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Unforgettable Friends by Don Meredith © 2006
(first published in the August 2006 Alberta Outdoorsmen)

Magic

I lost a friend recently. Actually, "lost" is not the right term. It is a euphemism for the fact that this friend died. However, to be truthful, she wasn't lost as much as we "put her down"—another euphemism for something we don't like to contemplate or talk about. You see, my friend was our family's Malamute-cross husky, Magic, who lived to the ripe old age of 15 or more years.

Now, the death of a dog is not the same as that of a fellow human being and I don't wish to equate the two. But this animal was still a good friend, and truly a member of our family. We had to consider her when we made plans, and she made a difference in our lives as we did in hers. We miss her company, and yes, mourn her death.

Like so many dogs to so many owners, Magic was special, but not just because she was the last of the huskies who used to pull a dogsled for us. She was also special because she was Magic, a dog with a distinct personality who enriched our lives.

Magic just appeared one day at our neighbor's place with a piece of broken twine hanging from her collar. She was about one-year or older, and the neighbor made every effort to find the dog's owner; but to no avail. Like us, he also ran a dog team, but he was much more serious about it. He kept a kennel of Alaskan huskies, a mixed-breed of wiry dogs specifically bred for racing, and raced his dogs for prize money on a provincial circuit. Malamutes are heavy freight-hauling dogs, not built to run fast. So, Magic really didn't fit into his team. He thought we might be interested in her because we ran a recreational team of freight-hauling huskies.

When we arrived to give her a look, it was love at first sight. You see, I've always been fascinated with huskies since I was a boy and first read Jack Londons famous stories, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. Many years later my interest was further kindled when I went north to work on various projects as a biologist and ran into people who still used dogs to pull sleds on traplines. As a biologist, I knew these huskies were the most closely related breeds of domestic dog to the wolf, the progenitor of all domestic dogs. Although domesticated, huskies still retained much innate wolf intelligence and behavior.

dog team

Pulling sleds and carrying loads were probably some of the first jobs for which our ancestors used dogs. Over time, other breeds were developed for other purposes and much of that wolf behavior has been bred out. However, the Siberian Husky, Samoyed, Alaskan Malamute and their crosses are still bred for pulling sleds where wolf problem solving ability and tenacity remain desirable characteristics. They don't generally make good pets unless you are willing to put in the effort to keep them exercised and trained.

The first huskies I owned were a mixed-breed called McKenzie River Huskies. They were bred mostly by aboriginals and other trappers to pull heavy loads through the deep snows found in the boreal forest. In general, these dogs have long powerful legs and large muscular chests and rumps. Properly trained, they can endure long treks and enjoy the work.

Proper training is indeed the key, as I soon was to learn after purchasing my two McKenzie River Husky pups. In short order they became a handful, challenging my abilities as a dog handler, and teaching me much about the relationship between dogs and people. First of all, these were outside dogs. They did not like to be inside buildings even on the coldest days or nights. As long as we provided good dog houses that sheltered them from the wind, their thick, insulating fur kept them warm, and that suited them fine. Second, they were not pets. They gave affection only to those who earned their trust. Unfortunately, this no-nonsense, independent attitude has sometimes given this type of dog the reputation for not being as smart as other "more domesticated" (read "pet") breeds that fawn for human attention. I disagree. I believe this husky attitude indicates an animal of higher intelligence who doesn't take things at face value or suffer fools gladly.

I soon learned that to get the best performance out of these dogs, I needed to understand how they viewed my relationship with them. As the one who provided food, shelter and exercise, I learned I was not so much their master as the leader of their pack. I set the schedule and the tone of what was to be done from one day to the next. The dogs organized themselves below me in a social hierarchy with dominants and subordinates, much as wolves do in the wild. This was first made clear to me one night when I went to the kennel to discipline the two pups for barking for no apparent reason. Although I swatted each pup once on the rump, it took a few trips to get the point across. On the last trip, I had to pull the dominant male, Kingmek, out of his box before delivering the punishment. He took the swat in stride but when I moved to deliver the same to his sister, Nuna, he physically blocked my access to her, almost as if presenting himself as the only dog that should receive punishment. I did not swat him and left Nuna alone. I heard no more from the pen that night, and after that episode, the only time they barked was when there was really something to bark about, such as the presence of a coyote or other intruder.

When we brought the young Magic home, she had to fit into the hierarchy of our dog team. By this time, Kingmek had died, and Nuna was the alpha dog of the pack. She was about 13 years old then, and age was beginning to take its toll. She had long since retired from pulling a sled, and long naps took up most of her days. However, upon seeing a new member of the pack, she suddenly found new life and quickly read the riot act to Magic. Although Magic could have beaten Nuna in any fight, she immediately realized her station, and quickly submitted to Nuna without a fight or intervention on our part. It wasn't until Nuna died a year or so later that Magic took over as the alpha dog.

Magic was not a McKenzie River husky. She was more domesticated, readily coming into our house, and taking affection from just about anyone who cared to give it. As our family slowly got out of dog sledding, and Magic became the sole survivor of our dog team, she easily adapted from a pack of mostly dogs to a pack of mostly humans. She accompanied us on backpacking trips, hikes in the woods behind our home, and on cross-country skiing trips where she sometimes broke trail. She also ski-joured with my daughter, pulling her on cross-country skis.

Our family has learned much from each of our huskies. They taught us what it means to be proud of who you are and what you do, that there is more to life on this planet than what our human perspective often tells us. They taught us about why it is important to get along with others and the true meaning of courage. And they taught us that love has a price, but it is a price worth paying.


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Check-out Don's adventure novels:

Grizzly One
The Search
for Grizzly One
Dog Runner
Dog Runner