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Posted on Feb 20, 2015

Malamutes tug at local woman’s heart

Jennifer Silvestri and her pack of friendly but energetic malamutes have made many a head turn in Quincy in the last few months.

Drivers and pedestrians can’t help but stare when they see Silvestri, standing atop a small cart and calling out “gee” or “haw,” whiz past them in a flurry of gray and white.

The four-dog team is a little out of place in a farming community, or any community. Just the other day Silvestri took them to the post office to pick up a package.

Jennifer Silvestri of Quincy began running her team of malamutes (and one lab named Luna) about six months ago as a way for the dogs to get some exercise. Photos by Kurtis J. Wood

Jennifer Silvestri of Quincy began running her team of malamutes (and one lab named Luna) about six months ago as a way for the dogs to get some exercise. Photos by Kurtis J. Wood

Silvestri said she’s gotten many confused looks while maneuvering the streets of Quincy. Some people stop to take her photo. Video of her and the team have shown up on Facebook. Others follow her down the road to get a better look or ask questions.

Like last December, when the dogs were headed home after giving Santa Claus a ride to visit patients at the long-term care facility at Quincy Valley Medical Center, a minivan followed Silvestri so the driver’s young children, seated on opposite sides of the car, could each get a good view of Storm, Star, Penguin and Red dressed as reindeer, wearing antlers and festive bells.

One little girl even has asked, “Your dogs can fly?”

Silvestri may feel like she’s flying some days, standing atop the cart with all that power in front of her.

The Alaskan malamute is a large, arctic dog that stands about 2 feet high and typically weighs 80 to 95 pounds. Once bred to hunt polar bears and pull large freight, they are known for not only their strength and endurance but also their playful, affectionate nature and calm disposition.

And while they may be mistaken for their arctic cousins, don’t call these guys huskies or Silvestri will quickly correct you. Smaller and more energetic, huskies are often times used in sled dog races.

“Malamutes are born to pull,” said Silvestri, who’s a walking Wikipedia when it comes to the breed.

Born to pull, Red is eager to begin running again with his pack.

Born to pull, Red is eager to begin running again with his pack.

While Silvestri is clearly a dog lover, the malamutes weren’t her dog of choice. When she was 12 years old, she wanted a Great Dane. But she couldn’t find a Great Dane breeder nearby. When she looked at malamutes, she found her beloved Joe. The pair became great companions and was often seen together around town as Silvestri grew up in Quincy. Joe died four years ago.

“I found Joe and it was love at first sight,” she said.

It’s their loving malamute disposition that will get you four instant new friends if you visit the Silvestri home in Quincy. Each of the dogs has passed the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen Test, meaning they have passed a temperament test and are deemed safe to have both in the home and in public.

At 92 pounds, Storm is the biggest of the bunch. Storm is a gray malamute who’s driven to please and always gives 200 percent, Silvestri said. He is the leader of the malamute brigade when they walk together or are pulling the cart. As the leader, he is always harnessed first or is just out ahead of the group when walking.

Then there’s Star, a very loving and intelligent lady who is also a gray. The brains of the bunch, Star loves affection from her human friends.

Their pups are Penguin and Red, who aren’t quite 2 years old. An affectionate girl, Penguin is a seal malamute, which means she has a white undercoat. And Red, well, he’s red. He’s the silly one of the bunch, who Silvestri has taught to bow and give high fives. Get the cart out and Red starts voicing his excitement quickly, whining and yelping for Silvestri to command “hike.”

And don’t forget Luna, the little black lab who may just be a malamute wannabe. Luna, who runs alongside the pack as it pulls the cart, was being trained by Silvestri as a seeing-eye dog but she was not a good match for the program. Silvestri hopes to train the willful dog for search and rescue.

If you have one malamute, it’s typically going to be well behaved, Silvestri said. Add a second and mischief is bound to happen.

“And four malamutes destroy everything,” she said. “I think I fill in holes every day.”

That’s why Silvestri, 28, has positioned herself as the alpha of the pack. She is firm but loving with them. A nurse at QVMC, Silvestri spends much time and energy on the dogs, whether that be training them, caring for them or taking them to the hospital to visit patients. For her, running the dogs is the relaxing part, she said.

Silvestri started working with Storm and Star when they were only 9 weeks old. For several months, the two wore their mini-harnesses while pulling a jug around the yard so they could feel the weight behind them. Eventually, Silvestri added some water to the jug until it was filled.

From the jug, the dogs graduated to walking with Silvestri as she pulled on the reins and called out commands. Then, they made their way to the cart. She wasn’t nervous jumping onto the cart for the first time, Silvestri said. She likened it to a skateboard. (If a skateboard was powered by 350 pounds of excited canine.)

Today, the dogs run about 2.2 miles most days. They’ve reached a point where they “can’t live without it,” Silvestri said.

Silvestri gets the pack harnessed by calling “line out.” Storm, already harnessed, moves forward so Silvestri is able to harness up the other dogs.

The cart weighs about 100 pounds and has a foot break and a hand steering mechanism. But it’s the pack that’s doing much of the work. As the dogs are running, Silvestri is calling out commands such as hike (forward), whoa (stop), haw (left), gee (right), come around (turn around) and easy (slow down). They are able to move as one unit down the street.

For Silvestri, running the dogs is allowing them to do what they were born to do. And it’s giving her time to relax.
But these dogs are more than a hobby for Silvestri. To her, they are family.

“They’re like my kids,” she said. “I love them dearly but sometimes they drive me up a wall.

 

— By Jill FitzSimmons, editor@qvpr.com

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