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Alaska sled dog puppies shows growth spurt in mind, body and skill

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Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2012 3:53 pm | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska —“Puppy-puppy-puppy!”

I paused on an outcropping boulder a few feet above the base of a low bluff. Behind me, the moss-covered shale slope ascended upward, a scattering of spruce clinging to shallow soil.

Just a couple of feet below, Cricket, Beetle, Skeeter and Junebug searched for a way up with the eternal optimism of not-quite-8-week-old pups.

A third of a mile from home, I’d brought the quartet on a “puppy walk,” actually a training expedition for them to start experiencing the conditions they’d have to deal with as adult sled dogs. They’d already encountered puddles, mud and the bank of the slow-flowing river. (Junebug was quite surprised to find the surface did not support her weight.) Now I’d test their undeveloped hill-climbing abilities.

Clawing up the narrow mossy trail that fox and other wild critters had pattered out over the decades, lanky Skeeter and chunky dark brown Junebug reached me first. While they clambered past me, I called the other two. “Puppy-puppy-puppy!”

As Cricket and Beetle scrambled up to me, Skeeter and Junebug toddled over to investigate the void beyond the boulders. Then they started to slip over the edge. Cricket was climbing into my lap as I tried to reach for the pair, but I was too late.

Junebug tumbled head-first off the edge, down a foot-high drop, plopped onto the sloped moss and rolled the last two feet down into the alders. She popped back up from the padding of moss and leaves, undaunted and eyes bright as she peered upward.

Skeeter bravely tried to follow her sister, but the drop scared her off. Determined to rejoin us, Junebug attacked the slope with renewed enthusiasm but made the attempt in the wrong place. The vertical drop stopped her.

As I leaned forward to help her up the last slope, her brother Cricket tumbled down the first drop. As I pulled Junebug up, Cricket started hollering for help as he tried to climb back up, and Skeeter and Beetle were climbing over his head so they could fall down too.

I promptly decided that my little crew wasn’t quite ready to take this test. Holding Junebug securely in my arms, I scooted over the drop and joined the rest, playing with them happily in the mud before starting back the way we came.

From the age of 8 to 12 weeks, puppies go through a vital growing and learning period, sopping up experiences like a sponge. The more good experiences they have during that time period, the more accepting and adaptable they’ll be as adults. If there’s not much to sop up, the edges of the sponge harden, so to speak, until it just can’t easily absorb certain aspects of life.

Thanks to these puppy walks, our dogs grow up accepting mud, water, brush and boulders as an ordinary part of life. But when a stranger approaches, some of them cringe away because our remote location made socializing them as pups difficult. We were fortunate that just as this litter turned eight weeks old, our second cousin and his two young granddaughters came for a visit.

By the time Sabrina and Fiona left a week later, the pups had morphed from timid little creatures into bold playmates, tumbling around with the girls in piles of unmitigated glee. Both played kindly and considerately, without scaring the little pupils. Nine-year-old Fiona even sat through our hour-long “Puppy Puzzle” video and helped us analyze the pups’ conformation with the information she learned.

I didn’t bring my little pupils back for their next test on the bluff during that week. The following week, a cold limited my outdoor work. The “bugs” were entering their 10th week by the time we headed out to retake the exam. Their legs had stretched out, their weight had jumped to 27 pounds, and their confidence levels had shot up.

Cricket darted ahead as I pushed through the alders to the base of the gentle bluff. By the time I reached the fox trail, he’d already found it and charged up the first height to the boulder, with Beetle close behind. By the time I reached the top of the boulder, Skeeter and Junebug on my heels, Cricket had used it as a slide to slither back down to the bottom before scampering around to follow his sisters back up again.

“Good puppies!” I praised. “Good boy, Cricket. Good Skeeter. Junebug! Good boy, Beetle.” Each got a quick pat before I hurried on, anxious not to lose their attention.

Unhesitating, the youngsters scrambled ahead, beside and behind me, conquering the 100-foot heights of their exam with ease. Finding the trail home at the top, they confidently trundled on ahead as I followed, smiling to myself.

My little pupils had grown a lot in two weeks, in mind as well as body.

Trappers and life-long Bush residents Miki and Julie Collins have written three books, which are available at Gulliver’s Books in Fairbanks.

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