: That would be good training for dogs.
Caitlin Helfer: Well, Motorhead he really gave me a sense of like a lot of proud dad moments, you know where I was worried that that we didn’t have the front end of the team to get us through some of the more technical section. Sometimes there’s glare ice, the dogs need to pitter patter and run alone, and if it’s really windy, or if there’s another team coming in. So I asked a lot of Motorhead and he responded really well. There was only a few times where he looked at me like, Hey, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where the trail is. What do I do because here comes a dog team? So in those situations, I would get out and kind of walk and show him where the trail was. Motorhead became a bona-fide lead dog and he has never led in a race ever. And I was just so proud of him. So that was our biggest moment of the competition.
Caitlin Helfer: He had a lot of trust in you then.
Matthew Failor: He’s awesome. And he does trust me and I trust him.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s cool. That’s really cool. That’s an awesome story too that you have especially with it being this year’s race and everything being different.
Matthew Failor: I’ll have to send you a picture of Motorhead.
Caitlin Helfer: Absolutely. What happened to your lead dogs, if you don’t mind me asking?
Matthew Failor: Oh no, it’s cool. Um, so one of the best, her name is Foxy, I returned her about halfway because she didn’t like the speeds we were going at. She’s more of an 8-9 mile an hour dog and we were traveling at 9 and 10. So she literally just didn’t want to go at that speed. And I have two choices. I can put her in the sled and carry her. Or I can just send her home. And so we chose to — she was completely healthy but again, I thought we could maintain those speeds, but then Pantera who is another one of our better leaders. Both of these dogs are female. Pantera had a sore right tricep. So as she’s running, she could have just overextended and she just had a sore muscle. And so for a couple runs, I would stop and massage her and she was fine. But then the third run it was apparent that massaging wasn’t enough to get that knot out of her muscles. She needed a full day or two off, so we sent her home. Who else? Hiezman had both sore triceps. But he always gets sore triceps because he’s a loper. He always just [overlapping voices 45:51]. He never slows down; he’s a high energy dog. And that’s his upside but it’s also this downside. And let me think offhand. I had one dog that had a sprained ankle. Normally you can put massage oil on the sprained ankles and you can keep a wrap on them when they’re resting and that soreness will go away over time, but this one did not. So we sent her home. So I had a sore ankle and some tricep issues. And then one dog that didn’t like the speed we were going.
Caitlin Helfer: Thankfully, nothing too major.
Matthew Failor: No, you know, it’s usually nothing. It’s usually not like an extreme; there are extremes. One year, actually that dog that was over here, Cool Cat, one year she had a twisted stomach during the race. That veterinarian performed lifesaving surgery during the Iditarod. So he had to poke her stomach and relieve all the pressure, and they life-lighted her to Anchorage. And that is a totally non-running related issue. That can happen to anybody at any time. And the veterinarian saved her life and it’s well documented…
Caitlin Helfer: That’s the most terrifying thing to me.
Matthew Failor: Oh, I was a mess.
Caitlin Helfer: I fully believe it. I had my dog go into the first stages of bloat and I had him at the [inaudible 47:23]. Highly food motivated dog, wouldn’t touch food, treats, water. We were at the ER and they are like oh, if you had waited your dog wouldn’t have made it. I was like, uh, no.
Matthew Failor: And we were in a native community in the middle of nowhere and they poked her stomach and flew her to the next big village and they said we can’t do it here; we have to fly over to Anchorage. So it’s like eight hours of them monitoring her and poking her stomach to get the gas out and then she’s totally alive and healthy because of those Iditarod veterinarians.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s awesome. All while you’re trying to finish the race?
Matthew Failor: Oh yeah. I was ready to quit, but then the vets kept saying nope she’s alive, she’s okay. And I was like, okay, you know…
Caitlin Helfer: Yeah, keep going.
Matthew Failor: Yeah, it was a sad moment. But it turned out to be one of the best stories ever. Of course, PETA attacked us. But it has nothing to do with running. It has everything to do with biology of just — it can happen to you right now. Like it’s happened to people you know, so…
Caitlin Helfer: It happens. If you own a dog, it’s bound to happen at some point. If you own dogs your whole life.
Matthew Failor: Something is going to happen, yeah.
Caitlin Helfer: It sucks but they’re living creatures. It’s like telling you to never go out and get sick or get hurt.
Matthew Failor: Exactly. Yeah exactly. And we don’t want to live our life through that we’d rather go out and I’m okay with twisting an ankle because we’re having fun doing it. And we’re going outside and exploring. I’d much rather do that than sit around not doing anything.
Caitlin Helfer: No, absolutely. I don’t handle being inside well, and I’m like I said, I dispatched for the last few years and I’m like, you know, desk jobs just aren’t my thing. I would be out like when I’m dispatching, I’m like pacing the room because I don’t sit still. And it’s like, oh, that’s kind of where the dog training for me came in. It’s like I just needed to get out. I’ve love dogs, I’ve worked with them on the law enforcement side just part time when I could volunteer time. I started out as just being the guy in the decoy suit.
Matthew Failor: Were you getting bit? Oh, geez, I did that once, that was crazy.
Caitlin Helfer: It’s like my favorite thing in the world.
Matthew Failor: That’s awesome.
Caitlin Helfer: But it’s one of those that it’s like, I don’t sit still. And if one of my dogs get injured because we’re out on a trail and something happens and I run my dogs, all my dogs run off lead and we run them in the trails and they love it, but things happen.
Matthew Failor: Yeah, totally. I mean, if they step on a rock and get a scratch or lost a toenail, that’s also the part of owning a dog. It’s learning how to first aid and take care. And if you can’t you take them to the vet, but a lot of times owners like us, we learn more about the dogs because we can take care of minor issues which is a lot of fun and it’s educational.
Caitlin Helfer: I don’t generally go out without some kind of first aid kit for them. I’ll take one for them over one for me.
Matthew Failor: Oh, yeah.
Caitlin Helfer: I usually have a full canine one in my car because if I can get him back to the car, it’s fine. But I want to be able to take care of them once they’re back to the car and I’ve wrapped more paws on trails, because people just — there’s always glass on them. It seems like any trail I go to there’s glass on the trail.
Matthew Failor: That is something we do not deal with up here.
Caitlin Helfer: That’s wonderful.
Matthew Failor: I don’t miss the lower 48 in that sense. There are too many disrespectful people that litter and the dogs bear the brunt of that.
Caitlin Helfer: Yeah, they do. And it’s sad for them, and then we have a lot of irresponsible dog owners where they don’t have control. The dog I’m sending home right now has staples in his ear because my dogs off leash; he’s e-collar trained. So I run him on the E-collar just because he chases squirrels or deer, or any fast moving animal.
Matthew Failor: 4-legged animal.
Caitlin Helfer: So on E collar he great he won’t even touch them, he knows the collars on, and he’s a collar smart dog. But I have control over him and I had a dog that came up to him and he got him on the ear and started a dog fight and they had no control over their dog. And it’s like I’m not going to not take him out on trails off leash where he can roam and actually get his exercise and burn energy. But there are so many people down here that take their dogs and just cut them loose. And the owner wasn’t even in sight. So I’m trying to break [inaudible 51:43] of a dog I don’t know.
Matthew Failor: Yeah, thankfully, it’s just an ear. Not like a…
Caitlin Helfer: Yeah. Much better, it was just an ear, although the ear bleeds, as you know.
Matthew Failor: Oh yeah.
Caitlin Helfer: My whole pant leg was covered in blood. And I’m like, putting him in the kennel in my car and trying to get him to the ER.
Matthew Failor: They shake their head and then there’s blood here and then blood here, and then blood here.
Caitlin Helfer: It’s everywhere. And it was like in a creek, he has floppy ears. He has the floppy Kali ears, and it’s like in the crease in his ear. And it’s like, awkwardly stapled. He finally gets them out. And I’m like, you know what, you’re going to get more exercise back home and he’s going to go home and play with the rest of my herd back there.
Matthew Failor: And that’s also these are — I mean, these kinds of stories, even though it’s a bite on the ear, there’s so many stories like that for dog owners that it’s not that ear bites are fun. But it’s always an adventure, you never know. And then your bond with that dog is so much better. You’re taking care of the dog, it looks up to you, and you take the staples out, like it’s…
Caitlin Helfer: It’s just something.
Matthew Failor: And those little things are worth the whole the whole package of owning a dog.
Caitlin Helfer: Oh absolutely. And he showed a lot of trust in me because he’s sitting there and we’re trying to clean it out. Because I didn’t know how bad it was at that point, there was just blood everywhere. And I’m like, okay, does this even warrant going somewhere? Or can I put some quick clot on it and call it a day. I’m trying to clean it out with some iodine. And if he’s snapping at me, I knew it was bad. I was like, oh no. Oh, I was trying to get it cleaned out and then all of a sudden, you saw the big slit and I was like, yep, we’re going. Yeah, this is something I don’t have in my toolkit here with me right now. And thankfully, it all worked out. I mean, he’s fine, he’s bored. That’s the worst of it is, as he’s been on basically kennel rest in a cone. And he is trying to start play wrestling with other dogs or getting other dogs to lick his ear. So they will scratch it for him. Like no dude.
Matthew Failor: Slow down just a few more days buddy.
Caitlin Helfer: Just a few more and you’ll have the cone off. You get to go home. You can play with all your friends. But just chill out here for a little bit. But other than that, I mean, is there anything else, just advice from you that you have with going into this industry? And obviously it’s a little different; I’m not going on… I say that as of right now that’s not my plan. But who knows where I’ll end up?
Matthew Failor: I mean, you sound like a very smart, smart lady. You’re going to schooling. Yes, you have six dogs, which is a lot. But I would just say to continue to take it slow. And in my industry, everybody’s different. So there are some people that acquire too many dogs too quickly. And all of a sudden they have a kennel, and they can’t afford to feed them. And the dogs get repossessed, or get taken from them. And they make the news and they have malnourished dogs. Their hearts are in the right place, but their wallet wasn’t in the right place. And so I mean, it’s taken me to this point, I acquired my first dog in 2006. And now it’s 2021 and I have a kennel of 50. Which again, sounds crazy, but as long as you keep educating yourself and keep asking other dog owners, hey, can give me a little piece of advice. As long as you do what’s right for your dog and you always put their intentions in front of yours, you’re going to have a great career with dogs and then you just do right by your dogs. And you never know where you’re going to end up. I mean, it could be dog mushing in Alaska; it also could be a head dog trainer for the US Army. Who knows, I mean, all kinds of stuff. Bomb sniffing for like airports, you know, all kinds of cool stuff.
Caitlin Helfer: There’s so many.
Matthew Failor: COVID detection, like dogs sniffing out COVID, you know all kinds of stuff.
Caitlin Helfer: Mm hmm. I appreciate you taking time to talk to me. I know you got a lot going on, especially with having surgery and it’s your off season now. So..
Matthew Failor: No problem. I’m going to go outside and greet some guests. We have two people showing up here pretty soon. And then I got to take my snow machine in for service, it’s broken down. Now that it’s at the end of the season I can go get it serviced.
Caitlin Helfer: Yeah, it’s probably close to impossible to get it serviced during season.
Matthew Failor: Yeah, they’re always busy.
Caitlin Helfer: I can only imagine.
Matthew Failor: I can fix dogs, I don’t know machines.
Caitlin Helfer: Yeah, me either. I’m pretty much useless when it comes to it. And I try to think I’m good with technology and then I screw something on that too.
Matthew Failor: Oh, well I’ll send you a photo of Motorhead again, so you can scan it and maybe use that in your class project or whatnot. And make sure you tell your husband — is he in the military as well?
Caitlin Helfer: He’s not; he’s actually a police officer. He hired his canine, so we have his retired canine at the house. That’s a Slovakian dog; and he retired him about a year and a half ago due to a back injury.
Matthew Failor: Oh, well please tell your husband that I said I really appreciate his work. I know that nowadays police officers are under a microscope and they get a bad rap by half the country. And we are really appreciative of people that try to protect and serve. And the dogs, those dogs are police officers too. So…
Caitlin Helfer: Absolutely. Thank you.
Matthew Failor: Yeah, you’re welcome. Well, have a good day, it was nice meeting you.
Caitlin Helfer: Nice meeting you as well and enjoy, I guess your offseason and you said you’re going on vacation soon, too.
Matthew Failor: Yep, I can’t wait.
Caitlin Helfer: Oh, yeah. Much deserved.
Matthew Failor: Have a good day.
Caitlin Helfer: Thank you. You too.