|Rachel runs a team with Rayna and Phoenix in lead|
As I walk into the dog yard cold air hits me in the face. I take a deep breath in of the cool crisp air; feeling myself waking up bit by bit; waking up with the morning. My headlamp illuminates the kennels in the weak early morning light. Dogs pace back and forth; anxious for their first meal of the day. Even though it’s too dark for anyone to see I smile broadly. I love feeding in the mornings; saying hello to each of the dogs has become a centering way for me to start my days.
I open the first kennel and the two dogs within it burst out as if exploring the dog yard outside is the sole reason they woke up. I laugh out loud watching them run and play. Friendly growling, tail biting and chasing each other around, the two dogs are bright and alive. I call their names and they both lift their heads. Theirs ears perk up for a second as they register the command and then turning in a circle both of them barrel back into the kennel. It’s breakfast time! I hug each one of them individually. Feeling their ribs I check for anything that might be abnormal. After I am sure nothing is amiss and no one is gaining or losing any more weight than they should be I grab the five gallon bucket full of kibble. Immediately all eyes are on me. One of the dogs in front of me stamps her paws and whirls her head around in circles; a little happy dance I only get to see at feeding times. The other dog sits patiently and cocks her head. Her eyes glance from mine to the five gallon bucket and then back to me “It's kibble time! Look at my good sit! Feed me!,” she seems to be saying. I giggle and scoop out food for each of them. As I slowly make my way through the kennels the sun starts to peaks its head out of the woods to the east. Vibrant pink and red hues paint the sky above me and for a moment, with dogs running around me and giving me kisses, the world is complete and vivid and full of magic.
After feeding I set up the ATV for our fall training run that afternoon. I take care to ensure that the gang line, quick release, tug and necklines are all in working order and safety attached. I’ve learned to do this task slowly and methodically. A fray or loose carbiner can have disastrous results for a dog team and even though the tasks are now routine I take special care with each connection; making sure everything is secure.
In the afternoon when it is time to run the other handler working with me, Claire, and I walk into the dog yard with leashes. As I walk past kennels dog ears windmill and eyes follow me, “she has a leash! Is it me! I want to run! I want to RUN!” There are some excited yips and as I approach the kennel I’m headed to the dog whose name I’m speaking hears me and jumps into the air in a triumphant leap “I’ve been chosen! I’m going to run!” I let the dog out of the kennel and marvel at how fluidly he runs towards the gate. Every time I see one of these dogs run it feels like a special present, their limbs and muscles respond so fluidly with the rest of their body; sometimes it takes my breath away.
Claire and I hook all the dogs up to the ready line and start to harness them. Nervous yips and barks abound. The dogs are anxious and excited and amped up and ready. One big floppy eared beauty, Wyakin, lies down after he is harnessed but continues to make small yips of excitement. Other dogs stay still but tremble with anticipation for what is to come. I spend time walking down the line and petting each dog. Dogs that are not normally affectionate seem to lean into me on the ready line; needing support and reassurance.
As we start to hook up the dogs to the gang line the noise level rises in the kennel. All the dogs still in their houses howl and pace. Their turn to run will come but still they’re jealous of everyone out of the kennel. The leaders of the team look back in anticipation at the ATV. They are still holding the line tight, but they too tremble with eagerness for what is to come. Their position in front of the team is not an easy one especially at hook up; with all the noise and dogs behind them they need to stand forward; keeping the team tight and in line.
I start to wrap the quick release as Linda hops on the front of the ATV. Excitement and butterflies rise in my stomach as she starts the machine. Starting off running, even in the fall, always gets my adrenaline pumping. With a “Ready, let’s go!” from Linda the team is off. The ATV jerks a little as the team accelerates; the downfalls of fall training are such that the ride is not very smooth. But in my mind I imagine what we are training for; sleds and snow and clean cold rides through wonderland. Regardless of the rocks or gear changes however, running the dogs still thrills me. Their long bodies trot and lope down the trail effortlessly. I am reminded yet again why I love mushing so much; animals doing what they were made to do; what they love to do. Like watching a musician play or a famous basketball player shoot hoops to watch sled dogs run is to watch nature in its element.
We stop for water halfway through the run and panting dogs eagerly lap at the bowls I put in front of them. With their tongues splayed out everyone looks like they’re smiling. Mud dots some of their noses adding a comical look to the wheel dogs. I pet and check in with everyone giving praise and checking to make sure no one looks like they are hurting or tiring to easily. Finishing the run with a “Whoa” we unhook the dogs and take them back to the ready line. In stark contrast to how amped up everyone was an hour ago now most of the dogs are lying down; waiting to be taken back to their houses.
As the day closes and we finish all of our runs the dog yard quiets down. Everyone got out and now dogs lay relaxing on their houses. Some of them curl up like cats with their tails tucked in, dozing off and waiting for evening feeding. I breathe in deeply, inhaling the clear air of the woods around me. My muscles are tired and sore as I stretch my arms up to the air above me. My body too feels the run we did today and the stiffness feels good, reminding me of the work I accomplished.
As Claire and I enter the dog yard for evening feeding I laugh loudly in response to the eagerness the dogs show for their kibble. Each dog’s personality is strikingly different; making it hard not to think of them as little people. We play and hug and say good night to each dog, softly talking with each other in between kennels. As we enter the final kennel Claire starts to sing quietly. Her clear voice seems to echo among the trees and I close my eyes briefly. Calmness descends with the end of the day. The sky once again blazes hues of orange, red and pink and with one final howl the dogs tuck themselves away in their houses.
Points Unknown Dog Handler