February 09, 2009 12:00 PM

Flying through a forest of spruce on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, Jill Garnet eases her sled onto a narrow, snow-packed trail, then signals her team of four mixed-breed dogs to press ahead. “Up, up!” she exclaims over their heavy panting as they dash past a pair of moose. Finishing the practice run a few minutes later, she pulls off her woolen ski mask. “Great run!” she says, cradling each dog’s face in her hands.

You’d have thought she’d won the Iditarod. But Jill, 39, who moved from Denver to Kasilof, Alaska, to become a musher, is relishing a different accomplishment: giving forgotten dogs a second lease on life. Every member of her Red Shed racing team is a refugee from the mushing world, one of hundreds of surplus dogs that rescue groups say have ended up neglected, abandoned or killed. With the support of husband Paul, 34, Jill has so far saved 15 dogs and, with a special diet and tender-hearted training, molded them into a team that took nine first-place finishes last year on the Kenai’s sprint mushing club circuit. (Unlike the Iditarod, a 1,150-mile mushing marathon, sprint racing covers up to 10-mile distances and uses four or six dogs to a sled.) Says Jill, a former emergency medical technician: “I take the lowest of the low and the last of the last.”

Along the way, she’s earned the sometimes grudging respect of the tight-knit mushing community. “She’s extremely competitive, but has a high sense of responsibility for dogs,” says Mitch Michaud of the Peninsula Sled Dog Racing Association. “She’s a little kooky—she swears like a sailor when she gets worked up over a negligent owner. But she pushes the rest of us to get off our rocking chairs and act.” She also has won the gratitude of people like Carol Kleckner of the Second Chance League, a husky-rescue shelter in Fairbanks. Unlike top-tier mushers, who strictly limit breeding, Kleckner says, too many irresponsible owners overbreed because they’re seeking the next superstar sled dog. “Unwanted dogs are treated like farm animals,” Kleckner says. “But Jill is setting a great example.”

Her compassion for the underdog started early. Growing up in Los Angeles, she watched a relative beat the family dog with a riding crop. “I learned then,” Jill recalls, “that dogs are at the mercy of people and are only as good as they’re taught.”

Rescue dogs came into her life quite by accident: After a Golden Retriever she’d owned died, Paul, a paramedic, gave her a Chow-Shepherd mix from a shelter for her 30th birthday. Then, on a 2001 trip to Alaska, she fell in love with huskies—a term mushers use broadly to refer to sled dogs of various breeds, including the well-known Siberian Husky. Horrified to learn how many castoff sled dogs met a terrible fate, she adopted two, Kodiak and Willow, whom she found chained in an owner’s yard, on the spot. After that, “I was hooked,” Jill says. She and Paul would adopt six more dogs before moving to Alaska in 2006.

These days, they live a modest life, even for Alaskans—sharing a 280-sq.-ft. cabin that they had to outfit with running water and electricity. On more than one occasion, Jill or Paul has had to grab a shotgun and chase off a roaming grizzly. But they never lack for cuddly company—unlike most mushers, Jill lets her dogs bunk inside at night, curling up in crates under the kitchen table and bed.

By day, she fine-tunes their diet and training—feeding them a special mix of high-protein dry food, oat bran and electrolyte supplement, along with an old favorite, salmon heads. Allowing the dogs to roam in a two-acre fenced-in yard, she takes them out to run for five-hour stretches up to four times a week—frequently breaking to give hugs and praise. Her gentle touch has won over even the most unruly dogs, like Rock Star, who would run in circles when she tried to harness him. “Now,” she says proudly, “he’s one of my best.”

So far, that pride and her passion have fueled Red Shed racing. Her winnings have totaled a meager $757, while she and Paul have drawn on salary and savings to foot a running tab of $82,000—for food, vets, equipment, fences, race fees and a spanking new custom travel kennel. Still, she’s ambitious—she’s moved up to the top class in her sport—and hopes to repeat moments like the one last February when she set a course record at Kenai’s Ten Dog Classic, covering 4.5 miles in 14:08. On that team: Rock Star and Jumar, both of whom had been scheduled to be euthanized at their shelters. “One day, they’re on the verge of being put down,” Jill says. “Now, they’re winning races. That’s what makes this worthwhile.”

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