Camp K9 Kin, as she calls her home, is a free-run kennel on 14 birch-covered acres. One partially cleared acre or two is ringed in cyclone fencing, which includes six expansive pens with doghouses opening onto a large central play area that Isacsson refers to as the courtyard. Her cabin sits inside the yard at one end. Most of the time when she is home, the dogs have free range of the courtyard and pens. Smaller groups are sometimes allowed beyond the boundary for reconnaissance in her woods and intense chase games along the fence line. When she goes to work, she leaves some dogs in the central area and others in pens with pen pals. No one is chained.
“There are people who think I spoil my dogs,” Isacsson says with a smile, and it’s true that her camp is nothing like the dog yards that dot most of Alaska. In the standard setup, sled dogs spend their lives among grids of doghouses on chains just long enough for them to circle their house or climb inside and maybe interact with neighboring dogs. In many households, sled dogs never come inside even when pet dogs are permitted indoors. Their only entertainments are running in a team and mealtime. Summers can be especially dull, since some mushers stop exercising their dogs due to the heat.
Warm months at Camp K9 Kin include hiking, swimming, berry-picking and splashing around in swamps. In the yard, Isacsson sets up plastic pools as oases for drinking, cooling off and more grouping. In addition, she creates a bone yard; at night, after the dogs have enjoyed a fresh batch of raw bones, she collects them and then buries them in a pen. The next morning, the dogs race out to dig up, strut with and rebury the bones. Doghouses and the roots of a downed tree provide elevated perches for the dogs who like to watch over the yard.
She calls this the “layered life.” It’s the physical expression of the hierarchies and relationships in the group. The same sort of layering plays out on the various planes in the cabin. “Without having a tested hypothesis, I can tell you it’s very important for them to have this layered life,” Isacsson says. “They spend about 50 percent of their time working out these dynamics. I provide a wide spectrum of opportunities so they can find balance.” For a dog on a chain, she says, “there are no layers. There are absolutely no options at all.”
Watching Isacsson move among her dogs—in a knee brace, in case an exuberant pup plows into an old injury—is a revelation. A Pit Bull mix, a German Shepherd, several Border Collie mixes and a plethora of Huskies romp and play and snarl. There is lots of contact, some minor scuffles, but no fights—it’s high energy without the anarchy. They are mostly left to their own devices with one another, although occasionally, she runs interference for weaker, marginalized dogs, such as an old gray Husky named Payak, who has never really been accepted, or Yasmin, a silky new addition who is blind.
Her approach is informed by behavioral ecology; field studies of bears, wolves and wolverines; mythology; professional kennel management; gut; and endless, patient observation. She pays close attention to the pack, and they pay close attention to her as she communicates in English, Swedish and French, with body language and with animal sounds. She grrrrs and caws. She’s been called the “Mexican ‘dog whisperer’s’ Swedish twin.”
“I think the reason people make the comparison is the way that the dogs respond,” Isacsson says. But she doesn’t call herself a trainer or offer quick fixes, although she advises her dogs’ adoptive families for years and does consulting for people having trouble with their dogs. “I’m about connecting to the dog and finding a place for the dog in my life. I’m not about solving problems. I’m about relationships. That’s why mushers have problems with their dogs; they talk about correcting.”
Exercise is the other essential element of the Camp K9 Kin regimen. During my visit in March, when Isacsson traditionally takes off several weeks to journey with her dogs in the backcountry, we sled, hike, skijor and play games, including hockey-style fetch on the frozen Chena River or in the yard with a bandy stick.