Who’s The Boss?

Boss, left, and her friend Moose

Inside Boss’s canine cranium a glorious plan was conceived: One day she would become the lead dog. Her dream seemed far-fetched, though.  How could a runt who weighed only 60 pounds be capable of leading a team of 22 hardened Alaskan malamutes that were twice her size?  I am here to tell you her amazing story and how she accomplished this impossible goal with nothing more than a fearless heart and a cheerful warrior demeanor. 

There is one small quirk about Boss I should tell you about: Boss had a menacing side of her personality and I am sure you know someone in your circle of friends or family who has a similar personality trait. Even though Boss succeeded in obtaining the most prestigious status of the team she wasn’t entirely satisfied. Boss was driven and determined to serve justice on all those who bullied her when she was young, including Sally.  Boss hated Sally with perfect passion.

When Boss was born she didn’t have a fighting chance in hell to survive.  She was the only pup of the litter, or a “singleton”.  It’s rare for a malamute to have only one puppy but it happens nonetheless.  Usually the single puppy is large, vibrant and healthy at birth.  But this wasn’t the case with Boss. She was small and frail.  To make matters worse, her mother Sheba, a beautiful grey and white gal who loved to hog my cot, didn’t want Boss near her and often pushed Boss out of the warm bed of straw.  Sheba wasn’t interested in keeping the newborn alive whatsoever.

 Once in a while though, Sheba showed a spark of compassion and nursed her. Mostly though, she would turn her back on her. It seemed Sheba wanted the little girl as any mother wants their offspring with the strongest love and compassion that is known, yet I believe Sheba might have noticed Boss was physically inferior.

Sheba was conflicted by ancient instincts, maybe warnings, to allow sweet little Boss to die, benefitting the pack’s longevity.  Every day I bottle-fed the little grey furball in addition to some of Sheba’s milk.  I looked forward to watching her suckle on the bottle’s milk, grunting and seemingly smiling as the warm milk dripped off tiny hairs on her chin.  Boss and I grew together. 

As time passed, Sheba became more detached from Boss. Then one day I found Boss several feet away from her whelping pen while Sheba laid inside curled up with her eyes tightly closed.  Sheba had decided it was time to let Boss go.

Immediately I picked-up the helpless puppy and held her muzzle to my ear.  I could smell the sweet puppy smell of Boss but she wasn’t breathing.  I felt like part of me died inside. I held her under my shirt hoping to warm her. My heart sank with pain as I felt her cold lifeless limbs against my belly.  “C’mon girl you can make it,” I whispered, hoping for a miracle. 

I rushed inside my tent, a wooden frame with fabric roof, and held her above the heat that radiated from the hot wood-burning stove.  As I massaged her tiny heart and lightly squeezed, or “pumped” her lungs, I hoped and prayed to detect a heartbeat, but I felt nothing.  As she lay in the palm of my hand, with her eyes closed and her head hanging seemingly lifeless, I reminisce how a day earlier she was full of life and joy. 

Now, losing her was a reality.  But I couldn’t and wouldn’t give up.  I continued to massage her heart and pump her lungs. 

As the joyous crackling flames slowly died to a dark whisper in the stove and a tear sizzled on the stove’s surface I accepted the fact that Boss would never be on my team. She would rest peacefully for the rest of time.

Maybe I thought, I’d bury her on a hilltop where the vast Arctic’s openness could be viewed on all sides.  Then suddenly she coughed, inhaled a short breath and whined a sweet tune of life with desperation.  My heart jumped as my fingertips felt Boss’s tiny racing heart through her fragile ribs.

When I was assured she could breathe on her own, I set her on a soft caribou hide and fed her warm milk. As I watched Boss’ feistiness come back to life I realized she was going to be a very, very special girl.

As Boss slowly grew from a fragile, helpless puppy that slept in the palm of my hand to an adolescent that hogged the cot, I knew she wasn’t going to be large.  Even though she was proportional with thick bones, paws and wide chest, she was much smaller than any malamute I’ve ever had the pleasure of having.   

One day, Boss was inside the cabin where I had leaned a small mirror against the wall to repair the hinge that it hung on.   Boss, with her curious nature, rushed where I stood and caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror.   With almond eyes staring back at her in the mirror she jumped back with fear and bewilderment. 

Then Boss showed her glistening white canines, poised to attack the other grey girl that mimicked her.  Then Boss surprised the heck out of me: she cut-loose the ugliest and most atrocious growl that I’ve ever heard come from the throat of a malamute.  Her deep guttural growl would have scared the daylight out of the wickedest grizzly bear in the arctic.   I busted out laughing, which scared Boss and sent her scampering under the table, leaving claw marks scribed in the plywood floor.  

After Boss regained her composure, she glanced at me then crept out from under the table to approach her adversary again.  Her beautiful grey hackles stood tall like a porcupine while she worked her large furry paws toward the mirror.  She wasn’t going to let that girl in the mirror get the best of her.  She was going back to settle the score. As Boss slowly stepped closer to the mirror, she inhaled deeply then exhaled with a threatening growl.  She raked her eyes up and down her enemy through the steamed-up glass mirror.  Boss’s enemy did the same to her.  Boss turned her head and looked at me for assurance. I smiled and nodded.  Boss’s tense muscles relaxed and she sat down mesmerized at the beautiful malamute that was in front of her.

 Boss sat there for a few moments, stood up, stretched out like a cat, sniffed the mirror again, turned around and proudly walked away with her tailed curved tightly over her back.  As she walked away, I swear she strutted a little. Right then and there, I knew Boss decided that she was a badass and the most beautiful Alaskan malamute in the world.


A few months later

As the blood-red sun led my eyes to the snowy hills on the horizon in late November Boss pranced beside the gangline of 22 malamutes hitched to three enormous freight sleds.  Like a drill sergeant, Boss loved antagonizing them.

 If she could speak, I bet she would say:  “Alright soldiers.  Listen-up. We’re going to bust trail through one of the most God-awful brutal places on earth.  If you aren’t ready, you better damn well get ready right now!  We aren’t coming back until the snow is melted and the rivers are flowing, five months from now.  So buck it up! Especially you, Sally!  Damn you girl, stand tall. Don’t be a slouch!”

I had been training the dogs and myself for three months for this expedition and I was fit as an Olympic athlete and so were the dogs.  And it had been a month since the last plane dropped off supplies and I had seen another person.   It was just me, Boss, and the team in the middle of Alaska’s Arctic.

During the expedition I didn’t have communication with the outside world unless I dragged a telephone antenna to a hilltop and dialed from my old analog telephone.  If the country fought World War III, I wouldn’t have known it.    The only thing I was concerned about was the dogs’ safety and mine in one of the most inhospitable arctic environments in the world.  

From late November to May we fought blinding blizzards, -90°F windchills, waist deep snow and 72 days without seeing the glistening golden rays of the sun.  We had dropped through thin ice, fell into a mountain crevasse, which resulted in broken ribs, and fended off a charging grizzly bear.  In spite of all the hardships it didn’t matter because Boss and the team were at my side.  I relied on my team for survival as much as they depended on me for their survival. We were one team, one cohesive unit that lived, traveled, endured trials and celebrated triumphs together.  I wasn’t ever an alpha figure, I was just a team member and coach.  I encouraged them through tough times and they inspired me when I was exhausted and depleted of energy. 

Essentially I mimicked my malamutes’ strengths, hardiness and cheerful warrior demeanors.  Without them as my mentors, I could not have ever held-up to the extreme struggles and physical demands that is required to break-trail across Alaska’s Brooks Range for several months on end.  When people and dogs endure hardships, a bond is created that no person, animal or event can break.  It’s a bond that lasts for a lifetime.  When both an animal and a person recognize that their survival depends on each other, there is no longer a dominant role of either the person or animal.  They work and live together as one unit. Emotions are felt between them like they are one being-when one suffers or feels joy so does the other.

Regardless of the many struggles we faced, I saw amazing arctic landscapes that are rarely viewed by humans in winter. The team and I busted trail where it was believed to be impossible to travel by dogteam.  We explored jagged canyons that cut deep into the mountains that scraped the clouds and summited passes over the continental divide.

On many nights, the northern lights dashed overhead in magnificent displays of greens, reds and purple colors, illuminating our tranquil surroundings.  If you were there, you’d think it was like living under an enormous glass window while a painter’s brush worked colorful ocean wave designs on the other side of the glass.  All-in-all I felt humbled to be in the presence of a landscape which was carved, molded and shaped by our creator’s mighty hand. 

On Christmas day I camped alongside some “warm” springs.  The springs weren’t warm enough however to take a dip, but it was awfully convenient for brewing coffee rather than melting snow.

While I was scooping a coffee pot of crystalline spring water, a little red fox trotted across the snowy tundra and circled the malamutes on the picket line.  The little guy had been following us for about two weeks and scavenged morsels of dogfood left in the snow after we struck camp. Now, he apparently felt comfortable visiting us while we were camped and teasing the dogs.  It actually seemed like the fox enjoyed antagonizing the dogs until big bad Boss came on the scene.  Boss immediately charged the fox sending him running for his life.  Suddenly the brushy red fox stopped dead in his tracks, swung around and faced Boss nose to nose.  Boss seemed to relish the challenge and didn’t back down.  Then her bushy tail swirled around in circles similar to a male malamute when he meets a girlfriend.

After a short moment the little fox darted around Boss like his tail was on fire. Boss reacted by immediately chasing the wild little red flash of fur that circled her until she nearly bit his tail.  Fox stopped in his tracks and then they squared off again and repeated their circus show of a malamute chasing Fox’s brushy red tail.  Boss and Fox played for about two to three minutes, and then the fox turned tail and trotted across an ice bridge over the warm springs and disappeared into the tall willows at the opposite side of the river.  Boss just sat on her haunches panting and watching.

 On Christmas, Boss was only 10 months old and wasn’t mature enough yet to pull in the team.  As a general rule of thumb, I never allow my dogs to pull anything until they’re at least two years old.  So during this particular expedition, Boss just tagged along beside the sled or rode in it.  Sometimes, Boss would get a little bored and felt it was her responsibility to irritate Sally who was in wheel position.  Sally was a beautiful red gal with a stocky build who enjoyed pulling beside her big brothers Nikko and Farmer.  But she had a chip on her shoulder with Boss.  Sally was the only girl in her litter so she was accustomed to dominate her brothers and she didn’t like anyone that challenged her.  All the other girls approached Sally with submission, grace and respect, except Boss. 

Fast forward to a few years later.


Boss in harness

I slipped a small harness on Boss and attached her tugline.  She worked well in the team and advanced quickly up the ranks, from wheel to swing position.   So, I decided to place her in lead after we traveled north of the mountains to the Beaufort Sea in late April.  During this time the rivers in the mountains began running so we usually traveled on the sea ice where it was solidly frozen and free of water.  I just figured it would be less stressful for her on the sea’s hardpack snow.

Finally her big day arrived and we trotted off the snowy tundra and onto the sea ice.  After the team settled into a comfortable trot I placed Boss in lead beside my “sea ice” leader Bear, who I used exclusively on the sea because he was much smaller than his teammates and preferred a faster trot.  Like an opening act in a grand parade down main street Boss led the team magnificently for an entire day.  But unbeknown to me, it was just a staged act.  Boss had a plan and wanted to settle an old score.  She probably figured the lead position was a prime opportunity to do so and took full advantage of it.

While trotting on a smooth area of the sea ice Boss managed to turn the entire team of 22 dogs around, dragging Bear along with her, and went after Sally.  As fur flew and growls thundered across the ice I dove in the midst of the brawl and pulled Boss away from her rival.  I spent the following hour straightening out the team that was tied in a perfect 22-dog tangled knot.  I swear
Boss was smiling ear to ear the rest of the evening.  Not only had she accomplished the impossible by becoming a lead dog for a team of toughened malamute freighters, she somehow managed to even the score with a gal who dealt her a heavy hand when she was young.

 Thereafter Sally and Boss were best of friends, except once in a while they’d offer each other an evil look and growl, but all-in-all they were best buds.


About Joe

For those who don’t’ know me let me introduce myself. I haven’t ever run the Iditarod, or any race for that matter.  It’s not because my dogs are too fat or lazy to run a race, no not at all, it’s because I have Alaskan malamutes.  Alaskan malamutes are one of the most ancient dog breeds on earth. Historically, they are freighters and draft animals.  They just aren’t physically designed for racing. Picture a Clydesdale draft horse running in the Kentucky Derby horse race for example.  Certainly malamutes love to stretch-out and lope a few miles in very, very short races but races like the Quest and Iditarod are not designed for Alaskan malamutes.  That said, there are Alaskan malamute lines which are smaller, narrower shouldered and lighter boned than the norm and can somewhat keep-up in long distance races, but that’s an entirely different bloodline of dogs than mine.    However, the smaller and lighter frame malamutes aren’t conducive to the original intentions of arctic travel and freighting. 

For over three decades the team and I have conducted multi-month expeditions during the dead of winter in Alaska’s arctic.  We have crisscrossed the Arctic numerous times while breaking trail in 2 to 6 ft. of snow while traveling to regions where it was believed impossible to access by dog team.  The team has successfully completed the longest solo, unassisted (without resupply) Arctic expedition in recorded history of four months.  That said, nearly all multi-month expeditions in the last 35 years were without resupply.  I want to highlight this last point because it exhibits how amazingly powerful malamutes, and dogs in general, really are. Try to imagine a team hauling several months of dogfood and gear while breaking trail.  I sometimes find it tough to wrap my head around their incredible strength.  But there’s more to it than meets the eye.  The secret is not only because Alaskan malamutes are hardy, but also they have been taught a specific training technique that allows them to exhibit their truth strengths. 

During the expeditions we travel every day regardless of temperature —except during fierce blizzards— and camp every night in different locations.

Mother Nature dishes out the good and bad, sometimes within the same day. The team and I have camped under the blinking stars during the coldest temperatures recorded in North America and have endured the worst blizzards in Alaska’s history.  The extreme challenges we have experienced in the Arctic has encouraged me to rethink the traditional way of dog mushing and sled dog training.

The four main points that have allowed the team and me to travel effectively in the Arctic are as follows:

 First: I devised a training technique that draws the dogs’ hidden strengths out by “going inside” the hearts and minds of the dogs and focus coaching from within. Essentially, 100 percent of my training is psychological rather than physical.

Second, I modified a sled and dog-hitch system that hasn’t ever been used before, yet is most efficient for hauling freight while breaking trail. 

Third: I built a multi-sled system that would accommodate 3,500 lb. loads.

And lastly, I discovered and adhered to useful Arctic trail-breaking traits in my breeding program.  Regardless of the changes I have made, that I feel are insignificant, I attribute 100 percent of accomplishments to the dogs’ naturally strong physiques, mental stamina, intelligence, efficient metabolisms and their most cherished and valuable trait of all: Their cheerful warrior demeanors.

Although, there is one note worth mentioning that ties the team and I together as one unit that enhances my psychological training technique: I rarely ride on the sled. I either snowshoe with or ski ahead, beside, or behind the team.  By doing so, I enhance the mutual bond and trust within the team.  I basically run a marathon everyday. But, not everyone wants to freeze their butts in the Arctic and snowshoe or ski until forever.

Even though some of these aspects about dogsledding are more advanced and technical than others, there is a singular aspect about dogmushing I know everyone that is reading this share: the love of dogs and how we want the best for them.   I also know that as humans we get a little frustrated when sometimes our beloved dog doesn’t behave how we have envisioned. We’ve all experienced this.  It requires a world of patience to remedy.  This is why it’s important to train ourselves FIRST, then our dogs.

Let me explain. When we look inside a dog’s mind we’ll find similar emotional patterns seen in humans, like happiness, sadness, love, hate, trust and mistrust. Unlike humans though, dogs have an incredible sense of smell, about 100,000 times stronger than ours.  Here’s the most fascinating point however and explains why some dogs seem to have a perpetual smile: dogs can actually smell and react to the rise and fall of our hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.  These are our happy or feel-good hormones.  This is something to keep in mind when you’re working with your dogs.  After all, just like people, happy dogs are hard and loyal workers. They will exhibit extraordinary strength and loyalty when they are happy.

This last sentence is the foundation of many working dog training strategies. And it begins when puppies open their tiny eyes for the first time and view the big wide world around them.  From this point forward, their natural mental strengths are nurtured, preserved and prepared for a future in mushing in which they love with passion.