Thursday, November 20, 2008

Training Bootstrap Part 1: One small thing

Bootstrap, you have big paw prints to fill. It is not even fair that I challenge you to fill them. Even if you might run in them someday there is no possible way to do so now. Just the long, silky drape of your coat makes it harder to "take you seriously". You are the "blonde" in the world of Alaskan Malamutes, too cute and fluffy to look beyond the fuzz. And you are a puppy, just seven months on the earth. Atka has been here over 500X as long as you have.

You are learning. Just last week, I ran you in lead with Atka on the rig. You cannot even begin to do that yourself. I want him to train you in ways I cannot. He has a determined love for the trail, quick and strong. The girls are there too. All of us will try and teach you what we will, Bootstrap. If we do it well, you will come to rely on yourself.

Not sure how to negotiate the rig, the woods with a trace of snow on the ground, too much for the wheels, too little for the sled, I tried to train you, Bootstrap, to do the "silly stuff" today. We found our challenge in class last night. Though you seemed to learn easily to run for a cookie and "hit the deck" in a comical down across the room, you could not negotiate a simple down behind a stick barrier. Maybe I encountered this problem before and solved it by not using one. I think I recall relying on my "Malamute training methods", known from here on out as the MTM #1, or the technique of the primitive and frustrated.
The goal is a simple one, to teach the dog to follow simple commands, but to do so at a distance from the handler. Bootstrap knows the command, "sit". Now I want him to sit ten, fifteen, thirty feet away from me. Bootstrap knows, "down." And so it goes. A couple of month's back, when this idea was first discussed in class, a "barrier" was introduced. The idea is to teach the dog to do stuff behind a small barrier, like a pole or wooden board. I remember trying it then.

I laid my stick, a fairly substantial one, retrieved from the pile of jumping equipment in the corner of the room, on the ground between eager Bootstrap and myself. I threw a small piece of cheese so that it landed a few feet behind Bootstrap, who was already behind the stick. He's agile for one so large and young. Though he has a loping prowl when casually looking for trouble, seeing even a pin sized food like substance fly behind him, he can turn and spin, a dart of flying fuzz. . He grabs the treat. "Down", I say. As most pups do on this exercise the first time, he comes racing back, plowing the useless stick out of the way to down at my feet.

Since that is not the object of the exercise, we try again. This time I push the stick at him as he comes plowing back. He behaves as if it is not there. Though I like to believe I am capable of patience, I do not always act that way. Why bother with the stick, I thought. If the object is to get him to down, ten or so feet away, let's just get him to do that. The stick, is after all, a means to an end, and didn't seem to be working. I abandoned the stick and resorted to MTM (Malamute Training Method) #1, my foot. As Bootstrap came flying back on our third attempt at this exercise, I too completely ignored the stick and stuck my foot out to catch Bootstrap squarely in the chest as he came flying back. Kick my dog??? Naw, I don't think so. Let's just say he "ran into my foot." In fact, he did. He seemed only mildly disturbed that his forward motion was halted. "Down." I said. He downed at one short leg's length from me.

This dubious method seemed to work at creating distance between Bootstrap and me for his down where the stick did not. After a few more cookie tosses and a few running starts in Bootstrap's direction as he was headed back, to me, foot still extended, we had a dead on "hit the deck" drop, almost as many feet away as we'd like. Remember please, I am not advocating this training method. There are very few of us who choose to train Alaskan Malamutes for formal obedience exercises. I have been certain for along time there are good reasons that this is so.

We rested on our "distance down" laurels for a while. It's a neat trick that was sure to impress my puppy class students. Conveniently forgetting my own recent advice to others, I left things as they were and did not take the next step or expect more from my fuzz ball. Bootstrap, when performing this exercise, as he rocketed towards the thrown cookie, looked like an airborne fudge swirl. That combined with his thumping flat landing bear rug style "down" made higher education hard to consider.

Last night I felt the result of our complacence full on. We were in Adele's "Manuevers" class. "Manuevers", for any who do not have the privilege of training with Adele, is the "class of all classes." It teaches the foundation, of all the formal obedience exercises by breaking it all down into: Manuevers. I have probably taken one version or another of this class with six or maybe even seven Alaskan Malamutes that I have trained before Bootstrap.

Manuevers class is like a magnifying lens, illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of my training, and my dog. Bootstrap's mystery to me so far is that I rarely witness his learning. He keeps it to himself behind his perfect small eyes, slanting just so and deeply dark brown. With most of my dogs, I have watched the wheels turn, understood just when they learned "in", or "close" or "back", just some of the "maneuvers." Not so with Bootstrap. With Bootstrap, I faithfully execute the motions of training an exercise that I more or less know well. He appears clueless and frantic.

Early on I learned that if I want Bootstrap to learn anything there has to be a cookie involved but he must never be able to see it. If Bootstrap actually sees a cookie in my hand, be it for luring a behavior or to reward one, his mind runs to the fuzz behind his ears. Alaskan malamutes, barely a half- century out of needing to survive in an Arctic wild, are hard wired to hone in on any food like substance. Bootstrap's instincts about food are clearly strong ones. He simply has to learn some fantastic behaviors to stalk this prey.

Adele described to us the task at hand. Our dogs and puppies were to, not only "down" behind the barrier, but to "sit" and "stand" as well. Bootstrap has more, and I've come to realize less learned these commands. Yes he will do them if, sitting in front of my knees I guide him through them, offering cookies along the way. He looked stumped when asked to do them even two feet away, and once again, when a barrier was introduced it was just another object to trounce. Not only that, but easily distracted by the many other puppies in the class the old MTM foot method was producing only random sniffing and other avoidance behaviors worthy of a restless school child who "doesn't get it and doesn't really want to." I put him in his crate.

This is now MTM #2 for Bootstrap. When all else fails, lock-up Bootstrap and train his mother. Bootstrap's mother, good Aura, has received from the unknown some extremely non-malamute like tendencies. She is remarkably biddable, good- natured and in our pack at home, everyone's doormat. Once in awhile she'll show her true colors, but more often than not, she listens to me and in class gives me exquisite attention, something Bootstrap will never do.

Bootstrap does not offer himself up for training, willing and unquestioning. I have to find my way under his skin. It's an unmapped trail for me to discover. Cooperation can be elicited by bringing us apart and then together again, by putting him in his crate and taking him out, by touching him firmly until he no longer resists, until he realizes a partnership with me even for the fleeting seconds of our contact.

When Bootstrap comes out of his crate, I hold him, firm. I take him by the collar and place him behind the stick. He's slightly calmer now. I'm careful not to show him the treat in my pocket. "Sit", I say. He sits. "Down" I say. He lies down but pops immediately back up again. Though I imagine I wish for one who will quickly adopt my agenda as his own, I search for ways to enchant Bootstrap, to make him believe playing my game was his idea all along. He is smart, but I've still got my bets on being smarter, at least most of the time.

Now that I have put Bootstrap away, he believes he really wants to play and he tries hard. He tries too hard. I get a rapid- fire display of ups and downs, stick rolling, and paw tapping head ducking. He looks at me expectantly. I see it, the flash of an opening in those dark brown eyes. His head is cocked, paw on the stick, waiting. I gently remove his paw from the stick. "Sit," I say again. He sits. "Stand." He stands, just back from the stick as I had hoped. He keeps his front legs by the stick and raises his rear end. "Good!" I say. We celebrate this small victory. He jumps lightly and rests his growing paws on my shoulders. We dance briefly.

Bootstrap is just a fuzzy seven -month old Alaskan malamute puppy. He is just a puppy. He will always be a fuzz ball. One day ago I saw a post on one of my Alaskan malamute Lists; "Wanted one long coat Alaskan malamute puppy." I looked at it. I thought about the craziness of keeping him. A fur ball he is, but whatever else he becomes will be a lot of my doing. Getting him to sit behind a stick is not a big thing. It is only important if we want to go to dog shows and compete in formal obedience exercises. Maybe we do and maybe we don't want to do that. What I know I want us to do is to work together to explore the trails between our worlds. On those trails, his fuzzy paws will grow. Though they may never fill the ones he follows, they have a path of their own. We've started down it together and I won't turn us back now. .

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Naming Bootstrap

Boots. I know now, why Boots has to stay "Boots". My house is small and amazingly cluttered as a small 100 year old house with one real and two sort-of closets can be after living in it with one husband, two children, and a succession of Alaskan Malamutes and Malamutts for going on 20 years. There's a lot of stuff.

It's spring and time to clean off the back porch. I was being pretty ruthless in a halfhearted way. Ruthless in that I was not saving every mismatched glove in vague hope that it's partner would appear before next winter, though I did squirrel a favorite few into a baggie in the summer hat box. Ruthless, in that cloth bags and backpacks of all description found their way to the bag destined for the huge clothing drop off bins now found easily in grocery store parking lots. I tossed backpacks, not damaged, just used for a couple of years of schoolbooks and lunches. I tossed fanny packs unless they were marked with some event whose memory I still clung to with a passing smile. But as I worked my way up the metal shelf with the backpacks, old gloves, rejected kitchen utensils, camping gear, recycled pop bottles and grass stained tennis shoes, I came to the boots.

First, I encountered Gabe's old Boy scout hiking boots, heavy and brown. They were the cheapest of the expensive kind of hiking boots we could find to fit his even then size 14 foot. I contemplated them briefly before placing them in a plastic bag for the grocery store parking lot bins. Though I'm sure they made footprints in summer trails from Ontario to the shores of lake Superior, I know, now 18, Gabe doesn't look to these boots to hold what he recalls of those buggy Boy Scout days, even if he wanted to.

My big green Lacrosse boots were more difficult to toss. They are cracked with the changes of heat and cold they've endured on the porch and through the years I wore them. I can see them now, deep in the October mud puddles of Northern Minnesota, plowing their cloying murk with joy, rig and dogs, and countless teams splashing through around us. I watch them tramping heavy on the solitary trails of just myself and my own team, maybe Patti and hers ahead in the Quarry, long corridors of puddles spread out like skipping stones down the trail. Those green boots were just rubber, made heavy by steel shanks on the bottom, but through the thin rubber the cold could be felt, clammy against even heavy pant legs when they made their way through spring bogs and thawing streams. Those were some good boots, but they were cracked and leaking now, and I put them in the trash bag. Next to them on the shelf I found Gideon's last winters boots. Those could be given away without even a passing thought. He never wore them if he could help it and they didn't fit anyone in the family now.

Behind them all, pressed against the dirty glass of the porch, almost falling off the shelf, dusty and covered with cobwebs were a pair of cheap rubber boots, navy blue with green trim, the flatfooted, lightweight rain boots I bought in the years before I knew what kind of footwear I really needed for what I do. I reached to throw them out, marveling at why I had kept them for so many years and certain they signified the reason for the incredible clutter of my household. In as long as it took me to stretch my arm, grasping for the top shelf, I saw it. It was on the left boot. Half of the brim of the left boot had been gnawed off, making a crooked and torn crescent in the old rubber. My gaze settled on that boot, chewed by an Alaskan Malamute named Cody who came to us with a beautiful voice, crawling beneath the seats of our Chevy Station Wagon on the way home from Chicago when he was 6 weeks old, 19 years back this spring. I'd worn the boot chewed like that for years, liking the fact that Cody had left his mark there, before I abandoned them for sturdier fare.

I look down from the boot shelf and all around my feet, strewn across the porch, and chewing each others ears are six Alaskan Malamute puppies, 7 weeks old this past Wednesday. I still turn a casual eye to many of their destructive antics: Those shoes are old anyway. Who needs that old collar? Their small eyes peer up at me, pulling boots down from the shelves, and I settle on the one that I have called "Boots". Of the six puppies, if I have a favorite, it is likely Boots. He sits across the room on the battered dog beds, just sitting, looking at me, as I recall Cody doing 19 years earlier, Cody gone 9 years now, but for the memory of his young eyes peering at me as Boot's do now, and the tracks of his teeth on the cheap navy blue rubber boots.

"Boots" is short for Bootstrap. It was just a silly puppy name because we watched Pirates of the Caribbean to relax a couple of nights after the pups were born. My clever husband says we'll call him Boots R Made for Mushin. But I've been thinking of the pitfalls of the name, of what else we might end up calling him with a name like that. Bootsie or BS come to mind. I've thought about looking in the usual sources for my more exotic names, my Alaskan Atlas, or the online Inuit Dictionary. I looked up the Inuit name for Bootstrap and it was worse than Bootsie for sure, Sitif or something like that. Exotic names don't seem to be doing it for me this round. So "Boots" he's stayed so far, though I keep telling myself the name Boots, should be for a black kitten with white feet. I've told myself that if I keep him, when the other puppies go to their homes, I will contemplate a new name for him. But looking at that gnawed boot on the top shelf, my hand recoiling from it's reach to toss it away forever, I know now that won't happen.

He was "Boots" because we became too enthralled with Johnny Depp and his crew in our exhausted efforts to unwind when the pups were just days old. Now he's Boots because I've relived a myriad of times and trails in the hopeless clutter of my back porch. It's because boots hold all memory of steps taken, streams crossed and trails broken. . Boots will stay "Boots" to leave his own mark of tooth and paw on heart, and trail.

Picture courtesy of Kris Kurzawa

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Choosing Birthday cakes and Puppies

On Choosing Birthday cakes and Puppies

We have no Ice Cream Cake and a Fuzz Ball Alaskan malamute named Bootstrap. It's all from an overly optimistic outlook. Some call it self-deception. I'll call it wishful thinking or just plain stupid. In the past months it's cost me one ice cream cake and one elusive dream.

My mother was visiting us for her 77th birthday. I had bought her a box of Edy's Dibs, eventually solved the mystery of her beeping smoke alarm, and was determined to buy a delicious ice cream cake to celebrate the day. All birthdays are cause for celebration but none more than that of my mother, who is almost two years out of a grim cancer diagnosis. I wanted a really good ice cream cake.

Baskin Robbins had completely slipped my mind, despite years of kid birthday cakes purchased there. I thought only of Dairy Queen. It's early November and as I drove by the local DQ, the red boards that covered the windows reminded me of a joke I once heard of the ten reasons you know you are in Michigan: # 4 : Dairy Queen is closed from October through April. There it was. No Dairy Queen. I was disappointed, but not worried. My mind went to a freezer case in the local Buschs grocery store. I knew I'd seen some ice cream cakes there.

It was late in the evening without too much time to fool around. I drove straight to the grocery store. Hurrying in, I ran to the place where I recalled the freezer case. It wasn't there. I banished from my mind the possibility that there would be NO ice cream cake for my mother's birthday and searched for a store employee to help me. During the hours I usually show there are most often helpful staff at Buschs, but it was late and a quick scan of those at the check out counters did not inspire me with confidence I needed to find our cake.

My eyes settled on a young woman with a ponytail at the last check out counter. "Do you still have your freezer with ice cream cakes?" I inquired, somewhat breathlessly, anxious for her answer. "There used to be one over with the party goods. " She looked at me blankly. Another employee came up from behind me, having overheard the hopeful desperation in my voice. "It's moved to the back of the store," he said, "over with the other desserts." "Thank you." I said, as I leaped in the direction of the cake department in a store I knew well.

Right where he said it would be I found the freezer case stocked with cakes. Opening the cold glass door, I read the labels on the boxes: Yellow cake, chocolate cake, white cake. Only for the merest moment, though I recall it well did I think," What flavor ice cream is in these cakes? These must all be vanilla ice cream cakes, I decided Frozen cakes must surely contain ice cream. Why else would they put them in the freezer? Alas, because I wanted an ice cream cake these must surely be ice cream cakes. I chose a yellow cake with some blue flowers, grabbed some colorful candles and crepe paper, checked out and went home to put my "ice cream cake" in the freezer.

Diligently I pulled the cake out of the freezer about 1/2 hour before our small celebration. It was time for candles, cards and our off key family voice to rise in birthday song. On the last discordant notes, I waved my tarnished cake knife in the direction of the counter and set off to cut the cake. Anticipating the soft smooth giving surface of barely thawed ice cream, my face fell in dismay as the cake knife crumbled through a layer of half frozen cake and frosting. No ice cream. Despite a family tradition of eating ice cream that goes back to my mother's father and tales told of an ice cream loving heritage that proceeded him, there was to be no ice cream cake today. Still, this was not even close to any kind of disaster. There were no disappointed screaming toddlers, only a bunch of tolerant adults and teens to laugh at my folly. It was, however, a revelation. I had done it again.

I'd done this before, even before Bootstrap. My elementary school summers had been spent, nose pressed to a ballpark chain link fence wishing my brothers' strikes into home runs and their pitches into strike-outs. I never just watched the game. My participation was in believing that my hopes could move baseballs. For the first four years of my life I was certain I could grow up to be a horse. I'm not sure at what moment I understood this could not happen by any force of will that I could muster, but hope always dies hard.

She who believes she can transform frozen yellow cake to ice cream cake, and strikes into home runs and toddlers into horses also believed she could transform a fuzzy, fluffy, long-coated fuzz ball of a dog into a normal weather resistant harsher coated "real" Alaskan malamute. Choosing Bootstrap, the sole pup of six without a normal coat was no random act of screwy thinking, but a practiced method of self-deception that I have been working on for going on 55 years now. The consequences continue to vary.

It was an example of how expert I have become in the losing battle of mind over matter, to get the mind to see what the heart hopes for. When Bootstrap was three or four weeks old I had my moment of glancing quickly at the labels on the cakes. He had a bit too much fuzz coming out of his ears. Maybe he had slightly more coming out of his feet. I didn't want a fuzz ball, or didn't think I did, so he couldn't be one, could he? Lia had a fuzzy face like that when she was a pup. She was no long coat. It had to be ice cream cake.

A few years back, Lia had a long coated puppy. She was dripping with coat down to the floor. She looked like a baby black and white yak. Bootstrap did not have a coat like that. And then there were the puppies of my friends. Many of them are from a different line of Alaskan malamutes and the puppies are fuzzy, very fuzzy. I observed some of their puppies. "Bootstrap just had A LOT of coat," I told myself. There just must be ice cream in that cake.

In the freezer the boring normal cakes look like ice cream cakes. Bootstrap looked like a normal coated puppy. Not all long coats do, but Bootstrap did. I look at the pictures to prove it. If I had chosen to know better, his coat would not have felt like a normal one, but I was too smart then to know better. Coats are serious business in Alaskan malamutes. The harsh outer coat protects and insulates the inner softer coat, so the dog stays dry and warm. Bootstrap's coat is one texture. I do not know how or if it will withstand the weather, gather ice or snow balls, allow him to get wet like a cotton kitchen mop.

When he was eight weeks old and the final choices were being made, others with experience similar to my own said, "I've had a dog with a coat like that as a puppy." He's not a long coat." There is a genetic test for the "fuzzy" gene. I could have sent it in then. I have done it now and Bootstrap is a "FF" for Fuzzy/Fuzzy, in dry, scientific terms, Affected with the fuzzy gene. I didn't choose to do it then. I chose to believe that I had the ice cream cake I wanted.

As Bootstrap grew, I brushed him daily, lovingly. His coat is long and soft, as our breed standard says it should never be, but it is also beautiful, a soft gray and sable color, like wind worn stone. I handled him firmly and gently. We didn't fight over the comb in his increasingly profuse coat. He is a little stinker. The first times I stacked him on a table to look at his conformation, as those of us that breed dogs do, there was a battle of wills. He would not stand still, as the good DVD on puppy choosing said he should. He didn't get wiggly as some pups do, he just stubbornly refused to leave his legs where I put them. The first time I took him to a puppy match we did not work together but against one another in the ring.

His conformation is lovely. I have at least determined that there is that much ice cream in this cake. He has sloping shoulders and a well-angulated solid rear, both traits that serve any working dog well. A more experienced breeder of Alaskan malamutes watched us at that first puppy match. "He's got great structure." He said, "Don't fight with him." From then on, I did not.

I did begin to wonder about his coat though. I wondered as I waited for his undercoat to come. It did not. More and more coat kept growing, but no undercoat. Tufts sprouted behind the ears. And there was the "ah ha" moment of cutting the cake with the old tarnished cake knife, my well worn steel comb I use for almost all my dog grooming. Bootstrap was not going to get an undercoat. His coat was all undercoat, all one texture, however it might prove or not to hold up to the weather. That I will not really know until I try it out, until we run in our first snowstorm.

I had been excited about having a "show dog". Though I've finished two champions, that's not much in the world of dog showing, and I'd thought Bootstrap had what it took. In some ways, he does. He is a beautifully constructed house with poor insulation. When I fully faced my own folly, I called my mentors, his other breeder, friends, to tell them. "Place him," some said. "Find a pet home for him and repeat the breeding." Solid advice, I'm sure. Toss out the cake and remember there is a Baskin Robbins out there.

So far this fall, I'd been running the old guard: Atka, Bootstrap's grandsire, is my leader and I'm almost certain the best sled dog, working dog, I'll ever have. I wonder often how it came to be that I have had such a dog. He is nine years old now, and I've been trying for the last two dogs I've acquired to train another leader. The first of those, Lia is seven, and I've rarely had the patience to allow her to lead for more than a few miles. Lia takes care of Lia, and though she can dig in and pull us up hills like no other and can seemingly forever go that extra mile, she is reluctant and dismal when put in charge of even my small team.

Aura, Atka's daughter and Bootstrap's mother now three years old, is a bit better. She will move quickly and hold the line tight. Her grace and her downfall is that when there are choices to be made she will wait for me to make them. She actually listens to me, unlike her father at times. If there are choices to be made, crucially quick ones, she will not make them. She will lead with my guidance or that of her father, but she will not take on the responsibility herself.

Two mornings ago I decided it was time to put Bootstrap in with the team. When I left him in the truck with his Great grandmother, Sister, he'd throw himself at the windows, pawing furiously as he watched us hit the trail. He's a bit young, but I recall running Lia in a short race when she was his age. I have such a small team there were limited choices as to where he could go. Wheel, by the rig, was out of the question for one with such young bones and joints. I did not want him pulling the weight of the one hundred pound cart. I could have got out my six -dog gang line and placed him in the team dog spot between Atka in lead and the girls in wheel by the rig. A six-dog line is longer and stretches out farther in front of my small rig, not what I want if I have to get control of the team in a hurry, an even greater possibility with a strong young pup in tow.

Bootstrap was hooked up in lead, next to his granddad. I didn't even use a neckline going out, not wanting to overly burden Atka with the young upstart. Bootstrap, up front, young and enthusiastic, never one to doubt himself, energized both the old timers and gave permission for his often times enthusiastic but submissive mother to run. We went for just three or four miles, through the woods, dark in the pre dawn hours, and out into the open spaces of sand, wetland and concrete pilings of the quarry.

Fall now is flirting with winter. The morning was cold. Dusty brown weeds covered in silver frost are the color of Bootstrap. Once in awhile I saw Bootstrap's ears prick too high in notice of something unseen by me, or jerk toward a quickly spinning, falling leaf. Too exuberant, he'd jump on his granddad, and have to suffer a correction from both of us. He ran and he pulled, all you can ask of a young pup foolishly put in lead by someone with the history I am documenting here.

Bootstraps beautiful too soft coat, the color of this late fall morning, is not his doing. He never asked to be born here or to live here. I know now he is happy here in the pack of his Great grandmother, Grandfather, Great Aunt, and his overly tolerant mother. He places his paws gently on Gideon's shoulders as he walks in from school, rests them their gently and licks his face. Both will be smiling. Sometimes he lands on us like a flying squirrel, leaping from whatever height he can find. At a recent canine good citizen test, the evaluator, on recalling Bootstrap, one of 16 pups in the test, remembered him as "the spirited one." Now, he lays his head in the crook of my arm as I write. At seven months old he runs ahead of the team, gleeful and unspoiled eager to follow the trail.. Perhaps his coat would not allow him to survive a winter abandoned in an arctic wild, but he does not have to go there.

Disappointment can be blinding. I'm not sure how long it took for me to appreciate that I could grow to be a woman but not a horse. It didn't take long at all to know that being together with my mother for her birthday was all we needed with our frozen cake. The same miserable cake brought home my understanding as to how I've come to love a fuzz ball in my dog yard. It has taken only two early morning fall runs to know that fuzzy or not, these Boots are made for mushin'.

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