By Kelsie Donaldson on January 18, 2024
Featuring Sarah Shull

Ed and Tasha Stielstra own about 150 Alaskan Huskies. You may be picturing a house bursting with dogs; however, these Huskies are not your traditional companion animals.

In 1993, Ed, who had just graduated from Lyman Briggs College at MSU, was approached by a family friend who had recently purchased a few sled dogs and was hoping Ed could help train them. Ed agreed, and it wasn’t long before he decided to open his own sled dog kennel.

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Betel and Splinter, pictured above, were both neutered at MSU.

After Ed and Tasha (an alum of the MSU College of Education) were married, they lived in Duluth, Minnesota for about 4 years before returning to Michigan in 2003 to operate their kennel on a full-time basis. Through the years, they have competitively raced in Michigan, Minnesota, Alaska, and abroad. Now, the pair operates their dog sled touring business, Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing & Adventures, near Newberry in the Upper Peninsula with their 150 Huskies.

Tasha started working with MSU about ten years ago, when she approached the Alumni Travel office to put together winter adventure and dog sledding trips for MSU alumni. “Those trips have been extremely successful, and it rekindled our relationship with MSU,” says Tasha. She then started to brainstorm other partnership opportunities that she could foster with the university.

The Stielstras decided to meet with Dr. Sarah Shull, an assistant professor in Small Animal Clinical Sciences, as she had an interest in sled dogs. They came up with the structure of the current partnership: a program where veterinary students spay and neuter about 26 dogs from Nature’s Kennel each fall.

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Raphael and Cyrus, pictured here, were also neutered at MSU.

“On our very first visit, I remember the veterinary team being very nervous and asking on the phone about how they would handle the ‘rowdy sled dogs’ who would be coming to surgery,” recalls Tasha. “I reassured them that the dogs were all friendly and very used to being handled. When I picked the dogs up after surgery, the staff could not believe how sweet and well-behaved the dogs were. Now they look forward to our visits!” In fact, Tasha notes that many of the students continue to follow their patients on the Nature’s Kennel website and social media pages.

Thanks to the partnership with MSU, Ed and Tasha are able to get more dogs spayed and neutered than they otherwise would due to cost limitations. “In addition to the obvious benefit of unwanted pregnancy, there are also health and behavior benefits to spaying and neutering. So, our dogs are the true winners,” says Tasha.

On the flip side, the partnership gives students the chance to operate on working dogs who go on to race, run tours, and live long, productive lives. “The students love seeing the Nature's Kennels dogs and hearing their stories,” says Shull. “In addition, Tasha has a background in teaching and is very willing to educate students on sled dog racing and these amazing animals.”

The mutually beneficial partnership has been going strong for seven years now. “We’ve always been very impressed with the care that the students, surgeons, and the clinical skills team give our dogs,” says Tasha. “Every time we arrive, it feels like we are coming to see family.”

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