Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Another Time, Another Place, I Could Have Been in the Iditarod

What do you do with 2 malamutes that you suddenly find yourself sharing your life with and how do you begin to make sense of it all?  Do you give it your usual 200% and make it work or do you just throw in the proverbial harness and let it go?  Well, upon discovering that taking on another malamute and a rescue one at that was not going to be an easy task, I remembered something my friend Carmen had mentioned to me on meeting Kodi; "he needs something to DO; that's what malamutes thrive on".  Much like any dog of any breed, they are meant for something and never could it be more accurate than with malamutes.  I had spoken briefly with Carmen about teaching dogs to "pull" but let's be honest here.  I was 48 or 49 by this time - not exactly the youngest chick in the henhouse and now I had not only 1 but 2 of these larger than life pets.  (I would have also taught poor little Pele to pull as well but his bowed legs and small stature pretty much ruled this out from the beginning.  I did think of putting him in a basket and having them pull him around but that would have been insulting to the Master Sargent.)  Of the two of us, Bob is obviously the thinker, whereas I am the doer; and probably wisely called on his part.  I broached the subject to Bob; "what do you think about getting a scooter or a sled (not really applicable in the Seattle area) or even a cart and what if we teach Kodi and Denaya to pull us?" Dead silence; I believe there was some gaping going on as well, as in "are you out of your mind?"  Hmm...everyone's a critic.  I have to say looking back that at the time it made perfect sense; it still does!  You have dogs that are built for pulling and they need something to do; so you teach them to do it and you just deal with it!  But how to go about it; there was the nastiest part.  I did keep in contact with Carmen and as she is part of the Washington State Malamute Association I knew she could steer me in the right direction.  I also did some research on what people were doing to exercise their dogs and found to my surprise that not only malamutes but about every breed was being trained to pull folks on anything from scooters to rollerblades and it was becoming quite the rage in terms of keeping your dogs happy and exercised.  Carmen graciously decided to have a pulling clinic at her house for malamutes one Saturday afternoon and of course we brought our dogs and I decided to just jump right in and give it a go.

I have to say that for being inexperienced dogs, I thought they did marvelously from the beginning.  There were a couple of huge truck tires and everyone graciously loaned me harnesses for my 2 novices so we could hook them up and see how they would do.  The idea here is that you harness the dog and then hook them to one of the truck tires, then go out in front of the dog and basically entice them to come to you, all the while them getting used to the huge tire being "lugged" behind them.  They seemed to do that really well, though Kodi received quite a huge truck tire and at his first attempts to come to me, he ended up leaping straight up into the air and LANDING on the tire, then bolting away from it as if he was on fire.  Luckily, he calmed right down and got the hang of "digging in" and towed it like a champ.  Well, after one afternoon and seeing that I could definitely get into this, I proceeded to measure the dogs and order up dog harnesses on the spot and a towline (also threw in a chin strap to keep them close to each other) and why stop there?  I called up Diggler and ordered myself a dog scooter! 

Meanwhile though, waiting for the scooter to arrive, I definitely needed to keep the momentum going so what to do?  Well, one afternoon I remembered that my daughter had left her rollerblades at our house and we had the same shoe size so one thought blended into another and since I already had the harnesses and the towline, why not just start them out and be totally prepared when the scooter came!  In retrospect, I probably should have mentioned to Bob that I was doing this, especially considering the way things ended up going for me.  It would have been nice to have back-up, which I eventually did learn; unfortunately the hard way.  I actually was going to take both of the dogs (we are talking roughly 200 pounds of dog here) and for some CRAZY reason I thought better of this before I started....whew, saved myself on that one as it turns out.  I decided to take the dog that I knew I could handle more easily simply because he did not try to out-alpha me all the time, my Kodi. 

Now is a great time to point out one of the most salient points of the rollerblading link above.  Too bad back when I decided to do this, I did not do my research beforehand and as I do with so many things in life, I jumped before I thought.  Here is the brilliant quote..."You should be proficient with basic roller blading maneuvers before taking your canine on a skate."  Hmm...again, hindsight is always 20/20.  I had never been on rollerblades in my LIFE.  In fact, the last time I was on skates, I was in high school on a date twirling around in a rink with a boy practically holding me up!  But always one for a new challenge and completely at ease with my athletic capabilities, I harnessed Kodi up, attached the towline to my WAIST (with no way of releasing him I might add), I strapped on the rollerblades and away I went.  I have to say Kodi was a natural.  He remembered the truck tire obviously and knew exactly what to do.  He was like a racehorse out of the chute and from the get-go, I swear we were flying.  For the first 5 or so minutes, it was the thrill of a lifetime, although my ankles were kind of bothering me since I had never done this kind of thing before.  I was also realizing much too late that he was not hearing me (or not listening) to WHOA.  We had actually never practiced ANY of this before I just strapped on the skates and took off so who was I to blame him?  At any rate, we are now flying down the street and Kodi is not showing any signs of fatiguing let alone stopping any time soon.  I am beginning to panic because dead ahead there is a very busy street and any minute, we are going to be in the middle of it; at 5:00 p.m. no less.  I vaguely remember seeing other people stop themselves with rollerblades and something about brakes so I think "don't panic; just apply the brakes and it will be okay".  Well, I think having a 100 pound dog pulling an old woman who has never been on rollerblades in her life before might be a set-up for disaster, especially since obviously I did not heed the little sentence of advice above; where are the brakes?  Well, if they were on the toe, they were burned up in about 2 seconds because I was trying everything to stop REPEATEDLY and it wasn't helping!  If they were in the heel, they were gone, too because I STILL wasn't slowing down!  (I always wonder if there was smoke in retrospect.) Now I'm really starting to panic because there is literally nothing that I can do to stop; then it dawns on me.  Skiing, yet another comedic sport for me, but if in doubt snow plow.  I didn't think I could get my feet that close together going at the rate of speed I was going though so I thought what is the next best thing?  The Arte Johnson from Laugh-In on the bike move perhaps; just throw yourself down and you will stop (or in retrospect become a very serious case of roadkill).  Unfortunately, there was no grass (which they recommend you run into if in trouble; sure now I know).  There was nothing on the street but gravel where the sidewalks should have been but I guess it beat concrete; so I just very gracefully THREW myself into the gravel and prayed.  Luckily I had chosen the right dog.  He heard my exclamation as I hit gravel (and tore my pants) and he probably mostly heard my swearing, and he stopped on a dime (or a little more than a dime).  Whew, that was close!  The one thing I had not happened to notice was that everyone was filtering into our neighborhood coming home from work and of course, tons of people have just seen one of America's Funniest Videos and they are slamming on their brakes to see if I am okay (mostly laughing).  I was sitting up by this time and trying to compose myself and I'm sure I looked very athletic with my torn pants, my smoking rollerblades and my helmet on crooked.  I gave them all the wave; "hey, I'm fine; sure, I do this all the time".  I took off my rollerblades and walked home!

I actually had the nerve to tell Bob what I had done.  After a lecture of sorts (and a lot of laughing and him saying he was so sorry he had missed it), I set out to try and train them a little more slowly.  I took them into our backyard and hooked them up one by one and had them pull me all over the backyard.  I only hit the deck posts a few times doing figure-8's.  It wasn't that bad.  Then the magical scooter came and I was so excited to try it I could not wait!  At least I had trained them to the best of my ability by this time and I felt confident that I could do this!  It was going to be so much fun and they were going to be so happy doing it!  So I laid out the towline (or gangline), hooked them up, put on their chin strap and gave them the "let's go girls".  Now if you look at the Diggler scooter on the link above, you will see that it is basically a very long skateboard with a very large front tire and a very large back tire.  It does have hand brakes, but the thing to remember here is that when you have 200 pounds approximately of torque on that scooter and if you slam on the brakes, you had better be standing on that scooter rather than stepping off (which I quickly learned).  If you step off, it will hit you; it basically just flips up your entire back leg and thigh and wipes you out.  That particular thing only happened a couple of times; okay, maybe half a dozen!  You quickly learn what not to do.  The dogs actually took to this sport like fish to water and I was so jazzed that I had taught them to do this!  However, I was having a hard time getting them to keep going.  I would run them for at least 3-4 loops and that was over a mile but much of it was uphill (and then downhill).  We never progressed out of the neighborhood but it was a great route.  One day I got the bright idea to involve Bob and got him to get in our Subaru and drive in front of the dogs at 20-25 mph because they loved to ride in that particular car and I felt certain they would chase him.  They did!  Sadly though, after doing that for a week or so, I suddenly realized that I was in actuality teaching them to chase cars; probably NOT what I wanted them to do.  I was hoping that they had gotten the "hang" of this though and that my encouragement and my running up hills with them, spurring them on so to speak was going to do it.  It really did pretty much!

One of the most awesome things I ever did was coming to a "T" intersection in the route and giving them the "haw" (left) and then watching them swinging out in this beautiful arc and heading down the road behind them.  It was the same as making a turn on water skis.  It was a thrill!  Not too much of a thrill though when I realized that there was no way to get them to completely reverse themselves (backing up is really tricky) and turn us around so ended up manually unhooking and turning us all around and starting over again!  One rainy day I ended up going anyway just because I could not resist by then and discovered there was a very distinct disadvantage to wearing glasses that did not have windshield wipers built in.  By about 2 minutes into the ride, I could not see a thing.  Not to mention that my clothes now weighed about 500 pounds and were glued to my body, and the road was like ice; but good times!  Another problem for scootering fans up in the Washington state area presented itself quickly as well; squirrels, cats.  Malamutes are not notorious for being overly fond of small animals such as squirrels or cats.  Try as I might to get them to "keep on" or stay on track, I found myself being run into folks' driveways, front yards, bushes or to the base of a tree while my 2 runners decided to take a detour and catch "lunch".  One of the most memorable events, however, was one afternoon when Bob decided to come out and watch me start up.  I had picked up the gangline and had wrapped it around my hand (I only did this one other time and sadly with the same result).  I was holding the scooter with the other hand and the dogs were harnessed and ready for action!  Bob flipped the garage door open and said "let's go" which unfortunately was their trigger word.  I thought for a moment that I had lost several of my fingers as the nylon gangline felt like it took the skin off my hand when they put all their weight into the torque, not to mention the enormous pop and my ring finger breaking.  I probably should have seen the signs then that there were going to be more mishaps in my future but never let it be said that I could be a quitter!  The best tale of all though was running into a neighbor at the market one evening and listening to this fellow going on and on and making fun of "the idiot that he has seen riding around the neighborhood on a huge skateboard thing being pulled by 2 huge dogs".  I held up my hand and confessed that that idiot would be me!  For the most part though, folks would stand outside and wave and clap and yell all kinds of encouraging things; at least they sounded like encouraging things! Come to think of it, there was some laughter as well.

After a few of my mishaps though, such as little pomeranians running out in BETWEEN my running dogs and me having to stop on a dime and then extricate myself from these situations alone, the bruises that I was starting to sport everywhere possible and try to explain, Bob decided that it would be best if at the very least, he would be my "spotter".  He would ride a bike ahead of me and that would serve to give an incentive to the dogs as well as me having backup in case I got into trouble (of course the chances of this were nil).  One late beautiful morning, we decided to suit up and give it a run.  Bob took off as usual on his bike and I was busy fiddling around with my water bottle (I used this to potentially squirt dogs who were bothering us; wow what a weapon in retrospect).  I usually started in our steep driveway and then turned onto the road while the dogs gave it the "gas".  Well, we roared out of the driveway and were on the flat when I realized that my water bottle was falling.  Unwilling to let it go (part of my personality unfortunately), I took a hand off the handlebar just for a second to fix the situation when I suddenly realized that by doing that, I had just lost what little balance I possess somehow and we were tilting on a funny angle.  Of course, the dogs were oblivious and were still running but as I was trying to right the scooter, I realized that it was getting worse and had the thought "we're going down".  In a panic thought I figured I should just jump off, problem solved and the dogs would stop; we'd start over.  I could not have been more incorrect in this brilliant plan!  When I jumped off, the handlebar hit me in the back and sent me smashing into the pavement, which I hit with my FOREHEAD.  I can say here that helmets are meant to be worn for a reason!  I still have the mark/dent where it hit the pavement.  Did the dogs stop?  Let's just say it took a while; let's say maybe 1/4 mile?  They somehow did not happen to notice that the load was way lighter and they just kept on going.  As I lay face down on the pavement, I could vaguely hear thump, thump, thump as my beautiful expensive scooter hit the pavement over and over bouncing along behind them.  They probably had never run so fast in their lives!!  The only thing I could think of was that someone was going to see me flopping around on the street like a beached whale and that secondly, if the dogs decided to turn left (haw), they were going to be out on the main road.  I literally crawled to the grass in someone's yard and then forced myself to get up; complete with bloodied hands, knees, elbows (this was with pads on as well); not to mention that nice little whiplash I got from hitting the pavement and snapping my neck back and forth a few times!  Talk about the mother of headaches!  I was literally staggering up the front steps of our house to go get the car keys and go after the dogs when I spotted Bob walking from the opposite direction with a very mangled scooter and 2 panting dogs!  They had the time of their life!

Another trip to the ER; another file in the athletic chart of one Audrey Kirchner.  The doctor looked up from my road rash and asked me to explain it one more time (probably so he could tell everyone and have a good laugh later on); "so what were you doing to sustain these injuries?"  That took a little bit of time to get over.  The scooter needed major work to get bent back into shape.  Luckily there were no "serious" injuries but I did learn a very valuable lesson.  Speed kills!  I do not feel the need for speed anymore!  I was able to get back on the scooter (after much trash-talk from Bob about being a chicken, having to get back on the horse after you fall off, etc) and I was able to ride it again; however, I never enjoyed it quite as much again simply because for the first time, I realized how vulnerable I was (and how stupidly misinformed in many ways).  Bob became the master of the scooter after that as the primary rider (not fair that he had NO mishaps) and I became the bicycle spotter, though even doing that I could manage to get myself twisted and fall off sometimes in my antics trying to ward off dogs chasing us!  We also had to finally retire the scooter when Kodi developed Addison's disease as he was on lifelong steroids after that and the fear of stress fractures outweighed the sheer joy he found in pulling the scooter!  It is a wonderful way, however, to exercise your dogs and enjoy them at the same time (also to check on how good your health insurance coverage is); if only you take the time to learn about it and be safe (as I found out the hard way in most instances).  With the advent of our little Griffin, we are going to reinvent this great form of exercising and bonding with your dogs, but hopefully in a "safer" venue and one that does not involve kissing the pavement!  More tales to come.

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