FAIRBANKS - While in town this last June, I swung by the Animal Shelter several times. On my second visit, although searching for a puppy, I scanned the outside pen first. I spotted a pair of huge floppy ears framing a tiny black face, and my heart gave a little bump.
That didn’t mean much, of course. A lot of dogs make my heart bump. Still, finding no pups available, I walked back to see Big Ears. She looked like a half-grown Lab mix with the spindly legs of a little racing husky. Although openly friendly, she wasn’t interested in bonding. The staff said she’d been turned in as a stray the day before.
I planned to be in town for a shocking three weeks to recover from surgery on a pinched nerve in my lower spine, so I wasn’t in any hurry to find a new pet. We were still grieving over old brown Skeifa, whom we had lost to cancer two months earlier.
A few days after an uneventful surgery, I stopped by the dog pound again. Still no suitable pups, so out of curiosity I had a private visit with the little black dog. She seemed open, happy, playful and sweet. At 31 pounds and at least 6 months, she was smaller and more mature than what we wanted, so I passed on her again.
My sister Miki and I needed an indoor-outdoor dog for our bush home, friendly with people and dogs, aggressive with bears, but responsive to voice.
A gentle, confident yet submissive dog would cause less friction among our 80-pound, over-eager sled dogs and our smaller but high-strung, domineering husky pet Quigley. We wanted a responsive, happy, interactive companion, a pot licker, a bed warmer, a friend.
Skeifa had been remarkably perfect but we weren’t trying to replace her so much as plug up the gaping hole enough to stop the tears.
The Animal Shelter frequently had pups available, but they were adopted quickly. Many were predominantly sled dogs, of which we had plenty, and I wanted a more trainable breed, such as retriever or border collie, which are selected to work closely with people. Huskies and hunting dogs, bred for working independently of humans, could range too much to make a suitable pet in the bush where we expected our house dogs to stay close to us when unrestrained. I also wanted an openly friendly, trusting dog because we couldn’t socialize our dogs effectively with people due to our isolation.
Each time I checked the puppy kennel, I also said hi to the little black Lab mix that the shelter staff called Ellie. Each time, she was still sweet but more clingy and anxious, increasingly affected by the isolation and stress of her locked kennel.
I began to consider the advantages of a smaller dog.
She’d fit better in the tent, the canoe and the airplane.
She’d be less threatening to our dominant female dogs.
She wouldn’t hog two-thirds of the bed or sofa. By getting a half-grown dog, we’d have a better idea as to her mature size, build, personality and energy levels. Since older dogs were harder to place than puppies, I’d be helping the shelter too.
So Ellie came home from the pound. Or rather, I picked her up from Ballaine Veterinary Clinic, where she was spayed, and brought her to my brother’s home where we’d stay until the next mail flight home.
Although still staggering from the anesthesia, Ellie stuck to my side as she negotiated the steep stairs to my basement room and followed my instructions carefully as I indicated that she was to lie down over here, and throw up over there. She politely made no assumptions, but when I invited her onto the bed that night she climbed up without hesitation and snuggled down with me as if she’d always done it that way.
Once recovered from surgery, Ellie proved energetic without being hyper.
Housebroken and civilized, she played eagerly but nicely with my brother’s children.
One day when I walked Ellie, three dogs charged bellowing up their driveway and my little pup surprised me by leaping boldly to my defense, barking ferociously until satisfied the strangers had stalled out. This pleased me, but I wasn’t so happy when she also barked at people who startled her. At the shelter she’d been totally friendly with everyone and I wasn’t sure if I’d missed a basic insecurity in her nature, or if she had a strong protective instinct once I became her person.
Seeing these small but significant hints of assertiveness, I began to worry about introducing her to her new housemate, Quigley. My sister Miki, holding down things at home, brought Quigley to the airstrip when I arrived with Ellie so the two dogs could meet on neutral ground. The plan was for Quigley to befriend Ellie without claiming her as either a squeaky toy or an adversary, and for Quig to think that it was her own idea to bring Ellie home to live with us.
Ellie met Quigley eagerly, and despite some noisy posturing Quigley reciprocated with an open mind. When Quigley lost interest and jogged off, Ellie rushed to follow. She slammed against the leash and her flimsy dog-pound collar broke. The little black dog flew after Quigley and they fell in step together as we headed for the boat to go home.
Halfway to the lake, Quigley hit Ellie with a fly-by, bouncing the smaller dog off her shoulder and tagging her in the head with a domineering snap. To my relief, Ellie toppled limp to the ground with a squeak and hid her face until Quigley trotted off.
Ellie’s intensely submissive reaction told Quigley that the older dog faced no threats, which meant fights would be unlikely. Quigley might still nail Ellie if the youngster is impudent, but as long as Ellie acknowledges Quigley’s dominance, we would avoid serious friction.
Since she is more than half grown and still less than 35 pounds, Ellie will never reach a size big enough to threaten her 50-pound companion.
Ellie did not enjoy the bouncy boat ride home, but once there she made herself just as comfortable as in town. She proved to be polite about the furniture, taking nothing for granted but needing to be told only once which soft spots were OK.
Quigley generously allowed her into the bedroom, so she spends each night snuggled on my feet.
Quigley makes it clear that she is the queen bee. I saw Ellie pick up a rawhide twist to chew on and a moment later the pup was elsewhere and Quig had the treat. I consoled Ellie with her own chew.
A moment later Ellie had crossed the room and Quig was still chewing on the first treat while standing possessively over the second.
This promising young dog still has a lot to learn about bush life. She’s meeting the bigger sled dogs and learning which are friendly or intimidating. She’s learning that the horses are not monsters and is halfway to being completely comfortable around them while still enjoying a lovely scare when she sneaks too close.
Ellie has yet to meet a bear, moose or porcupine, but with several living nearby it’s only a matter of time. Hopefully she will take her cues from the other dogs, most of whom are sensible about big animals.
As a Lab mix she’s delighted with water but is still learning about speed and depth by taking headers into the stream.
On her first trip to the fish net, as Miki picked fish Ellie thought seriously about stepping out of the boat into deep water. Three times Miki warned her against it.
Twice Ellie held back after hearing Miki’s “Careful!”
The third time she ignored the command, stepped out and disappeared underwater.
After an alarmingly long time submerged, Ellie resurfaced a humbler dog, one more of life’s lesson’s embedded in her brain.
Julie Collins is a trapper and freelance writer who lives near Lake Minchumina.