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September 30, 2012

Walking the Dog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the time I had him, Sundance, a.k.a. Sonny, was the elder statesman of the Silly Lake Pack.  A favorite of Bob and Rick, his breeders, he had led Bob’s teams in both the Fur Rendezvous and the North American open class races.  I had gotten Sonny as an experienced leader in the fall of 2007.  He was nine. 

A couple of days before his eleventh birthday, Sonny made it clear that he wasn’t interested in running anymore.  Just short of three months later, he would slip away overnight while sleeping on my kitchen floor.  Thanks to prednisone, even his last two weeks were pretty good.  Only the evening before he passed away had he not eaten his meal with gusto.  The last thing I said to him was that he was a good boy.

During the three months between his refusing to run and his passing away, I tried on a few occasions to take him out for walks.  Typically, we’d make it about a hundred yards past the kennel at which point he’d have a minor panic attack.   It was as if he figured I was taking him to the Siberian Husky equivalent of the glue factory.  Using walks to get him a bit more exercise as well as some quality time failed. 

Most racing kennels keep dogs through their productive years, then sell them off to less competitive teams.  I’m in the minority.  I keep my dogs for life.  Even when I ran in the Iditarod, the median age of my dogs was over six and in spite of what mushers may claim, that’s already an old team.  

That was four years ago and all of those six year olds are now ten.  Everybody has lost at least step and a half.  Even so, nine of the twelve dogs I’ll be taking on the Serum Run were in my string as we pulled out from Willow.  This includes Quid who will turn eleven in December, Jake and Tempest who turned ten in June, and all of the four year olds I had on that team---they’re now eight. 

With this, there are still dogs I’m going to miss as I pull out of Nenana.  Tok and Sima, particularly, worked as wheel dogs throughout their prime.  I never figured they had too much speed, but they surprised me the year after Iditarod when they easily made the 12 dog team for a 35 mile/day heat based race, a race that definitely required a decent high end.  They still loped beautifully. 

Since that year, however, there has been a steady decline in their performance.  Earlier this spring, Sima was having difficulty just keeping up with the team, even with us moving as slowly as we were.  It looked like a back issue.  Based on this and my vet’s concurrence in a conversation, I put him on rimadyl.  He clearly improved, but he still couldn’t keep up with the team.  Subsequently, my vet confirmed during an examination that he had back problems including some neurological involvement. 

One of the things that is often beneficial for this sort of back problem is light exercise, like walking.  I have always enjoyed walking, particularly at night, so taking dogs for walks has been a plus for me as well.  I decided to try it with Sima.  Leaving the yard, I had no idea what would happen and my experience with Sonny engendered questions regarding how Sima would react.  I didn’t have to wait for answers.  Sima instantly became just another pet dog out on his evening walk delighting in exploring at a slow pace, marking everything in sight, and enjoying being one on one with me.  We’ve now gone on a bunch of walks and any evening I step into the yard, Sima tries to convince me that walking him is why I’m there.

With Sima enjoying the walks as much as he has, I’ve been remembering good times I had with Dawn and Tenaya and Sapura and many other dogs on walks.  These were great, but my walks in Montana have been even better.  Without the interference of streetlights, the magic of the night comes through so much clearer.

The past few nights, particularly, we’ve had clear skies and a full moon.  I’ve worn my headlamp, but I kept it turned off.  Even in shadowed spots, I could make out the ground well enough to maintain good footing. 

My favorite walk takes me along a road as it passes through pastures and to the Clearwater River.  Moonlight provides somber illumination of the bare peaks of the Swan Range---I see these on the way out.  With the exceptionally dry August and September we’ve had, the river itself barely makes a sound. 

The way back is devoid of views, but horses in the pastures do check us out.  Sometimes Sima notices them, sometimes he doesn’t.  Finally, a quarter mile of walking left, we turn down my driveway. Having been along paved street with two broad lanes, the narrow dirt driveway cut through my forest is Sima’s favorite section.  The trees, mostly lodgepole, are again within leg’s reach. 

One of the social behaviors we share with dogs is gloating.  I’m not sure how to test this objectively, but I am sure an objective test will confirm it.  Sima is in full gloat mode when I reattach the snap to his collar.  Happily, the behavior dogs don’t seem to share with us is responding to gloating.  The other dogs are interested in seeing what they can get from me in the form of attention or food, but not really anymore than if I had just entered the yard for a normal session of hugs and kisses.  I’m not more than a foot past the gate exiting the kennel when everybody closes their eyes and goes back to sleep.  

   
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