Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Mushing in Ohio: mud and diligence

Training a team of sled dogs is not an easy task. It is often chaotic. It requires dedication and is back-breaking and messy. On a recent training run, I kept smelling dog poop. I suspected it was on one of the dog's harnesses or tug lines - something that happens frequently - but every time I checked when we were stopped, I saw nothing. Imagine my surprise when I realized, on finishing the run, that the glob of doggy doo-doo was in my hair! It had flown off the back tire of the four wheeler and flipped up onto my head!

It requires sacrifice. Inevitably, every year, there are nights when, after a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is trade in my heels for Muck Boots and head out into inclement weather for several hours in the night. But as I pass people snug in their houses watching reruns of Seinfeld for the umteenth time, I look up at the stars overhead, or see a pair of glowing eyes watching me from a thicket of trees, and I know where I am is better and that there's no place I'd rather be.

Training a team of sled dogs in northeast Ohio certainly has its challenges. When other mushers are on sleds, I am still on the four wheeler at Christmastime this year. While there hasn't been any snow in northeast Ohio this winter, there has been no shortage of moisture. Mud has become like my second skin. The dog's harnesses are so muddy when we return from training runs that they can practically stand up on their own. I'm so sick of mud, I could scream.

This season has brought a slew of unforeseen challenges in addition to the normal challenges of training a team in Ohio. For one, in October, when training runs are typically kicking into high gear, I was focused on trying to save Mojo and Feist, my two pups who died of parvo. It was emotionally and financially draining, and my training regimen and pocket book quickly became depleted. It seems I have played catch up in both areas ever since.

Additionally, a year and a half ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. Without going into too many boring details, there have been moments this season when I honestly felt my body wasn't going to allow me to do what I needed to do to train up the dogs. I pride myself on having high tolerance for pain, and the ability to function well even with a lack of sleep or in pain and around chaos. But this season, some days have been practically debilitating.

I have done what I could, trying to take things in stride. As John Lennon said, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans. It is a rookie mistake to set out at the beginning of a season thinking race plans are set in stone. Whenever living creatures are involved, there are always unknown variables, and first and foremost, mushers are taught to deal with adversity and always be prepared with Plan B. At one point, I resigned to potentially sit this year out race-wise.

Plans are fluid. Since I started mushing nine years ago, I have always attended the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Classic. Unfortunately, because life happens, this will be the first year we will not be at that race since I started this sport. I am behind on training miles with where I would normally be at this time of the year, and rather than pushing the dogs, I have chosen to forego this favorite race in favor of a new race happening at the end of  January: The IronLine Sled Dog Race. This will give us more time for training runs and conditioning.

As Christmas Eve rounds the corner and we settle in with family, friends gifts and merriment, it is 55 degrees and raining here in northeast Ohio. More moisture. More mud. Doesn't feel much like Christmas. So I must rely on pictures to help me remember.

Merry Christmas - may the season bring peace and lots of doggy howls (and not doggy doo-doo).

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mid-fall updates: "Watch out where the huskies go, and don't you eat that yellow snow..."

Several thoughts come to mind this time of year regarding training. One, and I've said this before, November is "make it or break it" month as far as training. The runs get longer, the temps get colder (at the time of this writing, it is like full-blown January instead of mid-November), and this is the time when running dogs isn't necessarily always fun. Today, we did a touch over 15 miles, and it was 24 blowing, blustery degrees with six inches of fresh, heavy snow.

Dreamed I was an Eskimo
Frozen wind began to blow...

The team stopped along one of the snow-covered trails we run on 
Training was compromised somewhat during October because of Mojo and Feist contracting parvo; my days were consumed with caring for them. We are subsequently behind a bit on miles to where I would like to be. But we are hitting it hard again with runs every other day and the dogs are looking strong. 

Under my boots 'n around my toe
Frost had bit the ground below

A panoramic of my favorite spot on our training trails

This is also the time of year to count our blessings, and I count seven of them every day: their names are Buddha, Bonanza, Blaze, Cisco (The Cisco Kid), Voodoo, Halo, and Mirage. 

Elise and Halo

Sophie and Voodoo
The rest of the puppies are thriving and growing like crazy. I cannot wait to harness break them in the spring. They will no doubt bring the kennel into a new level of competitiveness in the future.

Plans are underway for the 2014/2015 racing season. They are here. If you would like to sponsor a puppy or an active member of the race team, please throw us a bone. We are currently actively looking for sponsors for this season.

As always...

....and watch out for the yellow snow

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

And then there were seven

“Raw love, like raw heartache, could blindside you.” Jodi Picoult

I hadn't had a litter of puppies for three years when Cinder's litter was planned, and after waiting that long to have a litter, I was beyond excited to welcome them into the world. Watching them come into the world, take their first breath and blossom into unique creatures is giving birth to a dream. I wanted to protect them all, keep them safe, shelter them. But I couldn't.


Never was a dog as aptly named as Feist. We called her Feisty girl, and her name came quite naturally when,  at one week of age, I picked her up and she growled at me. Click the video below to watch.

Later on, when her eyes were barely open at ten-days old, I carried her out to the big dog yard to begin acclimating the puppies to the sounds and smells of the kennel. As the adult dogs barked excitedly, tiny Feist growled at them, apparently unaware of her size. She was the female runt, so tiny, but her attitude was big. She had so much personality. When the other puppies toppled over her, she got up and barked at them angrily, as if to say, "Hey! Back off!"

Feist at two weeks
Feist at four weeks
Feist at eight weeks

It was from one of these episodes that Feist emerged from the puppy play pile limping one day, right around the time Mojo was becoming sick but before we knew what he had. I brought her in the house but tried to isolate her to my bedroom, away from Mojo who was in the living room. I rubbed her shoulder with liniment like a big sled dog at a race. She seemed to love being bedroom puppy.

Little Feist resting on my bed
She learned lots of things, like what a computer was...

Feist sitting at my desk with me

... how to snuggle

Cozied up on my bed
...and how to pass time in close quarters with her people.

Feist and Elise playing
She missed her siblings, but I figured in just a few days, she would be outside with them again.

When we received the diagnosis of parvo with Mojo, Feist had already come in contact with the virus through our clothes. I braced myself for the worst when he died. She seemed to recover from the shoulder injury and was playing and doing well, when she suddenly vomited. My heart dropped to my stomach.

Feisty girl
Without skipping a beat, I kicked medication into gear, starting subcutaneous fluids, Amoxicillin and Metronidozole. I contacted my family vet and we made a trip in again, this time for Reglan, an anti-nausea drug. She weighed 9 pounds and 14 ounces. I was hopeful. We were going to beat this together. Feist was strong. She was Feist, after all. She was far healthier than Mojo was when he contracted parvo, and she was a fighter.

Feist received about 50 ml of subq fluids every 12 hours to prevent dehydration

We fought hard together for eight days, through Feist's vomiting and horrendous diarrhea. I stayed up with her 'round the clock because, luckily, I was between terms at the college and had nothing but Feist to care for. I sunk everything I had into her. We slept together for two solid weeks.

And then, finally, the puking stopped. And slowly, the diarrhea stopped. Her appetite returned. I was overjoyed. But then, joy turned to panic when her temperature soared to 105.1. A temp of 106 can have fatal effects for dogs. Dogs release body heat in two ways: panting, and through their paw pads. I put her in a tub of cool water just over her ankles to attempt to quell the scorching fever; she lapped up water heartily from the tap. I rubbed alcohol on her paw pads. I called the vet. They recommended 1/2 of a baby aspirin, which I gave to Feist. Her appetite left as surely as it had returned.

Then slowly it seemed we rounded another corner. Her temperature gradually lowered to 103, then 102. Her appetite returned. She ate; she drank. She even wagged her tail at me. Again, I was elated. Only I noticed her laboring to breathe. I thought she possibly had developed aspirate pneumonia from the times I had forced her to drink with a syringe. I called my vet again.

On Monday afternoon, Feist and I again drove to the vet, but she was really laboring to breathe. She groaned when I touched her, and even whined when I picked her up. I grew very concerned. It didn't occur to me that our ride to the vet might not end well.

Feist was down two pounds. My vet listened carefully to her breathing through a stethoscope. She recommended a chest x-ray and a blood draw to check her white count levels. I opted to start with the blood draw.

I waited just a few minutes in the room with Feist, watching her breathe, her eyes sunk in, and a slow realization began to take over me. Feist may not leave.

The doctor returned to tell me shocking news. Feist's white blood count was 0.01. I shook my head in disbelief. She was doing better! She ate and drank well just the day before. How could this be?

Mojo's white count was 2 when he died; Feist's was below that, and she was still fighting. But her little body could not fight anymore. It had used all of its limited resources and there was nothing left. My vet said even if they kept her and gave her IV antibiotics, her expectancy of recovering was 1% and she may need a blood transfusion. Faced with this prognosis, I made the extremely difficult decision to have my vet end her suffering.


How can such a small creature teach me so much? About fighting; about loving. What are the lessons here? I think there are many.

In the time since Mojo was first diagnosed with parvo, I have read a lot about this insidious virus. I wanted to be one of those "My dog beat parvo" stories. But not all stories have a happy ending.

I have learned a lot from talking with others who have experienced this devastating virus too. And what I know is this:

  1. It is hearty. It can live in soil for months or even years, and despite vaccinations, some dogs can contract the virus. My puppies had two vaccinations when they contracted it.
  2. It is sneaky. Feist made a bold move into what looked like recovery, only to slump deeper into the illness in a way that left me feeling raw, helpless and debilitatingly sad. According to my vet, this is common with parvo. Riding the emotional highs and lows with Feist was exhausting. 
  3. I can't stress this enough: it is hearty. And it is crafty. When Feist showed signs of the virus, I received a very long email from mushing friend Roy Smith and detailed instructions from my vet about decontamination. 
    • The only thing that can kill parvo that is reasonably priced is bleach: 1 cup per 1 gallon of hot water. In the week that Feist fought this virus, I decontaminated every solid surface in my kennel with this solution: bowls, buckets, poop scoop; I scrubbed the puppy pen, which is lined with landscape bricks, four times with hot bleach water. 
    • Pay attention to your clothes! We bleached the bottoms of all of our shoes. And I wore "parvo" clothes with Feist and "non-parvo clothes" out into the kennels. I scrubbed my hands AND face when moving from contact with Feist to contact with the rest of the kennel. These are precautions I DIDN'T take when Mojo was first in the house because I didn't know what we were dealing with. 

Parvo is something I wouldn't wish on anyone. The "Ebola" of the dog world, it virtually eats away at the gastrointestinal tract until it becomes liquefied. Its victim, gripped with nausea, cannot keep anything down; vomiting and extreme, often bloody diarrhea cause rapid dehydration and anemia. And despite subq fluids, rapid dehydration is almost inevitable. As my vet explained, the parvo strips the GI track to such a degree that liquid can leak into the body, filling the lungs, surrounding the heart, and rendering the victim potentially septic. This is what she suspected happened to Feist, and why she was laboring to breathe.

I thought Feist was healthier than Mojo. I thought I had all of the medications and IV fluids, we had a jump on fighting the virus, and I was armed with more knowledge. I thought we could beat it. I thought "This is Feisty girl! The girl who growled at the adult dogs in the dog lot when she was 10 days old! If anyone can beat this, Feist can!"

The kennel lost a 12 week old champion yesterday. I miss her so, so much, and I have cried from grief about not only the loss of Feist, but the loss, now, of two of my pups, and just how very scary this virus is.

I am devastated. Perhaps it is because she slept with me every night, in the nook of my shoulder and neck, for two weeks, but I am taking her death very hard. She seemed to constantly want to be near me in those final days. Some might say "Jeez, it's only a pup," or "it's only a dog" or "it's only..." But, this has completely blindsided me.

Feist, snuggled in my shoulder. This is where she liked to sleep. 
Every day when I go out to the puppy pen to the seven other crazy, healthy monsters, I thank God for them and all of their craziness, for that's how puppies are supposed to be.

I will never, ever forget my Feisty girl. I love you Feist.

For Feist: July 28, 2014 - October 20, 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014

“This is a good sign, having a broken heart. It means we have tried forsomething.” Elizabeth Gilbert

This is a sad story. It is one I debated on even writing, but there are lessons to be learned here, so I decided to share. This is Mojo's story. 

Mojo is a very special puppy born on July 28, 2014 from Cinder. Even though he is gone, I cannot bring myself to write about him in past tense. 

His father, Elrond, is a champion lead dog from the home of one of my best friends, Sharon Curtice, up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Mojo is a runt, like his father. 

I hate that word - "runt." Runt, small thing, weakling, underling. Such a negative connotation. There was nothing small about Mojo. There is nothing small about his father either. 

From the very beginning, Mojo was special. I called him my little freckled boy. 

Mojo at one week
He had the most adorable speckled nose, and seemed to be split with a little stitch from God right down the center, from the middle of his forehead, right down his belly. And he was super relaxed and flexible. 

Puppy Yoga, Mojo style
From the very moment Mojo was born, he was different. When I first wormed the puppies at 10 days of age with Pyrantel, a relatively well-tolerated, gentle wormer, he reacted strangely. His belly became distended and he cried and cried for hours. I felt helpless. Finally, he settled down.

When his eyes opened a few days later, I noticed something else that was different about Mojo. 

Mirage (left) and Mojo (right). His right eye was "off" - puppy "lazy eye"
 And yet, he grew and thrived at the farm. 

Mojo at two weeks

Mojo at four weeks
Mojo at seven weeks
He still had that "lazy eye" but he was thriving and blossomed into a gorgeous boy who wasn't that much smaller than the others. Suddenly, he was my favorite pup. He had a fantastic attitude, and though he was small, he was always at the front of the puppy pack on our jaunts around the puppy paths. Before long, Mojo quickly stole my heart. 

He quickly became Elise's favorite too, and we doted over him, bickering over who would get to hold him. She usually won :)

Handsome Mojo at 8 weeks
I gave the puppies their first vaccinations on September 22. By September 30, I noticed Mojo was off.  He had loose stools, and seemed listless, stopping to nap soon after I let the puppies out of their pen. While the other puppies were busy racing around, Mojo found quiet places to rest, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of puppy playtime. I brought him inside, kept him warm, fed him bland foods like rice and chicken. He was still eating well, He would perk up, only to fall into a slump again.

Finally, last Sunday, I contacted friends and race veterinarian husband-wife team, Kathy and Phil Topham. Phil was kind enough to see us on a Sunday morning. I suspected something called coccidia, which usually presents with foul-smelling, sometimes bloody diarrhea and lethargy - Mojo's symptoms. Dr. Topham ran a test for coccidia and it was positive. He opened a can of Prescription Diet A/D and Mojo lapped it up heartily. We left with Albon, several cans of A/D and were relieved, ready for Mojo to be on the mend. Mojo weighed 8.5 pounds.

Only things got worse. He stopped eating almost completely. We began force feeding/hydrating him. After several days on Albon, his condition deteriorated. We switched to Metronidazole.

I made an appointment with my regular vet for some tests and subcutaneous fluids for Mojo. A test for giardia came back negative, but what I feared the most - the test for Parvo - came back positive. And not just a little positive. The test operates like a pregnancy test, with a bubble turning blue if positive. It was bright blue. In the words of our vet, it glowed.

A blood panel also showed his white count was two, and the vet was concerned he was already septic. He had a heart murmur - something that had developed since Sunday.

Still he fought. We gave him 50 ml of saline fluids at the vet's office, and he sat up and tried to scratch the needle away. We flushed Amoxicillin and B-12 vitamins into the IV to try to jump start therapy. Mojo was down to 7.4 pounds.

We went home with a bag of fluids, lots of needles, and Amoxicillin prepared for a long night.

Only Mojo had other plans.

When we woke at 7:15 this morning, Mojo was gone. His little body could take no more.

Burying a puppy is just ... wrong. And yet, the deeper I get into dogs, the more of a reality it seems. Stuff happens. Life is fragile. Tenuous.

What I know is this: when Googling "Parvo Symptoms," vomiting invariably comes up. This symptom doesn't necessarily have to be present. Mojo's symptoms did not include vomiting at all - only very foul-smelling watery diarrhea, anorexia (lack of appetite), and lethargy.

What I also know is Mojo became sick despite being vaccinated.

What I also know as of the time of this writing is: all nine of Mojo's litter mates are thriving, with voracious appetites and minds full of mischief.

What I also know is, I keep replaying the last two weeks of Mojo's life in my mind, wondering if there was something I didn't do, should have done differently, could have done better.

But what I am left with are sad thoughts of a future lost. Mojo will never get to know what it's like to run with a team of sled dogs on the beautiful snow under the night stars. I'll never get to see him blossom into the leader I had a hunch he would have become. I'll never get to see him grow into his big feet.

I am so sorry, Mojo. You fought valiantly, and I did all I could. I love you.

Elise holding Mojo
For Mojo. July 28, 2014 - October 11, 2014

“When you leave,
weary of me,
without a word I shall gently let you go.” 
 -- Kim Sowol

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Puppy Update

I'm beginning to think the Ohio tourism slogan "so much to discover!" was written with puppies and not Ohio in mind. The puppies - a.k.a. the "little monsters" - were seven weeks old this week and have settled into their home outside in their own private kennel run with mama, Cinder. Every day they spend hours outside of the dog kennel ...discovering. And it seems, like some fish and reptiles do, the puppies have also grown tremendously to adapt to their bigger space.

Halo, also sleeping in the dirt under the propane tank...

And they are increasingly adventurous. On our daily puppy outings at the ranch, they venture around the property, wagging at the other dogs...

Buddha brazenly barks at kennel patriarch, Yeti

...running along the puppy paths ... 

Elise: official puppy trainer/herder

and making other discoveries like garden hoses...

Halo and the garden hose

...giant holes dug by the other dogs out of summer boredom ...

Buddha and Halo rest inside one of Tosh's giant excavation projects


"Come here, chicken!"

...and even coffee! 

Blaze slurping from my coffee mug

They have discovered that pulling on your sister's tail is great fun....

...and how to annoy your very big brothers...

Three-year-old, Tosh, rolls his eyes at me as if to say, "mom, can you make the toddlers go away?"

...and the joys of running...


There are more puppy portraits on the Diamond Dogs Facebook Page

Sweet dreams ....

and, as always...

"I am so over this damsel in distress nonsense." Daphne, TheScooby-DooMovie, 2002

A few months ago, some friends were teasing me about a reputation I have developed. My friends, Sandy and Karyn, "rescued" me, my two kids and my dog crew last fall when I had not one, but two flat tires on the dog trailer on separate occasions during a trip to Michigan. After that, we had a good laugh. I said, "I'm going to develop a reputation for these kinds of things!" Sandy replied without missing a beat, "I think you already have!"

I have a vehicle that is four years old for a reason. I wanted something reliable for the amount of driving I do, but also fuel efficient. I abandoned my V8 truck last summer for a fuel-efficient SUV, but hauling a 13 foot dog trailer through blizzards proved too difficult for it last season. I drove 10 hours in a snow storm to Newberry, Michigan for the Tahquamenon Country Sled Dog Race in January, only to have 18 inches of snow fall over night. I woke up stranded the morning of the race. Were it not for a friend and fellow musher, Ron and his big diesel Dodge, I wouldn't have made it to our first race of the season.

This pattern continued throughout last season. It seemed every time I went to a race, some small disaster was sure to follow. Freezing rain and snowfall trapped my little SUV at the hotel in Marquette, MI before the Midnight Run last year. And once again, I got by with a little help from very good friends who, by now had to be growing weary of my damsel in distress nonsense. This time it was Sharon Curtice, and her brother Paul.

Amazingly, I went to my final race of the season last year, The Copper Dog, without mishap.

This weekend, I had planned a trip to the Pocono Mountains to meet friends Susi and Eric, who were adopting two of my dogs. The girls and I had really been looking forward to the five-hour drive through the mountains and forests of Pennsylvania and a mini-vacation with like-minded folks.

But Friday night, my car had different plans.

I work nights, and as I fired her up to head to work at 5:15 p.m., I heard a noise. It's never good to hear strange noises coming from under the hood. I stopped at the end of my driveway, and popped the hood. There, I found a half way shredded serpentine belt flipping wildly. I quickly shut the engine off.

After some fretting, I decided to tackle this project myself. After all, I was raised knowing how to do routine car work - oil changes, tune ups, etc - how hard could it be, right?  A quick trip via a friend up to Autozone for a new belt, I dove headlong into the project, determined not to be a damsel in distress. Armed with Google, YouTube and diagrams, what could go wrong?

a handy diagram of the serpentine belt of my car ... sort of

Only, when I started removing the remaining pieces of the old belt, I found copious amounts of oil all over the engine.

Yessir, that is oil...Oil that is, black gold, Texas tea. 
Putting the belt on proved far more difficult than I could have imagined. I texted my friend Julie to see if her husband could come help. Within minutes, Denis and Nick, their daughter, Hannah's boyfriend, were in my driveway; within an hour, they had the belt on. I was so relieved.

But this still didn't explain the oil, which was also concerning to Denis.

I took it out for a test drive, and it seemed fine. No noises. I thought that possibly the oil happened when the belt broke, but it seemed to run fine. So, the next morning, we loaded up the car bright and early and headed to the Poconos.

The girls and Sirius the puppy pose with a Totem just over the Pennsylvania border

Elise and Sophie

It rained the entire drive into the mountains
It rained the entire drive. We were relieved to finally make it to Saylorsburg and the beautiful home and kennel of friends Eric Walker and Susi Marsh of Arctic Paws Dog Sled Tours. The trip was bittersweet because Susi and Eric had purchased Sirius, one of Cinder's beautiful puppies and my long-time fearless leader, Yeti, who had been the backbone of my kennel for the last six years. At nearly seven years old, Yeti was dropped from training last season because he just couldn't keep up with the speed the rest of my dogs run. It just about killed him to watch me hooking up teams and leaving him behind. So I made the very tough decision to rehome him. And I cried a lot this past weekend.

Eric and Susi took us to a great little winery for some brick oven pizza and Sangria, and we laughed and laughed over dinner telling stories. 

The wait staff was overwhelmed with a wedding party at the winery, so Susi jumped in as a server! 
During dinner, I mentioned to Eric, who is an automotive engineer with 30 years' experience in the trade, that my oil light came on during the short drive to the winery. Given the issues I'd had the previous night, he became alarmed. We checked my oil before heading back to their house, and Eric went to get more oil, strongly warning me against driving my car one more inch.

Back at their house, we degreased the engine and everything under the hood to try to pinpoint a leak, if any. After degreasing and hosing off the engine, we started my car and there appeared to be no leaks. I breathed a sigh of relief, and we had wine. 

Elise and Susi cuddling puppy, Sirius
The next morning, I promised the girls a small hike behind Susi's house. There was an awesome Easter Island-type statue in the woods that the kids thought was pretty cool. 

Easter Island in the Poconos

The girls found a salamander and skipped rocks at the pond. 

Little salamander 

Skipping rocks

We packed up to head for home. But 20 minutes into the drive, I heard a loud squealing when I changed gears. We were only about 20 minutes from Eric and Susi's home when I stopped at an Exxon station. There, under the hood, was my engine caked in oil again. I feared the worst.

We limped back to Susi and Eric's home, and Eric took a look again. Then he said, "well, you're going to have to take my truck home." Surprised, I said, "what? I can't take your truck." His truck is my dream truck! It's a 2013 Chevy Silverado 4x4. It's a beautiful vehicle. I was humbled and awe-struck by his generosity.

So, in the end, we drove home happily and I woke up to find a beautiful truck in my driveway! I am awaiting the final diagnosis of what is wrong with my SUV from Eric. But the moral of the story is this:

If you MUST break down, do it at the home of a 30 year mechanic who is mind-bogglingly generous! 

It's true that I have had my share of issues with vehicles on my adventures traveling to places mushing has taken me. But I am continually amazed and grateful for the generosity of mushers! Several years ago, I started writing a book about the culture of mushing - the people, the dogs - the places. Mushers are such an awesome group, and this experience has rekindled my desire to finish that book!

Thanks so much to Susi and Eric! 
Eric's truck
To add to my list of vehicle troubles, my four wheeler is still in need of repair and we haven't even begin fall training yet! Prayers that my luck will change soon!! 

As always, thanks for reading and ...