Dogs Like It

March 07, 1995|By MIKI COLLINS

LAKE MINCHUMINA, ALASKA. — Lake Minchumina, Alaska.-- Oh, the poor dogs!

There are people in this world who think it is cruel to put a harness on a dog and fasten him to a sled with the expectation that he will pull it and you down a trail. Each March, when Alaska hosts its famous 1,049-mile Iditarod dog-sled race, animal-rights activists raise a hue and cry to shut down the race. The head of one national animal-rights group recently asserted that the only reason dogs would pull a sled was to get off their awful chains.

As a musher (a dog-sled driver), I'm convinced these people don't know how to tell when a dog is having fun. With some mushers, certain dogs and a few situations, mushing is not fun for dogs -- or dog drivers either. Neither is going to the veterinarian, meeting strangers if the dog is timid or being restrained on a chain or (worse) in a pen. But overall, there is nothing that a husky would rather do than run in a team.

During the summer and fall, we often let our dogs run loose three or four at a time when we go riding or boating along the shore. The dogs are used to running unrestrained by anything other than voice, habit and the reserve of their older companions.

Whenever I walk into the dog yard and shout, ''Who wants to to go?'' it's plain from the loud vocal response that everyone does -- just as they would if they were lounging inside the house or even chewing on a bone on the lawn.

Then one day the snow falls and I dig out the harnesses. Outside, the dogs detect the jingle of snaps and start yelping. When I appear, harnesses and ropes in hand, the screaming and barking doubles until my partner and I have to shout at each other to be heard. By the time we are ready to harness the dogs, the noise has increased to the point where we must resort to hand signals.

The dogs don't want to just go, they want to go sledding.

A team pulling a sled seems to develop a feeling of power and unity the dogs just don't have when running loose. They count on their teammates to back them up, whether they are moving a heavy load or chasing the neighbor's cat up a tree. The cohesiveness that develops strengthens their bonds with each other, and also with the musher.

Old Loki, monarch of our dog yard for years, knew what the first snow meant. He didn't even wait to hear the sound of jingling harnesses or the scrape of a sled runner testing the snow for the first time in four months.

The morning of the first snow fall, he'd start yowling anytime anyone showed up in the yard. If there was snow and we weren't sledding, we were wasting time, in his opinion. It didn't matter if he'd had a six-mile hike running loose the day before. He wanted to feel that harness on his shoulders and feel the rush that leading a team gave him.

Even when he became too old to run with the team, Loki came along loose. He didn't like giving up his lead position, but it was better than staying home. He deeply resented the younger leaders who took his place, and was convinced they didn't know what they were doing. Anytime they faltered at water, glassy ice or uncertainty about a command, he'd rush past the team, snarling and huffing, to take charge, stomping off in the right direction, frustrated that he had no tug rope with which to drag the young fools along.

Another dog, Trapper, excelled as a wheel dog, the toughest spot in the team. He took all the bumps and bangs of the sled pounding over rough trails. He was the one who'd cross the towline to get a better angle of pull if the sled ran off the trail into deep snow.

But like all dogs, Trapper aged much too soon. Never fast, he could no longer keep up with the team. We retired the grand old dog to a plush life running loose and living inside. Sometimes he ran along behind the team, but it wasn't the same.

You might think that if mushing is inhumane and chaining dogs is barbaric, Trapper would have thought he'd died already and gone to heaven. But no. The old fellow became subdued. He lost his booming ''Yo-ho-ho-ho!'' He moped around inside, tired and depressed. He sadly watched the other dogs speeding away to haul wood or run the trapline or do other important jobs, leaving him behind, old and useless.

Then one day, my partner took him out to the woodlot. She piled firewood into a red plastic sled, put Trapper's harness on him, snapped it to the load. ''OK, Trap! Let's go back!''

The old malamute pushed against the webbing, dragging the sled forward. His tail came up. He proudly strode off toward the cabin, towing the heavy load along behind. He did so well, within a few days of work my partner could have loaded the sled and sent him home to me for unloading.

Trapper's appetite came back, his bounce came back. Even though he only hauled a few loads a week, he was in harness again, being productive and knowing he was helping out once more. For Trapper walking on a leash would have been a mark of disgrace. Pulling a sled was a matter of pride.

Miki Collins is a free-lance writer who runs a trapping line in Lake Minchumina, Alaska. She wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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