There were 200 dogs in the dog yard. Each one was tethered to a raised wooden platform with a big plastic cylinder that worked as a doghouse. Each dog’s name was on a sign on his platform, some had sleds parked in front. The platforms were arranged in rows that mimicked the rows of trees at the end of the yard. The sound was wild and deafening and weirdly joyous, the dogs leaping on to their platforms, barking, jumping down, each dog more handsome than the last. We were at Nature’s Kennel in McMillan, Michigan, deep in the woods of the Upper Peninsula. We were there to pick up our new dog, an about to be retired sled dog named Swirl.
“I’m going to unhook him and he’s going to take off,” said Tasha, the kennel owner, and then she yelled “Dog loose in the yard!” All of this happened before it sunk in that we were standing in front of our new dog. Swirl bounded off his platform and headed for the driveway, the woods, the kids, the car, the puppy yard, and back. He was huge. Probably twice as big as I’d imagined him, having watched a ton of sled dog racing. He was a big, beautiful, exuberant dog.
Tasha told us about him. He was born in a litter of four. As is the habit in mushing kennels, litters have themes. Swirl’s litter’s theme was bread. So there is Pump, Rye, Hallah, and [Cinnamon] Swirl. Later, driving home, we looked at the paper with his family tree and saw that his grandparents were dogs owned by Iditarod royalty – Deedee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey. Back even further was a great, great grandparent from the kennel of the first woman to win the Iditarod, Susan Butcher. But Swirl had never been an Iditarod dog.
He raced some but he was mostly a touring dog. Teamed up with eleven other dogs, sometimes in the lead, sometimes not, he took tourists on rides through the forests around McMillan. And he was happy doing it, Tasha said, until he started to look less excited about going. Oh, he still joined the team but he didn’t have that sparkle and so she decided it was time for him to retire. He wasn’t having fun anymore.
We walked around the driveway, talking about Swirl and what he was like. Sweet, gentle, friendly, totally trustworthy with children and other dogs. “You will never have to worry about him.” This was great because I’ve done plenty of worrying about dogs I’ve owned. And then she said this, “You just have to say no to him. Anything more than that and you’ll break his heart.”
He had been raised that carefully.
It shows. He trusts people. He’s not afraid or shy or aggressive in any way. He is quiet and sure-footed, able to nap anywhere. He’s gone from sleeping in his dog house on top of a wooden platform to sleeping on the rug next to our bed. He seems to sleep a dreamless sleep, he may have yearning for the dog yard but it doesn’t show. He seems at home here, as at home with us as we are with him. Our dog. His people.