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Training dogs to stay close important in rural Alaska

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Posted: Sunday, January 9, 2011 4:34 am | Updated: 1:45 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

LAKE MINCHUMINA, Alaska — “Don’t go too far, you girls!”

Old Skeifa doesn’t range out rabbit-hunting as often as she used to, and Quigley doesn’t like to go by herself, but until last year I often found myself hollering after the two dogs as they jogged off toward the snowy willow flats. Usually they waited until mid-afternoon to leave, not because the bunnies came out then, but because they hoped I’d go with them, or at least let them run along on a dog team jaunt.

The dogs tired of me working inside all day, and would often go off alone by three o’clock if I didn’t provide any entertainment.

I’ve been thinking about our trust in loose dogs lately, since we recently recovered our two horses that ran away for five months. One of the perks I value most about our isolated location is that we don’t have to worry about our dogs running off and bothering other people. I can certainly appreciate why dogs along the road system must be closely supervised, not just to prevent them from causing trouble, but to save them from getting stolen, shot or hurt by vehicles.

Out here, our house dogs usually run loose while the more energetic sled dogs remain picketed unless we can supervise them. Still, in the summer we keep them fit by loose running them a few at a time most days of the week.

We have a lot of faith in our dogs, and trust them to be sensible, but it’s not a blind faith. Too many dogs loose together can form a pack mentality that’s dangerous to wildlife so we rarely take more than four high-powered sled dogs at once. Training also plays a big role, starting with pups as soon as they can toddle. We take them out in the woods and along beaches, crossing streams and extending the distances as they grow. Usually some reliable dogs come along to give guidance and courage when they have to splash across the water or climb through thick brush.

Negotiating obstacles isn’t the only lesson puppies learn on these walks. They learn that we might change direction suddenly, so they pay attention to us. We call pups to us frequently, offering treats and lots of eye contact, to establish ourselves as leaders. This way, they pay close attention to us, following our lead instead of their own noses. By changing direction often or hiking out trails with lots of forks, we ensure the dogs will stay attuned to our movements and they won’t range too far ahead.

Like wolves, pups that range with their elders this way establish territories where they feel at home. They learn the lay of this land and the extent of their territory so they don’t get lost. Pups also learn to follow the scent of their own trail back home. This way, as they enter their reckless youth, if they do run too far they can find their way home.

Around here, we’re all a big family on the home range. We have a good feel for which dogs might disappear for a while or run off only when led on by other dogs, and which won’t run off at all. When I mushed out to check an under-ice fish net last month, I didn’t have enough pickets for dogs that chewed their harnesses, so I just turned three loose. They dashed around, playing on the drifted lake, and if they ranged over 100 yards, they’d always race back when they heard my voice: “Don’t go too far!”

Of course ranging dogs can harass wildlife and we’re lucky that the local terrain generally shunts larger animals past our immediate vicinity. We’ve learned the nearby areas where local cow moose drop their young and avoid friction by staying away from there. Our dogs don’t chase moose, bear and other game as often as you might think; even on a weeks-long summer trek they might just chase a couple bears out of camp.

Porcupines pose a more common threat. We keep an injectable sedative handy, because some dogs want to eradicate this prickly critter regardless of the cost. Other dogs develop an addiction to beaver; old TooKay once swam fruitlessly after beavers until he became hypothermic – on a sweltering 80 degree day.

Since we run dogs teams over 50 to 70 miles of trapline trails each year, our dogs make themselves at home on a large winter range. We often let them run free for various reasons. One or two dogs might run loose with the team if they’ve overworked themselves or if rough trails make it hazardous to leave a cabin with a full complement of fresh, eager dogs. Loose leaders can help break trail ahead of the team after a big snow.

We usually turn the dogs loose to cool off after arriving each camp, only tying up those that might make trouble. The dogs also are loose, six to eight at a time, on cold nights when they sleep inside the tiny trapping cabins. The hard work makes them disinclined to run away, but we carefully watch the more independent ones if they’ve had a day off. A new dog that’s hard to catch is secured to the end of the 25-foot towline so he can go outside and range a little, but he can’t run away. After a few months of this, most dogs learn to come for treats and can be trusted with their freedom.

While untrained dogs can get into big trouble running loose on a trapline, we expect our dogs to learn to avoid traps just as clever wolves do. A young dog following the dog team invariably gets caught eventually, but since we don’t set big traps he’s more scared than hurt. After giving the miscreant a minute to calm down and think about his predicament, we can remove him without fear of being bitten. Any siblings watch with goggly eyes and rarely make the same mistake.

Of course, we’ll explain the problem very clearly, and make sure every dog knows that traps and bait are “NOT for you!” and they must “STAY AWAY!”

Once a dog has been caught in a trap, he really understands why we’re so demanding. This lesson has been particularly valuable in the past when we had a number of independent-minded dogs that loved to range. Several dogs have rambled over the 15-mile trail between the first line cabin and home, and once two youngsters ran a 24-mile loop, passing 60-odd sets without checking out any traps.

Any time we have dogs loose, we know they face risks. On the other hand, dogs kept tied up all the time don’t know how to take care of themselves if they do escape. Out here, humans and critters alike need those skills. Sometimes the best we can do for our dogs is prepare them well, so if they do head off for parts unknown they remember our admonition: “Don’t go too far!”

Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.

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