This past week, as Tok and I snow shoed with a group of friends. As we grabbed a snack in the golf course parking lot, another dog owner drove in with her canines. Like us, she was there to take her three dogs out in the snow. She saw my snow shoes, and complimented Tok’s mask. “How old is he?” “11 months.” She nodded and replied, “Ah, too young to harness yet, eh?” I nodded in return and her partner joined her holding harness. “Ready to let them out?” I pulled Tok’s lead closer to me. Already their three dogs were barking greetings to my pup, and he was whining in return (Huskies whine, as if talking to you).
After the commotion, one of the owners called over to me, “Have you been watching the race?”
The race. If you live in Alaska, you follow it. Very much like living in the Carolinas, you know that “the race” denotes NASCAR; here, it means the Iditarod.
Having gone to a school and befriended many animal rights activists, “the race” had always been talked about from another point of view: a PETA-based point of view. And whereas, I understand from where they come, and how animal rights activists can demoralize the theory that these dogs “like to run,” I have to say, I think otherwise.
When we welcomed Tok into our lives, I started to read. Like any good student, I researched the hell out of malamutes and huskies. I wanted to know their tendencies, how to train them, what to look out for, and how to care for him, specifically. Besides the basic reads about the breed itself, from the local library, I checked out a series of dog mushing books. I read about the history of mushing:
-- The evolution of the racing dog from the basic pulling dog that delivered heavy loads over icy terrain.
-- The tricks of the trade to rearing and caring for multiple teams
-- The amount of money necessary to provide adequate and humane care
-- And the unbelievable compassion and connection a musher develops with his or her team(s).
Tok is a mushing dog, through and through. When on a hike with a multitude of people and other dogs, he MUST be in the front. He gets excited to go out on his leash and pulls with all his might to go faster and further. He learned to hike at my pace, so when Brad came home this fall, he literally pulled Brad from the back of the “pack” and up past me. One could argue that he is just being a puppy with all that energy. And to a certain extent, I agree; but I can tell when Tok is being either a) a puppy, b) a malamute, c) a husky, or d) a combination thereof. Following the advice of the books, I have not fitted him for a harness; his bone structure is still too frail for such pulling. I check his feet after each outing, and he has no issues with my handling his pads and nails; we have that trust. He went from a six foot lead to an eight foot lead, and now trains on a 16 foot lead.
I learn from the champion mushers’ teams to understand in what else Tok needs to be trained: absolute following of verbal commands (we’re working on it- the husky in him is easily distracted), careful approach of other dogs and animals on the trail (his puppy nature dominates this task, but again, we’re working on it), and knowing when to slow or speed up the pace.
Recently, on an icy trail, my yak tax were not enough to keep me in balanced. A few times, Tok was able to scramble up or down a hill. He would look back and see me, and with that visual cue, I called out, “Good boy. Sit. Stay.” He sat, stayed, and waited for me to come up the hill. The reward was a hearty scratch behind the ears and, “Good boy. Up. Hike!” and he was off.
And on the golf course that day, with me in a pair of snow shoes, he ran—well, for a little bit...for as long as I could ran with him. I meant what I said: "we" are still learning.