I get a kick out of the way Shorty darts around in circles, wooing and whining, begging for a scratch and a tummy rub. She’s tireless. I wish I had her energy and that seemingly eternal youth. I expected her to calm down as she grew older, but Shorty remains as playful at 10 years old as when she was a puppy and I hope she stays that way forever.
I’ve heard that a dog’s environment shapes and molds them into who they are. And Shorty, being in the presence of other energetic and cheerful warrior type dogs has grown to be just like them. There’s a lot to learn from dogs. It’s hard to comprehend the influence they have on you if you allow them to get in your heart.
Shorty’s name is reflective of her stature. She definitely has short legs, which doesn’t hinder her pulling ability, but it does give her the disadvantage of a slightly slower trot than my other dogs. However, on the other side of the spectrum, dogs who have disproportionately long legs, or hocks, are at a total disadvantage especially in deep snow. While breaking trail, their legs sink so far into the snow that they have a tough time keeping up with the other dogs because they cannot retrieve their footing fast enough. Shorty, on the other hand, can “swim” through deep snow like everyone else, just a little slower, that’s all.
photo by Angus Mill
When Shorty was young I believed she would be an excellent leader in deep snow because of her slow, yet powerful trot. She also exhibited an uncanny sense of direction, so I figured she’d be a great lead dog on sea ice as well where there are no landmarks and it takes a talented dog to run a straight route, which she was. But it was during a blizzard when I realized that her leadership was not exactly what I was expecting.
We were traveling along Alaska’s Arctic coast. The team was pulling a heavy load in 12 inches of fresh snow. It was slow going so I figured it would be a perfect opportunity for Shorty to learn the art of leading the team. There wasn’t anything between her and the perpetual white horizon, no obstacles or distractions, just an open expanse to run straight and true. When I placed her in lead alongside Bear she glowed with pride. Her thick, bushy tail bristled and waved in the low, orange winter sun. But behind us the sky was turning gray and far in the distance a blizzard stewed. It was around -20°F and strong wind gusts pushed against my back sending a chill to my bones, but I wanted to cover as many miles as possible, and take advantage of the wind before visibility fell to zero and we would be forced to camp. I grabbed two long wooden poles of driftwood from the beach, tied them to my sled’s handle bars and stanchions and attached my sail, which is a large square piece of heavy canvas with grommets around the edges to prevent tearing.
The sail caught the wind like a small parachute and off we went. Now, with Mother Nature’s usual destructive force propelling us along with little effort from the dogs the pace had increased considerably. Shorty’s little legs tried to keep pace, but to no avail. She looked a little surprised when she saw the swing dogs catching up and running beside her. She glanced to her right, and then left. I could practically read Shorty’s mind as she wondered how could she slow these guys down: Oh I know, I’ll make some radical turns every which way. That’ll do it. She swerved quickly back and forth, zigzagging, and scrambling over ice ridges, and bee lining for the deepest snow she could find, but the team kept pace. In fact, the other dogs thought it was a game and enthusiastically chased her. All the while, Bear, outweighed and outnumbered, tried his best to keep the team on course. Finally, Shorty realized that there wasn’t any way possible to escape, so she wheeled around and headed toward me and the sled, effectively tying the entire 22 dogs into a jumbled knot.
It was a long time before I tried Shorty in lead on the sea ice again, but eventually she learned not to worry about running too slow and she became an all around fine leader.
Shorty is still as playful as ever and her goofiness makes Andrea and I smile on a daily basis. She’s a true testament to the old saying: you’re only as old as you feel.