Monday, September 28, 2009

Things I've learned from my dogs (and from my 5th grader): Things mushing has taught me about life

My fifth grader thinks she's smarter than I am sometimes.

Sophie and Big Brown

And I admit, she is wise beyond her years in many ways. Always kind to animals, Sophie is compassionate, intuitive and gentle - probably her best qualities. And they're certainly good qualities to have, especially when working with sleddogs.

Sophie and I went to the Tractor Supply Company for dog food and fly bait during one of the few weeks I wasn't in the hospital last month. While milling around in TSC, we stumbled on this:

A four-wheeled pedal cart. Light enough to stow under the dog boxes for transport with the seat and steering wheel off, but heavy and stable enough for decent fall training. And with a locking brake and fairly beefy little tires, it seemed much safer than the old three-wheeled cart I've used for the past four years.

"Oh mom can we get it? Please?" Sophie begged. "It's perfect for me to train with too!"

Sophie is as stoked about fall's arrival as I am. Always smaller than the average kid her age, I had second thoughts for Sophie, in all her 60 pounds, running a 2-dog junior class last winter and withdrew her from the race - something she was angry at me for until the Easter lillies blossomed.

But this January, she will run that race as 10 years old. She shares in the kennel chores and has been a big help these last few weeks while I have been recovering from two abdominal surgeries. She deserves to reap the benefits sown from her hard work. So last night, I took Sophie out for her first official unassisted two-dog cart training run with Jack and Ruffian.

I am able to take my truck back on the bridle trail we run on. So, gritting my teeth, I hopped in the truck and led her out, letting her run unassisted for the first time on a cart.

So many ways they leave the nest. This was just one more way for me to let go, watch her blossom. Click on the video below to watch her in action.

She intuitively knew to ride the brake down hills and before turns and let 'em go on uphills. She knows her commands: as a five year old, I used to steer her through the grocery store calling "gee" and "haw." And she did good....until it got dark.

As the temperature cooled and night fell, she began to panic a little. The trail is hilly and winds around along an old railroad track and into a deep thicket of woods. Sophie's imagination began to take over. I heard her squealing, then crying; I saw the dogs nervously begin looking back at her, clearly disturbed by her show of fear. Then I saw her stop.

"Mom!" she yelled.

I hopped out of the truck and walked back. Her headlamp blinded me so I couldn't see her face, but I could tell she was crying.

"I'm scared!" she whined.

And so I gave her a pep talk. And as I was talking, I realized mushing teaches such valuable life lessons. It had never occurred to me before.

Things Mushing Has Taught Me About Life (that I'm passing on to my 5th grader)

1. Patience After all, you're working with dogs. At the end of the day, they're still dogs, not rocket scientists. They can do what you ask and things can go smoothly, and you can share some beautiful scenery with them, but they can also be bone-headed pea brains and cause you enormous frustration. I've been dragged, bit while breaking up a dog fight, clothes-lined, peed on...but, I can't be angry at the dog. Because, really, he was just being a dog.

2. Losing your cool won't get you out of a jam Panic certainly happens in this sport (especially early on), and often wiping out is just part of the game. Fear - of being lost, of creepy crawlers in the woods, of flying down a slick hill behind a team of crazy huskies - fear transfers to your team. And when they sense your fear, they don't trust you as their leader. And if they don't trust you to lead, chaos can happen quickly. You cannot make clear decisions if you are afraid. If you are focused on fear, you aren't focused on driving your team, and that's when accidents happen. Set fear aside and move ahead.

3. Team Work Like with patience, the team work exhibited by a team of huskies on a pristine white trail away from everything is like a well-oiled machine. There's nothing like it in the world. And experiencing it on the first winter run of the season never fails to bring a wide smile to my face. But like any team, if one member is slacking, the others must work harder to make up for the slack. Teams work best when we all find our role and play our part to the best of our abilities.

4. Leadership With six or eight or however many boneheads looking to you for direction, you'd better be alpha. Because if you're not, who knows what they're likely to do. After all, they're just being dogs.

5. Follow Through Probably one of the most important lessons in life, and one I hope Sophie retains. Despite what people think, mushing is physically strenuous and damned hard at times (see #1 above). Even when things go smoothly, running up hills behind a sled, steering through trees and around corners can tire even the hardest of hard bodies. Get up and get back on the runners.

I owe a lot of my own tenacity and stubborn nature to genetics (thanks to my Marine father) but also to what I've learned from dogs and from this sport. It helped me to be tough during my recent hospitalizations. And I hope I can pass these lessons in life down to my Sophie.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, hooray for Sophie! She looked good! And hooray for a Mom who is raising a strong girl! Kudos all around!


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