Friday, October 28, 2011
To say that they were lined up like good little soldiers would have been the joke of the day. Here they were, in front of me, on a string of ten dogs not even close to being ready to go out for a run. We had been trying to leave the trailhead for the better part of ten minutes but when you got “snot nose” beginners that don’t have a clue as to what to do well… let’s just say that things weren’t going according to plan.
While my main leader and cool dude, “JR” and his sidekick, “Nikita” were trying to hold the gangline straight and tight, I had four young rookies matched up side by side with members of the “Old Guard”. These now semi-retired dogs standing one behind the other on the left hand side had been through this hook-up routine on countless occasions and knew what the protocol was. It was simple. The boss wanted them to stand still and conserve energy till it was time to launch out. This wasn’t much to ask for but like everything else, it was something that had to be taught and eventually learnt. So for now, here we were dealing with a bunch of excited and playful yearlings doing anything but co-operate. They were jumping around, biting and teasing the neighbor and getting all tangled up. You know it’s going to be a long day when most of the team is facing north and you have two yard birds, straddled on top of another dog, harnesses over their heads, facing backwards and in a southerly direction.
One specific dog, “Orka”, my young sweetheart of a beige Siberian husky, had recently discovered the art of severing a neckline. It was a nasty habit and one that would have to be dealt with, “pronto”. It would be a delicate process as she was a good little puller and one did not want to break her spirit. So on the first outing, we tried the positive feedback approach but this met with negative results. You can’t really reward a dog for doing something bad. For some reason, as “Spock” would say, “It’s not logical”. On the second outing, the old “Tabasco” sauce in the mouth and on the string trick was used but that didn’t work either. She just licked her chops, looked up as to literally say, “Have you got more?” There was a third option contemplated and this was to put a muzzle on her and take it off somewhere down the trail but that was not a permanent solution. She had to learn and I would suggest, she would have to learn the hard way.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m right there in front of the line when it comes for being against cruelty to animals but one must also keep in mind that when you increase the numbers of dogs in the household past two individuals, the chemistry amongst them changes. All of a sudden, their primal instinct kicks in and it is a competition as to who will be the “Leader of the Pack”. If you want to keep a certain control over your dogs, you must not think that you are but must act as the “Alpha Dominant” and establish your authority. You have to be able to put to the side this “human/canine living in harmony” crap and think in their terms.
In their own little “dog world”, they live in a well disciplined structure with a complex hierarchy. This is necessary as it assures good order within the clan. Starting soon after birth, the bitch will snap at her puppy when this one is being a nuisance. The “Omega” individual is to allow everyone else to eat before him. If he decides to venture and visit someone else’s dish before it’s time, he will be punished for his lack of table manners. The females will only entertain being sniffed by the strongest males and will chase any other wimpy prospects away. If this last one doesn’t get the message, she will bite at him like there is no tomorrow. So to make short of these dynamics within the pack, they administer and associate pain with something that they should not do.
“Oh, Oh!” “Vixen” said to her partner for the day, “Summer”. “I think the musher is not too impressed.”
“Well what do expect,” “Maggie” replied. “Here we are ready to go and you have “Orka” tasting the “neckline.”
That particular morning, she had chewed through three of them in a matter of five minutes and the musher was way beyond not impressed. He was “pissed”. However, in the poor little girl’s defense, it wasn’t really her fault. She had previously been raised as a house pet and was taught to play “tug” with a nylon rope toy. So by now, you’re getting a clearer picture. She didn’t know the difference between the play toy and the gangline. All she knew was that thing in front of her had the same taste/texture and offered pulling resistance. So, being in a playful mood, as long as the musher was going to dangle that thing in front of her, she would grab it and pull. Of course, the neckline @ 1/4 inch thick was nothing to chew through when compared to the play toy which is basically an inch thick piece of rope. She did not understand the concept of leaving them alone so would have to be punished using a correction. In the sleddog environment, “Chewing necklines” is a serious flaw that can bring you heartaches on the trail. The situation might arise where you are left out there stranded because half your team has taken off on account that you have a dog that has decided to snack on the gangline. So as painful as it was to receive, as painful as it was to administer. Like I said, I don’t like correcting my dogs with negative methods but sometimes, you got to do what you got to do.
I grabbed the yearling by the nose and with one of the severed neckline in my hand, I whacked her with the snap across the bridge of her nose. This was not be a bone breaking exercise but one that would inflict enough pain for her to take notice that this was not a good experience. I again repeated the process then tapped her with the same brass item on the nose a few times, shaking her head vigorously and growling at her with a more than stern “No”. She understood that she had done a bad thing as I could easily tell this by the sad look she was giving me. I re-introduced a complete neckline to her and from her reaction, I knew I had gotten through. She shied away from it by turning her head sideways. I really felt bad about disciplining her especially when she looked up at me with her ears flopped back but it was one of those unfortunate things that needed to happen.
“Jeez!” Kameo piped up looking at the “Kid”, her partner that was towering over her, “What’s his problem?”
She wasn’t the only one to wonder about that, that morning as they were watching him have a “hissy fit”. The yearlings didn’t have a clue as to what he was saying but one thing was for sure, right now was a good time to start thinking about behaving. Walking down the line, the boss was pointing and screaming at them to sit. This was something they understood and this was something they would do. Right now was not a good time to further test the water.
“Vince,” his father, “Jacko” told him, “keep your mouth shut and don’t get involved. Save your energy and concentrate on your job. This “wheel position” is probably the hardest position on the team. You are asked to follow the faster dogs while making sure that you supply the extra effort to pull the load. On top of that, you must ensure that when you go around a corner, you guide the sled away from it so to make it around the bend. Otherwise, we end up being slapped in the face by branches.”
“Jacko” aka “the psycho” was a very colorful character. A tall and all white, broad shouldered Snowhound, he had these piercing ice blue eyes that gave the sensation that he could be dangerous but this was not the case. He was a strong silent type but with maybe a couple of serious behavior issues. While he was ever so cool with the ladies, he would never miss the occasion to let the other males in the pack know where he stood. He was not the type to start fights but he sure as hell had finished more than a few. Any other male that would walk around and even show the slightest sign of aggression, would fair game. He would explode into action and state his case. It was in his nature and the musher was aware of this. So to keep peace in the valley, he would shuffle things around so that everybody could be accommodated. So far, we’re painting a pretty bleak picture of the dog and some of us are probably wondering, “Why keep such a beast around?” Well, let’s just say that his great qualities outweigh his faults.
He is a hard worker that doesn’t know what the word “quit” means. He knows his job thoroughly and is one of the most loyal athletes, in the barn. In a bush context where he would be part of an actual “Wolf Pack”, he would be the one that protects the weaker members of the family while providing them with food. Out of all the dogs, he would be the one that would survive in the wild. He can hunt and this can be attested by the number of dead cats and skunks that he has brought to my feet over the last few years. He is a good teacher to the young ones as I have seen him show the puppies how to scavenge the river bank for dead fish and how to encircle a prey and kill it. With my own two eyes, I’ve seen the young ones chase a mallard duck off the pond in “Jacko’s” direction where he jumped six feet in the air to catch it in mid-flight. What was amazing about this incident was that he brought it back to the pups and allowed them to taste their trophy. He shows real parental qualities towards his off springs that he sired with “Alaska” and has for reasons only known to him, taken a special shine to “Vince”.
He had witnessed the fight between the “Kid” and his son that day. This had not impressed him and while waiting for the musher to sort things out, would provide “Vince” with the following advice. “When in harness, my son, work hard like there’s no tomorrow. This is where you’ll become strong. With a few muscles added to that frame of yours, eventually nobody will kick sand in your face.”
Vince had understood the message as stated by his father and the rest of the yearlings had caught on as to what the musher was saying. For the first time, there was a sense of command and control amongst the team.
The musher jumped on the ATV and like a quarterback calling a play, shouted “READY!!!”. The “Old Guard” knew what was coming and started to bang in their harnesses. Seeing this, the young ones joined in and started doing the same. This was always a tense moment as the dogs were digging in their heels in and actually moving the 350 lbs vehicle forward. Making sure one last time that there were no tangles, the musher called the next order of business. “Uptrail”, he said and like a speeding train leaving the station, they were off.
Seeing the inexperienced yearlings match the mature dogs stride for stride and actually pull, brought a sense of relief and a smile to the musher’s face. He still felt shitty about losing his temper towards the young dogs but to see them work told him that he had been forgiven. “I might be back in their good grace,” he said to himself but “Gino” you’re going to have be patient with these new prospects. Look at them. They’re doing this to please you and a bowl full of food at the end of the day. Remember how goofy the “Baisley Mob” was when they started… Yeah, they also had their moments, I guess… = -)
To be continued…