You Are My Sunshine...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


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Leo and Thunder
On the Move!


I have been negligent of “Nico’s Story” over the summer and into the fall.  I’m not sure why; perhaps it was more important to just be with Thunder as I felt all through the summer that his time was drawing to a close. We also had another senior to take care of, Leo, a 13 year old Akita cross.  Leo belonged to a friend of mine who had been battling cancer for years. Early in August she left her home, a small hobby farm not far from us, for the last time. I began caring for Leo many years ago, before the illness, tending him and the other farm animals when my friend went travelling.  Thunder came with me when I went to do the work and after feeding and cleaning up after the other animals, I took them for walks together.

He and Leo were both in their prime then. Akitas, like Malamutes, are strong minded, and status oriented.  They can be fierce, and troublesome with other dogs.  But Leo was very smart and good natured to the core.  Thunder has always been  an excellent communicator. Leo learned very quickly  how to be with a dog like Thunder; he understood Malamute, and had a spirit of his own that earned Thunder’s respect.

A few years passed before my friend’s illness presented itself and then intensified.  She began having to spend more time in the city for treatments. Leo came here to stay with us while she was away.  By the time he came here for his final visit, ours was already his second home, he and Thunder were old friends, and Nico and Benny well accustomed to his presence and the small changes in routine that went with it.

But Leo arrived in very poor condition. He was thirteen years old, had cancerous tumours himself, and in the confusion that attends the final days of a person in serious decline living alone he’d gone without pain killers.  He was anxious; I am convinced he knew his owner was terminally ill.  Then, in the short interval between his owner’s departure, and my being called to pick him up, he’d fallen and gotten trapped in a window well.  I found him there when I arrived at the farm, got help to hoist him out and brought him to our house. He was scared, exhausted and I thought, done for. But when I helped him out of the vehicle he took one look, saw where he was and marched, if not quite steady, right up the driveway to the front door.  He laid down on the grass like he was coming home, but didn’t move further.   I watched him puffing away and thought, “Well, we’ll see.”

Then Thunder came out of the house. He walked right over to Leo and seemed to say, “Leo, get up.  It's not over 'till its over.  Time to do business. Let’s not embarrass ourselves.”  So Leo got up, and they went down the trail. Not far, just far enough to keep up appearances.

By the next morning Leo was a different dog. He continued to grow in confidence and strength.  He put on weight and soon was announcing visitors if not intruders with that big Akita guardian woof.  It was clear to us that he was drawing assurance and strength of purpose from Thunder’s example.  Equally obvious was  Thunder’s enjoyment of  an addition to his pack who was so much closer to him in age and energy than the younger boys, Benny and Nico,  in the yard.  The old fellows gave one another space, but kept track of each other in every regard, including checking out bodily functions.

Leo soon established a guardian position on the hillside where he could watch all entrances to our property, the garage and the house.  Thunder meanwhile gravitated to a corner in the flowerbed at the back of the house where he could keep an eye on the youngsters  in the yard, the kitchen and of course the refrigerator, as well as Leo in his position up front.  Thunder eventually dug a hole back there; I knew then that he was telling me something important.

September came around, and we saw  both Leo and Thunder choosing to spend more and more time in the bedroom rather than out of doors.  Then one day I went in and found the two of them lying at the foot of the bed. Their heads were just inches apart and they were looking directly at each other. It was quite a picture – Akita, Malamute, two adult males who had not been raised together, but respectful and, if not overtly affectionate, certainly bonded.

It seemed to me that I had interrupted a serious conversation. I imagine it went like this: Leo says, “Thunder, you go first.  I’m scared.”  Thunder says, “Hey, how come I always have to go  first?”  Leo says, “Because you’re the Malamute.  Malamutes are never scared. They always go first. ”  Thunder says “Leo. You're Akita. Akita's aren't scared either."  Leo says, "Ah. You forget: I'm an Akita cross. The cross part is scared." Thunder says, "Oh. Alright. It's true. I’m not scared. I’ll check it out. When I come back for you, be ready.”  Leo says, “I’ll be ready.”

Thunder stopped eating at the end of September.  Our vet gave him the grace with dignity and without suffering on October the 2nd. We buried him in the spot he had chosen behind the house in those last weeks.  Leo went into serious decline shortly after. Meanwhile his owner had passed away and we attended her memorial service the following weekend.   Then one week later, on the14th of October, Leo went down and couldn’t get up. We called our vet; she explained what had happened to him, and eased his way.

After a while I was able to write to our vet, Dr. Rosemarie Bahr to thank her. I respect and admire Dr. Rose deeply. She does the hardest thing in the world with sincere compassion, gentle humanity and the absolute confidence we all need most as heartbreak beckons.  Not only did she come at a time of great inconvenience to her for Thunder, but was kind enough to do the same also for Leo although he was not in her long-time charge.

Because I don’t have a better way of describing how much it meant to us to have Leo in our lives, and in Thunder’s at this time, I share part of that letter here:

I find myself grieving Leo and Thunder together, and that is right and true.  For Leo ought to be grieved as every dog should, and he has no one left who would feel this sad at his passing. Thunder was the consummate pack dog, and is much happier  running in my heart with a partner  than alone. How fitting then, that he make this final journey with this, a friend of many years, who so easily embraced  the Malamute way, even while remaining entirely his remarkable Leo-self.

I have to be sad for a while.  Loss does that to you; it’s the price you pay for love.  But always, better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.  Sled dogs don’t go backwards, only forwards, and the final honouring of Thunder’s life and memory has to be in my doing just that, regardless of how heavy the load behind.

Forwards now.  Forwards.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


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 Thunder passed away on October 2nd, 2011. 
 He is deeply missed by us all. 

 In his prime, 2004

With his boy, Sebastian,  Marmora Sno-Fest, 2005

 With Sebastian:
 The Adventure Team

 With his Best Buddy
Bernese Mountain Dog Teddy  (2000-2007)

With Nico: His Protege

With Kandi, his friend, and Benny, his young lookalike and second protege

My Thunder, Always and Forever

Sled dogs go forwards and not backwards,
and that is what you would have us do,
but if only for an hour I could reverse the clock
it would be to run  just one more time with you.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Full House

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 Three Dog Nights

Clockwise:  Benny, Thunder, Nico, that is if you are talking about the placement of face shots this collage. In terms of getting up in the morning and who starts at what time, the order is a little different. All three boys are sleeping inside most nights now. There are just too many mosquitos and deer flies out there and they are especially vicious when the humidity is high. So after our evening walk we brush off what we can, scurry into the house and curl up in the basement where it is cool and blessedly bug free, at least after the first few minutes of deer fly squishing and mosquito bashing.

Come morning its Benny who starts things moving.  He remains the most loving, overtly affectionate Malamute I have ever met.  Just before daylight he climbs in to bed with me.  Anyone who ever had a child I'm sure remembers deluding themselves with the notion that if they let the toddler  climb into bed with them
they would settle down and everyone could grab another hour or so of sleep.  Settling down happens for about three minutes.  Benny lies there very quietly just gently pushing his head against my chin.  I stroke his head and then as I doze off and stop petting him he pushes a little harder.  Soon he's flat on his back wriggling, wanting his tummy rub, and pushing me with his legs at the same time. If I stop rubbing  he pushes harder. He is now an adult Malamute of a working dog line. His legs are long and strong and   when he pushes there is no ignoring it!

Needless to say we are soon up and about.  Benny goes out into the yard and we collect Nico, who spends the night under the bed upstairs where Rick sleeps.  I would sleep there too, except  when all the dogs are in, they all want to be in the same room with us and that's just too much Malamute in one room.  So I sleep downstairs with Benny, Rick sleeps upstairs and Nico, who long ago claimed the space under our bed as our safe place, crawls in and doesnt' come out 'till morning.

That is, until I put Benny out in the yard. Then Rick brings Nico to the back door and both dogs get some yard time before breakfast.  Great.  It's only about five a.m.  Rick and I crawl back into bed congratulating ourselves on building the yard so the boys can have a play time in the cool hours of early morning while we steal a few more minutes of sleep.  Something like the thinking parents have when they make the back yard  child safe and fill it with interactive toys, thinking that the kids can enjoy the sandbox and the teeter totter in the morning while they doze.

Of course, the first thing that happens in the yard is the singing lesson. Benny gets in Nico's face, barking, or at least making the Malamute approximation of a bark.  He wants Nico to play  but Nico isn't ready yet to rip and tear. So instead he starts to sing, opening up a full throated howl which Benny tries to imitate.  They do this in  the afternoon as well, and then it  becomes a full fledged operatic training session. Benny actually tries to match pitch with Nico, his voice breaking, and faltering, and then as it would appear he gains breath control, finally joining Nico in full coloratura. In the morning however it quickly deteriorates to rather  silly   yips and woofs. Then they start to run.

That lasts for about fifteen minutes. We watch from the bedroom window and it is better than television. By now of course we are fully awake, but have not quite abandoned the hope of more sleep.  That comes soon though as both boys suddenly realize they haven't had breakfast yet, and that the waiters are just on the other side of that screened window watching them.

So, at Nico's instigation they leave off playing and begin to yip and yodel in that time honoured way that every Malamute ever born has used to manipulate his or her people into delivering food.  That's it for sleep: we're up and about now and its breakfast for the boys, a walk in the woods and forget about sleeping in. Forever!

Forever.  I like that word when it comes to our dogs, which brings us to Thunder.  He is still with us and if not a hundred per cent all the time, still enjoys quality of life.  He doesn't sleep outside at all anymore, or at least not in the yard. He still likes his porch and asks to go out, or come in in the course of the night sometimes two or three times.  So in terms of the clock, Thunder is pretty much a twenty-four hour concern.  That's alright.  Rick has gotten used to getting up and opening the door for him and very nearly does it in his sleep now.

We don't exactly know why Thunder is so restless sometimes.  He is on medication that eases the pain but we think maybe despite that sometimes he just can't get comfortable. Sometimes he settles if I lie down on the floor beside him. Other times he doesn't want to be touched, just wants to know we are  nearby.  Come morning though he is as lively as the other two, coaching the play in the yard from the window without sparing  his voice or the peace of the neighbourhood.

Best of all, is when after eating, when Rick takes him and Benny out into the front field to do business.  He starts out with Benny on the long leash.  Thunder doesn't need to be attached anymore as he is no longer interested in running off anywhere, and if he were to decide he was we know we  can now outrun him.  Benny sticks with Thunder like glue, so once Rick gets them out in the middle of the field he lets Benny loose. Then they run in together. This was the way we used to let Thunder run off his energy when he was in his prime. He always got a treat when he made it to the front door  and so you can be sure he always ran straight for the porch every time.  Now  he sometimes runs  straight while Benny tries to cut him off, but other times gives in to Benny's playfullness and runs in circles with him until he remembers he's not a pup anymore, then heads up the hill to the house.

Thunder makes me think of my father, who like Thunder suffers severely from arthritis and has some substantial structural damage that makes walking, much less running, a decision. However, if he hears a  a fiddle tune, a jig or a reel, my father cannot keep his feet still and then he's up and dancing like he did in his youth. Of course, he can't walk for a week after that.  Thunder similarly, spends the day getting over his ten minute indulgence, but is a wonderful thing to watch him him play like that. Thunder has always been a pretty serious Malamute, since he came to us anyway.  He and Nico never played much:  I think it might have been important with Thunder to keep the lines of authority very clear with Nico.  With Benny however he seems to feel no such imperative. Perhaps this is because Benny so obviously and consistently shows a puppy attitude.  Whatever the reason, they make a delightful Grampa and his boy pair together.  It gives us great joy to see Thunder having fun with Benny, and then curling up near him when they come in the house like the great old friends they have become.

This is Benny's great gift: his ability to find a way to get along with just about anybody, and even more, to get them to play and enjoy life.  I suppose it is what any young creature brings to a household: a breath of fresh air, the lightness of heart that makes the day seem short even when it starts at five a.m.  He and Nico are now quite established in their understanding of each other. They enjoy  the yard together during the cooler, less bug ridden times of  day and do continue to sleep together out there on dry cool nights.  Nico, a middle aged dog now, no longer has the frantic energy of the young Malamute to work out, his own that is. He does however have Benny's energy to content with, and that is keeping him fit and young in body.  Meanwhile Benny  finds in Nico a strong, athletic adult dog who can certainly keep up with him for having the muscle development and endurance of an adult, if not the frantic but short lived energy of a yearling who has yet to learn what it is to pull in harness. It is Benny who starts the play to be sure, but it is Nico who, once Benny is worn out, shows that he is just getting warmed up.  That's when I put Nico in harness and he hauls the wood dumped in our driveway up to the woodshed, while Benny, like any other teenager I ever met, lies around on his back in the yard, all four legs in the air, plugged in if not to his IPOD, then the birdsong and frog-croak equivalent.

The Benny - Nico - Thunder interaction, while endless fascinating to me on a daily basis, has become something natural and easy to live with, therefore less subject to minute circumspection.  I haven't been writing a lot in this blog as a result. I will try to post more pictures as we go along, and as we get better with the camera.  Meanwhile I have been working more on Nico's back story.  Nico will always be my miracle dog: another installment describing more of what that miracle entailed will be coming soon.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Benny's First Winter!

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What sled dogs do best!

Happy Birthday to Me

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Benny turned one year old on April 21st.  He is sound, healthy and strong as a little bull.  He and Nico are sustaining an equitable relationship, although Benny does not always back down anymore, and we must, as is always the case with Malamutes,  remember to keep the lines of authority clear.  Benny relies on us to make sure Nico knows he is not truly in charge. Nico even more so!

Who's in charge?

So there is nothing  much  exciting to report on the integration front, but I continue to find the evolving relationship between all three of these dogs endlessly novel and fascinating.  Nico's story  thoroughly embedded now in that of Thunder, and Benny.  Neither Thunder nor Benny have ever suffered mistreatment from human hands;  I see such marked differences in the way they deal with things compared to Nico.  The primary difference is the the degree to which Benny and Thunder both readily, if not automatically, defer to human judgement.

This is me on my birthday.  I could be a show dog.
But I'd rather get that cookie she just dropped...

All Malamutes are independent of mind, but Benny and Thunder are quite inclined to look to me before taking action. Nico on the other hand, acts first, looks to see what I might be doing about the situation second. I noticed the same difference when I had a similar situation years ago: two  Malamutes, one of whom I raised and one a Breeder Rescue.  I adopted the Rescue after she had been thoroughly messed up by foolish and abusive owners.  As is the case with Nico, before she came to me, she had learned that humans cannot be trusted.

The trust pact with dogs is a fascinatingly complex contract.  Domestication of animals makes humans into gods: we have control over these animals lives in every way.  But we do not control them: this is the mistake I feel many animal owners  make, one perpetuated by trainers, and even the very concept of  "obedience training."  The notion that you can make an animal to perform consistently to expectations like a machine  is silly. Animals as well as people can be conditioned to react in specific ways to specific stimuli; this possibility is the essence of most training programs one way or another.  Hold your hand over your dogs head and he will likely sit in order to see it.  Say the word "sit" when you do it, and give him a cookie when he complies, and after a while you can pretty much count on him to sit when you use the word or the hand signal.

Except -- and Malamute owners for the most part know all about "except."  Except when there is a squirrel, except when there is other food, except when playing seems like more fun!  Malamutes aren't the only dogs who have no trouble ignoring human requests when something else is more attractive.  However some breeds are more inclined to prioritize human expectations than others.  Malamutes are not on this list!

Quite frankly, when working with any other living creatures I do not think of having  control over  them at all, be they dogs, horses or children!  What I can exercise control over is my own behavior; if I get that right, I find my animals, anyone I am associated with really,  general falls into the congenial behaviors that allow us to live together.

The essence of the  relationship between human and domsticated animal is trust. We have absolute control over the lives of the creatures that are dependent upon us. We control their food, their shelter, and the emotional climate in which they live.  Emotional climate is not the least of these for we all know that if an animal lives in a context where fear and anger prevail, he will emerge nervous and irritable.  An animal that lives with humans who speak quietly and move easily and whose behavior is consistently reliable responds in kind.  Similarly, any animal that lives with love and affection learns to seek the same.

Some time in Nico's life that trust was violated.  Somewhere sometime someone who had the responsibility of providing shelter and food for this dog, joined that provision to anger and violence.  When Nico came here as a result he bolted his food, looking left and right flinching at the least movement on anyone's part.  Shelter meant hiding in the corner of the dog house and it was not the elements he was cowering from.  Benny and Thunder never had those experiences; they take their shelter, their food and the affection which is a part of their daily lives for granted.    As a result, they also look to us first when things go wrong.  It doesn't mean they dont' think for themsevles: I've never met a Malamute yet who didn't have his own ideas about what we ought to do to solve a problem. But Nico on the other hand, in a crisis acts entirely on his own, flinching,   running, counting on himself and no one else.

At least, initially.  Which brings me to his miracle, the miracle of trust regained. I did not complete that sentence with "and when cornered would probably attack."  For when Nico first came here, I had no choice but to corner him, and in that moment, instead of attacking, he let me pick him up.  What kind  of courage that took  I cannot pretend to image.   I wonder it that moment was one of,  longing for the kind of safety animals instinctively seem to know humans of the right disposition can provide.  Whatever it was it is is what has sustained me in working through his challenges.

The last of these of course is achieving integration with a new pack member, Benny.  In the course of that journey I have seen time and again that Benny automatically looks to me to take charge in moments of crisis. Thunder does the same.  Nico looks to me too, but it is not automatic.  He makes a decision every time. He hesitates, he pulls back, he tries to run in the opposite direction.   His ears hug his skull,  and his whole body retracts into a defensive hardness. It last for but a split second now, then he visibly relaxes and then  I know he will comply. In that moment, the miracle is renewed, and I marvel once again at the great gift that is an animal's trust.

It is a gift that is easily taken for granted when you work with dogs  like Benny, or Thunder.  But when you work with a dog whose trust has been violated, when you have to earn it back, you are reminded of its worth.  Trust is the pearl without price:  if it is shared there is no social problem that can't be solved. If it is not then there is there is only conflict, domination and defeat, and everyone is a loser.

Benny is one year old now, a fully integrated member of this family, Nico's pack.  Nico's journey into trust and joy has without question been wonderfully enhanced as has my learning of who he is and just what a dog's relationship with his humans and his world might be.  So I learn about trust and courage. So I learn from my dogs.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ten Months and Counting

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Ten Months and Counting

A few days ago, February 21, Benny turned ten months old.  Anyone who has raised a puppy, and particularly a Malamute puppy, knows that this is the period of challenge, the age where a young Malamute who has an eye to being top dog is going to start taking on all comers to test and eventually establish his status. It is also the age, someone told me, where the testosterone levels in an un-neutered pup peak.

Benny, for being a gentle soul, is no exception.  Being neutered of course takes the testosterone escalation out of the equation, but it does nothing to diminish the burgeoning  independence typical of the breed, nor the sense of hierarchy and the imperative for  Malamutes of  being clear about your place in it.  It is therefore with great relief and happiness that I report that even though Nico can no longer drag Benny around the yard by the scruff of his neck if Benny doesn't want to be dragged, Benny still frequently, and apparently happily acquiesces to Nico's idea of play, obliging him with the appearance of compliance. Nico, for his part, has grasped  that when Benny really doesn't want to go down,  its not time for that kind of play.  More significantly, Nico does not force him, which means it really is mostly about play, and not overbearing dominance.  

Our boys have been sleeping together  in the yard every night for about three weeks without incident.  We started leaving them alone up there after dark when we saw the play was stopping and they were settling into quiet mode. They went to bed together and, it would appear, in the morning they still respected each other.

This is an important marker for us:  previously in the evenings Nico would push Benny hard to play. But  Benny's efforts were half-hearted. He showed all the signs of a pup ready for bed while Nico would become increasingly more frantic and overexcited.  On three occasions we heard Benny squeal and rushed to pull him out.  Clearly no one was having fun anymore.  Taking Benny out at this point reminded Nico that lack of restraint meant being alone in the yard. His behavior after every one of these incidents consistently showed us that he got the connection.  Meanwhile, Benny grew stronger, more mature, and we watched for a pattern. I discovered that if  instead of taking them for a walk in the late afternoon just before dark, I just let them run in the yard together, both dogs enjoyed the play and then they settled for the night.  So I quit the late afternoon walk and soon they were spending every night together.

Sometimes at night when the animals come out of the woods and start prowling close enough to the yard for Nico to notice, he starts running. He gets very agitated; this is when he is most unstable. One night I heard growl and snarl and rushed up to the yard in my red flannel night gown and big green ugly boots to get Benny out.  That set us back:  Nico's still a nervous dog, and can be highly territorial about his safe places. When something comes near that he cannot actually get at he goes into high defensive gear. This is an aggressive mode and anything that's in his way is likely to get hit.  After this incident I said to Rick, maybe we just can't leave them together at night.

Nico on Intruder Alert

And yet, when I tried to take Benny to his kennel the next couple of evenings, he ran back into the yard every time.  The message was clear: nice big yard up here, two dog houses: Why can't I stay there like Nico does?  So we tried again.  A couple of nights passed without incident. Then one night  I heard Nico running again, panting, barking, even growling.  I went to the back door and looked for Benny. Nowhere in sight. He is mostly a black dog, and it was a dark night, but  I knew he must be up there somewhere.  I walked up to the gate and then he came out of his dog house towards me. Nico left off running to come and join in the greeting. 

Now that's a smart puppy: it only had to happen once, getting jumped by Nico in high stress mode, and Benny learned to stay out of Nico's way when he's running.  Rather than join in when Nico is clearly focussed on something outside the yard, Benny just lies down in his dog house.  Relax, Benny says. Nico's not interested in attacking me. He just needs some space. 

So our boys are doing alright  indeed. Better than alright.  They're a pretty devoted pair. The "play" appears ferocious sometimes, but when I step in to intervene both dogs look up at me as if to say, "What?" and then as soon as I step away pick up where they left off.  Benny is a few pounds heavier than Nico now, taller, bigger in frame.  Benny will likely always defer to Nico. Nico is older, wiser, and quite frankly, it's more important to him.  Benny just wants to have fun.

Yes: Benny does like to have fun.  So does Nico. Nico will be five this spring: he  really is quite grown up, and does try very hard to be sensible. But his inner puppy is never very far beneath the surface. On walks  Nico will behave quite sedately, ignoring Benny's overtures.  Then, he looks him right in the eye. The twinkle is unmistakable, and it's on:  jump and roll and laugh when the humans trying to untangle leashes and get us back on the trail.

How fast do you think Rick can run in the deep snow Nico?
I don't know Benny, but its more fun if you take them by surprise.
Look calm, get ready, now GO!

In the house the behavior is similar.  Nico truly is a fun loving dog who will always want to play and he does find Benny  irresistable.   More than that:  Benny is a playmate who is not afraid of him. Benny likes the same kinds of games as he does, and plays them just as hard.  Next to being rescued and coming here  to live with Thunder who taught him that life can be good to a dog, Benny is the best thing that ever happened to Nico. Sure they have their moments, these boys: we will continue to be vigilant, and intervene when the intensity escalates beyond what we are comfortable with. But over and over again Benny shows, as he grows up, that he can deal with Nico using his intelligence and his steadiness,  not his teeth.  He is just what Nico needs. In turn, Nico pushes Benny  to be strong, fit and always on the ball, if not chasing it.  Ten months, ten years, a lifetime: Its pretty old fashioned to count sleeping together as the marker of an enduring  relationship, but we are ready to celebrate.

We have to just lie here.
Mum says no playing in the house Benny.

This isn't  play.
I'm just telling him  a secret. 

What? We weren't doing anything?

On the other hand, if we fuss enough in the house
they will take us for a walk! 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

3 Dogs Full

Nico demonstrates
The Infamous Malamute
Aerial Sit

Three Dogs Full

Despite the scare our Thunder gave us last fall when his inexplicably strange behavior suggested a stroke, it is to our unmitigated delight we find we remain a three dog house.   Better yet, all three dogs get along in the house, and out of it.  As winter wears on we find that Thunder more and more likes to stay inside, while Benny and Nico enjoy the cold, and each other, outside in the play yard. And yet, all three dogs make it clear they want to spend time with each other.  It is as we hoped, and better.  We are grateful, for Thunder's continued presence in our lives, and hope that our household continues to be three dogs full for along time yet. 

Don't you just hate it when they take the pictures from on high?
Makes us look like we have no legs.

 Hey Benny, Tell you a secret....
Nico says the purple ball is really  an alien communication device.
I don't think I believe him. Do I?
Hello? Anybody listening?
Say what? Benny, Call home?

Malamutes are the original 40 below dogs.  So on a cold and wintry night where will you find them?

On the sofa, next to the fire!

Stand for Examination?

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Stand for Examination?

The "stand for examination" command is one of those obedience class exercises that seems to have little purpose unless you intend to go to trial with your dog, or  show him or her in the breed ring.  In the breed ring handlers use treats to bait the dog so he  will stand up tall and gorgeous while the judge walks around and judges his overall structure.  Then the judge runs  her  hands over the dog to see if the competitor feels sound.  In the obedience ring, the judge does similar things as I recall, to see if the dog will stand still for it.

But in any  "normal,"  non-testing context what exactly is it worth that your dog will reliably stand and stay on request? Well, grooming I suppose is one of those times when it would be nice to have a dog stand still, not that any obedience trained dogs I ever worked on, including my own, could ever be counted on to stand still without hands on support when I hit a knot.  Veterinary examination is another moment when it could help, though  most dogs stand still enough if you hold on to them for that. Nonetheless, it always helps to have a word a dog understands that means get on your feet, no tap dance please.

However there is one context where the "stand" word is absolutely essential.  I wrote last time about how Nico is seriously troubled by snowshoes. Every winter we start all over again in terms of settling him down around them.  Well, young Benny is of course completely the opposite. He loves snow shoes!  They are more fun than big fuzzy bedroom slippers.  You can grab the wood and chew: this is especially fun when the  wearer is mid stride. You can stand on the rawhide deck. This is the best if you do it right when the wearer is about to pick up their foot!  Best of all, when the wearer falls down  you lie on the shoes. Snowshoes are big enough that a young malamute can get a lot of body weight on that surface.

Being the wearer of the snowshoe when the young Malamute has decided to lie down on the shoe I can tell you that when this happens  it is impossible to stand up. Benny thinks this is hilarious. Further to his fun, he has found he is long enough in the body to lick my face while still keeping most of his body weight on at least one if not both of the snowshoes.  Meanwhile of course, Nico is trying to get away.  After all, what does a pup know?  Snowshoes are scary.

I am no gymnast.  At least, I've never been one before. But every time a young Malamute comes into my life I do find I can bend and twist and achieve leverage in ways I never thought physically possible. Come to think of it, they probably aren't possible, but necessity has a way of overriding the limitations of Newtonian physics.

Then, I had a  Eureka moment!  One day as I was lying in the snow watching the distance increase between  my hyper-extended right arm (Nico's leash)  and my twisted and bent left arm (Benny's leash), while pinioned by my snowshoes under a giggling Benny, one word came to mind: STAND.  Yes!  Stand for Examination!  We'd only just starting working on this one, Benny and me. Its a tough thing for a pup because heretofore if you're not  moving, its always "sit" or "down." If you're on your feet, its "Heel," or "Come."  Stopping means sitting. Anyway, lying there on the ground enjoying that Spa Malamute double treat, the snowbath with  face wash, I tried it.

Benny, Benny?  Benny: WATCH ME.  No Benny, I don't want you to lick my face, just pay attention. Now "Stand."  No hand signal of course. I had a leash in each hand and Nico was on the end of one of them,  already standing, watching all of this with no small concern.  I'll make a long story not too much longer by telling you that eventually Benny did stand. Of course, he stood on the snowshoes quite immovably for a while. This is because at this stage all of our go out signals involve me moving my feet.  So Benny  stood quite calmly, solidly still, and it was time  for the  Spa Malamute flexibility test. That involves rising up off the ground, going straight up without moving your feet. But evenutally we got on our way.

You can be sure that "stand" has now become a much more important word to us, and you can be sure I am also working on "go out" as a total verbal signal.  In fact Benny's got "stand" going on pretty consistently now, he just hasn't quite got  understand the next part, "Stand, but not on my snowshoes!"

One of the most delightful things about bringing Benny into our family is the way he is making Nico feel a lot more relaxed about all kinds of things, including snowshoes.  I've had the snowshoes out for about two or three weeks now, and even Nico is getting better about  staying  staying still while I put the shoes on.  But  Nico still gets scared if I fall down. His first reaction then  is to pull away.  The other day though, Benny decided to stop dead in his tracks right in front of me. His big feet were of course squarely placed on the deck  on my snowshoe. So I fell, I fell hard. My knee hit a rock the ones that grow in the snow, just out of sight.

 I did not curse.  But  I did say something and I said it loud.  It might have been, "BENNY You are ADORABLE".   

Benny thinks he's adorable too, so he licked my face.  But even before he could get started, there was Nico right by Benny's side.  He'd come, despite his fear of the snowshoes, closer to the snowshoes than ever before,  on his own volition.  His goal was to  get Benny out of there before the shoes got him.  Really.  There is no other explanation.  Benny did as he always does when Nico seems to be upset about something that makes no sense to him. He laid down and said "Lets make snow-dog-angels".  

All in all, Benny's insistence on intimate relations with my snowshoes seems to help reassure Nico, in a way that I have not been able to over the years, that  there's nothing to fear from the big shoes, at least not on my watch.  There are other ways in which Nico has shown that Benny's steadiness settles him.  Benny is the younger dog and he looks to Nico to take the lead. But his confidence that the world is essentially a benevolent place has never been shaken, and hopefully never will be. They are a pretty good team:   should Benny's easy view of the world  ever prove wrong, he's got Nico looking out for him. Meanwhile Nico jumps less at shadows, saving his nerves for when it counts, and mine! 

Rawhide is pretty tough.
Maybe these snowshoes will live to see another day!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Thunder: Still in charge!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

 You boys:
I want to know what you did with that  cat
and I want to know now.

Stand by... er.. stand on me?

Creative Commons Licence

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada License.

Stature has nothing to do with height.
But when in doubt, take the high ground where ever you can find it!