I often hear fellow mushers say that they just “LOVE training yearlings”! I used to, but, frankly, I’m not feeling the “LOVE” this year. This change has me feeling deficient. What’s wrong with me? What happened? Why am I not in love witworking with the young dogs? Then it struck me like a ton of bricks, actually more like an exuberant yearling running at full speed and airborne, folks that claim to “LOVE” training yearlings have never met the spawn of (insert horror movie music) Penny!!
Penny has instilled fear in all of our handlers and we’re all guilty of quietly avoiding having to harness and hook her up. She’s the sweetest, most loving dog until it’s time to run. Then it’s as if someone flips a switch and she goes into the red zone of complete lunacy. Lunacy involves a very nasaled, guttural, screaming noise that is really beyond explanation; one must hear it to understand it. It’s like watching Linda Blair in the Exorcist without the green vomit. It definitely sounds like someone is trying to kill her or vice versa. Once she’s deafened you with her noise, the challenge becomes getting her to the line while she is twisting, screaming, nipping and flipping. Judgmental types will say, “That’s your fault, you need to correct that; she’s a product of your poor training.” Uhh huh …..well, to all of you judgy dog whisperers; bugger off!! Some dogs are just possessed and she wins the prize. Positive reinforcement training; I’m laughing as I envision her spitting out the treats and biting your hand. Shock collar; you’d be wearing it by the time you were done. Cesar Milan would have gone out of business with this project; what a fun episode that would have been. Sometimes you can’t fight the obvious and so we have accepted our fate and surrendered to wearing body armor and hooking her up last after the short straw is drawn. We call it survival.
As many of you know, we are gluttons for punishments so, of course, we chose to breed Satan. Who wouldn’t? The drive is unmatched. She’s a gee/haw leader, an eating machine with a great build, great feet and a pedigree to boot. We coupled her with another intense driving gee/haw leader. Guess what? We created Satan’s spawn. Ohhh, they look cute; which is part of the horror. Eight furry cream colored cuties with blue eyes and two little brown oddballs.
“Even the devil was once an angel”
Before they opened their eyes and started walking they were the cutest puppies ever. Then the little demons started to show they had inherited some of mom’s traits. The first obvious trait was their infantile rendition of the guttural screeching. You can imagine 10 high pitched screaming meemies demanding everything. “We want food NOW!” “We want out of this pen NOW!” “We want company NOW!” Satan herself even got sick of listening to them. When we refused their demands, they simply took matters into their own hands. Mom had to be moved to eat meals in peace and we quickly began walking them so that they just didn’t start walking themselves.
Many pups come out of the pen for the first time and take their time investigating and enter the big, scary world with caution. Not the little Lucifer’s! They ran out like drunken revelers leaving the stadium after winning the championship game; guttural screams and all. Walks were fun as they all frolicked and wrestled and they couldn’t get enough. As they got larger, the frolicking and wrestling turned into a serious full body contact sport. One would run and the others would chase and tackle and Lord help you if you got in the way. This was when they discovered they really liked running fast and so they did. They always stuck around, but there was not a wide enough berth to keep this energy reined in. They needed to cover ground to burn off the energy. Running them in the wheel wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t fast enough so they would grab the panels, jump on the panels, run around the panels and basically cause chaos. We realized then that this litter wasn’t going to be great free dropping material. Wasn’t in there genetics to even consider it; they had their own agenda and we were mere pawns in the game. We would release them from the gang line to run back to their houses and they would tour the yard, visit everyone, run under the fence to do a couple laps, return and visit some more dogs and then finally go to their house. It was exhausting!
Early hook-ups were relatively easy; however, putting on harnesses was an entirely different story. It was akin to watching a pig wrestling match. At one point, the handlers told us they required three of them for one particular boy. Holy bananas, at that rate, we were going to need 27 handlers just to get this litter harnessed. This would require a bus to get to Stage Stop.
You’d think we would have all lost weight wrestling these beasts to the line all season, but I think we gained it all back in wine. The wine had become a staple to our diet just to deal with the stress and physical exhaustion of this process. As the season went on and the howling, whirling dervishes became entranced with the love of the game, we grew weary.
As fate would have it, the rambunctious brats were also great sled dogs so inevitably they all began vying to make the 8-dog team for Stage Stop. On one particular training run in late December, I thought I’d try to put together my team for Stage Stop. In hind sight, I was weary and this was a really dumb decision because the yearlings had just had two days off. Time off for them is like trying to hand feed steak to a starving lion; someone is going to inevitably get hurt. We hooked up 9 dogs that were in contention for the team and 5 of them contained satanic DNA. The hookup was one for the books as we scrambled around trying to control the chaos. It was like herding cats, but really violent, loud, evil cats. We had to run the siblings together as we learned early on that no one else in the yard wanted anything to do with the psychotic brats who lived down the street. So Frick and Frack, much nicer names than what I normally call them, were put in wheel so I could control them better. They were their usual selves and two very firm hands were in order just to put them together on the line. Together they raise the decibel levels to a point where one can’t hear their self think. The Alpha dog energy must be on level 10 to work with these two and I was bending the knob. Then we put their dunder head brother in front of wheel with a sister and they proceeded to have a screaming wrestling match that looked and sounded like it might end in death. Harnesses were being chewed and gang lines were being yanked faster than we could correct the problem. Any dog without satanic DNA on the team was either turned around in harness staring in horror or they were trying to get back to their dog house. A harness tug snapped and I wrestled the screaming, greased pig in my giant parka and Artic Boots sweating and cursing profusely in an effort to re-tie and attach him. The caption on that photograph would say, “Musher woman gone mad”. Then a fur penis protector met its fate as it erupted into fox fur snow! The floating fur somehow momentarily calmed the beasts, most likely as they pondered how they could get some more of it to destroy. The brief reprieve found us just standing in silence wondering if we should laugh or cry. Then standing before us, like a proud toddler, was Dunderhead (not his real name) smiling and wagging with the furry evidence stuck between his lips. It was almost unbearably funny?
Once we were able to get the crazy train out of the yard; which was no easy feat, the antics continued until everyone got a little huffed up. I got a small piece of revenge when Dunderhead, who had to be put in a body suit since he destroyed his fur piece, pooped in his suit and was waddling uncomfortably down the trail in humiliation. I relished in the moment until I realized it was me that got the raw end of the deal when I had to remove the suit and wipe his butt on the trail. If it had not been for the sheer athletic brilliance of those dogs on that day, I might have sold every one of them on the spot. It was humbling to think that we were so late into the season and these creatures seemed to have absolutely no line manners or self-control; where had we gone wrong? Hmmmmmm, possibly breeding to Satan in the first place? Nah, couldn’t be!
As it turned out 4 of the hyper-active imps made the team and I tempered the rest of the team out with more placid and calming personalities. They have not tore apart the truck yet. Key word, YET! I am dreading that first hookup after three days off traveling. Getting to the line at the race could also prove to be interesting ….. embarrassing …. MORTIFYING!?!? Me and Laura will be prepared with an arsenal of techniques to avoid disaster. Do you think it would look bad if I put bags over their heads and straight jackets on them? Despite this, I realize that the reward of seeing them perform, provided their attention deficit issues don’t get in the way of that, will all be worth it and I too might be able to say I “LOVE” training yearlings by the end of this season. Stay tuned ….. These guys seem to provide good material.