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.