Doghouse Design with Musher Matt Failor


Iditarod doghouse design and a sweet treat!

Visiting a musher’s kennel in Alaska is an amazing experience.  I remember the first time I saw a dog yard full of huskies.  I had never seen so many happy, wagging tails at one time, but I also noticed the unique design of the doghouses.  I had never seen any built quite like that before: neat, orderly rows, personalized cubes, happy dogs jumping on and off the roofs for hugs.  I wanted to know more, so I turned to veteran Iditarod musher Matthew Failor for help.  

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Team Matt Failor of the 17th-Dog Kennel

According to Matt, “The dogs and I spend all summer, fall and winter together living as a family and learn to work towards a common goal, improving in everything we do and never stop learning.”

thMatt was the perfect musher to reach out to about innovative doghouse design and how it benefits the life and health of the husky.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Matt at the Winter Conference for Educators, where we toured his kennel and learned so much about the preparations it takes to be ready for the Last Great Race on Earth®.  He let me try on his official parka and otter-skinned gloves, and we learned about the mandatory gear on his sled.  It was a fascinating learning experience for all the teachers there.

I asked Matt about the design of a husky doghouse and why they are built the specific way they are at his 17th-Dog Kennel in Willow, Alaska.  Matt responded with a holiday video of his dog yard, proudly showcasing his brand new houses made for his team.


Matt also shared interesting information about a musher’s kennel, and how doghouses actually play an important part in overall dog care:

“Everything I do for my dogs is for a specific reason…the houses are made a certain way for several reasons.  That size of house can be made out of one sheet of 4×8 sheet of plywood, we like efficiency.  

More importantly when a dog sleeps they curl up and bury their noses under their tails to preserve heat…knowing this, the houses should not be big!!!  They need to help keep the dog warm, any one who pays the heat bill will understand that philosophy.  Dogs, like people, like their personal space.  Like brothers sharing a room they have their own sides of the room. This is one of the many reasons why each dog has their own space/house.  Another important reason is to better take care of the dogs, if you have thirty dogs loose in a pen (which I do many times for a few hours a year for


Photo courtesy Matt Failor

fun and to teach the dogs things) you won’t know which loose stool came from which dog? Which dog vomited? Which dog has worms in their stool? Dogs in a pen sounds great but for a long time is not responsible…of course potential misbreedings, fights, dominance issues, etc.  Our way each dog knows their own house and will go there without asking. I know what went in each dog and more importantly what came out of each dog!!!  Each house has a removable lid for easy cleaning. Straw is put in regularly to help insulate the houses and keep dogs comfortable.  We use straw in houses as well as on races…connection would be, this is where we sleep! Important when straw is presented on rest stops.  

Chains have snaps on both ends in case of emergency (fires) so each dog can be taken from the house with their chain and then tethered to something (fence, tree, etc).  My handler and I wanted to just make little cute cabins for the dogs, so we added the rough cut siding for looks! And it will add insulation.  Many more reasons!!! Dog mushers are constantly innovating and coming up with new exciting ideas for the dogs…one of the many reasons I love this lifestyle!”

Many of my students have dog houses with a pointed roof in their own back yards, but I reminded them that many times huskies can jump on top of their houses at a musher’s kennel.  I asked Matt about that and he replied:


Photo courtesy Matt Failor

“It’s a simple design.  Pointed roofs would be difficult.  The dogs do enjoy getting up on top to see and get a different vantage point. Many mushers will teach the dogs to jump up on the house…easier to groom the dog, socialize with the dog, harness the dog on top of the house than on the ground.  Some mushers don’t teach the dog to jump up on the house in fear they could potentially sprain or injure themselves.  I like teaching them to get up on their roof.” 

 I learned so much from Matt’s response, and as a teacher, I found this information invaluable for my students.  We looked at doghouse design from the Iditarod site, and talked about Matt’s information and discussed what we had learned.  We created a classroom anchor chart together with all the facts we remembered.
Now it was our turn to design our own Iditarod doghouses!  Since it was the last week of school before the holidays, we used graham cracker squares, white icing, pretzel sticks, and red hot candy to create a husky doghouse fit for an Iditarod champion.  
Students had to try designing their house using inspiration from Matt Failor’s design: cube-shaped, insulated, and a roof ready for a husky.  When they completed their homes, a plastic toy dog replica was placed on top and a photo was snapped.  Finally, they were able to eat their treat.

The activity can easily be modified using cheap household or classroom items for the design instead of food.  I created a design challenge sheet for students to use in the creation process as a first step.

Design Challenge Worksheet

After their doghouses are completed, students can take their photo and label it using a web-based program such as Canva, or apps such as Popplet and Explain Everything.  The labels should include facts they have learned about the benefit of great Iditarod doghouse design.  

After they have labeled their photo with correct information, students can then write a research report about husky doghouses using their mind-maps.  Below is a Popplet chart using Matt’s information:


Check out Matt Failor’s 17th-Dog site below for more information about Matt and his team. (You are leaving a secure site – not responsible for content)


Teachers can create an assessment for the student doghouse research report using a free online rubric such as Quick Rubric. (You are leaving a secure site – not responsible for content)

Doghouse Design Lesson Plan

The doghouse design lesson was a part of our Iditarod-themed holiday class party this year.  We made artificial snow out of baking soda and shaving cream and recreated the Iditarod Trail with plastic and Arctic themed toys, toothpicks and marshmallows were used to create bridges over frozen lakes, Christmas photo ornaments were placed on homemade sleds, and instead of Elf on a Shelf we invented Hide the Husky.  Our party was complete with musher hot chocolate, “paw”-tato chips, and “Go fetch!” pretzel sticks.  The holidays are a great time to enjoy some Iditarod-themed games, and learn a lot about the life of a musher as well.

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View a video interview on Iditarod Insider with Matt at this link.

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Want to know more about Matt Failor and the other 2016 Iditarod mushers and their teams?  The name says it all.  The ULTIMATE INSIDER ultimate-school-300x300gets access to everything!  All of the benefits of the INSIDER VIDEO combined with the ability to “Track the Pack” with the GPS INSIDER!  Access to all of the commercial-free video.  Spotlight up to 5 of your favorite mushers and receive email alerts when they enter and leave a checkpoint.


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Join “Team Texas” at the Winter Conference!

The 2016 Winter Conference for Educators is an amazing week for educators around the country to come together and learn best teaching practices surrounding the theme of the Iditarod.  Check out the Iditarod site for more information about this unique professional development opportunity.

I will be joined this year by a few talented teachers from my school, Eanes Elementary, here in Austin, Texas.  We will be sharing STEM and STEAM hands-on lessons based upon the Iditarod theme with conference attendees.  We hope to see you there!