Tim Leeds Havre Daily News email@example.com
North-central Montanans have an opportunity for a rare treat Thursday morning, when Alaskan sled dogs will be at the Havre-Hill County Library. Harry Schlitz, 67, of Park City will be bringing his Mountain Mushers Hero Dog Sled Educational/Therapy Team to Havre to kick off the library’s summer reading program. Schlitz said he and his wife, Lela, 62, started using sled dogs in an educational and therapeutic program while living in Southern California after buying a sled team as a hobby in 1992. “After 15 years I just love it,” he said. “We travel all over the United States now and I have quite a following.” Harry Schlitz and his dogs Lela is having eye surgery done and cannot attend this show are scheduled to be at the library for an hour starting at 11 a.m., but he said it will actually probably be a bit longer. He said he starts setting up about an hour before the official start time, and will stay as long as it takes. “I do not leave until everyone hugs and pets the dogs,” Schlitz said. “We make sure that they get their moneys’ worth.” The Schlitzes’ work started mainly as a reading promotion program in California. Harry and Lela, who tought in Southern California, bought a team of sled dogs and soon gave a ride to one of Lela’s fellow teachers. The teacher asked if they would show the team to her students, Harry said. “I just shared them with the class,” he said. The class was reading the novel “Stone Fox,” by John Reynolds Gardiner, and immediately identified the book with the sled team. That led the Schlitzes to start using their dogs to promote reading. “Within five years we were doing 70 events a year,” Harry said. “Now we’re traveling all over the United States.” The Schlitzes have three dogs right now, although Harry said he wishes he could afford to have a full team eight or so. Two of the dogs have a special story of their own the Schlitzes adopted Pixie and Sorrel in 2005 when they were retired at age 8 from service for the U.S. National Park Service at Denali Natural Park in Alaska. “These dogs are real heroes,” Harry said. He added that the park service has been using sled dogs to patrol Denali since 1918, and much of the 6 million acres in the park does not allow motorized travel and is still patrolled by sled dogs. The youngest of the three dogs, a 4- year-old malamute named Su, is one of the most active of the three in interacting with crowds, Harry said. After the Schlitzes retired to Park City in 2004 and quit running their sled dog shows as a business, they soon started using their dogs again on a nonprofit basis. Harry said one of the projects he has is working with students in the Billings area as a buddy reader trying to engender an interest in and love of books. After a few 15-minute sessions reading with sixth-graders, he said, the students are often starting to love to read sometimes to the dogs. The students might say, “No, I only want to read to Pixie,” or “No, I only want to read to Su,” Harry said. He also uses the dogs for therapy in retirement homes or long-term care centers, he said, and he and Lela and the dogs travel year-round to libraries, schools, and other communities like the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base near San Diego. He added that the team is booked often a year or more in advance, and travels, in a Hummer pulling a big trailer, thousands of miles, ranging from sites in Montana like Turner, Cut Bank, Browning and Billings to Wisconsin, Texas, and California. He said that last summer the team was in Salt Lake City for five shows, then Los Angeles for 35 days, then on to Camp Pendleton for another three days, with an invitation to return that honored him. Harry said that one of his goals is to get people emulating what he and Lela do using pets, dogs, to help with therapy and education. His main goal with the dogs is to help the people who see them, Harry added. “The top priority for us to teach these children and say they can follow their dreams,” he said.