After years of mushing, he thought he'd found the perfect pet. But a bloody standoff taught him the truth: His lead dog had made him a follower. By Terry Woolf.
I’ve always dreamed of having a Walt Disney kind of lead dog. You know, one who could lead my team through a blinding snowstorm, rescue Timmy from the well, then fetch my slippers when we got home. When I met Trigger, I knew he was the one. He was a handsome, silver two-year-old Siberian husky, given to me by friends. In my 25 years of mushing, he was one of the most eager leaders I’d ever seen. He responded instantly to commands and got along with our other dogs. His only challenge was being a little bit shy.
To build trust between master and dog, I decided to bring Trigger on a trip with my partner to our cabin – eight hours of paddling with five portages. Our old canoeing dog, Magic, had died, and we needed a new canine companion to warn us about incoming bears.
When we approached the canoe, Trigger was hesitant, but I dragged him in. He sat, quietly resigned. After the first portage he was more reluctant but I bullied him in again. At the next portage he wouldn’t come near me. We begged, pleaded, bribed and fumed – to no avail. After four hours, we had no choice: We turned back. Trigger followed along the shore. When we reached our truck and dropped the tailgate, he leapt in.
So, a few days later, I enacted Plan B: We would fly. I was certain spending time at the cabin would forge a bond between Trigger and me, repairing any bad feelings. So again I forced him, this time into a floatplane. He moped, quiet and sullen, all through the flight. When we taxied up to the dock I let him out. He bolted, and that was the last time we touched him for days.
Trigger didn’t run away, though. While we did chores or lazed about, he would always be close by. He played, sniffed around, did his own thing. But if we addressed him directly or made eye contact, he would back away, cowering. In this relationship, he wasn’t going to give me control.
Knowing that we had to have him in hand by the time the plane came to get us, I devised a plan to lure him into the cabin and leash him. I put his food dish at the entrance and each day moved it further in. Finally, I placed his dish deep inside the cabin. He was suspicious, feinting in and out, studying me, but eventually he entered. And then the dumb human blew it, big-time.
Gloating, I stepped into the doorway and proclaimed “Ah-ha!” Trigger freaked. He yelped, leaping for the door. As I reached out to grab him, he got a good, bloody lock on my forearm. I fell to the ground and he burst outside, racing back and forth in front of the cabin, yowling and screaming. I staggered around, dripping blood, hurling profanities and berating myself: What kind of musher alienates the best lead dog he’s ever had?
We were two days away from the dreaded plane ride, and no closer to getting Trigger to calm down. I decided the situation called for forces greater than my own. I called my friend Jo, a dog whisperer.
Jo was a saint. She rounded up a cage, some tranquilizers, and her dog, Badger, and boarded our inbound plane. When it docked and she stepped off, something incredible happened. Trigger immediately trotted up to her. The chaos was over – no tranqs, no trauma. I knelt on the dock and petted his back. He looked up at me calmly, as though we’d never fought. We packed up the plane and took off.
Now, if it wasn’t for four canine punctures in my arm and a massive plane-charter bill, I might put the whole thing down as a bad dream. Instead, I’ve realized that Trigger tolerates my presence because it means he can be with his dog team. No dog can be all things. Only Walt Disney movies have Walt Disney dogs. Timmy should stay away from the well, and I can fetch my own damned slippers. It turns out Trigger is the real leader after all.