Embracing the slobbering, barking, exciting transition of turning a sled dog into a house dog

 A highlight of Seamus' day is his afternoon water aerobics in the Rusty Metal Farm pond.
Julia Bayly
A highlight of Seamus' day is his afternoon water aerobics in the Rusty Metal Farm pond.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 22, 2013, at 12:45 p.m.

FORT KENT, Maine — Some days, the thought occurs to me there is simply not enough chaos in my life and something should really be done to change that.

At the Rusty Metal Kennel, life is pretty stress-free and unregimented for the dogs, but there is one hard and fast rule — once a dog moves here, the animal remains here. Unless there is an extraordinary occurrence, the dogs live out their lives here at their forever home.

As my sled dogs get older and become ready to retire from sled pulling duties, I’ve promised them the opportunity to transition into house dogs.

So far, only one has taken me up on that offer — former lead dog Apollo who, even while I’m writing this, is in the corner of the living room on his fluffy bed, snoring mightily in blissful, retired slumber.

He and existing house-dog Corky — the Shusky, a half sheltie-half husky mix — pretty much ignore eachother. This made Apollo’s move indoors a largely seamless and trouble free transition.

For the three years he’s been inside, peace and tranquility have reigned.

But that’s all about to change.

While nowhere near retirement age, Seamus, a black and white houndy-looking sled dog with bright blue eyes and oddly tilted black ears, is looking for a transfer.

No longer interested in pulling a sled with the rest of the team, he is much happier hiking around the farm with Corky and I, playing in the pond watching frogs or splashing about.

For now, he still lives out in the dog yard, but he is definitely a house-dog-in-training.

His first lesson is working up the nerve to cross the threshold and come inside the house all on his own.

Seamus is accustomed to wide, open spaces, and the confines of four walls are a bit nerve-wracking for him.

Not, however, as unsettling as a recent thunderstorm.

Corky has long been frightened of thunder and retreats to her “happy place” in the corner of the bathroom at the first hint of an approaching storm.

Seamus, on the other hand, was fine until this summer. During a particularly loud and violent storm, I glanced out and noticed all the dogs snug and dry in their houses.

All except Seamus, who was standing stock still in the pouring rain, wincing at each thunderclap.

Sure, I could have left him out there, but that’s not how we roll here at Rusty Metal Farm.

Instead, I threw on my shoes and slogged out there to get him.

Minutes later, a very nervous and very wet sled dog was in the kitchen. Obviously feeling there was safety in numbers, Corky soon joined him. For the next hour or so, the two were permanent fixtures next to my legs as the storm rumbled overhead.

Their level of anxiety even increased to the point that each began drooling at a rather impressive rate.

By the time the storm cleared, you could have swam laps in the dog slobber that had accumulated on the floor.

Apollo, meanwhile, slept through the whole thing.

Not all sled dogs take to indoor living easily, and some never make that transition, preferring to remain in the company of the sled pack, even after retirement.

Then there are the ones who, seemingly out of nowhere, develop some interesting quirks when it comes to inside life.

My mushing friend Kim acquired three puppies several years ago and for a time, they were allowed to freely run around, coming in and out as they pleased.

Flash forward to this year, and two of the three will still bound madly into her house. The third, a cuddle bug of a dog named Koozy, will run right up to the door where he comes to a terrified, screeching halt when confronted with a bare floor.

Rather, he will leap from the door to the nearest piece of furniture and circumnavigate the house from couch to chair to table to stove hearth and so on.

If Koozy ever missteps and finds himself on the actual floor, he freezes in place.

To Kim’s knowledge, there was no traumatic event in Koozy’s life that lead up to his floor phobia.

Luckily, Seamus does not have any floor issues, and stairs present no problem for him. In fact, one of his favorite pastimes is running up and down the steps leading to the second floor of the garage.

Likewise, he is on excellent terms with the cats who — in their own, felinely subtle ways — are registering displeasure at the notion of another dog moving into their fiefdom.

But where he really shines is on our daily hikes around the farm, something we began last winter and which came with a somewhat unintended bonus.

Given my daily work schedule, “walkies” is usually anywhere between 3 and 5 p.m. It did not take at all long for Seamus’ internal clock to synchronize to that hour.

If 3:30 p.m. comes, passes and I’ve not stuck my head out the door to let him know it’s almost time for a hike, he is not at all hesitant to let me know it.

First comes the baritone level bark. Just one. If no response from the house is forthcoming, two more barks follow. This then goes on every five or so minutes until I come out and do what any responsible dog trainer would do — take him on his walk to reward and reinforce his time-telling behavior.

And how he loves to run on those hikes! Charging up and down the trails with Corky several steps behind doing her best to keep up and barking her most authoritative Shusky bark all the while.

The only time Seamus will stop is if he can no longer see me, then back he dashes full tilt directly at me, slamming on his four-paw brakes to come to a skidding, dog-grinning stop inches from my knees.

On one walk, I managed to trip and — big surprise to my regular readers — fall into a hole. As I lay there contemplating this newest injury, up bounded Seamus, who immediately assessed the situation, sat down and stayed by my side until I was able to get up. He walked right next to me as I limped home.

Corky was apparently off somewhere gathering wood for a signal fire.

All in all, I am pleased with how Seamus is coming along. He is showing ever increasing interest in what’s going on inside, and I suspect by the time the snow flies, he will have claimed his own fluffy bed in some corner of the house.

I just hope he does not snore as loudly as Apollo.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/08/22/living/blogs-and-columns-living/embracing-the-slobbery-barking-exciting-transition-of-turning-a-sled-dog-into-a-house-dog/ printed on July 26, 2014