Life in Alaska

The Reluctant Sled Dog


As I stand on the runners of the dog sled trying to catch my breath, I look down at my dog sitting in his harness, facing the sled, just staring at me. There is no jumping enthusiasm, no barking, or straining—in fact, he looks annoyed. Somewhere along this journey things went terribly wrong. What started out as a relatively simple plan to teach Howie to pull a small sled, turned into a seemingly insurmountable feat.

About five years ago Howie entered our lives—a rowdy lab and shepherd mix puppy with endless energy. Even from his earliest days, our challenge has been trying to wear him out. We taught him to run on a treadmill, go on bike rides, hikes, and runs with us, and even carry his own back pack. Nothing really seemed to tire him out for long. My brother-in-law, commenting on his tireless energy, said, “You should teach him to pull a sled. He is strong, fast, and loves to run.” This idea seemed the perfect solution for both of us to get winter exercise.

Howie has always been too smart for his own good, he quickly figured out that the better gig was riding, not pulling.

This past fall my husband and I moved out to Caribou Lodge, a remote fly-in lodge, to become the new hosts and caretakers. Upon our arrival, I was delighted to discover a small dog sled and couldn’t wait for enough snow so I could begin training Howie. The snow finally came, and I enthusiastically started working. I wish I could say I knew what I was doing, but that is not at all the case. Reading books and some limited experience couldn’t begin to prepare me for the challenge ahead. We started out slowly, teaching him to pull the sled as we walked beside him, getting him used to the feel of the harness. Then, I started running behind the sled, holding the handle bar, cheering him on as we ran. We seemed to be progressing nicely until I decided to step onto the runners and actually have him pull me. The moment I stopped running and jumped on the runners he stopped dead in his tracks and refused to pull. A minor setback, I thought, and I started running again. Every time I tried to hitch a ride, he seemed to think if I wasn’t working he shouldn’t be either.

We decided to use the snow machine as a little motivation to encourage him to keep moving forward. My husband, Joe, cruised out ahead of us, I ran and held onto the handle while Howie jogged ahead of the sled. It worked beautifully. He ran after the snow machine and kept a perfect pace, even after I jumped on the runners. As we flew along the snow I felt a surge of excitement. After a few moments, I realized Howie was running so fast we were gaining on the snow machine. As the wind whipped my face, I tried to shout at Joe to go faster, but he couldn’t hear me and kept the same pace. Pretty soon we were right behind him and that’s when I saw, to my utter dismay, my powerful “sled dog” was trying to get into the basket on the back of the snow machine. All he wanted to do was hitch a ride back home. Howie has always been too smart for his own good, he quickly figured out that the better gig was riding, not pulling.

I am not one to give up easily, so we have pressed on with his training. Joe made a nice track for us to practice on in the field, but I can tell you that I still do all the running and pushing. When he sees me pull out the sled, he turns his back and walks away, looking around for something better to do. This morning he went so far as to sit down and yawn when he saw the sled. When I hold up the harness, he hangs his head as if we are about to start some kind of torture. This makes me feel bad, so I try to sound super excited and get him hyped up. He perks up and jumps on a stick, holding it up as perhaps a better game for us to play.

One thing I’ve discovered through this whole process is all of my dog’s energy, strength, and even obedience can’t make up for his lack of passion. My loveable mutt has no desire to pull a sled, he has no aspiration to become any kind of sled dog, unless, perhaps, there is some way to incorporate a ball to chase. I have come to grips with the fact that Howie will never be a sled dog. Hopefully by this time next year we will have a few “real” sled dogs to do the job, and chances are that Howie will still be the one riding in the basket.


Story & Photo by Bonnie Bramante


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