Well to see him run, matching the other dogs stride for stride made me a happy camper. It had been next to a week since we had moved to the flat terrains of the “Trans-Canada” trail and I was quite impressed to see that I had such a place to train literally in my own front yard. I knew of its existence as it’s situated right across on the other side the river in front of “Baisley Lodges”. Since its inauguration in the early 90’s, I had seen thousands of cyclists and pedestrians use it during the summer months but had never vested any interest in it. Looking for a possible place to compliment the training, I contacted the proper authorities so to see what would be the protocol to follow if I wanted to run my dogs on the bicycle path. I was quite surprised when I was informed that they did not see any inconveniences in me using it. The dogs were technically on leashes and were under control, weren’t they? “Of course they are.” I told the person at the other end of the line and rolling my eyes and thinking “Yeah right!” “Then there would be no problems using it” she had concluded. Besides, as of the 15 Oct of each year, it changed vocation and was designated as a snowmobile trail. Considering that these machines ran on snow, this gave me a window of opportunity of nearly two months where I could use it under safe and secure conditions.
So here we were running flat out at a speed of 20 mph. Usually, they would take off fast and furious but would settle down to a fast trotting pace within a couple of miles but this morning I had not held them back and thought I’d check what I had “under the hood”. The team was right into running on this old defunct train track referred to in its “Hey Days” as the Temiscouata Line and was firing on all “six cylinders”. Instead of holding them back, I let my two leaders take it upon themselves to decide when to slow down. We were at the Edmundston Airport, called that because the runway is paved otherwise it would for sure be called an air “field”, about five miles out, where I took command over the team. I slowed them to that fast trotting cadence, the one that I considered would be the pace I would run in Fort Kent and tried to hold them back at that speed. For some reason, “JR” and “Oumak” had other plans. I had noticed in the last month that these two were battling it out as to see who would be “top dog” on the team. It made for an interesting ride every time we went out but they were wasting valuable energy constantly trying to outdo each other. “JR” understood the concept of running at an easier pace but “Oumak” was a dog that had been raised with very limited social skills. He basically only knew four basic things. Eat, sleep, shit and run. However, when it came to the latter, running was one thing that he did well. It hadn’t taken him too long to get fit and now here I was faced with the reality of what a “racing dog” was all about. He had come out of his shell and consequently, I was dealing with something that I had very little control over. He had but one gear and that was “full speed and all out”. Maybe that’s what his previous owner asked of him but this did not sit well with me. He would have to learn to listen to what was asked of him. No wonder he would crash and burn at every race he had participated in. He simply had never been taught what pacing himself was all about. Add that to his being too skinny and this was to be a second flaw I had discovered but like the first one, with a bit of patience this could be curbed if not cured. As for the third bad habit well, let me tell you, this was something else. How can you describe it other than saying, “What an awful screeching sound and will it ever end.” Yeah, Sylvain had been honest when he said that this dog didn’t bark but had casually forgotten to mention that “Oumak” was quite vocal and this in a manner that is hard to describe. Let’s say that it’s a combination of a squealing pig and running your fingers on a blackboard. The shriek that comes out of that animal is so awful and loud that even my neighbors that live in the next valley wonder “what the hell that noise is.” And yes he never misses the occasion to say his piece whether it’s time to be fed, to go training or go back to the barn. Heaven forbid if I’m walking in the vicinity of the dog yard and I don’t go scratch his ears. He gets going and the rest of the dogs join the concert. But, it’s OK. He’s got this smile that’s worth a million bucks and an affectionate attitude that’s so enjoyable that you can’t get mad at him. So like I said, with a bit of patience, we would come to a mutual point where some level of comfort would be found. I wasn’t too crazy about his “let’s get this show on the road” screeching buffooneries every time I’d hitch them up. His overzealous cheerleading was too much for the moral of the “troops”. It motivated the yearlings to follow his example and they caused mischief. “Jacko” had all of a sudden figured that this was an acceptable behavior and started to jump around and join in the barking. “Sox” for his part, was soon to discover that “Tabasco Sauce” was not necessarily for cooking “Mexican Food”. For some strange reason, he had quit cutting necklines as fast as he had started chewing them. The present smell of it on his neckline was a guaranteed reminder of what it tasted like and he was avoiding having anything to do with it. These were for now my “Pet Peeves” but were little things that would be tweaked when adjusting this fine tuned machine.
However for today I was letting them “run their own race at their own pace”. By now, I would have thought that they would have slowed down but at the 10 mile mark, my two leaders were still at it, challenging each other. To see the entire team perform at such a peak level, left me agreeably surprised and happy that I had spent the previous month, “Mountain Training”. It had been most beneficial and this point was only brought further home when you saw “Irving” run. “Yes Gino” I said, smiling to myself, “look at him, he’s actually running”. You have to understand. This guy was a good team dog but had always been a “trotter”. Whether this was because he was “bow legged” or because he had been previously mistreated by his previous six owners, yes count them “six owners”, he had never really known till now what running was all about. I guess when you’re stuck at the end of a three foot chain for the better part of your first three years of existence, well let’s just say that this does not exactly cut it as a place to learn such a thing… Seeing him there enjoying himself, keeping pace with the other dogs and constantly pulling hard, brought a tear to my eye and a real sense of satisfaction. “Good Boy, Irving” I reassured him, knowing quite well that he had come a long way since his adoption, last January. Recalling what he looked like when Gaétan dropped him off that afternoon was a strong reminder that these animals appreciate a bit of tender loving care and need a sense of belonging. He had come a long way from being an underfed, flee bitten, full of worms, depressed individual to what I was seeing here today. He was full of confidence and was giving his best as if he was thanking me for taking a chance on him. “Yeah, Good Boy Irving” I confirmed.
While slowing the team through a cool down period and taking this moment to congratulate each and every member for their efforts, I was thinking of how I was more than pleased of what I was seeing. Not only had we discovered a very promising area for distance training, the “A” Team was looking good and without going too far on a limb, they might have a real chance at this CAN-AM deal. But I didn’t want to get too much ahead of myself as I knew from one particular bad experience that we still had a long way to go before the dogs developed the stamina to run 30 miles. Any dog could run 12 mile stretches but when you reached those “20 mile” outings, this is where you separated the men from the boys. At that stage, it became more of a mental thing than anything else for the dogs and regardless how strong they were physically, they needed that state of mind where they could focus and stay motivated passed the pain and boredom. Running these flats tied to a motorless ATV and constantly working in harness, pulling close to 400 lbs, might be just what the “doctor ordered” and might just build up this necessary “endurance phase”. Now if only the weather would cooperate. This time of the year was always unpredictable. The rain and snow, the plus and minus temperatures were all unpleasant factors that we would have to deal with and this till the snow really settled in for good.
Meanwhile during all this time, the girls themselves were not appreciating this segregation and were getting pretty impatient with me. To prove that they could be contenders, they worked just as hard and were showing me during their “8 mile” runs that they were no “slouches” themselves. This point was brought home when one morning “Sox” came back from “horse playing” with “Gidget”, limping on three legs and walking with his left front paw in the air. Struck with another moment of panic, especially when I saw his wrist swell up instantly, I decided to sideline him again for a couple days and hoped for the best. I hitched up “Vixen” with the boys and took her out on this “12 miler”. I didn’t know if it was the excitement of being with them or she was a “dog on a mission” but she performed just as well as any member of the “A” Team. When we got back from that particular run that day, she looked so happy and proud that I didn’t have the heart to tell her that this was just a temporary appointment. Scratching her head and ears, I knew quite well that she was a good runner and could go on any “30 mile” stint but not in this six dog configuration.
So the month of November went by and this without us noticing. Here we were with an accumulation of 317 miles under our belt and waiting for December and the real first snowfall to arrive. As it turns out, “Sox’s” wrist was nothing to really worry about and I can’t figure out what happened to the swelling. He was back in full form the next day as if nothing had happened. As for “Alaska”, she participated in all the autumn training, right till one week before “due date”. All that weight she had lost was now being replaced with babies growing in her. Her pregnancy had not been noticed till then and apparently from what I had read, all the exercise was good for her. But by now, she was all swollen up and her hormones were way out of whack. Instead of being her usual self, a quiet reserved dog, she was now a snarly aggressive bitch that did not tolerate any other female within a 50 foot radius. All the girls respected her space except for “Gidget”. She enjoyed teasing the older girl and would risk getting bitten and run through “Alaska’s” post and chain area, getting her all riled up. Quite the little clown that “Gidget” is turning out to be.
During all this time, I was busy putting up the extension at the barn and on the 30th November, it was complete, except for a paint job and the Christmas Tree. I moved “Maggie”, “Oumak” and “Alaska” and immediately they settled in right into their very own “Log Cabins”. Looking at them, lying there, with just their nose sticking out, I knew they would enjoy their cozy quarters especially during those cold winter nights. For some particular reason, I knew that “Oumak” would appreciate the effort even more. We had spent a lot of “one on one” time together during November and since his moving in there, we continued practicing and he had learned to “Stay”, a major accomplishment considering what I had to work with a couple of months ago. Not only was he doing it in his kennel but he was now actually doing it while holding the line with “JR” when I hitched the team up. What surprised me even more is that the day he moved in, it was as if he knew that these accommodations were his permanent home. Never again, did he crap on the floor or piss on the walls. All of a sudden, he had settled down into a mature individual and a definate candidate for the “Sled Dog of the Year” award. Go figure. As for “Alaska”, it didn’t take long for her to give her stamp of approval as she rearranged the wood shavings around so to prepare for the new arrivals.
While walking away from the “Bunkhouse”, late on 03 Dec 08, I heard some strange not normal howling sounds coming from the barn. Usually when the “Kid” starts his evening concerts, all the rest of the pack joins in but not tonight. It was a single voice and it was simple to conclude that “Alaska” was going through labor pains. Yes, it was happening and here she was cursing “Jacko” for the agony she was going through. It took a lot of restraint from my part not to head to her side and see what was going on. However, a friend of mine had brought me a few books on canine breeding and I had spent many evenings reading on the subject matter. The four different books all said the same thing. Leave the mother alone and let nature take its course. On that note, I wished her luck and headed home but instead of going to bed and falling asleep right away, I tossed and turned all night, wondering how she was making out and hoping that she was OK.
The next morning, safe to say that my first destination was straight to the barn. The atmosphere in the building was definitely different that day. The dogs weren’t barking excitedly like usual but rather were looking at me as to say, “Stay quiet, we’ve got new babies in the house”. I tried to quietly sneak up on the new mother and while doing so, I could hear these little “peep peep” sounds coming from the area of her dog house. When I carefully opened the door to her kennel area, all I could see was “Alaska” busy licking her new arrivals clean. I sat on the floor and just observed, amazed at the sight of this miracle. She looked at me and her glowing face confirmed that she had been successful with this endeavor. I couldn’t see how many or what color they were and surprisingly enough, I didn’t care. Mother and newborns seemed to be doing fine and that’s all that mattered. These details would be revealed to me at a later date. For now, I would let her rest. I discreetly got up, congratulated “my girl” and went to get my day started. It was still dark and I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet. Oh I knew that this silly game I was playing, meant a lot more to me than to anybody else but here we were, in the presence of a new generation of “Canadian Snow Hounds”. “Leonard”, I said, looking at the star filled sky, the “Spirit Dogs” will live on.
Later folks, got to go and feed the dogs. It’s been a couple of days and hopefully I’ll be able see the “new kids”. More to follow…