Weather, geography, and plenty of personal turmoil were all part of Sue Terry’s brittle landscape in 2022. And yet she and handler Starla Brewer found a way to get Finn, Terry’s beloved Karelian Bear Dog, to Orlando, Florida. There, the 12-year-old, 40-pound dog competed in the 2022 AKC Fast CAT Invitational, held in conjunction with the AKC National Championship Presented by Royal Canin.
Alaska to Orlando
To attend, Finn had to travel 3,885 miles from Willow, Alaska. But the distance wasn’t the only hurdle in her way. Finn’s invitation to compete did not arrive until three weeks before the Invitational. But Terry remained determined. “I wanted to take Finn to Orlando because I felt it was important to represent the feisty spirit of Alaska and her hardy breed. We both enjoy meeting new people and I love to share my passion for Northern breeds. But finances were a challenge,” says Terry.
Terry lives north of Willow on a 40-acre property that contains a small barn for her 22 Siberian Huskies and two Karelian Bear Dogs. But when Terry was unable to find a reliable kennel sitter, she says, “I decided it was more important for Finn to go than me. So I posted on our Alaska Dog Show news website, asking if anyone going to Florida could take her.” She received no responses.
Several days before the Invitational, she reached out to Brewer. Brewer had sponsored Terry and Finn’s 2021 flight to Florida. At the time, Terry was dealing with sky-high vet bills, and Brewer was excited to help a dog from Alaska make the trip. Prior to the 2022 Invitational, however, Brewer wanted to sleep on the last-minute idea. “For months, people had been telling me to I needed to get away after the death of my husband, Gary, in early July,” Brewer says. She eventually agreed.
Top-Class Dog Team
A flight delay on the initial leg of the trip (from Anchorage to Seattle) meant that Brewer and Finn almost didn’t make their connecting flight (from Seattle to Orlando). Brewer describes the scenario at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport: “The gate agents shouted a relay from gate to gate, ‘We have Finn’s passenger. When I arrived at the departure gate, they exclaimed, ‘She’s here! Load Finn!’
“By the time I got down the ramp to the plane door, they had Finn’s boarding tag for me. That was hands-down the wildest, most caring, organized, and best experience I have ever had flying.” And what followed was a 5½-hour flight to Orlando. From door to door and from snow to sunshine, the temperature change was 64 degrees.
Once in Orlando, Finn performed well, though she didn’t win a top prize. But her times were consistent with her past marks. In five runs over two days, they ranged from 9.645 seconds/21.355 mph to 10.631 seconds/19.240 mph. This was Brewer’s initial pairing with Finn: and her first time handling a dog in any competition, let alone a major one.
“I knew from meeting Finn that she would be relatively easy to travel with, and from one fun run event that she would be calm in a competition setting,” Brewer says. “My biggest concern was making sure I could hold up my end of keeping her sound, healthy, happy, and to read her [body language]. Finn made it easy. She did everything I asked of her, whether I used Sue’s preferred commands, which I usually forgot, or commands I use for my own dogs. After her first Fast CAT run with me awaiting her at the finish line, we quickly acquired a relationship grounded with mutual trust and respect.”
There and Back Again
Terry first encountered Finn on Facebook four years ago, when she came across a request to rehome a female Karelian Bear Dog. “I went to Anchorage to meet her,” recalls Terry. “She was clearly youthful and smart. A sweet girl. So she came home with me and we bonded quickly. I stay in touch with the family and we have met up for visits periodically.” Less than two weeks after taking ownership of Finn, Terry got the dog involved in Fast CAT. The two regularly enter five to six events in Alaska each year.
Despite the duo’s dedication, the road has been rocky for both dog and owner since the 2021 Invitational. At the end of 2021 through the beginning of 2022, Terry had to deal with a beloved dog’s death and several others’ injuries. And Finn herself wasn’t immune. Finn’s leg was badly injured in a household incident, resulting in three surgeries.
Despite these setbacks, Finn and Terry made their comeback in the spring. Finn competed in a Barn Hunt trial in April. There, she completed her Rat Novice title. She returned to Fast CAT a month later with a qualifying run of 21.76 mph. Now Finn’s resume includes BCAT and DCAT Fast CAT titles. And she rounded out her year with another trip to Orlando.
And though Finn excels in competition, she can be a typical dog, too. “I was driving back from Fairbanks early summer last year and stopped in Broad Pass near Mount Denali to take photos at a rest stop,” recalls Terry. “I got out of my truck and walked to the middle of the parking lot. I found myself so immersed in taking photos that I only vaguely heard what I thought was the sound of a steam engine chugging through the mountains.
Then I realized it was a grizzly bear. I was trying to remember if that was the early warning or about to charge bear noise. I backed slowly to my truck and turned to open my door. There was Finn standing on my seat looking at me as if to say, ‘Will there be in-flight snacks?’
“If my male KBD Sam had been with us, he never would have let me leave the truck. He would have been barking as we pulled into the parking lot.” But Finn is uniquely herself.