Saturday, December 02, 2006

On Dogs

Rural Alaska is a great place for dog people. Most families have one or more dogs as pets, some who live in the house and some who live outside. People tend to include their dogs in their daily lives. Dutch and I have two dogs living in the house; Henry and Betty have four; Trevor and Andrea have two. When we all have dinner together at Henry and Betty’s, there are eight dogs lying around the living room and all is quite congenial.

The dogs are personalities in our lives as much as the people are. Betty says with a laugh that nowhere else do people energetically discuss whether you’ve “met” someone’s new dog yet. Our dogs say a lot about who we are, and our interactions with them reveal aspects about ourselves that are not necessarily evident in our human-human interactions.

I absolutely love dogs. They are truly amazing creatures, loyal, devoted, dedicated, hardworking,
and endlessly forgiving. The very best person I can be is the person my dog thinks I am; who could not benefit from such a mirror in their lives?

I was late in coming to recognize myself as a Dog Person. We had family dogs throughout my childhood—two standard Schnauzers, a Doberman pinscher, a standard poodle—but they all ended up being, really, my mother’s dogs. She was home with them all day and they related to her. I did not acquire my very own dog until my early forties; prior to that, I considered myself a Cat Person, and had as many as six cats at any one time.

The first dog to be truly all mine was Pepper. She was one of an undesired litter listed in the paper as “free to good home”. It was early in 1994 and she was 10 weeks old. She was described as a black lab/husky mix, but that was smoke and mirrors to dispose of the litter. Her mother was a black dog that looked way more Irish setter than Labrador retriever; supposedly she was seen coupled (tied) with a husky male, but in all likelihood he was not the only father of that litter.

Pepper grew to be a medium-sized dog weighing about 35 pounds. She is smart and a little stubborn (some say not unlike her owner). She was tw
o years old when I moved to Spokane, and I enrolled us both in obedience classes and then in agility classes with the Spokane Dog Training Club. She excelled at both, and earned the Canine Good Citizen award.

She loved agility training. Agility is a competitive sport for dogs, and is a lot of fun to watch and to participate in. It is a timed event in which a dog must run an obstacle course with a wide variety of challenges—jump a series of fences, crawl over an A-frame, jump through a tire, run through a blind tunnel, snake through a series of weave poles, cross a tall narrow bridge, sit or lie on a table until commanded to continue, walk up a teeter-totter until the up side comes down and then walk off without jumping off.
The handler runs through the course with the dog, giving directions and encouragement at every obstacle. It requires obedience, attention, and athleticism on the dog’s part, and a fair amount of endurance on the handler’s part. A well-trained agility dog with a good handler is great fun to watch perform.

Pepper was just reaching the competitive level in agility when I left Spokane in 1998, and that ended her training. Bethel doesn’t have a dog training club, obedience classes, or agility courses. I tried her in harness when we moved here, to see if she had any sled dog genes buried deep somewhere, but she wasn’t interested. She behaved well on the gangline and ran with the team without tripping up, getting dragged, or causing problems; but she never pulled, she just ran al
ong. Her tug line was totally slack.

She is now thirteen years old (75 in human years) and still very fit and active. She jumps into and out of the back of the pick-up truck without help, and loves to go for a run across the tundra. Her hearing is not as good as it once was, and she is starting to develop some cataracts, but she is quite lively and I hope to have her in my life for at least another five years. Actually, ten, but that is probably pushing it.

And then came Bear. He was special from the very start. In the fall of 2001 I bought three sled dogs from the same village musher I had purchased six dogs from the previous year. That made nine village sled dogs plus the beautiful young female I acquired from Susan Butcher who had just delivered a litter of six puppies. Sixteen sled dogs total.

Bear’s mother was Brownie, one of the three new village dogs. She was a good sturdy sled dog, not a leader but a strong team dog. About six weeks after her arrival I left for a two-week vacation. When I returned, the young man taking care of the dog yard said “Hey, you got a puppy in that dog’s house over there.”

Say what? A puppy? One? Yep. Unbeknownst to the musher who sold her to me, Brownie had been pregnant when she arrived from the village; her litter consisted of a single, gigantic puppy. His eyes were just opening, putting his age right about ten days; he must have been born on Halloween (as it was then November 9th), which has always seemed appropriate for him.

Right from the start, he was the darling of the dog yard. He lived with his mother in her dog house and for several weeks he just got bigger and bigger. He had eight faucets for suckling and no litter-mate competition. He was nearly six weeks old before his legs got long enough to lift his fat belly off the ground.

He had free run of the dog yard and was coddled by all his aunties and uncles. He slept in their houses, ate from their food bowls, chased their tails and chewed their bones. Nobody minded. He was the happiest little puppy in the world, and with tongue lolling had a perpetual grin on his furry face.

He was put into harness at six months of age, along with the puppies of the Butcher dynasty, but apparently he decided early on that he was not meant for a life of work. He not only would not pull, he simply lay down and allowed the team to drag him. He looks like a sled dog, but he is actually just a Pretty Boy. When he and his mother could no longer fit in the same house, he moved inside with me and claimed a toasty sleeping spot next to the stove, officially cementing his status as a
house dog.

Bear has always been friendly, but he never bonded with anyone until he met Dutch. He was nearly three years old (that would be 25 in human years) when Dutch moved to Alaska to live with us, and it was apparent right away that Bear had claimed Dutch as his chosen master. He prefers to be at Dutch’s side at all times, follows him from room to room, and lies in wait by the front door if Dutch leaves the house. They make a handsome team, two big strong males with warm, loving hearts. I am doubly blessed to be loved by them both.

Bear is now five years old, and in his prime. His weight is ideal at 65 pounds; his ribs and hip bones are easy to palpate. He is a very nimble dog for his size, and can jump over the truck’s closed tailgate from a standing position. His long legs make him an incredibly fast sprinter and he is pure joy in motion to watch running.

Companion dogs have become an integral part of my life, and one that I will never again be without. I still love cats, and birds and turtles and snakes and hamsters and all the other creatures people call “pets”. But for me, dogs are essential, the rest are not.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this post.

I have two dogs that add up to 150lbs, and caring for them in the middle of the city takes a lot of work. But it's worth it.

Only another 6 months until I'm moving north... and start trying to convince my husband that we need another dog!

Sunday, December 03, 2006 4:44:00 AM  
Blogger Mother Jones RN said...

I'd rather spend my time with dogs than with most people that I know. Dogs just want to love us, no
matter what.


Sunday, December 03, 2006 8:45:00 AM  
Blogger always learning said...

Great character sketches of your dogs :) Dogs are wonderful. Can you think of any other living being that is always happy to see you? :)

It's a pity that so many places have leash laws that don't allow dogs to run free... instead, they're supposed to use up their energy in "dog parks," which are these tiny pieces of grass-less land...

Pepper sounds really healthy for an older dog. Any tricks to keep them healthy? We've got a 3 year old retriever/sheperd mix that we love to bits, and want to keep her healthy for as long as we can! :)

Sunday, December 03, 2006 2:31:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

couz--thanks for visiting. 150 pounds is a lot of dog; I hope you end up in a nice spot for them when you move north.

mj--me too. The more people I meet, the more I like my dog(s).

always learning--thanks! Pepper is really healthy for an older dog. In general, the larger the breed, the shorter the lifespan. Great Danes are old at 8 yrs; labs and golden retrievers are old at 12 yrs; the tiny breeds often live to 15 or more. I think the single most important thing you can do to keep your dog healthy throughout life is to keep them from being overweight. You should easily feel the washboard surface of the dogs ribs just behind the front legs; and the hip bones should be easy to find just forward of the tail. Many people feed their house dogs waaaaaaay too much food, often just leaving it always available for the dog to eat at will. Bad idea.

Good luck with your retriever/shepard; I hope she lives a long and healthy life.

Sunday, December 03, 2006 3:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was never without a dog when I grew up; in adult life, for some reason it never was quite the right circumstance, and I've always missed having one. Now my son has a chocolate lab, arrived at age 8 weeks, now about a year. Great dog. Everything that moves is a friend, everything that doesn't is a meal. Your post was perfect. (I won't mention the dog's name, Dutch. Don't want to cause anger. But, y'know: dutch chocolate....)

Sunday, December 03, 2006 7:36:00 PM  
Anonymous wolfbaby said...

Dogs have tons of character, I have been fortunate enough to have dogs in my life from the very begining;) Now we have a black lab who is the gentelst critter known to man kind and the most loving, she is totally a lap dog even though I keep trying to tell her she's not small enough;) and we also have a little rat terrior, she is a total stinker LOL. I once had a mutt who is you might say the one dog who has been with me the longest and was my first dog. She lived to be about 16yrs old. I have never cried so hard as the day she died. They are wonderful to have as friends.

Monday, December 04, 2006 4:21:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Sid--labs are such great dogs. Black, chocolate or yellow, they have wondeful spirits. Calm (as adults, after about 4 years), smart and dedicated. Dutch doesn't mind sharing his name with a good dog, and it sounds perfect for a chocolate lab.

wolfbaby--yeah, they are just the best! I can't even begin to think of how I will deal with Pepper's passing, when it comes. I'm sure there will be many tears. Hopefully not for a few years yet. Bear often thinks he is a lap dog and loves to sit on me when he can; 65 pounds is a lot of lap-dog! I know exactly what you mean.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006 6:39:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Count me among the converted cat lovers. Used to think their aloofness was cool, now I find I much prefer unconditional enthusiastic affection.

Friday, December 08, 2006 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Justin said...

hey, its nice that you love dogs like us! And hey, just check this post on labrador.. I hope u'll like it..

Wednesday, December 13, 2006 2:28:00 AM  

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