Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bootstrap the Thief

Before we had Bootstrap we were always losing and misplacing stuff. Since Bootstrap has come into our lives we are still messy and absent minded enough to misplace things daily. Before Bootstrap, the eyeglasses, tuners, wallets, checkbooks, shoes, dustpans, game controllers, and cell phones that we distractedly searched for, were always, without fail, to be found where we left them. Since we’ve had Bootstrap, all bets are off as to where we will find our stuff; though the backyard, rain, hail, sleet or shine, is always a good place to start.

There is always so much to keep track of and so much to lose. I have a beat up 100 year old house that will hopefully outlive me and the havoc my dirty dog life has wreaked within it’s walls. I have two almost grown children that have their own trails to break. I still have my husband, barely. I have good Sister, old and happy, with less of her life left to lose than the rest of them. I have Atka, his wishful loyalty and history yet to be told, still a powerful presence in my life and dog yard. I have his always undervalued and diligent half sister, Lia and his hopelessly sweet and willing daughter, Aura. I have beautiful Bootstrap, goofy and wild. I have a garage full of stuff: dogsleds, training rigs, crates and scooters. I have my truck, built special to house the dogs on our journeys. I have my health more or less, what’s left of my mind and my time and patience to play with it all. I have my mother who tries too hard and four younger brothers with their own inventories of hope and loss. I have friends and fellow travelers in my world of obsessive dog training. There is a lot to lose.

The smaller stuff is almost hopeless to keep track of. My own ability to forget, lose and misplace life’s little details is legendary among my friends and family. It’s hard to say just how I came by the almost witchlike ability to make things disappear. My own mother is not forgetful and her mother daily did newspaper puzzles to make sure her mind was sharp up until nearly her 100th year. I have never been able to muster the patience or concentration to complete a newspaper puzzle. My father was astute and careful, raised firmly with the knowledge that the consequences of forgetfulness can be costly. Possibly, my mother has a sister that shares some of my talent for losing and forgetting things. She and I share the trait of walking toed out like a couple of Penguins too, so perhaps we share other dubious disabilities as well.

My Aunt’s most famous act of forgetfulness was leaving her youngest daughter at home in the crib as the family left for vacation, “Home Alone” style. I have left at least one dog at the training center and not been aware of this until I arrived home and couldn’t find him at dinner time. I rarely misplace children at home, but I did lose my youngest in the woods several times. I am still not sure whether that marks my own ability to lose and forget or the possibility of having passed it down yet one more generation.

Unfortunately my husband, George, is not tremendously better. A day does not often go by without,”Raaaaaiiiiiiiiisa!” “What is it?!” I generally shout back from elsewhere in our small house. “Have you seen my tuner?” he implores, an edge of impatient irritation in his voice. I have come closer to where he is at, which is by the desk near the computer, frantically scuffling through piles of old papers and bills. Old junk that was already in a state of semi disarray is now being completely rearranged again. “Did you see it when you cleaned up?” he asks, almost accusingly. I wrack my foggy brain for memory of the last time I picked up anywhere close to where he might have been with his tuner and can’t make any hits. I am also trying to recall exactly what the tuner looks like. I’ve seen it lots of times, but it doesn’t rivet my attention when I do and it looks a lot like a half dozen other remote control devices that populate the two cluttered downstairs rooms of my house. It’s black and rectangular and flat with buttons on it.

Wanting to get out of it, but knowing I am now fated to search for the tuner, I say, “I haven’t seen it,” because unless it is lying on top of all the junk on the computer table, which it isn’t today, I never do unless he’s using it. Then, he pops” THE QUESTION.” It goes something like this: “Did THE DOG take it??!!” In the two decades since George and I have been married we have had 8 different dogs and 2 children. George has had a number of tuners. During the years when the children were toddlers he never asked, “Did THE BABY take it.” Not once. Never. I, of course, am always a potential culprit, supposedly having removed whatever he is looking for in a “cleaning frenzy”. Anyone who has ever been to our home can attest to the ridiculousness of that idea. It was surely me or THE DOG, and until we had Bootstrap, for twenty years of losing tuners and all manner of stuff, THE DOG never took it.

That fact, that the dog NEVER took it, not once, never in 7000 days time, has never prevented George from broaching the possibility, “Did A DOG take it?!” If we have five current dogs, and he loses something almost every day; to be fair we’ll say five times a week, even if this has been just for the last four years since we’ve had four dogs, that alone is over 1000 times he’s asked THE QUESTION. It was as likely that George Clooney had picked up the tuner and walked off with it as one of our dogs. That is, of course, until Bootstrap became part of our household.

Yes, Atka removes dirty dishes from the kitchen sink and slides cutlery under the stove. Yes, Atka has been known to snatch a burger or buttered bagel from the hand of its human counterpart in the time it takes said human to stand up from the table with goodies in hand. He’s bold about these things though, and has never shown even the slightest interest in most of the things we all regularly misplace, from checkbooks to eyeglasses. Yes, almost every pup I’ve had destroys one thing you wish they hadn’t, but it’s mostly things like the kitchen wall, or the car door, not usually objects that move about easily. Yes, though the dozens of baby puppies, before they head to their new homes, have made short work of many a roll of toilet paper or paper towel, have disemboweled a few stuffed toys that were not in the puppy play box, never once in those two decades in a 1000 sq ft house over run with dogs did any dog or puppy EVER take our stuff, the small important things that make the world go round, like car keys, credit cards, and for the kids, game controllers.

Now we have Bootstrap and the rules have changed. I didn’t suspect the rules had changed until one rainy spring evening, just a day or so after the last of Bootstrap’s brothers and sisters had gone to their new homes. Bootstrap was almost three months old. I could not find my checkbook. It is not entirely unusual for me not to be able to find my checkbook. Though some may find this alarming for me, missing things like my checkbook, for a few hours or even a day or two is not a reason for me to panic. I had accomplished the Stage One search of “looking for my checkbook” without it turning up. There was still no cause for alarm. A“Stage One” search involves scouring the computer table, mail cubicles, and kitchen counters with some attention to the bowels of my purse and dog training bag. No checkbook.

I did not even get to my Stage Two search, asking the kids, the husband, and finally digging deep into the crevices in the front of my pick up truck. The later is a task that involves moving everything from gloves, harnesses, hand-warmers, old coffee cups, vet bills, crumpled jackets, hats, and always “Navigator”, the stuffed Coyote that rides shotgun with me everyday, really just other stuff that could get lost anytime. It’s a lucky thing I didn’t get to stage two. If the Stage Two search reveals no result, both Stage One search and Stage Two search need to be repeated before initial panic and Stage Three search begin. It’s fortunate; I had not begun the Stage Two search when I walked into the back yard that rainy spring evening, because it would not have found my checkbook. Since we’ve had Bootstrap, we have additional search Stages added to our household hunts for lost objects.

I don’t recall exactly why I ventured into the yard. It seems that I needed to inspect the dilapidated picnic table that sits just a few feet outside the dog door, off the back porch. The dogs like to jump up on or sleep under the picnic table, but jumping up on it was no longer safe as the boards had come loose, and if one end was jumped on the other would go flying upward. I was headed out to secure the loose end, even if it was only with a couple of fifty pound bags of dirt. As I stepped toward the picnic table, a bit a paper beneath, half buried in wet dirt, caught my eye, none other than my now very soggy and muddy checkbook, devoid of its cover. “THE DOG” took it: Bootstrap.

It had to be Bootstrap. The new kid on the block is certainly guilty without trial as all the others, for years now, Sister for 11 years, Atka for 9, Lia for 7 and Bootstrap’s own mother, Aura, for 3, had shown no interest whatsoever in checkbooks of any kind. Whatever concerns I’ve ever had about the mental stability of family members or myself, none of us was likely to have buried my checkbook under the picnic table. I have to confess now, that I did not share this discovery immediately with my family, but certainly took note that next time George was looking for his tuner, I’d have to take THE QUESTION seriously. Maybe THE DOG did take it. I filed this thought for future use.

Alas, Bootstrap has turned out to be a household kleptomaniac. It seems there are objects he covets, just has to have. We have not had to take Bootstrap to a doggy shrink to determine that the items he covets are always the stuff we seem to value: he steals the stuff we use, that we fuss with. It’s not hard to find one of my high rubber black boots, at least a foot and a half high of hard rubber, in the back yard. The boot is not much worse for the wear either. My dirty rubber dustpan didn’t suffer much for it’s time in our nearly grassless back yard. Not so, for the checkbook, small, muddy and torn, that would likely never have been found had I not coincidentally been headed to where it was buried.

Bootstrap’s kleptomania has added an element of wizardry to our household. I remember in the first Harry Potter book that one of the tricks the wizards play on mere mortals is taking stuff from where they put it, driving people to distraction. Bootstrap is almost in their league. To date, he’s stolen eye glasses cases, credit cards, an assortment of pens, my bathrobe, and innumerable shoes. He’s walked off with game controllers, notebooks, shirts and rolled up socks, one computer mouse and pad, cell phones and mail. He eats mail. If Gideon would leave the door to his room open more often, he would really be able to have the excuse that “THE DOG” ate his homework. Unlike the Harry Potter wizards he has yet to return anything he’s taken. If he does, I will really have a story to tell.

Bootstrap does not really “lose things” though. From his perspective, surely he “finds” them. When taking stock of what we are trying to keep track of these days, what all seems so fragile and likely to slip away anytime, Bootstrap is just keeping his own score. Dogs, or certainly Alaskan Malamutes are primitive creatures. Things found and taken are resources, deemed valuable, as in “he who has the most toys wins” kind of valuable. Bootstrap is not in the game for losing. Though I know that one way or another I will lose him too, someday, I know he is here now to help me find what eludes loss. In the meantime, so long as I can feel that soft head leaning heavy into my chest and see that mischievous look that erupts into a flying fuzz fountain of joy, I’ll keep losing and I’ll keep looking and I’ll keep track of what I can.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Teaching Bootstrap his "Game Face"or How I taught Bootstrap to "down."

It’s all bluff and bluster and I’m really not that good at it. I’ve grown a game face for all things, but my best one is for training dogs. My old voice, I learned, was not what was needed to train my Alaskan Malamute. Without learning that football coach of a voice that bullies cooperation, I think I would have lost the dogs and children I’ve found myself responsible for in the last 20 years. That along with a high pitched pep rally persona has got me through the most of it. It’s a bluff I’ve learned to believe in. It falls apart at the first sight of their souls touching mine.

My first Alaskan malamute, Cody, was not a complex soul at all; at least not according to the trainer I hired to help me with him. I’d hired him because, walking around town visibly pregnant and accompanied by Cody, a 90 lb, not entirely sweet Alaskan malamute, I’d heard every dog eats baby story there was. If I hadn’t seen the writing on the wall when Cody’s breeder whacked a six foot metal pipe on a picnic table as she walked into her dog yard, there was little other hope for me.

The trainer I hired to work with him told me he was “Like a guy in a bar who likes to start fights, enjoys them.” That sort of direct violent encounter is not the way an American Jewish Princess learns to negotiate the wild. Cody and his primitive instincts were foreign to me; I had nothing in my suburban tool box to work with him. He was entirely unlike my first dog, one of those “one size fits all” animals who blended with my life with little official training and no more than the basic effort on my part.

Learning to live with Cody in an urban household with young children taught me the “training game”, the “game face” of calm confidence and the more than occasional “hockey mom” voice I needed to control my dog and my household. I was a slow learner, but in the end learned it well enough to make it a way of life. In my 20 years of training dogs, teaching dog training, and counseling owners with recalcitrant puppies and dogs, some from my own breeding, I’m sure I’ve taught or helped to teach 100’s of dogs and puppies.

Most of them, I can teach to “lie down” in under 3 minutes. I am familiar with the owner in my Beginner class that says “He can sit. He really knows sit. I can never make him ‘down’” They are certain their young dog will never be able to lie down at their feet in a public place. Certainly they have leaping Labradors and solemn Rottweilers, who deign to move in the direction their owners request only with serious altering of their world views. I am way too condescending when I go, take the leash and show them how to get their: Shih Tzu, Great Dane, Pomeranian, German Shepherd, St. Bernard , Pit Bull, Chihuahua or combination of all of the above to lie down, usually in less than 3 minutes. I’d forgotten it was a game, posture, bluff, and one player teaching another “the game.” Thus I was sent Bootstrap.

There is so much to teach young puppies. I love it all. Puppies will not learn well the language of their own species if pulled too soon from the lessons of their pack, especially if they are destined for a home without other dogs, or with dogs that have themselves been pulled early from their nests. That is why, even after the pups had homes to go to, when they were 7 or 8 weeks old, I still had them all and was trying to do some training with them. I wanted them to have the benefit of their relationships with their pack mates during their first weeks. Watching the interactions of my adult pack with the puppies, I am certain that it is good for the pups to stay with me until they are nine or ten weeks old. By the time my pups are starting solid food they are supervised to run loose with all the older dogs.

For Bootstrap and his littermates, this meant they had their great grandmother, Sister, their great aunt Lia, and their grandfather, Atka, to play with and learn from. Their mother, Aura, was much more willing to supervise them when she had back up from no nonsense Lia. Grandpa Atka loved to “show” the pups stuff. He’d start a hole in the yard, all the pups gathered at his haunches. Pups would scatter, dodging his large flying paws hurling chunks of rock and dirt. Their fascination was evident. They’d quickly return to their positions. The bolder ones joined in He’d stop for a moment and wait as pups crawled beneath him to inspect his hole and dig themselves, before resuming his project.

Atka would “rough house” with the pups, allowing them to crawl over his back, and swatting at them playfully as they tumbled over him. Lia was the “play police”. She’d lie beside the action, and if anyone squealed or cried, she’d be on her feet in a heartbeat, inspecting the trouble, nabbing offenders gently with her teeth and pulling them off. For the most part, squabbles were between littermates. Lia would also object if she judged Atka or even Aura as being too rough. Lia was only a mother once, but the best one I’ve had here. Aura and Lia together tried to keep the pups from wandering off, an almost hopeless task. The two of them watched the pups as dogs do sheep, running and nosing them back to where they thought they belonged.

I wanted them to have the benefit of their relationships with their pack mates during their first weeks. Training to live in the human world was my job. I had taught them a “group sit” for their meals. That was a sight, six furry butts sliding on the kitchen floor simultaneously, none staying for even the seconds it took me to put their food dish down. At seven weeks, it was time to take them aside and do some individual work with them. Six pups was not a big litter, but it was big enough, especially if I wanted to do one on one work with the pups, which I did. Training for anything but a mass recall and “sit” for dinner, had to be done on an individual basis, just me and the pup. I knew with absolute certainty that young puppies can be taught to sit and lie down, that young puppies SHOULD be taught to do these things. So I began taking each of Bootstrap’s littermates to my neighbor’s driveway, away from the tumult of my household and their pack, for some training.

Bootstrap was not the first pup I selected for driveway training. First was his sister, Sage. Sage, slightly more solemn than the other pups, was smart, energetic and focused. She was a thinker, a problem solver. She was the first one out of the whelping box, and was using the dog door within seconds of being put in the yard. She was smart. She also had the bad habit, as did some of the other pups of trying to eat every plant in the yard, but that is yet another story. Teaching Sage to “down” was a textbook case.

The pups had all been “leash tested” with the Mel Fishback Lead Dog Training test, just days before our foray into my neighbor’s driveway. This was the only other time they’d had a leash on. Some had done better than others, hence the “test”. Sage had done fairly well, and came along willingly on the light pink nylon leash I have for young puppies. A tiny piece of cheese placed just before her nose and lowered to the concrete driveway just between her forepaws produced the desired result. Sage was lying down. I gave her the piece of cheese, told her she was a “good pup.” We did this a few times. She got it and fast. When I returned Sage to the backyard with her watching pack, we were happy.

Diesel was my next experiment. He was the biggest pup, and most cooperative of the bunch. Diesel would look me directly in the eye and follow me around, something I love in a young pup. He liked to stick his big head in cardboard boxes that had once had food in them. He’d get it stuck there, reminiscent of his mother Aura. He too benefited form my driveway puppy training class.

Puppies are always learning, whatever we do and whatever we don’t do. This little driveway training game meant much more than teaching them to lie down. It was to teach them to work with me as an individual and to learn to learn. It was to teach them that the training game was a special time with me, or their owner to be. I was trying to create pathways for a relationship to develop between species, a working relationship. The beginnings may be small, but they mark the trail to follow. Overall, I believe that we expect far too little of our dogs. Most dogs are not happiest as ornaments and breathing stuffed toys for our daily comfort. Most were bred to work with us and for us. Sage and Diesel had looked right at me. They played my game well. I could forget about my game face. It was Bootstrap’s turn.

I’m ready with my “happy puppy” voice. I believe in it all until Bootstrap’s spinning spirit that slips through my pudgy peasant hands has called my bluff. The neighbor’s driveway, to a six week old pup, is another world after all. There is grass poking out of the cracks in the driveway. There are twigs sprouting behind me from the bushes nest to the house. There are hopping Robins and my neighbor’s cat of nineteen years, who knows when it’s safe to sun himself. Nineteen years, next to a dog yard of Alaskan malamutes, he’s a wise old cat, indeed.

In trying to recall exactly what Bootstrap did, I mostly recall what he did not do: He did not lie down. He also did not sit and look at me at all. He did not do any of those things in our first three minutes in my neighbor’s driveway. He was seven weeks old. Trying to catch his attention for one “a ha” moment was an exercise in catching flitting fireflies, bits of brilliance flying everywhere, but rarely landing

Bootstrap would surely be dead if he were born a wild thing. Hesitation was not his game. Bootstrap springs at this, scraps at that. He pounced at the grass grabbing whatever small stones lay hidden there. Before I could try and distract him from the grass, he leaped at the Robin, barely lighted a few feet away. “Puppy puppy”, I said in a high voice, the voice I use to call the pups to their meals, the football coach version for puppies. He turned briefly, but I wasn’t quick enough. He sprang at the twigs on the bushes behind me, nabbing instead the fuzzy ponytail I have in Spring.

Finally, I take the cheese I brought with me to tempt him to my agenda and put it in front of his nose. I abandon trying to get him to do almost anything first; it’s enough for him to focus on me, to even eat the cheese seems to be enough. These are far lower criteria than I like to use. I want him to at least look in my direction before turning into a cheese and chicken dispenser. After trashing sticks, chasing Robins, and tearing grass, he turns to my sandals. We have certainly been in my neighbor’s driveway for more than five minutes. Bootstrap is not lying down.

On the way to the sandals he grabs the cheese. I jam some more cheese between his nose and my toes. He eats it too fast to grab the millisecond of training opportunity. There is none visible to me. I’ve lost track of the time. It’s hot on this mid-May afternoon. I am not happy. There is plenty to do in my neighbor’s driveway and now there is cheese. Since there is now cheese on my toe that is his next target.

Bootstrap is small enough to grab and hold. I get hold of his little collar. Kneeling on the curb, I place him firmly between my knees. With my palm flat at his side, briefly he is still. He is not lying down, but still enough to catch a brain wave, a first step. I am too slow, though. Producing the chicken or cheese I have in my pocket is my only prayer in getting him to move in the direction I desire, which throws all hope of any training, along with his flying spirit, to the wind. Bootstrap was still not lying down. I had learned one thing.

I learned that in the direct presence of food, Bootstrap had the same ability to think as a shark in a feeding frenzy. I had taken ten minutes to figure that out. I confess to being near tears of frustration. This was MY pup, destined to be a lead dog, I hoped, an agility dog, an obedience dog. He was to collect ribbons and prizes someday for his joyful accomplishment of some silly task on my agenda. Our driveway training session was not encouraging. My best game face and signature puppy training moves had failed me. What was I getting myself into? It wasn’t too late to find another home for him.

Yes, I chose Bootstrap from a litter of six pups with lofty goals in mind. That choice reminds me just how I came to play the games I do with my dogs. When I brought Oreo, my first dog, home from the Humane Society I only wanted a walking companion, to accompany me on long walks around town. We walked miles and miles until one lovely Winter on a German mountain side, I discovered that Oreo could pull me on cross country skis. He loved to pull. In harness, Oreo was no longer an aimless creature. He had purpose and together, before his back legs became partially paralyzed, we glided along hundreds of forest trails. I found dog sledding and ski-joring. I bought my second dog because I loved that experience and wanted another sled dog. Thus I found Cody, an Alaskan Malamute, who would not pull anything if he could help it. Cody was often a nasty piece of work, and with all the training we did just to live in our urban household, we found competition obedience.

Now I have Bootstrap. Bootstrap and I were finished for that afternoon, but we came back the next. Bootstrap was not going to lie down just because I wanted him to. His frenzy for food provided motivation for learning, but if he could learn and think with food in front of him, I hadn’t seen evidence of it yet. Somehow, I had to create a millisecond of time, enough to capture a few fleeting moments between neurons where Bootstrap could figure things out. The words “figure things out” are way too long to describe what has to happen. We needed a blip in time that both of us can grasp together.

A truly wild animal would be more cautious, and I might be able to teach a quiet, watchful creature. Bootstrap is a domestic dog, having abandoned caution towards humans thousands of years ago, thousands of years where food and its significance for his own survival, trumps all. How to stop one buzz of the bee, one beat of the heart, just long enough to get it all in edgewise?

I put my chicken away. With most pups, I lure beginning behaviors like “sit” or “down.” I teach them a word or sound that means they will get some chicken when they hear it. I had always thought of these as first steps, but they were not going to work for Bootstrap.

That afternoon in the driveway was short. I put Bootstrap firmly between my knees again. I turned him towards me and cupped his beautiful head, even then, telltale fuzz growing behind his thick ears, in my palms. One hand I placed quietly and firmly at his side. I have a few lessons with Brenda Aloff to thank for this one; I rubbed him all over. When he was still, I let go. When I gave him some chicken the wild child returned, but paid less attention to the passing butterflies, flitting insects, and falling leaves. I tried a bit to lure him “down”. He wouldn’t go down, but we had something going. He jammed his nose at my smelly hands. I was of slightly more interest than the blowing cottonwood.

By day three, I had already taught Bootstrap’s brother, Indy, and another sister, Deja, to lie down. Maybe Bootstrap was brain damaged from birth. He was the pup that got stuck in the birth canal. He was born into my hands lifeless, until revived by a quick shot they give for that sort of thing. A friend of mine suggested this to me, that these shots cause brain damage. It’s not out of the question, I am thinking on the third day of trying to get Bootstrap to lie down.

Bootstrap, when released to his own resources is wild, but when I take him firmly, I can place his head calmly in the cup of my hands. When restrained quietly, I feel him exhale, and his weight leans easily into my own. When released, he explodes in spinning swirls, only to be caught and calmed again. With one hand under his chin and holding his collar, I take the other that only smells like chicken, no chicken insight, and try to lure him once more to the ground. He is still sitting, then standing. I sit on the neighbors stoop, resume our position, this time his head just before my bent knees on the stoop. He lowers it slightly to get to my smelly fingers. I lower my knees He lowers again, and though he does not touch ground, I tell him what a “good pup” he is and reach in my pocket for some chicken.

We did this two more times and there it was: Bootstrap flat down, chin on the ground! It had taken us three days. That first afternoon, when Bootstrap actually lay down, and even when I got him to do it again a couple of times, I did not see that moment I was looking for, when he “got it”. He did get it. He was going down again and again. He’d had “the moment”, but I’d missed it. I have come to learn that” the” moment for Bootstrap is nearly invisible, or is invisible to me, like the footprints of a spirit. I know someone was there, but they are not seen by me. It’s hard to believe it; three days.

With Bootstrap I’ve had to find not the familiar old football coach, or cheerleader, but a laughing wizard, a spirit of sprites. Yes, there is a kind of formula for training dogs, but you can’t start the game until you’ve got the password, the magic word, the link. It’s a beam, narrower than a ray of light, invisible to the eye. While with Malamutes and many dogs, you can lure and cajole cooperation, all it did when trying to work with Bootstrap was to break the connection of that fragile beam.

On days when my game face makes me tired and I wonder why I need it at all, I remember that if I don’t dump my own soul into “the game” with unbridled enthusiasm, my teammates or my opponents will call my bluff. Those best at calling it are the spirits closest to our own. I have my own squirrely screw loose gene, I’m certain. As a young woman I remember dancing all night in nothing but a frenzy of too much loose wired energy for anything tame. Then I longed for a calming lover, to take me in his arms, to channel that flame to productive warmth instead of wild fire. Most, I found, tried to catch my spirit as I have Bootstrap’s. There is no holding it, without touching it first. No story can be told, no game can be played when all is loose and erratic. Bootstrap has settled his head in my palm long enough to learn his own “game face.”

Bootstrap, while I can never rely on him for wise action as I can Atka, at least not yet, is the closest I’ve had in my dog yard to one facet of myself. Like me, Bootstrap is foolish and high spirited and with that ridiculous and beautiful coat, impractical. I have taught him what I’ve learned: you need your game face to play with the world. . He is goofy, but he is smart. He has learned it well.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

"On By": The Story of Bootstrap's Second Race

“If he does it again,” Al told me, “put a bullet between his eyes.” He wasn’t kidding. I had come to ask Al’s help in training Bootstrap. Al has been running sled dogs for as long as I’ve been alive, I’m pretty sure. A tall and substantial man, who wore his age well, he was throwing some Siberian Huskies in his dog truck as he was talking to me. “First,” he said, when he does something like that again, you string him up off the ground. Then throw him down hard and make sure he’s got the point.” “I’ve already tried that.” I said. This wasn’t entirely true. I had thrown Bootstrap down, but I’d never “strung him up” first. Maybe it was an important step. Somehow this detail did not seem important in my discussion with Al. “Well, if he does it again, give him a pill.” I have worked with Al as part of the sled dog club for years, but had never specifically asked for his help before. It’s a wonder that I persisted. “If I come up in a couple of weeks when folks are running dogs, will you help me with him?” “Sure,” he said. “I’ll take out a few of my girls. If he looks at em, I’ll hit him with a plastic baseball bat.” Al looked at me, gauging my reaction to his discussion of using a plastic bat on my dog. This sounded like a reasonable plan to me, far better than the “pill” or “bullet” idea, though it is clear there are reasons I am not a card carrying PETA member. I could tell he was sizing me up again: I’m a city girl with a Malamute, a nearly hopeless combination in the eyes of this old timer. I just said, “Ok. I’ll try to make it up next week after the race.”

The weekend after our first race, we traveled to Baldwin Michigan and the Manistee National forest for another go at it. Though I have not run enough trails to truly know, I believe and have heard told that these hilly trails through old and virgin pine forest on the mid-Western shore of Michigan are some of the best anywhere. They may not last the longest into the spring or begin when the leaves are just fallen, but they receive almost daily from December through March a faint sprinkling of light snow off Lake Michigan that makes them deep enough to throw a snow hook, soft enough for safety and hard enough for fun. We love them.

They are good enough trails to attract real talent too. Mushers with bigger teams of ten or more dogs that aspire to the longer races on the UP and elsewhere come to this event, called the Sweetwater Challenge. For these bigger, faster teams, the steep hills and narrow trails do provide a challenge. My team lopes on the average of 6 miles per hour under the best conditions. I am also lucky enough to have found, in the want ads from the Ann Arbor News last year, a BMW of a sled that can take those corners like I know my old economy model sprint sled could not. We have fun out there.

Though we are never truly fast, the day dawns with conditions that will allow us whatever speed we can muster. Temperatures are pre-teen. The deep snow has been groomed and new snow has lightly fallen over the track like icing on a cake. It is perfect. I am not entirely happy though. Memories of Bootstrap’s first race haunt me and I do not want to take him out with all these good teams. Without Bootstrap my team is getting old, reliable more or less, but Bootstrap is a quick flame of the devil’s energy and we are missing something without him. We are a family too, a “pack”. I don’t like leaving anyone behind if I don’t have to. We will miss Bootstrap.

Unhappy about leaving Bootstrap behind I am in the little house talking to some of the other mushers. I can tell that at least a couple of them don’t approve of my decision to leave him. “He’s never going to learn if you don’t take him.” Jim said. “I’ll wait and see how many teams I run into head-on out there today.” I said. If I can manage it maybe I’ll take him tomorrow. I said that, but I didn’t believe it. Bob was silent. I could tell he sided with Jim.

At the “driver’s meeting”, required for all participants before a race, they tell you about the trail. They describe the places where a steep hill will surprise you around a sharp curve, road crossings, porcupine sightings and the like. Everyone with any sense listens carefully. The trail described went East from where I parked my truck to a loop heading south on Rick and Linda’s property and then further East into the Manistee Nat’l forest. It was a five mile loop through steep winding hills, open meadow and some virgin pine that ended up back on Rick and Linda’s for about a quarter mile before heading north through Coyote Pass and onto the west trails. I knew that loop and loved to run it. But before getting to the North trail that led to Coyote pass there was at least a couple of hundred yards of head-on passing. Bootstrap was definitely going to stay in the truck.

There were 18 teams going out and we were number 18. Unlike most sled dog racing events, the teams don’t go out by random draw. Linda tries to figure out who is fastest. They go first. She tries to figure out who is next to the fastest. They go second. It was no accident, that with four Alaskan Malamutes, I was last. There were two other Mal teams out there, but both were bigger, and one had a couple of Alaskans in lead. On the first day, our going out last meant that we ran into at least a half dozen teams coming back on that small bit of head on trail before Coyote Pass. There was, alas, a “new” team as well, a large team of Siberian huskies who did not believe their driver that they should make a “Gee” turn off the trail coming from the East loop onto the one leading to the West Trails. They were intent on going back the way they had come, which was directly at my team going out. This problem was solved by my putting my snow hook in securely, as well as tying off to a tree, getting off my sled and approaching the other driver.

I held his leaders. It wasn’t easy. “Put in your snow hook.” I told him. He seemed relieved to have someone else tell him what to do. “Get off your sled, and come grab your leaders.” He looked at me uncertain. Another team had come up behind him. We were beginning to have a traffic jam. “These aren’t my dogs,” he said. Where had I heard that one before? At least this time my own team was safely hooked down out of the way, and at this juncture, anyway not involved with this other teams problems. They weren’t my dogs either. I tried to pull them onto the correct path. They were determined to go back where they’d come from. They’d spent a good five minutes or what seemed like longer barking and jumping and straining in their harnesses to go that way, inching forward too, and making progress. They certainly didn’t believe that either I or their driver was worthy of taking direction from that they should do otherwise. The man driving the sled was a big, burly man. “Get off your sled.” I repeated. I wasn’t going to be able to move his dogs on my own. Another team came up behind the first one already lined up nicely behind him. He got off his well hooked down sled. Together we were able to line his team out on the correct trail to our right. It didn’t take too much longer for him to get on his way. As his team took off, I could see there were now three teams lined up coming off the East Loop. I let them go by before unhooking my guys. More head on passing was ahead. Boy was I glad Bootstrap was in the truck.

Poor Bootstrap. He is young and eager. As we pulled away from the truck I could hear his paws scrabbling frantically against the side window of the enclosure I have for the dogs in the crew-cab compartment of my truck. My furry crew has their own special accommodations there. He whines like a coyote, with low pitched woos and gravely howls. I barely look at him as we pull away. It turned out to be the right decision. We met at least six teams going out, and though we only saw one other team on the rest of our 13 mile run, we knew what we were about. It was a tamer ride, slower, safer. I did miss Bootstrap

Later, gathered warm in the lodge, the mushers talked about their runs. Bootstrap’s brother had been left behind too by his musher, not because he was worried about his behavior, but because he was training his experienced team for a longer race. Bootstrap’s brother’s name is Indy, and he was a favorite of mine too in the litter, the true wild child in the bunch. Indy, even as a very young pup marched to his own drummer. One day, for some reason involving separating the four week old puppies from the older dogs, I put all the puppies into a big crate. The crate was sitting in the main room of my house between the living room and the kitchen. This did nothing to console the puppies. They screamed. They howled and threw themselves against the sides of the crate. Yes, they needed to be officially crate trained but this wasn’t the moment to do it. They weren’t in there long before I opened the front door of the crate to let them all out. All of them poured topsy turvy, tumbling over each other to get out. All of them, but Indy. While the other pups were charging out the front, Indy was still facing the back of the crate, paws gripping the bars and screaming to get out. He was so absorbed in his frantic protest that he missed the mass exodus in the opposite direction. Indy is his own man, and a very head strong one at that. Although I strongly suspect he too has the “squirrely screw loose” gene, his business and intensity reminded me most of my good lead dog, Atka as a pup.

Indy’s other owner, Blaine’s wife walked in with a report on Indy’s behavior while left behind. “He tore up all the blankets in his crate.” she said. "He’s inconsolable". I smiled inwardly. “He destroyed his dog bed too.” “Bootstrap settled down,” I replied. What did I know? On arriving home from the race and opening the back door of my truck to take the dogs into their yard the inside handle of the door of my truck tumbled out onto the icy driveway, its weld to the inner workings of the door completely busted. The back seat of my truck could now officially be used as a police car or kidnapping vehicle. I don’t think I’m going to get it fixed soon though. There’s still a month of winter left and I might have to leave Bootstrap behind again.

Bootstrap got his second chance on day number two of the Sweetwater Challenge. While I took each of the other dogs off the tie-out to hook them to the gang-line of the sled, Bootstrap was desperate to go. He leaped and twirled in true “squirrely screw loose” style, at least this time tied to a tree instead of my sled. He has a low pitched “roo rooing” guttural howl that he interlaces with whines so that he sounds like an engine that’s not going anywhere. He will go. I hook him up in wheel next to Lia. Lia, a “steady as she goes” sort of girl is an awkward partner for a head-strong teenager. It’s like the class clown and second string football player running with me, an up side of middle aged woman. I just have four dogs, so that’s the best I can do for either of them.

We were going out last again. The team that caused the traffic jam the day before was not going out. There were a couple of other scratches too. Most of the teams left out there were experienced mushers with teams they knew well. I wasn’t at all sure that taking Bootstrap was a good idea, but having him in wheel going out made my V6 engine a new and raring to go V8. We were out of the shoot and up the hill, my fuzzy energizer bunny in wheel loping all the way, driving my old guys from the rear. I held my breath as we came into the head- on passing section. As we approached I saw another team coming toward us. We pulled over. It was just RJ. RJ grew up on a sled. He waved and made an easy “gee” onto the trail leading west.

I was too chicken to even try a close side by side pass. It wouldn’t have been fair to anyone really, unless I had help out there, which I did not. I had done two things in the week preceding our second race. Neither was “enough”. I had taught Bootstrap to “sit” while out on the gang line of the sled. I don’t think this is anything that ‘real’ mushers do. It is one of my faint-hearted solutions to a striking snake of a dog. Though not impossible, it’s harder to start trouble sitting down. The ideal thing, of course, is to teach him to keep moving and to mind his own business. For that I will need help, hopefully from a couple of other folks before I meet Al and his baseball bat.

This time of year, the down side of mid-winter most of the competent teams are busy with their own agendas. They have miles to train and races to run. They have little interest in setting up their well trained teams for “fuzz ball bait.” It might help if I didn’t put it just that way when asking their assistance, but maybe not. My good friend Pattie did volunteer to give us some time. She’s really the only other musher I know within an hour’s drive of myself. She agreed to meet me after she had run her team in the State park. We planned to “set-up” Bootstrap.

Patti hooked up three of her seven dog team. I hooked up Bootstrap. We were in the Spring Mill Pond parking lot, next to the quarry that is nestled in Island Lake State Park. It’s the best local place to run our dogs.

It was a sunny, windy, January afternoon. The parking lot of Spring Mill Pond opens on one side to a pond, the size of a small lake and on the other to the old sand and gravel quarry that borders the State Park. It’s wide open and the wind rips through there, biting the warmth completely out of the late afternoon January sun. We’re creatures of the early morning and the dark. It feels odd to be out here in the middle of the day with everyone else. Some snowmobilers pull through the parking lot in their truck and trailer. A small beat up sedan rolls by. Out of habit I watch it carefully as it rolls past trying to determine its business here. Is the driver a hunter or does he want to run his dogs loose? I inspect him as best I can, but lose interest quickly as Patti’s team approaches from the other side.

She pulls them skillfully up to the side of her dark red, multi-stickered Toyota pick-up. She barely glances at me while she attends to her dogs. I know she doesn’t have a lot of time. I want to do some training with Bootstrap. “Hey Patti,” I said. “Hey! How do you want to do this?” I asked. “I’m thinking of hooking up just Bootstrap and Aura and meeting you head on, just out of the lot.” “Why don’t you take just Bootstrap to start,” she replied, “I’ll take just three, the two girls and one of the boys.” Patti has seven working dogs now, but only two are girls. “Ok,” I said. “You take your guys just out past the start of the trail head. I’ll start out down here, and we’ll meet you coming back in.” Patti watered and put up half of her team. I went back to my truck to hook up Bootstrap. There was no mention of pills, bullets, or baseball bats.

We were ready, harnessed, and lined out. Patti took her team, jumped on her sled and headed out the trail on the East end of the parking lot, toward the quarry and mile marker 2 on the Blue Trail. I waited and watched until she disappeared over a small hill just a hundred yards or so from the turn-around. We headed out. Bootstrap’s merit as a sled dog, his worthiness of this effort to teach him some manners was evident as we headed out to the trail. When you work a team, even a small one, it’s hard to tell exactly how hard each dog is working. When I first started with sled dogs, I used cross country skis to train. I trained my first couple of dogs this way and knew immediately what they were made of. They pulled and ran or they didn’t. When you hook a young dog in with some older ones, you don’t leave them a lot of choices.

Bootstrap alone at the end of the gang line, with me on the sled behind him, had choices. He could pull forward and keep running; he could pull forward and feel more weight than he was used to pulling on his own and stop; he could do nothing but stand there; he could go backwards or try to get out of his harness. I’ve had dogs do all of these things when hooked up by themselves. Bootrap made me very happy, when he leaped forward fast enough and hard enough that I almost fell off the runners. He tore out of the parking lot and down the trail. One dog can pull a sled. Our work was ahead of us though.

Patti’s team, just out a short way, was coming back in. Bootstrap was headed straight for them. There is a small traffic circle of sorts just as you leave the parking lot and head out on the trail. The center of the circle is a wide weedy patch of the tall grasses that grow in the quarry, now brittle and brown, glistening with blowing snow and ice. As Patti’s team was moving to one side of the circle, we were moving out on the other. Bootstrap made his signature move. Leaping forward he tried to lunge toward Patti’s team. This time was different though. Bootstrap had no back up from his team mates, and Patti’s team, unlike that of the one we met at the MUSH race is very well trained. With an “on by” her leader did just that. I was ready, and pounced on Bootstrap. “See what I mean?!” I shouted to Patti, as I was making short work of Bootstrap. She did see. I will keep to myself exactly what I did to Bootstrap, but he did look repentant when I was done with him. Still, we were not finished with our work. I was sure he would try again.

This time I hooked Bootstrap up with his mother, Aura. If Bootstrap is a trouble maker, it is not because of his mother or his father. If there was ever a dog that tried to stay out of trouble, it’s Bootstrap’s mother, Aura. Every mentor I’ve had in the world of sled dog training has told me that when a sled dog runs, its ears should be plastered dead against its head. If the ears go up, the dog is paying attention to something other than me. Aura is the one and only dog I have that runs with her ears flat back. I have learned that there are ears that are “up” and ears that are “UP”. That is another story. But Aura runs with her ears flat back. My son Gideon tells me, “She’s the only dog that really listens to you, Mom.” Leave it to a teenager to tell you like it is. She is listening for guidance, not looking for trouble.

Bootstrap runs like the rest of them, ears “UP”. Unfortunately, Aura with her “up” ears is obedient, not just to me. It seems that just about anyone, even her ten month old son gets to push her around sometimes. I was sure that if Bootstrap leaped to trouble she would not try to prevent it. I was also sure, she would avoid it herself if she thought she could.

Aura and Bootstrap were hooked up in double lead. I did not neck line Bootstrap. He is stronger than his mother and I didn’t want him dragging her along. I did want her there; so that he knew he was running with part of his pack. It’s different than running alone. As Patti’s team came running toward us, Bootstrap’s ears went UP. I said his name, sternly and he looked at me briefly then looked straight ahead. “On by”, I said. “Hike.” Bootstrap went forward as if he were about to mind his own business. He split out at Patti’s team so fast; he jerked us sideways into the weeds and grass that separated the team. “Arrgh“ I growled at Bootstrap, jumping on my brake before grabbing him hard. Bootstrap had two strikes in our training session. We made yet another go at it.

This time I talked to Bootstrap as Patti’s team came at us. When he looked at them, I told him, “on by”. This time, as they passed Bootstrap didn’t move forward, but he didn’t go after them either. He sat and looked at me. Progress, I thought. We tried this a couple of more times, before Patti was ready to pack up. She had already been out on a longer run with her dogs.

Just like there are “ears” and “EARS”, there are “runs” and there are “RUNS.” Bootstrap’s second race was a “RUN”. On our first day out we were slower and nervous. I somehow missed the turn-off onto the far west trails that would have added 5 miles to our race and taken us on new trail. I had wanted to see those miles, and I’m sure the dogs did too. The dogs love new trail; new trail is hard to come by. It’s not easy to find places to run a dog team anywhere these days. At home, we run the same trails over and over, some days doing the same path twice to get in the miles. There are maybe two or three places we run. We wanted to run the new trail.

Unexplored trails are like the slowly revealed surprises of a new lover, full of pleasure, uncertainty and discovery. The dogs, who had thought we were heading for the same trail we had the day before were renewed with that quick turn. It’s more lowland Forest here, running like a chute through scrubby brush. In other places, tall pines are permanently bowed, creating long dark tunnels that flash with spots of sunlight as we move through. On the sled, I feel like a moving picture in a “flip” book, as we glide quickly over the thin patches of sunlight that hit the snow through the trees. At least three miles of that trail slope gradually downward. Atka, my aging irreplaceable leader, dug in low and hard and fast.

Today Atka has backup: Bootstrap. While not as focused as his grandfather, ten miles into the run Bootstrap is still filled with wild enthusiasm for his job, his place on the team. He drives hard from the rear, enabling Atka and his team leader, Bootstrap’s athletic mother, Aura, to run. We saw no one on that long loping loop back to the main trail. I looked occasionally over my shoulder to see if another team from the even farther West trails was catching up to us. There was no one there. My dogs often sprint a few hundred yards but I cannot remember a time when they loped like that for miles. I waited for them to pause, to break stride. When they did not, I bent my knees slightly on the runners of the sled, and held on for the ride. Bootstrap gave Atka and the girls what they needed to stretch out over those new miles.

I have since promised my good friends, who have helped me work with Bootstrap on the trail, that I won’t “dis” him further on his own blog. In our more recent training efforts he has acted as if the thought to look at a passing team had never occurred between those well furred ears. He’s crouched low, looked away and made every effort to show me that he “gets it”. I’m sure he does. He is “trained” to pass at least one dog team. It means I can train him to pass another.

Mushing Magazine taught me something new, too, this weekend. I picked it up hanging around the lodge at the race. There was an article there about a guy with a team of 22 Alaskan Malamutes, running somewhere in the far North of Alaska, hundreds of miles. This guy does with the Malamutes what they were originally bred to-do, to slog through the toughest weather on the planet, no groomed trail, with heavy supplies on the sled. The article said that the breed has been around to do this task for 14,000 years. That's 14,000 years of genetic programming for survival in the most brutal of environments. The AKC has only had them to mess with for maybe 80 of those years. I’ve been training my little pack for a dozen years now.

Bootstrap, when he cocks his head to one side and looks, curious, devilish, engaging is a charmer. It’s an impish face, the thick pointy ears sprouting tufts of fur. That coat that is so wrong for the wilderness is perfect for the survival of a truly Urban Sled Dog, his coat the color of mist and caramel, frost covered weeds, and melting snow. It’s the coat of a fairy tale sled dog, almost artificial, like Barbie hair turned gray. As Bootstrap leans his chin heavy into the palm of my hand, I willingly forget the 14,000 years of instinct for survival that is part of his genetic code. Bootstrap can be trained. I will train him. I just need 13,988 more years to do it.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Bootstrap's First Race

January 24,2009

I wasn’t going to tell these stories anymore. They get us into trouble. When we have a story to tell it likely means we’ve already been in trouble and are trying to find our way out. If we ever do find an untroubled trail, we have come to the end of our road, and so I will tell you the story of Bootstrap’s first sled dog race. I’m sure in the end it comes under the category of “What WAS I thinking?!” and so that is where I will begin.

Bootstrap, despite his fantastic fuzzy appearance shows some promise as a young sled dog. I do have to get over my first impression in order to take him seriously as a working dog, just as someone might have to overlook a very beautiful woman trying to learn a profession requiring skill and intellect. To some, Bootstrap is beautiful and to some ridiculous. To me he is both. I often contemplate the fit and neat appearance of my properly coated dogs. I love the sleek athleticism of Aura, the rippling sable muscle of Atka. Bootstrap has form only in motion and then especially moving through snow. Not a foot goes down wrong. I can see the power of his rear legs through the mass of fur that buries them. Despite the hair, his gait is effortless even in deep snow. There is a dog underneath the coat.

Bootstrap at the head of the trail looked like a wrestler who was heading to the ring with a fluffy feather boa around his waist and neck. He could still execute his moves with the feathers, but something about it didn’t look quite right. There are many colors of winter and Bootstrap’s coat is the best of them. Standing with him alone, apart from all the coarser coated dogs, I see how he blends with the snow, the grays in his coat the color of the sky and the browns fading to the trunks of the pines around us.

To begin with we have a lot to overcome out there. And he is a Malamute too. That alone is a sin among most sled dog racers. It’s not without cause. Alaskan Malamutes have a reputation as trouble makers, and though I firmly believe that they do in fact have larceny in their hearts, I have worked hard in the years I have run my dogs to insure that mine do not further that reputation.That is in part why Bootstrap’s first race is a story I’d rather not tell. Bootstrap has a double whammy. Among sled dog racers, he’s a Malamute. That alone is bad enough and then among those few fans of the breed, he’s just a fuzz ball. We had something to prove out there.

Last weekend at the start of the MUSH sprint race, Bootstrap had been on my team. I put him in wheel position, next to his Aunt Lia by the sled. His motherAura and Grandfather Atka were running lead. If you have ever been summer camping you can imagine the staging area of a sled dog race. For summer camping everyone has more or less the same stuff: campers or tents, sleeping bags, cook stoves and often a contingent of eager and whiny children. Blanket the scene in snow and tie about a dozen dogs to every camper and truck. Dress your campers in knee length fur hooded parkas and Cabela’s moon boots and you can visualize the scene. For a sled dog race everyone has a vehicle that can contain dogs. These range from vans with crates to long bed commercial trucks. Pick ups have boxes on the back with compartments for the dogs. Prior to the race all the dogs are tied out at the sides of the trucks and the dog yard is a screaming cacophony of howls and all manner of barking and yipping that would make a convention of crazed coyotes proud. It’s hard to say what they want. They only know that this day is about them and they are eager to get at it.

Dogsleds are toppled and leaning everywhere next to the trucks. They are swathed in nylon ganglines of every color. Harnesses hang from the sleds and some handlers may already be busy “dressing” their dogs. Some dogs jump and twist like screaming toddlers being stuffed in a snowsuit, others lay their ears back and crouch submissively as their handler wraps them in harness. Everyone is getting ready for the race, tying on sled bags and making sure everything is there. Your sled bag must be big enough for your largest dog, but mine is always stuffed with everything I can think of that I might need out there that I did not forget. This includes extra gloves and socks, booties for the dogs, headlamps ,scarves, maps, peanut M&Ms, hand -warmers, leashes and the list goes on depending on where we are trying to go. I guess if I had an emergency where I had to put a dog in a bag, I’d have to dump the stuff.

Dog teams go out in classes according to the number of dogs on the team. The Three- dog class is first. We are in the Five-dog class.There is a Seven-dog class that goes out after us and there are classes for ski-jorers and children as well. There are twenty-eight teams in the five- dog class, and a few more or less in the three and seven-dog classes as well. I’m not good at math, but that’s around five-hundred dogs all getting ready to hit the same trail. We draw number 21. The teams go out one minute apart. Twenty teams will go out ahead of us and seven behind. I draw my yellow racing bib with a black “21” on the front and back and go to ready my sled and my dogs.

The three old timers are calm by the truck. They will save their excitement for the starting chute. Bootstrap alone is standing, spinning, pawing the snow and whining with excitement. He has not been to a race before, but I had taken him to at least three or four training sessions this past fall. At the training sessions we practiced passing and running with other teams, all dogs attached to heavy metal rigs and ATVs. Bootstrap, though enthusiastic and with a penchant for too much sniffing around, was unremarkable at those training sessions.Though I would never take a dog to a race without the training sessions, I felt I had done my civic duty with Bootstrap, attended and trained. I hadn’t done more with previous dogs. Although the frenzied energy of the race site was infecting me with more than my already high anxiety levels running the dogs, I believed we were ready. It didn’t occur to me what I thought afterwards, that those training sessions had been in October and November now three months past, and Bootstrap had been just six months old then. Now he was a day or two shy of ten months, a teenager.

When I tell people that Bootstrap has a “loose wire” anyway, they say, “Puppy. He’s just a puppy.” But I’ve had a bunch of puppies, and none of the others have done the sorts of things he has. I call it the “Doodle brain” gene and I attribute it to the side of the family I have not bred into before this. Just last week we were out on the sled early morning in the State Park. It was around 0 degrees and still dark. The trails were hard packed from the snowmobiles that use them. When I run my dogs alone in the early mornings like that I try experiments and don’t use necklines. I want to see clearly what every dog is doing and necklines can muddy that picture. This morning I had Atka and Bootstrap in lead, the girls in wheel.Those boys are wild together and were really driving the team. We went out onto the open road that winds through the center of the park. It is wide and very fast trail. The dogs were tearing along the road. My GPS had us going around 15 mph. Alaskan Malamutes are not fast dogs over distance, but they can run a short sprint with the best of them.

As we were running, loping all out, fast down the road, Bootstrap mid -stride takes an immediate, out of the blue, didn’t see it coming at all flying leap into the air. As he leaves the ground, four off the floor, paws meeting beneath him, he spins full circle, high enough and with enough of his own momentum, though that of the sled has come to a screeching halt, to land on top of his poor mother behind. I have run quite a few nine month old puppies. Not one has done anything like that before.When I told this story to a friend of mine who runs Malamutes, including Bootstrap’s brother, all he said was, “That’s why you neckline puppies.” I’m not so sure.

The day of Bootstrap’s first race was perfect running weather for sled dogs, temps in the single-digits with the faintly falling snow that almost never stops mid-winter in this part of Michigan. But far from the usual watchful anticipation I take out on the trail when we just go for a ride, my own anxiety about the race was mounting. Some mushers work hard to train their dogs. I try to be among them. They train them to pass and ignore other teams on the trail.They train them to “gee over” or head to the right side of the trail when another team passes.They train them to go left and right and in general ignore distractions. It’s not a lot different than any other kind of dog training. You always have to train individual dogs. The difference is, when you put them all together. The whole is clearly more than the sum of its parts. You are running a pack.

In a big amateur race like the one we were about to run, it is certain that out of 28 teams a few haven’t put the miles or training on their dogs, and a few will not know what they are doing out there. My three old timers had “been there done that”. We have run many races, and many miles together.We have passed and been passed by hundreds of teams, from the back and head on. We have even been tangled with a few, no problems. An experienced musher with a seven dog team once inexplicably plowed from the rear full on into my small, three dog team. The lines became hopelessly tangled and I did not even hear a growl while it was sorted out. Their attitude was that they were all a bunch of working stiffs in a tight spot. They all chilled while we untangled them. Another time a young girl ran her three dog Junior team head on into mine. That was more difficult as she had one testy dog, and she was terrified and clueless as to what to do. She was probably about eleven years old. There are two big things different since we last ran one of these big MUSH races. We have had some bad experiences out there and I have a new wild child on my team.

It has been almost two years now since a loose pack of dogs charged at my dog team. As life experience works its change on all of us, they have never been quite the same since. It affected most my youngest dog, Aura, who until that day had been my most benign team member, always stable and openly optimistic about her encounters with other dogs. She now has a forever more wary eye. I am different too, more anxious out there. The other Mushers constantly reprimand me for it. The smart ones know what they are running. They know what the stakes are and train their dogs, but we all know they are dogs and not robots. And there are a bunch of Mushers out there lower down on the learning curve. Anything can happen out there.

Bootstrap alone is free of this experience the others have had, but at ten months with all his hormones running full tilt and his squirrely screw loose, jump out at the wind personality, I was not relaxed to run. I had my team lined out in full hind-brained, howling, barking and jumping glory. A really nice old guy in a fur hat with a tail that flopped around his shoulders held my team to the start line. We were in the chute, dogs crazed and ready to run and I had forgot my snow hook Forgetting your snow hook, getting ready to go out in a race like that is like forgetting to put the car into park when you stop you car. It is a sure recipe for disaster. A dog sled has a few braking and back up braking systems. A good snow hook that will hook the team down in deep snow is in the top three things you need to have out there after dogs and sled.

My nerves strung out tighter as I realized what a completely stupid and ditzy thing I’d done. I raced back to my truck to grab my snow hook, the poor guy in the fur tailed hat, holding my team. Everything was agitated, sped up now, as I leaped too slow and clumsy, back to the sled, profusely apologizing for my foolishness, attaching the snow hook to the ganglines and jumping on the sled. It was our turn to leave the chute.

The chute is lined with orange snow fencing and dozens of race officials and observers. “Five, four, three, two one………” We’re off like a they’ve never run this trail before and they’re sure doggy nirvana is to be found at its end. They blast out of the chute. Atka and Aura are fast and Bootstrap is driving like crazy from the rear. We lope around the turn at the end of the straight away road out of the chute before we slow down. They always run faster when there are other teams out there, but they are Malamutes, and after a while they slow down to a steady trot.

The team behind us is a Malamute team too, the only other one in the five- dog class. Their handler is more experienced than I am, and runs a bigger team for longer distances a lot of the time. He runs this race because he is very active in the club and lives near the race site. I know his team is going to pass mine, if for no other reason than his Mals are led by two Alaskan Huskies. They will keep things going, when the Mals are out to make sure they have the energy for whatever is ahead. I keep watch for him over my left shoulder and try to drive my team to a place where the trail is wide enough for a comfortable pass.

We manage. We pull over. I watch the puppy and Lia, my two team member most likely to cause trouble. Lia is occasionally not above low growl and head flick in the direction of a passing team. I watch her. The puppy is a puppy. Atka and Aura know their job. Everyone’s good and when the other Mal team passes we get back on the trail. I don’t remember for sure, but I think we were passed by a couple of other teams like that before we got to the head on passing portion of the trail. Head on passing is exactly what it sounds like. It means a team comes head on at you going in the opposite direction. The dogs have a job to do and are supposed to pass like cars on a two lane highway, no emotional or other interest that one has in the other. The head on passing section of the five and seven -dog trails is short. A maybe one-quarter mile section of trail that leads out to the loop at the far end, before coming back to trail that leads directly to the finish line.

As we move into this section of the trail, another team we don’t recognize is coming right at us. I don’t want to get off my sled. Atka and Aura do know their job. “Gee over,” I say. Atka and Aura move to the right side of the trail. The team coming at us has a single leader, an off-white Alaskan , roached back and houndy looking with scattered brown spots. The leader of the other team doesn’t move to his side of the trail. He lists towards my team. By now, Atka and Aura are already by him, their heads parallel to the wheel members of the oncoming team. Bootstrap is not. The leader of the other team is not moving straight forward but leaning over towards my team, which means directly towards Bootstrap who is bringing up our rear.

As with all bad scenes that happen fast, it’s hard to say exactly what took place. I didn’t see it coming. Bootstrap shot out towards the other leader like an arrow, fuzz streaming like dusty gray flames with the speed of his lunge. The tough old leader of the other team did not back down from a teenage upstart and the two went at it. I saw only Bootstrap and the other leader locked in an upright position teeth flashing. As I tried to yank the sled further sideways to pull Bootstrap out of it, I could see that behind the leader of the other team, the team dogs were fighting with one another! They weren’t trying to get into it with my guys, they were out for each other’s blood.

Apologizing and cursing profusely, shouting, “I’ll get him. It’s a stupid puppy!”, I tried to pull Bootstrap out of it. Atka, Aura and Lia did not wait for me to figure it all out. For them, there was only a pack member in need of back-up. I was not getting to it fast enough for them. They jumped head on into the brawl. There was lots of lunging, snarling and flashing teeth, but inexplicably it was all over before it had really begun. My team, at least was out of the mess. The other team’s dogs were still quarreling with one another. The bottom line: No blood was shed. Still, now I was furious, and exhibiting all the wrong traits of a “good leader.” I lost my temper, threw Bootstrap into a submissive down and cuffed him with my heavily mittened hands. The dogs didn’t seem to care one way or another about what had happened. No one on either team was hurt. They were ready to go. We had completed less than half of the five mile race, still had head on passing ahead of us going out and coming back and I had a clearly wild-card of a teenage idiot on my team.

Apologizing profusely to the young woman driver of the other team, she admitted to having her own problems. “It’s my first race” she said. “The leader is not my dog and I have one dog that keeps fighting every time there’s a tangle. I have to put a muzzle on her.” I apologized again, finally determining that it was just an ugly brawl of toothy posturing, and we went on our way. I was furious with the Fuzz Ball. Yes, the other team had its own problems, but he had not given a hair breadth’s of a thought to turning away from trouble when he saw it leaning slightly in his direction. Now in the foggy mass that constituted the fuzz between his ears he’s surely convinced there’s reason to be interested in other teams. We had our work cut out for us, and no way to do that work before meeting the other teams out there.

At seven or so degrees, out on an even easy trail with twenty odd dog teams, paralysis was not an option. We had to go forward, finish the rest of the head on passing portion of the trail, do the loop and head back into the gauntlet before we had still a good three miles back to the finish line. I was not a happy musher, and there is no question that the dogs, high flying with the adrenalin of the race, knew it. They always know, and again the clarity of hindsight recalls my ridiculous emotional state even at the start of the race. A good leader is not an emotional idiot. Dogs and especially Alaskan Malamutes long to take things into their own hands when a fool is at their helm. My own loose wiring may not have caused Bootstrap’s to come undone, but it didn’t do anything to prevent it either.

“Hike”, I said, a clearly irritated edge in my voice. Atka and Aura lurched forward. Bootstrap and Lia pulled into line behind them and we headed towards the back loop of the race. Most of the teams behind us had already passed. Those remaining did so easily on the back loop; leaving us alone for at least a mile a before we got back to the now daunting prospect of more head-on passing. I could feel my feet through my old leather mukluks on the hard runners of the sled. I could contemplate a strategy for getting us back. But as we pulled over the narrow plank bridge traversing a frozen creek we could see that the team we had tangled with still where we had left them, turned around now, but unable to go anywhere. I could see the number “18” on the musher’s yellow bib. I don’t know exactly what the problem was, but that the leader would not go forward, her lines would tangle, her dogs would fight and she would have to try to get them all sorted out again. I imagined she had been having some trouble before we ran into her, and now, afterwards. Like me, she was fractured and anxious. I’m sure her dogs knew it too.

There were a couple of possibilities. I could pass her. I could wait for her to get it all sorted out. I could try and stake my team somewhere in the woods and go and help her. I did not want to pass her. Our teams had already locked tooth and nail and besides she was running Alaskans. If she ever did get them going they would pass us in a heartbeat, which they had once demonstrated they did not do well. I decided to wait a few more minutes to see if she could get them going on her own. I snow hooked down and waited. Just as a third team of dark Huskies was starting into this whole mess, heading out on the trail, a roaring yellow snow machine, straddled by two brightly clad, frost bearded Angels arrived: trail help.

They sidled their machine up beside my sled. “Need help?” they asked. “Maybe,” I said, “But she really needs help”, pointing to the poor woman and her tangled snarling team ahead of mine. “Help her first. She’s been here since I went out. She needs help to get going. We’re stuck as long as she is. Our teams had problems together.” They roared ahead to her as the team of dark Huskies started to move into the chute. Their driver could see that all was not well where his team was headed and stopped with a good “gee over” into his side of the trail. We all waited.

We had two teams ahead of us now, the one we’d already had a problem with and a new one we needed to pass head on. Team 18, the driver whose team we’d fought with, got on their way. The trail help got them going. As they took off, they leaned towards the team of incoming huskies, just as they had toward me in almost the same spot going out. The huskies behaved themselves and team 18, picking up forward momentum began loping down the trail and out of sight.

With relief, I saw too that the dark husky team wasn’t going anywhere and one of the guys on the snow machine was coming towards me. “I need help to pass the other team,” I said. “My puppy was really bad. I need help to get him by.” I don’t know who it was that came to help me, but I’m sure he was wearing too much stuff on his ears and head. He grabbed my leaders and began walking us forward toward the other team. He was not that far ahead of me. A four dog gangline is maybe ten ft. long. I was on back of the sled in back of the gangline. The guy had grabbed the neckline connecting Atka to Aura and we were moving forward. We were approaching the other team. I am shouting to my trail help, “It’s not the leaders. Don’t grab the leaders. Grab the FUZZY ONE in wheel! GRAB THE FUZZY ONE IN WHEEL!” I didn’t know how to make myself louder or clearer. He didn’t hear me. Atka and Aura, neckline in tow went on-by the dark faced Huskies. They would have gone on by without the snow suited trail help holding their necklines. I saw it coming this time. Just as Atka and Aura were head level with the other teams wheel dogs, Bootstrap made his move.

They say when something happens once, assuming you survive the event, it is just something that happened. It’s not a problem until it happens again. If it happens twice, you have a problem. The kid doesn’t have his homework once, maybe he forgot. Maybe the dog did eat it. He doesn’t do it twice, you have a problem. Bootstrap dive bombs the leader of another team once, well, that leader was leaning into us anyway and that team sure did have its own problems. He does it twice on a team clearly minding it’s owns business and I have an official stinker, a testosterone driven teenage Fuzz Ball on my team.

He did it again all right, same M.O. He shot out behind the leg of the man holding my leaders. His complete stupidity so surprised the other team, they did nothing and myself and the trail helper managed to move us along so he could do no more damage. The first time shattered my confidence in our race. The second further shattered my ability to have confidence in my team with Bootstrap aboard. That is a problem. I need that high driving, flying fuzz ball of a pulling machine on my aging team.

With additional apologies and thanks to the trail help, we are free now to try and finish the race. We are off on our own. Team 18 did not get far before tangling again, and so we eventually caught up with them. At one point I dragged my team through 4 ft of snow off the trail, to tie them off so I could go up and help her. She did get going again and we finally tailed her right over the finish line.

I arrived fuming. What to do with Bootstrap? String him up by his ears and leave him at the rest stop on US 10? Just leave him at the rest stop on US 10? Put him on Craig’s List for the lowest bidder. Returning him to his breeder was not an option. EBay? Let PETA come and rescue him from the hands of a self confessed wanna be Urban Musher? There is nothing left to do, but train the dog. The challenge is to reconcile the floppy fuzzy bear skin rug that lies prone in your lap with the dive bombing nosy hot head of a teenage troublemaker.

We were at another sled dog race the week following our first fiasco, a mid-distance race, much longer than Bootstrap’s first race. I did not run Bootstrap because of what happened the previous weekend. Now I am really wondering why? Coming in from the trail I saw Carol. “How was your race?” I asked her as she took booties off the dog tied out on the back of her truck. That’s pretty much standard issue polite conversation after a race. “One of our dogs got bit,” She said. I was startled. I had not expected that answer. Ann came over while I was listening to Carol explain her dog’s injuries, how the dog from Bob’s larger team had grabbed her dog by the leg and dragged it. “I think it’s going to need stitches” Carol said. “He came out of nowhere. Bob said he was sorry. He does have a couple of alligators on his team.” Ann said, matter-of-factly. “It’s a good thing my guy was terrified,” Carol said. “He didn’t fight back.” I had left the fuzz ball in the truck all day because after last weekend I feared he would interfere with another team. We did not want to make trouble out there. We try hard not too. Who WAS this “Bob” that seemed to have carte blanche to run his “alligators.” I remind myself that dog sledding is different from some of the other stuff I do with my dogs.

Bootstrap. We were worried his long soft coat would snowball on the trail, that balls of ice would collect between the pads of his feet and he would have to be bootied and coated to withstand the Michigan winter. We worried that his coat care would be too much work to make whatever his contribution worthwhile. I never removed one snowball from his foot on that five mile race. The trail wasn’t a particularly hard and fast one either. It was snowing and in the single-digit temperatures, so there was a soft layer of just the kind of snow to create those icy balls in the feet that stop a team. I had to remove two from his properly coated Aunt Lia

We were worried that his lack of a sufficient undercoat would leave him unable to withstand cold temperatures. He slept outside when it was minus fifteen a couple of weeks ago with his Great- grandma Sis who loves the cold more than any of my other dogs. I did not make either of them stay out there. They like it. We have had a winter so far this year, better for the sleddogs than any I can recall. Though I still dread finding myself in a driving rainstorm with Bootstrap and am clueless as to whether or not he could survive days and days out there in snow and cold, he is an easy fit, long coat and all for the work of this Urban Musher.

Bootstrap doesn’t need booties. I do. I wear my old black leather mukluks. Bootstrap’s first race is their last. Somewhere on that short but wild trail they tore a hole in the side where the worn leather meets the soft rubber heel. Those boots have seen a lot of winter trails. I liked them, snow moccasins softly molding to my feet with their fancy fringe on top. They are not the cross between hiking shoes and moon boots I see many of the more serious mushers wear. I consider those for my next pair. Finances are tight, but I will order another pair of mukluks. They are perfect for running my small team, where I often need to run behind the sled on big hills or to break trail. For next week’s race I will need new boots.

I bred Bootstrap because I wanted a new dog for my sled team. My once in a lifetime leader, Atka, is wearing old. His lithe daughter, Aura, lacks the confidence to lead even my small team. I need another sled dog and I need another leader. I have Bootstrap, a seventy-pound striking mongoose who treats other dog teams as snakes, has a Squirrelly screw loose gene and, off the trail, leans gentle and soft, his big head into the palm of my hand. Our work is cut out for us. Bootstrap doesn’t need booties. He doesn’t need a coat. He needs training. People tell me that is what I do best. We have our work cut out for us, and that is the rest of the tale. The end of our story today is only the beginning. I will put on my new boots and train him, the next generation of my small team. I don’t know exactly how. I have some ideas. That will be the rest of our story