My Canine Companions

It is another rather warm morning here in south central Alaska with mostly cloudy skies and the promise of still more of the same in terms of warm temps and no precipitation across the next week. Given spring officially begins tomorrow mid-afternoon the odds of seeing any honest winter weather continues to dwindle. Sure, we could see a snow event or another few days of much below normal temps but as the sun continues to ride higher and higher in the sky every day all trends are towards the upcoming spring. 

Of late I’ve noticed my female Alaskan Malamute, Anana, has been ‘asking’ to remain outside in the back yard after being let out to take care of business. Her method of communicating this to me is to remain standing or lying down on the back porch after I open the door and allow her pal Qanuk, my male German Shepherd Dog, inside. She is such a good girl and will stay put as long as a moose or similar doesn’t enter her field of view so I often oblige her. Qanuk, being true to his breed, prefers to be close to me and will rarely remain outside longer than he needs to handle his business. Seeing a definite uptick in Anana’s requests while her routine remains largely the same – she, like most other canines, prefers routine in her existence – started me wondering if she was recognizing the winter was waning and with it would come the end of cold and snow. One wonders if there are ‘new’ odors that she now identifies with the coming of spring or is it the string of warmer days? This was her second ‘winter’ – such that it was – but she is plenty observant and smart enough to recognize such signs and remember them after just a year’s exposure. 

Raising both a Mal and a GSD I’ve had ample opportunity to compare and contrast the two breeds which are pretty close to being polar opposites in so many areas. Anana lives to be a member of our pack and the most effective means of disciplining her when she’s broken the rules – and since reaching adulthood at 2 years of age this hardly happens – is to quarantine her away from me and Qanuk when she’s inside. This really makes an impression on her and with her incredible memory the point is always remembered. Qanuk responds to the more conventional verbal dressing down; he lives to please me as well as run and play with mankind’s great creation – at least as far as he’s concerned – the tennis ball. He, too, is a wonderful companion and rarely causes me issues except when he gets excited about going outside. He literally turns into something akin to the Tasmanian Devil we all viewed in the Bugs Bunny cartoons; his excitement is that powerful. While generally a very careful boy inside when truly wound up his big tail will find many things to knock over. However, after almost six years of raising canines most everything that can be broken has either met that fate or has been placed such that they are impervious to doggy tails and hype. Indeed, he gets so excited if we’re going for a car ride I have to command him to ‘tinkle’ before we board; otherwise in his excitement he’ll forget and then he becomes very anxious once in the car. Never before have I seen a canine that has to be commanded to empty his bladder before car rides but then Qanuk is a unique canine in many respects. 

As Talkeetna is known as a ‘dog village’ – witness no leash laws even in the village itself – my canine pals are in a great place and the fact that we’re surrounded by boreal forest and live semi-rural is generally a plus for them. I say ‘generally’ because Anana does miss being around so many different people; in Dearborn (MI) while I was caring for my folk’s place I fenced in the back yard and gave her the run of that area. She very quickly developed a string of neighbors whom during walks would stop by the fence and greet her often with treats. She was a true ‘rock star’ at the Northville (MI) Sunrise Assisted Living Facility and she owned the title ‘visiting therapy dog’ because she was so friendly and willing to interact with any of the residents. In general Anana loves anything on two legs and I’ve often said she would let any human into the house and probably help carry out any of my stuff if asked. It’s this love of humans that makes Mals ineffective watch dogs and Anana lives up to this breed trait in spades! Since relocating here she no longer has a neighborhood of folks to visit her and as there are no assisted living facilities at which I can volunteer she doesn’t have that means to greet new folks. In this sense she may not be all that pleased with our new home. Of course this is a dual edged sword as up here she can roam free and rarely has to deal with a lead. She has virtually endless acres of boreal forest to explore and handfuls of moose to chase. I do try to get her into the village fairly often and allow her to wait for me outside the PO where she eagerly greets the locals. 

Poor Anana cannot understand why every human doesn’t respond to her as she does to them with affection and love. She doesn’t understand that at 115 pounds she is a very big girl and although she is truly a teddy bear even I, with my love for and understanding of canines, would initially be wary of her if I didn’t know her. I’ve seen folks literally tremble with fear when she runs up and looks for attention; she just cannot believe any human wouldn’t love her like she does them. Qanuk, on the other hand, is very cautious around new people and remains to this day very nervous around adult males. The latter is completely my fault in terms of his socialization. I brought Qanuk into our pack while volunteering at Sunrise and once he was old enough to get control of his needs I started bringing him into the facility with Anana. Such facilities are staffed by almost entirely women. I never realized that because of this and Qanuk’s nature he became ‘okay’ with women but drew a very real line between the genders and hence never really came to know adult males outside myself and my brother. To this day he is very cautious around adult males and children; the latter I could understand as he saw very few while maturing. I do not want him to be so concerned about adult males and hence am beginning to introduce him to as many adult males as possible in the hopes I can socialize him a bit more towards males. He is fine with women but then in Sunrise that was almost all he saw. 

I expected Anana to really revel in her new Alaskan home especially during the winter but much to my surprise Qanuk has been the one to really take to pounding through the deep snow. Anana is smarter in that she allows Qanuk to cut a trail and then she will often follow. Given her height and build she fares better in the snow when the depth is over 18” but Qanuk is still the one I see pounding through the virgin snow. Some of Anana’s reticence to broach deep snow might be based on my poor ‘little’ angel suffering two major surgeries within 6 months of each other.  At the age of just two she blew out her right knee and required a TPLO (Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy) which is a serious surgery in which the tibia is broken and leveled and then reattached via a plate and screws. The injury is the equivalent to tearing an ACL in a human being. She required a full six weeks to recover from the worst effects of the operation and she really never completely recovered until we moved up here. Then, six months later she blew out her left knee and had the same procedure; this time I knew what to look for and caught it early so there was less damage but it was still six weeks of Hell for her. Luckily my vet recommended a fantastic surgeon and he really worked wonders. In all the two procedures cost me just over $8,000 but given it was my companion I would’ve paid many times that amount as the only other option would’ve been to put her down. I’d say she recovered maybe 95% of her original abilities which is incredible given the severity of the procedures. For anyone in SE Michigan needing a wonderful animal surgeon I cannot recommend Dr. Kyle Kerstetter (www.michvet.com) enough; he and his team were incredible! As I’ve often kidded thanks to him I own ‘The Eight Thousand Dollar Dog’! 

As we approach the seasonal shift I am once again looking forward to being able to get out with my canine companions. I’ve come to realize that my walks in this magnificent land are enhanced by my canine companions; they function as extensions to my ears and my nose. I love to see either or both of them stop suddenly and raise their muzzles skyward as their noses work overtime to identify a scent. They almost always see wildlife before I do and I suspect this is largely based upon their hearing coupled with their incredibly sensitive noses. More than once they’ve shown me scat, kill sites and similar I’d have never noticed without their help. They truly enhance my outdoor Alaskan experiences and it is just great to have a couple of pals along on outings. 

They are both indoor dogs so we spend lots of time inside; both have adapted wonderfully to living in a human’s ‘lair’ and they’ve had to learn a lot of rules. Anana has never raided the garbage can and Qanuk has only done so twice; he’s learned to steer clear of this by watching Anana. Never have I known canines who wouldn’t raid a garbage can when it smells of meat, fish or chicken. They have their favorite spots; for Anana it’s the coolest place while Qanuk just wants to be someplace he’s comfortable but can see me. Anana sleeps by my bed but Qanuk sleeps in it maybe half the night.  He’s actually very ‘civilized’ in that he doesn’t steal the blankets or take more than half the bed. I’ve never fed them from the table so they know not to bother me when I’m eating but I do give them infrequent table scraps as a treat. 

All told I couldn’t ask for two better canine companions and my new life in Alaska has been immensely enriched by their presence. They are truly my family now that my sister and brother live thousands of miles to the south. Up here everyone has at least one dog so they helped me integrate into the community by meeting other people and their dogs.  And I rely on their incredible senses while outdoors as they can sense natural events and wildlife much sooner than me.  We’re all aging and our needs are shifting but to this day all they ask of me is shelter, food, a bit of attention and some play; I get back endless unconditional love, the very definition of ‘agape love’, and the companionship generated by another organism who truly does love to just be around me! Talk about a ‘win-win’ situation…

Anana and Qanuk playing in fresh snow early in January, 2015

Anana and Qanuk playing in fresh snow early in January, 2015

Anana at around twelve weeks of age.  Even then I could see the mischievous glint in her eyes!

Anana at around twelve weeks of age. Even then I could see the mischievous glint in her eyes!

Qanuk at around eight weeks of age

Qanuk at around eight weeks of age

Anana and Qanuk playing; Anana was always very gentle with him until he reached puberty

Anana and Qanuk playing; Anana was always very gentle with him until he reached puberty

Qanuk and Anana on East Barge Drive in early September

Qanuk and Anana on East Barge Drive in early September

'The Kidz' are playing tough!

‘The Kidz’ are playing tough!

Qanuk and Anana braving 16" of fresh snow; they really love Alaskan winters!

Qanuk and Anana braving 16″ of fresh snow; they really love Alaskan winters!

My poor 'little' angel finding some comfort in my bed after returning home from her second TPLO surgery

My poor ‘little’ angel finding some comfort in my bed after returning home from her second TPLO surgery

An incredible adaptation to Arctic cold, the Mals grow thick fur that sprouts from between their pads when it begins to cool down.  This remains all winter and then disappears with warming temps.  I'm sure this gives the pads protection against ice and very cold temps.

An incredible adaptation to Arctic cold, the Mals grow thick fur that sprouts from between their pads when it begins to cool down. This remains all winter and then disappears with warming temps. I’m sure this gives the pads protection against ice and very cold temps. Nature is just so awesome..!

Dogs & Deep Snow

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Anana at a bit over two years of age and Qanuk at nine and a half weeks

During a number of my postings I’ve either mentioned my two canine companions (Anana and Qanuk) or shown them in images but I’ve never really gone into what I perceive as their feelings regarding our relocation.  First a little background:  I’ve always been an animal lover in general and a canine lover in particular.  I’ve always been drawn to big, active dogs and even at 60 years of age still love to get on the floor and play or wrestle with my four-legged companions.  Because of a single lifestyle coupled with jobs that required frequent long-term travel for many decades I could not have an animal companions.  Only with my retirement did this finally change and within a year or so I decided I was ready to bring a new canine into my life.  I spent hours looking at possible breeds and finally narrowed it down to German Shepherd Dogs (GSDs), Black Labs, Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes (Mals).  I’d shared my life with GSDs growing up and even in college so I was very familiar with that breed and they remain one of my two favorite breeds to this day.  I’ve always loved the appearance of Huskies but upon reading more about their physical requirements I ruled them out.  I’d recently met a wonderful Black Lab and really liked the breed.  I was clueless regarding Mals other than knowing they were a large, powerful freighting dog with an affinity for cold and snow.  I finally ruled out a GSD because I wanted to try something new.  Therefore I was left with either a Black Lab or a Mal; at this point I started searching for breeders of both in the general SE Michigan vicinity.  I found many for the Labs but very few for Mals.  However, the one I did locate (Sindi at North Country Kennel) was someone I immediately liked and as we talked about her breeding philosophy, her experience with Mals and the litters she would soon see I became even more impressed.  In the end it was my regard for Sindi that helped me decide to go with a Mal.

At this point I feel it necessary to defend the breed mainly because I’ve met so many people with negative views of Alaskan Malamutes.  Right up front Sindi was very honest about Mals not being like other dogs and also the fact that not everyone could, or should, own a Mal.  First off is the incredible amount of fur they possess which will eventually be all over one’s house and clothing; there’s just no way around this fact.  If you cannot live in dog fur then a Mal is not for you.  Secondly, the breed produces large freighting dogs who require loads of regular exercise especially when they are young (ages 3 months to 2 years).  Thirdly, they are very intelligent and absolutely must have lots of mental stimulation on an ongoing basis.  If they do not get this they will become very destructive and trust me, this is something you do not want to see!  Finally, they truly are different from other canines and you must accept this and indeed learn a whole new paradigm regarding training and living with this breed.  They live to be a part of the family they are with; this is all important and provides the tool for training them.  More traditional learning techniques (i.e. rewards, negative physical contacts like a smack on the butt, raising one’s voice, etc.) are ineffective with Mals.  Instead, one must insure that when a Mal has done well or is doing well you praise them to the sky and really let them know they are a part of your family.  Similarly, if they’ve done wrong I found forcing them to be alone and away from human interaction, even for just a brief time, provided the best negative reinforcement.  It’s these breed characteristics that have led many professional trainers to opine that Mals are ‘not trainable’.  This is nonsense; they are indeed not trainable via the methods used with other breeds but they are eminently trainable when you understand their breed’s characteristics and what really drives them.  Its imperative to both recognize and accept that you will not win every battle with a Mal; indeed, they are the basis for the wisdom ‘pick your battles wisely’!  To this day Anana has habits or routines which annoy me but I also know I cannot change them and so I’ve learned to live with them.  In turn Anana has learned to live by my rules in many areas like taking care of business outside, coming when I call, walking under control on a lead and coming to my dog whistle.  In this sense most of what I forced Anana to accept was based upon maintaining her own safety; beyond this we pretty much reached our own agreements.

I had decided to take a female pup from a litter due in a matter of a few weeks and put down my deposit.  Perhaps a week later Sindi called me with an intriguing offer; another family who had taken a pup from a littler just born was forced to delay taking their Mal because of family issues.  They, instead, would take one from the soon to be birthed litter.  Therefore Sindi had a ten week old female and she was wondering if I was interested.  At first I was hesitant but as we talked I became more interested.  In the end Sindi knocked $100 off the price and it was a done deal.  I was heading out for a week of camping in lower Michigan but made arrangements to stop by and pick up my new ‘little angel’ on my way back to Dearborn.  I made this happen and the rest is indeed history.  I went through some very tough times with Anana (pronounced like ‘banana’ except drop the ‘b’ and go short on the ‘a’s’) as a pup but Sindi was an invaluable resource.  As she warned me I had a lot of previous experience with canines which really wasn’t relative to raising Anana and I also had loads to learn.  However, I persevered and with Anana doing her best to teach me about Mals we really did meld as companions.  She grew up to become a true ambassador for the Mal breed; she loves all humans to the point she’s useless as a ‘watch dog’ (this is a characteristic of the breed) and came to join me in my volunteering work at an assisted living facility in SE Michigan working with dementia residents.  She was given the title ‘visiting therapy dog’ and she made many friends and brought a lot of joy to so many residents.  She is stellar with children; while being part of a team that transported the aforementioned residents to outdoor concerts for children – they loved to watch the kids – I started bringing Anana along.  By this time she was over two years of age and fully grown; she is a big girl and technically a ‘Giant Malamute’ as she tips the scales at 124 pounds.  Because of her gorgeous black and white markings, her perfect mask and her size young kids were just drawn to her.  Many of their mothers were tentative at first but when they saw Anana drop to her side and roll over exposing her belly so the kids could scratch her they recognized Anana was no threat.  I saw as many as fifteen children clustered around Anana all petting and scratching her; she was completely calm and just loving every second of the attention.  She is indeed a very special canine and as one of my four-legged companion I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

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Anana at eleven weeks of age; quite spoiled but she deserved it!

Within a couple of years of bringing Anana into my life I realized she needed a pal to play with and keep her company when I had to head out and couldn’t bring her along.  By this point I was very familiar with the Mal breed and I seriously thought about getting another Mal but I also wanted more of a watch dog and that pretty much ruled out a Mal.  Because of this I elected to go with a German Shepherd Dog; I was hoping Anana’s easy-going and friendly temperament might tone down the natural protectiveness in the GSD breed.  I once again started my on-line search and finally selected a good breeder in the general area.  In early November of 2011 I brought Qanuk (Ca-nook) home and my life has never been the same since doing so!  He immediately bonded with Anana and as he developed and grew up she was the center of his existence.  This bothered me a bit at first but I was also betting that once Qanuk really started to develop the characteristics of the breed he would come to focus on me as the alpha male.  Indeed, this did happen and I started the amazingly difficult process of rearing a young GSD with an adult Mal.  I knew the two breeds were about as polar opposite as one could find:  Mals love people, are innately friendly, just want to be part of the family and play via physical contact while GSDs are notoriously unsure of anyone outside their immediate family, tend to be protective of their families, live to be trained and taught working chores and tend to favor playing with ‘things’ like tennis balls and Frisbees.  I thought I was prepared for these differences but while I understood them intellectually I really didn’t grasp the subtleties on an emotional level.  In dealing with each dog I had to use different methods of approach and reasoning; it made for some ‘interesting’ times as Qanuk grew up.  He is fully grown now at a bit over two years of age (Anana is now a few months past her fourth birthday) and an incredibly strong and healthy GSD at 88 pounds with a gorgeous Sable coat.  Poor guy’s ears never fully stood up thanks to a series of ear infections from age 2 months through age 6 months; these were exacerbated by Anana’s licking of his infected ears which caused secondary yeast infections.  His ears are fully up when he’s really curious, chasing something or really vigilant but otherwise they just flop around.  I’m quite okay with this actually as they fit his puppy persona which I’m beginning to believe will never leave him.  He is an incredible athlete and lives to run; he loves pounding through the current 15 inches of accumulated snow and will venture far off the plowed roads into the boreal forest any chance he gets.  Even Anana will only follow him so far into the forest; I can tell she thinks that running through 15″ of snow ‘for fun’ isn’t that much fun.

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Qanuk at three months of age

As he developed he naturally started to feel his male genes and as such he recognized that Anana was female and thus he should be dominant.  As an aside, both Anana and Qanuk have been spayed and neutered.  Its healthier for them and in my opinion it’s just responsible pet ownership to do so.  Anyway, at around ten months of age poor Qanuk, now weighing maybe 75 pounds to Anana’s 117 pounds, started trying to exert his dominance.  At first it was kinda comical but later I started to wince as I’d watch Qanuk repeatedly try to show Anana he was dominant; Anana would take just so much before she would bowl him over, pin him to the ground with her massive chest and let him know the score.  Qanuk was nothing if not persistent but even he finally accepted he was not the alpha canine – with both these breeds its vital the human establish themselves as the alpha male and do so at an early age – and Anana would always be able to best him.  I think this was a very difficult situation for him to accept but ultimately its simple physics; as of today Qanuk weighs 88 pounds and Anana has bulked up to 124 pounds.  This means poor Qanuk gives away 36 pounds to Anana in weight and that’s 41% of his total body weight.  He has learned to play with Anana very well and can hold his own in their frequent ‘play fighting’ but if it were to get serious he’d be in a world of hurt.  However, because of breed differences he can and does run rings around Anana outside; the Mal build is upright, massive and powerful but they are not really runners while GSDs are true athletes and can run and leap with the best of ’em.

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My ‘little angel’ Anana just home from her second TPLO surgery

But back to my original purpose in writing this piece; just how are my companions adjusting to Alaska..?  Without question they are in seventh heaven!  While both had some experience wandering in wooded areas and they both like to chase deer they never experienced anything like the huge boreal forest that surrounds this area.  Nor had they enjoyed being able to just walk out of the house and immediately be immersed in a wild and natural setting.  Neither of them liked the insect hoards we endured in August and September but their thick coats gave them good protection.  When the snow came both loved it although at this point I’d have to give Qanuk the nod as the reigning ‘snow dog’.  Anana loves to just lay in the snow but its Qanuk who cannot seem to get enough of leaping and pounding through the deep snow cover.  To be fair to Anana, my ‘little angel’, underwent two major TPLO operations within a year back in SE Michigan; these are very invasive surgeries which require a breaking of the tibia and a slight repositioning of the bone through use of a metal plate and bone screws.  In the first occurrence she blew out all her cruciate ligaments and destroyed the meniscus as well in her right leg; thankfully I was made aware by her exemplary surgeon (Dr. Kyle Kerstetter, I cannot recommend he and his staff enough!!) of the likelihood she would experience a second occurrence in her left ‘knee’ within 18 to 24 months and so I was extra vigilant.  Indeed, within three months of her recovery from the first operation I observed her favoring her left leg and immediately had her in for a complete examination; it was the same situation which is analogous to an ACL injury in a human being.  Because Dr Kerstetter had warned me of this possibility I was able to get Anana in for another TPLO but this time only one ligament was damaged and the meniscus was still intact.  She required a full 16 months to recover from these two major surgeries and she is still slowly getting stronger and more agile on her back legs even now.  Without these surgeries Anana would have had to be put down because the injuries leave the dog with a virtually useless rear leg.

Not everything is perfect regarding my four-legged companions and their acceptance of our relocation.  I can see Anana truly misses the varied social interactions she had while joining me at the assisted care facility.  She just loves humans and when volunteering with me she had more than 80 residents and staff to interact with and to enjoy.  Socialization is vital with Mals and it’s not something you accomplish and then you’re done; it’s an ongoing thing.  To this end I need to find ways to allow Anana to interact with more different human beings.  Qanuk, being true to his breed, really only needs me although he truly does dote on Anana.  In addition both dogs have a penchant for chasing moose and this is not good.  When I walk them I control them with my voice – both need the exercise they get from not being on a lead – and this works fairly well unless they are really excited, then it gets tenuous at best.  I’ve known moose are all around this area and regularly see them in the forest.  However, since the foot of snow arrived in a weekend storm the moose have become much more prevalent leading me to speculate they are being forced to explore new areas to find food based upon the snow cover.  I remain very concerned about injuries or worse for both Anana and Qanuk should they really tangle with a moose.  For now all I can do is work to keep them from chasing after these huge ungulates; because of the snow depth Anana cannot even come close to catching one but I’m not so sure this is true with Qanuk.

All told I believe my canine companions truly love their new home and are still learning about life in Alaska just as I continue to do so.  I know the lifestyle is much healthier for them as they need not be concerned about cars and trucks although they do need to watch out for snow machines and they can get out and roam to their heart’s content.  I cannot imagine living up here and not having them along with me to provide company, a reason for exercise and the means to observe wildlife I’d never have seen on my own because of their extraordinarily sensitive noses.  The fact that virtually everyone I’ve met up here has at least one dog and most have two or more just lends credence to the idea that Alaska is made for dogs and all the better to experience in their presence!

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Qanuk and Anana playing in snow (depth is around 15″)