by Carol L. Stuart
It all started with a pile of firewood. I was struggling, pulling and tugging the garden cart, loaded with cut firewood, up the trail from the wood lot back to the house. The wheels were sinking in the soft roadway and I was nearly exhausted after only two trips.
The Otterhounds, "Mickey" (Happy Hours MacAndrews Ale) and "Snuffy" (Greyfield's Shur Snuffy Smith) were cheering me on by running along the edge of their 5 acre fenced paddock, churning up great clods of mud and baying at the silly woman with the cart. The thought crossed my mind that after the wood was moved I still had two big dogs to bathe and groom before suppertime.
I had stopped to rest and talk to the dogs before my last big effort and reminded the dogs that they were having all the fun and I was the one doing all the work. They just smiled their big Otterhound smiles and ran off to find another moving target. "Boy," I thought, "if I could only harness all that energy." That's when the lights when on.
The wood got moved and the dogs bathed, fed and snuggled in their respective chairs. I kept rattling this idea around in my pea-brain. I called a Newfoundland fancier with whom I was acquainted and asked her about carting with her Newfs. She assured me that it was fun and put me in touch with people with experience and equipment.
Within a few weeks I had the veterinarian check out both dogs, including spinal, hip, and shoulder radiographs. He gave them both a clean bill of health. I had ordered carts and the appropriate sized harnesses for each dog. We then started basic carting training.
I teach obedience class and the Otterhounds were always the "demo" dogs for the class, so they were well versed in basic obedience commands.
Within two weeks Snuffy was showing considerable aptitude for the carting. Mickey was eager to run and distractible, so he became the "wheel-dog". This was the most appropriate outlet for his enthusiasm. We worked slowly over the weeks, gradually increasing the weight they pulled. Of course our first goal was to get all that pesky firewood moved up to the house.
Snuffy was just excellent at the "gee", "haw", "whoa", "back", and "stay" commands. Mickey got the left turns down pat and would back up so enthusiastically he would ram the back of the cart into a tree. He just didn't get the stop and stay or right turns. "Life is for running" was his attitude.
So Snuffy stayed the lead dog, and Mickey as the wheel-dog didn't get to see much change in scenery.
As winter began to clamp down it was time for us to pack up and move back into town. The winters in northern Pennsylvania are harsh and the roads too impassable to stay at the farm year round alone. We would visit the farm on nice weekends, but town, just 40 miles south, was much safer for us in deep winter.
I packed the carting equipment but didn't really think there was much hope of using it during the winter months in town.
The children in the neighborhood always gave the dogs and me a big greeting upon our return in the fall. What the Otterhounds lacked in overall running space was easily compensated for by being the center of attention of 10-12 children. Lots of walks and hugs. Whe the kids saw the carts, they were filled with curiosity. So any concern about not having any carting opportunities were dissipated by having children clamoring for rides in the carts.
Since it hadn't snowed yet in town, we had supervised carting all around the neighborhood. Folks would run outdoors with their cameras to take photographs of these dogs, kids, and carts. We even decorated the carts and participated in the local Christmas Parade, complete with Otterhound reindeer.
The it began to snow. We were having so much fun I decided to go ahead and purchase a sled. Now the carts are about 4 feet long and the dogs very easy to control. When the sled arrived, I was stunned. Here was over 7 feet of sled, plus lines, which put Snuffy, mister big-time lead dog, about 20-25 feet out ahead of me.
It was one thing to have Snuffy close enough for voice control and if necessary to grab the harness to remind him to go easy. It was a whole 'nother story to have him that far away and actually trust an Otterhound to make decisions which effected the safety of all of us.
I had also purchased 'siwash' type harnesses which changes the way the dog distributes his weight to pull the loads. It lowers the center of gravity and makes pulling much easier. Translate that into more "bang for the buck" or "full steam ahead", either of the above will do.
The kids and I practiced with the dogs, getting used to the new harnesses, the easy slide of the sled, the foot brake, and continually practicing the commands on lead, in harness, until we all felt it was time for the big run in the woods.
We picked a Saturday morning, bright, crisp, with about an inch of new granular snow. Six kids, dogs, equipment, and I piled into the van. We had found an abandoned road without too many steep hills and turns. I had great faith in the dogs and the training, but just to be safe the kids stationed themselves along the trail and one stayed behind with my cellular phone. You just never know.
All hitched up and ready to go the Otterhounds were raring like a couple of huskies, ready to be off. They felt the excitement. I told the kids I would take the first run and later we would pile a few kids in the sled and every one would get a ride.
I untied the sled (first rule of sledding, keep the sled secured) and barely had time to hop onto the runners and we were off. I was never so scared in my life. I just trusted my life to an Otterhound, who was 25 feet away and all I did was pray he would listen as I called out commands.
At the first "Y" in the road Snuffy heard the "gee" command and took the turn smooth as silk. At the next turn he again took the "gee" command but didn't even notice the kid stationed beside the trail. He was running down and dirty. I called for him to ease up and all I saw was his ears flatten to the sides of his head. Oh boy, we're in trouble now.
We started on an upgrade and he did begin to ease off but my fear was growing. An Otterhound running even at a lope covers considerable ground. As we had mapped out the trail, the downgrade came back to where we had started. Would he pull up and "whoa" when I asked him?
We were traveling so fast by then that even I missed the next kid stationed along the trail, Mickey saw the kid and flipped his tail up at him. We took the next two turns way too fast and I was actually contemplating turning the sled over to slow them down.
We crested the hill at a dead run, after the first 3 miles the dogs were showing no signs of becoming tired. As we started down the slope, I knew the nearest kid was at least 2 miles away. I had this mental picture of wrapping around a tree if the hounds decided it was time to give chase to the numerous deer and rabbits we were startling into running. I applied the foot brake while giving the "go easy" command and finally they began to give a little to the pull of the sled and me dragging my boot in the snow.
Finally, about mile 4 the hounds began to move into an easy trot. I was exhilarated, this is what drives folks to the Iditarod, to trek across the tundra, to forge into new frontiers. I was relaxing into my new reverie when Snuffy threw on the brakes and Mickey piled right on top of him. I was airborne for about 5 seconds and just avoided running over the dogs with the sled by slipping to the side. "Secure the sled", was all I could think of so I wedged the runners between two trees.
I looked at the dogs, both tangled in the other's harness, standing rigid.
I looked down the trail and saw the biggest Yorkshire boar hog I had ever seen. These critters get loose from the local farms and run wild here. They are extremely dangerous and will run an armed hunter up a tree. The boar was standing in the middle of the trail just calm as you please, probably sizing us up as a luncheon date. I was waiting for all get-out to break loose and just spoke very quietly to the dogs as I got them untangled. The boar didn't move and the dogs didn't move and I moved so slowly, we must have appeared as in time-lapse.
Dogs were untangled and I secured the sled with the line as I thought these dogs could probably break it apart if they really wanted. The boar must have satisfied his curiosity because he just turned and slipped into the underbrush.
Then the Otterhounds went wild. Straining at the harness, howling and barking, they went into a frenzy. They would have turned on each other but I held Snuffy tight up in his harness so he couldn't turn around on Mickey. I was scared to move and scared to stay.
I wasn't about to let these two dogs set off past the woods. I got a leash and collar out of my pack and snapped in on Snuffy. Now I had to get back and untie the sled without getting the dogs tangled again. I gave Snuffy a "sit-stay", hung onto the leash and managed to get the sled righted and untied.
We all "heeled" past the boar's entry hole, though not without a lot of pulling and snuggling. I could imagine the mushers of old doing flips in their graves.
We walked at "heel" for about 1/2 mile then I hopped on the sled and we set out at a reasonable pace on the last leg of our maiden journey.
When we came into view, all the kids were cheering, clapping, and hugging the dogs. What a great first run. What a wonderful success.
We had lunch and rested the dogs. We made three more runs of about a mile each, carrying two kids in the sled at a time. The kids were elated and so excited. The dogs finally started wearing out just as we finished the last run.
We went out a number of times during the winter, usually with a passel of kids in tow. We had some wonderful adventures. We did have one mishap when a stray cat sprinted in front of us and we went flying, sled and all, over a hedge into some poor lady's yard. She called the police but they were so charmed, they called the television station. The kids, dogs, and I were featured on the evening news.
Spring rolled around and we packed up to go back to the farm. The kids and their parents promised to come visit for picnics. The dogs were excited and raring to get going. We all hugged and said our good-byes.
The hounds really earned their keep that summer. They hauled brush and compost for the garden. Every once in a while, I would hitch them up and we would trundle down the unpaved township roads. We startled more than a few fishermen and hikers. Everyone was always kind and gave the dogs loads of attention. One gentleman even told stories about how dogs were used as draft animals in Europe during the war.
In August, Snuffy didn't seem to be his old joyful self. He had a tumor removed from his middle ear 2 years earlier and I was concerned maybe it had returned. My veterinarian arranged for us to see a specialist in Washington D.C. My worst fear was confirmed. Snuffy was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor.
I sought another opinion from the specialists at the University. Same diagnosis. They said he wasn't in any pain, just take him home. It was heartbreaking to watch him walk in circles then come lay his big head on my lap. I held out for one month.
By September, the veterinarian and I made our decision. I had a friend come over to stay with Mickey and try to console him. My heart was ripped to shreds even more as I listened to Mickey's frantic howls as I drove down the driveway. I told Snuffy how much we all loved him and would miss him.
When I returned, all the kids, their parents, Mickey and a few friends had a memorial service for Snuffy. We read some Bible passages and said prayers. We all hugged and cried. Then they all left. Mickey and I went into that big old farmhouse alone.
Mickey and I got through our days. We saw to the chores and began to close down the farm for the winter.
There was an early chill in the air and the snow was coming soon. I hung Snuffy's harness in the tack room and then sat down in the straw and sobbed for him, and me, and everyone whose life he had touched. He gave so much love, asking for nothing.
The next morning it was snowing hard. Mickey and I were probably smart to get down off the mountain before the roads got too treacherous. Mickey curled up on the seat next to me and we started for town. We passed the road where we had taken our first sled run and I felt my throat get thick and fought back the tears. I stopped the truck and backed up. The snow was slashing sideways and the wind was fierce. I couldn't drive in this condition in these conditions.
I pulled on my gloves and hat and put a leash on Mickey to get him out to stretch his legs. He began sniffing around and for the first time in weeks his tail lifted and began to wag. He remembered where we were.
We walked around a while, then he began pulling me up the trail. "Do you think you can handle this," I asked? He just looked back and me and then up the trail again. "OK, we'll give it a try."
I pulled the sled out of the back of the truck and slipped the harness over Mickey's shoulders.
He stood perfectly still, no wiggling at all. I untied the sled, grabbed the bar and said "Mush." He just swung his head around and looked at me. I walked up to his head and said, "Look, Mickey, he's gone, you're lead dog now. I know you can do it." He wagged his tail but just stood there.
I gave him a big hug, walked behind the sled and said "Mush." He lifted his tail and gave a lurch and we were off. I could tell his heart wasn't in it, he was doing this to please me. I was about to call the whole thing off when we crested the top of the rise we now called "Hog Ridge".
Mickey just stopped. Then he lay down in the snow. With just the sound of the wind driving the snow sideways through the trees, I quietly called him to stay. I walked up to his head and my two months of tears just poured down that noble animal's face and shoulder. I hugged him and he leaned into me. We stayed there so long the snow began to pile up on the wind side of his body. Finally he turned and began licking my face and tears.
He gazed into my eyes and somehow we came to an understanding.
I stood up and sighed and was about to unhitch him and pull the sled back down the hill myself, when Mickey stood up and shook the snow from his coat, splattering it all around. He gave another short shake and a wiggle. Then he gave me a look that seemed to say "Let's get going."
I grabbed the sled bar as he took off and we ran the remaining 4 miles with Mickey taking every "gee" and "haw" like a seasoned veteran lead dog.
When we got back to the truck, I unhitched him and gave him a drink. I loaded the sled and equipment and opened the truck door. Mickey hopped in and settled into his seat. As I got into the driver's side he threw me a look that I swear said "The kids are waiting, let's get home."
In memory of
(Greyfield's Shur Snuffy Smith)
August 17, 1992 to September 9, 1996
We will miss him always
Carol & Mickey