You Are My Sunshine...

The Sun Also Rises: Thunder, Nico and Teddy, who started it all.

The Sun Also Rises:
A Rescue Story

Nico, a young pup of Mal-mix parentage was picked up from the streets of Edmonton   sometime in the spring of 2007. Wild, untouchable, frantic with fear, he was pronounced unadoptable by shelter staff  and sentenced to death row.

About the same time in Ontario, a much beloved family pet, Teddy, was going into decline.  Teddy was a Bernese Mountain Dog. He’d been  being diagnosed with severe elbow dysplasia at about one year of age but had managed, with therapeutic massage and a daily dose of meloxicam, to enjoy seven happy, virtually pain-free years of more or less normal dog activity. Then things started to go wrong.  We went to the vet, upped the medication and waited for Teddy to bounce back. He didn’t.  A lifetime of compensating for his faulty front legs had taken its toll; his entire structure was giving way.  Teddy stopped eating, dug a hole under the house and hid. I told my husband, Rick, who was new to this kind of heartbreak, it was time for that last long ride to the vet.


He put Teddy’s bed in the back of the truck and lifted him up. I climbed in and held Teddy in my arms.  When we got to the clinic our vet kindly came outside, knelt on the tailgate, and delivered Teddy from pain in the comfort of his own bed and familiar surroundings.  She  let us know seconds before he lost consciousness so we could speak soft words that he might still hear.  He let go with one last long sigh and she covered him with a blanket.   We brought him home, dug a deep hole and gave him back to the earth.
But not before letting Thunder, our AMHL Rescue from 2004, and Teddy’s canine companion for the last three years, have a good look and a last long sniff before we all said goodbye.

What happened next took me by surprise, but in retrospect was entirely predictable.  Thunder became a different dog.  Although a typical Malamute food thief, Thunder had no serious vices.  From the day he arrived in our home, a fully grown, high-energy, sled dog, he exhibited exemplary house manners (after he stole the pork chops).  Inside the house he was your typical well-adjusted mature Malamute, finding a cool corner to lie in, generally leaving things that weren’t “his” alone (the butter dish being the exception). He was never particularly needy of attention; it was enough for him to know where we were and that we knew how to open the refrigerator.

Thunder / Teddy 2004
Now he was pushing up against us all the time, whimpering for no reason, shredding his bed, blankets, towels.  We were mourning Teddy too so it took me a day or two to figure out that Thunder was acting out his own distress. But of course, as I explained to my husband when the lights came on, Thunder had never been an “only dog.”  He came into Rescue as an owner-surrender so we knew he had lived most of his previous life with a Malamute companion. He was about four years old when he came to us, and had spent his days since then with Teddy. Thunder was telling us, in no uncertain terms: we needed another dog  and we needed one now.

None of us were ready for this. Teddy had broken our hearts  But Malamutes are smart about the things that matter.  When they insist, we ignore them at our peril.  Now the  only question was, what kind of dog do we get? 

I should explain: Thunder  was Teddy’s gift to me. Mallies were a part of my life in the past, but my husband, Rick, had never had dogs and didn’t want one.  When we started out together we lived in the city, but that was temporary as far as I was concerned, as was not having a dog.  So after we closed the deal on a rural property, I went dog-shopping. We chose BMD  because I thought Malamute would be too much dog for a first-timer like Rick.  I don’t know if I was right about that, but I do know that Teddy turned out to be the key to the part of a man’s heart that is all about gentle, uncompromising kindness rooted in the possibility of unconditional love.

When Teddy’s condition presented itself, however, it was obvious he would never be a running dog.  We all loved him to bits, but for me, having known the joy of Malamute exuberance in my life, something was missing.  After taking Teddy for his leisurely off-leash walks I’d find myself cruising  AMHL’s “Virtual Kennel”, like a wino on the wagon sniffing corks.  One evening a new listing appeared and, who knows why, but my heart lurched. I said to my husband, “There’s my dog.”  Now here’s the miracle: my husband, Mister “We don’t need a dog. I don’t want a dog. If you get a dog I won’t have anything to do with it,” looked up from giving Teddy his nightly massage and said, “Well, you better go get him.” 

I checked Rick's drink.  When I was sure he would remember what he said in the morning, I hugged him, Teddy I mean, and whispered in his big floppy ear,  “Thank you.”  The Malamute whose face had stolen my heart was Thunder, a sled-dog raised in a BC lumber camp.  His owner was leaving the country; Thunder needed new digs.  Rescue  approved the adoption, tapped into the miracle dog-transport network, and before long I was at the airport in Ottawa picking up my dog.

When Thunder came to us he was in his prime as a working dog. It was Thunder who taught Rick  that Malamute is magnificent (provided your wife does the running). He also showed him that bringing home a Rescue Dog has its own rewards.   Years of reading  AMHL’s Howler, and following the stories of adopted Mals like Thunder left  no question in Rick’s mind as to where we should be looking for Thunder’s next companion.
Thunder: A running Mal in his prime!

So I got on the net and went straight to AMHL’s Virtual Kennel.  This time wasn’t quite like when I found Thunder: I wasn’t missing Malamute, I wasn’t even sure our household was up to another Mallie. But Thunder needed a dog, and if the man who once said, “No dogs” was saying “Yes Malamute,” I wasn’t going to wait for Thunder to steal his T-Bone and give him cause to reconsider.

Back in Alberta, Nico’s time was running out. AMHL had heard about the young Mal on death row in the nick of time, picked him up and placed him in foster care.  He was now safe but this  was clearly a dog whose temperament had been severely damaged by  human brutality. Nico needed some very special attention and a permanent home soon.

Meanwhile I was cruising the listings  with Thunder’s temperament and compatability issues in mind.  I  called Judy Harvey, Alberta’s Rescue Co-ordinator under whose name a likely dog was listed but the dog I’d spotted had just found an adopter. Then Judy said “What about the young Nico?”

Younger dogs are easily placed, I thought.  I should take a dog whose chances were not so good.  But Judy said, No. “This one is special, and  we’re not going to find him a home out here.“ The dog was in Alberta; at this time there was a surfeit of needy Mals in the West.  “Will he ship?” I asked.  How would such a fearful dog stand up to the stress of a flight?  “We don’t have a lot of options,” Judy said. “He can’t stay where he is and no one has come forward for him.” So arrangements were made, and early one December morning I found myself on the road once again to Ottawa airport. 

The flight was late. We waited in the shipping terminal. I found it hard to stand still.  Then there was a flurry of activity at the back of the room, and I caught a glimpse of the  big dog crate. My dog: he’d arrived.  Terminal staff pushed the crate out into the parking lot and left me to figure out what to do next.  I peered through the mesh in the door, but  I couldn’t  see anything. Nico had pressed himself so far into the back of the crate I couldn’t believe there was even a dog in there.  This was going to be interesting: he wasn’t coming out, and the oversized crate would not fit in the back of my truck without being dismantled.  

What came to pass in the next few hours, weeks and months is the story of what it takes to bring around a dog who has been severely damaged by human violence at a very young age.  All that really matters though is that I did manage to get Nico out of that crate, into my truck and home, and since then, with Thunder’s help and enormous patience on everyone’s part, Nico has grown into trust. He has matured and become a well-adjusted confident young dog who is a joy to us all, including Thunder. Thunder’s behaviour, by the way, returned to normal the moment he laid eyes on Nico.

We joke that Thunder was taken aback, that  he was hoping for another nice easy BMD– type buddy, like Teddy, and when he saw I’d brought him a  young crazy Malamute and a needy one at that he thought about going back to BC.  But Mallies are dogs who rise up to meet the job.  Thunder knew from the get-go what his job with Nico was going to be:  show him how to take on the world with a wolfish grin,  get what you can off the table when no one is looking, be quick about it if they are.

Nico is my Golden Mal.  His coat is properly described as dilute red, but what I see is  pure sunshine flecked with joy.  Just looking at him makes me happy.  While I doubt he will ever be comfortable in new situations involving strangers or crowds,  he has grown confident and relaxed with people he knows.  He has proven himself a delightful and devoted family companion, has become well–mannered in the house and walks easily on-leash in town (so long as no one comes out of their houses or gets out of their cars).  He is strong as an ox and in winter hauls our firewood uphill to the house, then drags me on skis ‘round the trails at a dead run. Still a pup at heart, what he seems to like most is playing and racing around the fenced yard.

We like to say that Thunder rescued Nico. If Thunder hadn’t insisted on a companion when he did we would not have gone looking for a dog in time to be there in time for Nico.  He was no longer a pup and the window in which he might learn to overcome his fears through constant attention, further exposure and training was closing.  Furthermore it was Thunder that Nico trusted first, Thunder, who showed him that not all humans are dangerous, Thunder who made Nico’s first steps towards us possible.

Thunder and Nico
But we also know that Nico saved Thunder from the confusion and loneliness from which a dog-bonded dog can die.  And Nico has given Thunder, now aging, a new lease on youth for, like any young Mal, Nico is persistent when he wants to play. Thunder, grumpy at first, soon gives up the dignity act and joins in.

Indeed, Nico is Teddy’s last and greatest gift to us all in this home.  This young, needy dog proved more than a distraction from our sadness over Teddy. He is, as dogs do, building spaces in our hearts that are his and his alone. A new dog never replaces one who has passed, but Nico has more than done his part to make our hearts strong, our lives whole, and our time on this earth rich in all the things that matter. 

AMHL rescues needy Mals, but at the end of the day, it’s the dogs who do the rescuing, delivering  the people they give their lives over to from selfishness, meaningless preoccupations and destructive obsessions. This my husband learned when he gave his heart to Teddy;  this I am reminded of every time  I run  Thunder and Nico down the trail. Would I could lean over one more time and whisper in Teddy’s ear, “Thank you.” It is a message I like to think he gets when Nico puts his head under my hand for a chin-scratch, or Thunder leans in for a stand-up belly rub.  I like to think that when Nico runs, Teddy’s spirit soars.

"The Sun Also Rises" was first published in the Spring 2010 issue of the Help League Howler, newsletter of the Alaskam Malamute Help League. To learn more about AMHL, Alaskan Malamutes available in Rescue and how you can help a Malamute in need, go to

TITLE: Nico's Story / B. Sallans