Part II - Growing up together
As I mentioned in Yaz Part 1 - Writing these blog posts about Yaz is a way for me to introduce to you why Rex Specs started, and a way for me to reflect on my time with Yaz over the last 12 years. It’s been so much fun to think back and record all my time with Yaz. I’d recommend it to any dog owner that loves their dog the way I do!
When I brought 6 week old Yaz home to our rough one room cabin in Talkeetna, Alaska, I was far from prepared for the destruction and chaos to come. I didn’t have any of the “stuff” for a puppy (I didn’t even have a fork to eat with myself - we were living bare bones). I did not have any food bowl or water dish, no collar or leash, certainly no toys or kennel. So, when we shut the lights off that first night, Yaz was free to roam our little cabin as she pleased. She didn’t whine, make any noise or seem uncomfortable with her new surroundings. When I rolled out of bed that first morning I found her asleep on the floor surrounded by fresh puppy stains all over the carpet. ‘Oh boy,’ I thought. Here we go. When I look back and reflect on the first few months, I realize and understand that maybe I wasn’t fully “ready” to be a dog owner. I didn’t have the tools, or knowledge to raise a puppy the way I would do it now. But, perhaps because of my unpreparedness, Yaz wasn’t just my puppy, she was and is my partner, through and through. We figured out how to take care of each other.
Selfie before they were selfies - JR, Yaz and I in front of our cabin
Over the next few weeks, JR and I started making friends around town, not only with other summer employees (we finally found jobs) but also with some of the locals. These wise old Talkeetna folks would offer comments like ‘you got a sled dog as a pet? Are you nuts? Good luck....’ At first I didn’t think much of it - yeah she was a puppy, had sharp teeth, chewed things, and pissed on the floor – but don’t all puppies? What I didn’t know at the time was that when Yaz was a puppy, things were easy. She wasn’t big, strong or independent enough to do much damage. Sure, she chewed shoes, her chair on the front deck, and through her cable lead when tied up, but she stayed quite close. We did basic training - come, sit, and stay. I won’t lie, it was difficult - Yaz had no drive for food, treats, affection, or praise. We worked on simple commands, but she didn't seem to care, or take interest in playing silly games. No reward was stronger than what roaming free had to offer.
This was Yaz's nap chair. She liked to chew on it - then nap.
That summer in AK was one to remember. It was sunny and 75 almost every day. We spent lots of time at a small local lake swimming and just hanging out. There were mosquitos - so many that it was hard to take a leak - only having one hand to swat the skeeters wasn't enough. The days were long, only a few hours of darkness each night. We made lots of bonfires, ate when we were hungry, and slept when we got tired. No bills, hardly any responsibilities, and good friends. Yaz was with us all of the time, becoming part of our pack. Yaz and I stayed in Talkeetna into September – and once the tourists stopped showing up and the days grew shorter we started to think about our next move.
Taking a nap in the sun after romping around the lake.
Summer waned - and I had made plans to spend a winter in Jackson, WY. I had dreamed of all summer of spending a season skiing in Jackson. I also had 4 or 5 buddies from college that had the same idea – making it an easy decision. So, I booked a flight back to VT to spend a few weeks with family, introduce them to Yaz, buy a truck and drive to WY. JR was going to stick in out in AK for the fall. He drove Yaz and I to the airport and we shared a high five for having such a great summer. I wished him luck – I knew staying in Talkeetna for the winter would be challenging.
Hanging out at the lake
When Yaz and I arrived in Jackson she was 4 months old and just starting to show signs of being fearless, independent, and smart. She started to read people, manipulate them, and became incredibly wily. I have a few good stories from that first winter – ALL of them start with an escape. Almost every time someone came through the front door - which was about every five minutes in a house full of ski bums – she would make a run for it. I swear she would hear someone pull into the driveway and then get into position. Of course, she was sneaky about it… she’d slowly get off the couch, stretch, and yawn like it was no big deal. Then she’d orchestrate an approach, wait, and bolt when the time was right. Once she was free – it was game on. There was no capturing her. Yaz was like having a fox bred with a coyote for a pet. Getting her to come within 5-6 feet was no problem, but actually getting her onto a leash was a different story. Through those years, I was late for everything.
Yaz and I our first week in Jackson, WY
I’d spend hours looking for her – usually she’d just be out roaming the grazing field that she spent so much time studying through the living room window. Often, I’d say to myself - ‘should I just wait and let her come home?’ But I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something were to happen. We weren’t that far from a highway, there were packs of coyotes that would lure in dogs and puppies - then kill them. Moose and horses had deadly hooves – the list goes on. So, I’d always just keep out looking for her, catching a glimpse here or there. When she was ready, she’d come find me with a smile on her face as if to say ‘I had fun - want to go home now?’
Yaz looking out the back window towards her favorite romping grounds
One time, Yaz wasn’t so lucky. She was ‘out playing’ one afternoon – when I got a phone call from a housemate as I was riding my bike around looking for her. ‘Yaz is back at the house’ he said. Of course this was a relief, but upon returning to the house I noticed a small spec of blood on her back hip – I didn’t think much of it at first. But, when I’d go to touch that area, she’d nip at my fingers. Turns out, someone had shot her in the ass with a BB gun. All I could think was ‘that’s a warning shot’ - next time she might not be so lucky. I’m sure she encountered some scares that I will never know about. Somehow she’s now terrified of broom and I suspect she was angrily shooed away by an unamused neighbor on one of her outings.
Another time – we were in the car coming home from a party – must have been after midnight. As soon as we slowed down to pull into the driveway, we noticed Yaz, outside and free, shoulder deep in the guts of a mule deer that had recently been hit by a car. Two things immediately went through my mind – ‘How the hell did she get outside!?!?’ and ‘Shit, how are we going to get her off that raw meat?' Yaz didn’t have drive for food (if a human controlled it), but she was all about anything wild or dead. I got out of the car and in my nicest, happiest voice I called ‘Yaz!’ The stars aligned - her head popped up, covered in blood, her tail wagged, and she ran right over to hop in the car. Was I dreaming? To this day I can remember a few times when I’ve so badly needed her to obey a command, when she’s been in danger, and she’s listened to me. At those times, it’s as if all the hours I’ve spent looking for her pays off in an instant.
Yaz was her own boss, and when she was outside she didn’t give a shit about food, affection, or humans in general. She ate chizzlers, horse shit, anything dead she could find, and ran free. I have to admit, she is fun to watch in her element. As much as it drove me crazy, it made me smile when she would show her wild side.
Things had worked out so far, I knew my luck would run out if I couldn’t find a way to control her better. I needed a way to communicate with her and call her back when she was in danger or misbehaving beyond what was acceptable. I bought a training collar, or e-collar. Of the thousands of dollars I’ve spent on her, this collar may have been one of the best investments. Although she didn’t care about my command or praise, she was smart, and extremely sensitive to light stimulation and learned to ‘come’ ‘sit’ stay’ and ‘heel’ very quickly, dependably, and even with some pride! She was never driven by typical training rewards, which made it difficult to encourage her for a wanted behavior. Looking back and knowing what I know now - I think I could have done a better job when she was just a puppy getting her to learn and listen to some of these commands. But, thats life. I did the best with what I had. I know some people don’t believe in e-collars, but under certain circumstances they are priceless, and I do believe she has lived a much ‘better’ life since the collar was introduced. It might have even saved her life once or twice. Within a few weeks, I could let her out to go to the bathroom and call her back into the house. This was a huge step! Or, ever better, when she escaped, I could just call for her and if she was still within a few hundred yards she’d return. We could go on walks - off leash and she wouldn't chase wildlife (skunks, porcupines, moose, beavers etc) when I said 'no'. After a limited amount of time actually using the stimulation I was able to only use the tone setting. After that just having the collar on was enough. The e-collar coupled with as much praise as she would accept did the trick - it was life changing.
That winter, a tradition started - a group of friends and I would head into a yurt on the Idaho side of the Teton mountain range for a few days of backcountry skiing. This yearly trip is one of my favorite things to do. It’s a time to turn your phone off and eliminate all other distractions – no TV, no news, no work, no bills, no B.S. All you do is keep the fire going, melt snow for water, ski, eat and drink. I think Yaz was also in favor of this type of adventure. She would lead the way on our skin track, chase us down the ski run, and sleep next to the wood stove (or in my sleeping bag) at night. Fun fact - Yaz loves to sleep inside my sleeping bag – curled up at the very bottom below my feet. It must get 100 degrees down there - and she just loves it.
Yaz ready to rock on her first yurt trip
I learned quite a bit about Yaz as she grew up that winter. She was in fact a sled dog – bred to run, eat, and sleep. When I say run – I mean forever. Looking back I probably exercised her a little hard in her ‘growing’ stage, but getting her tired made us both happy. She could sprint for miles – whether downhill skiing or mountain biking, and when finished she would pant for about 30 seconds then fall asleep. All the other dogs would be lagging behind, and have to catch their breath for 30 minutes before calming down. She’s still this way now at the age of 12. Yaz was bred with long legs, a big heart, and enormous lungs. She was a running machine. Being a husky, she loved the snow and cold weather. It meant she could run faster for longer periods of time without getting hot. To this day, her attitude towards life and her energy levels completely depend on temperature. If its over 60 degrees and sunny, she finds shade. That winter we learned some commands that were game changers - ‘come’ and ‘heel’ – the two commands we use every day. As simple as it sounds- it’s been the anchor of our relationship. It has allowed us to share so many experiences that wouldn’t have been possible without the mutual respect and trust that grew over that first winter.
As the snow started melting in WY – JR (who fled AK in December and joined me in Jackson) and I had one thing on our minds – going back to Alaska. This time our other friend Mike joined us. Road Trip! Summer in AK Part II was nothing like the first, it rained every day. Yaz became more of a scavenger – she would chew through her steel cable lead while I was at work and make her way to the BBQ stand. Tourists would feed her scraps and bones – they all thought she was some poor abandoned sled dog that needed food. The reality was that the tourists maybe didn’t know what a young, healthy, in shape dog was actually supposed to look like. Luckily, she has a gut of steel and nothing bad ever came from her gorging on 'leftovers' she was fed by the tourists. She’d scour the riverbank, eating and rolling in dead salmon, and got into dumpsters. That summer was fun, but by the end we were all about ready to get out of the rain. We packed up and headed back to Jackson for Winter #2.
Headed back to AK for summer number 2
Similar to AK, our second winter in Jackson was nothing like the first. About ½ as much snow fell as the previous winter made skiing at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort less desirable to ski. We ski toured and explored new mountains – and when the snow started to melt I decided to stick around and give summer in WY a try. The construction industry was going strong, and with years of experience throughout high school and college as a builder I found a few construction projects to take on with friends. Everyday was ‘bring your dog to work’ day for me. Let the dog roam around the job site all day instead of being home alone sounded great. Yaz stuck around the first few days – then her territory started to become larger and larger. Two hour lunch breaks looking for Yaz were not a sustainable way to get anything done at work. She was smart enough to know when I was busy, on the phone, or distracted. Even when wearing the e-collar she'd plot a get-away and slink behind some trees, then slowly disappear. I started tying her up to a lead so I didn’t have to worry about it constantly. One day, she chewed through her lead and was gone. I looked for her from lunch until about 11PM. Nothing. I couldn’t sleep that night. I had the doors open, some treats out on the deck, and high hopes - but nothing happened. It was strange. My friends told me she’s come back, but I thought the worst. I had always been able to find her, or call her back before too late. Or, she would surprise us by showing up at dusk. This was different. No Yaz. As soon as the sun was up - I was back at it, looking around her most frequented areas, and beyond. I called the police station, animal adoption center, and had the local radio announce that a ‘all white, medium sized husky’ was missing just south of Jackson.
At about 9:00 AM, a my phone rang. My heart sank, a got a lump in my throat. Of course hoping for the best, I was worried she had been hit by a car.
“Are you looking for your dog?” The voice said
“Yeah - is she alive?” I replied in a hopeful voice.
“Yeah, she’s over here on Deer Drive stuck in an old basement foundation hole.”
No shit. Not even a mile away, just across a 4 lane highway. I rushed over, and sure enough she was in the bottom of a 12’ deep concrete foundation that had been abandoned. She was thirsty, dirty and looked a little morally beaten down. All I could think was ‘how did you get in there?’ Nobody will ever know, but I think she chased something into there and either ate it, or it was more nimble than she was and it escaped, leaving her trapped. I exclaimed YAZ! Her tail wagged and she smiled. I could tell she was glad to see me. I brought her back to the house - she ate a little food, had some water - then curled up in her favorite, well worn, broken in spot on our couch that we called her ‘bomb hole’ - named after a hole in the snow left by an avalanche explosive. She slept like a dog...
Yaz in her 'bombhole'
Jackson, WY had started to feel a little like home for Yaz and I. We had good friends and loved the lifestyle. The adventures we shared those first few years were so memorable... and the adventures we share in the next 2-4 years of her life are nothing short of incredible. Like all of us, she’s had close calls, lots of smiles, sick days from eating too much junk food, pulled muscles, been shot, skied, biked, and ran her ass off. She has enjoyed and overcome all of it without any whining or complaining. Dogs are the best.
I look forward to sharing more stories in the next installment!