My Walk with Swirl and Punchy

It is snowing.

It is snowing hard with big, storybook snowflakes like we made in third grade with white paper and blunt-nosed scissors.

In our bedroom, Swirl is sleeping stretched out on the floor on a little girl’s flowered quilt, a half-eaten roll of paper towels next to him. Punchy is under my desk, lying like a sphynx, his big sturdy paws perfectly aligned. They are both retired sled dogs.

I put on my parka and hat and look for their harnesses. Both have front hook harnesses because leashed any other way they would pull me off my feet. They were bred and trained to pull and run but, with me, they are patient and restrained. I yell Whoa to them sometimes when they move too fast. It is a command they remember from the old days. I wonder sometimes what else they remember. I wonder if they miss what they were.

Swirl is a large, beautiful dog, an Alaskan Husky bred for freezing temperatures and long-distance running. He is tall and dignified with a face configured like a wolf’s. He is white with large swaths of gold and brown. When people see Swirl, they stop what they are doing to look at him. He is unaware of this and his tail is always wagging. I love this dog more than I have loved any other dog and many people in my life who, one might say, I should probably love more than a dog. I dread Swirl’s demise and hope I go first.

Punchy is a smaller dog, an Alaskan Husky like Swirl, but not a looker, as they say. He was born in Alaska at an elite mushing kennel but washed out soon despite his “great feet,” mostly because, though he ran hard, he “didn’t know what he was doing.” All of this is by way of a note that came with his sale to a smaller racing kennel in the U.P. which they then passed along to us. Our Punchy is black with brown feet and a bit of a grey beard. His ears flop over. He is not wolf-like. He is anxious and ready and seems to be still wondering why there is no sled to pull.

They walk side by side in the snow. Though they came from the same kennel in the U.P. and, until just last year, worked on sled dog teams pulling tourists through the north woods, I don’t know if they ever ran together. They line up, though, ready, as if they could. As if this very day they could be hooked to the line with a dozen other dogs and tear off through the woods, run into a checkpoint, eat hot slop spooned into bowls, and lay down on straw to sleep for a few hours before waking and running again. This is what they did for many years. Because I am human and not a dog, I think they miss it. I think they must have yearning for the life they used to live. But I could be wrong. I am probably wrong.

The snowflakes stick to their backs. Their big feet leave prints in the snow that conjure up wolves and the wild. They are so close to being wild, these dogs, so born into weather and snow, and living with other dogs. At the kennel where they worked, they waited, jumping and barking, on top of their doghouses for the handler to come hook them up, and then they ran, big smiles on their faces, their tongues lolling from side to side. I know this because I’ve seen pictures of them running. They looked happy, joyous even, if a dog can be joyous.

On the porch, I unhitch their harnesses, brush the snow off their fur, and rub their rumps. I tell them they are good boys, the best boys, like I would if they were sled dogs I’d just unhooked from the team. They wag their tails, high and wide, like flags, the signal that they are glad to be home and are ready for their treats. I open the door for them and they hurry to the kitchen where they sit waiting for the cupboard door to open. It is the end of our walk.

Retirement Village

We liked looking at other people’s fine dogs but we got homesick for our own. So we came back from Duluth today while the Beargrease sled dog teams were still running, to retrieve our own two sled dogs from the kennel.

Before the kennel lady went to fetch our dogs from their “room,” she brought out one of their big overstuffed beds with a sign that said “SWIRL AND PUNCHY ATE THEIR BED pinned to it. Also attached was a bag of the bed’s stuffing. So it wasn’t entirely true that they’d eaten one of their beds, they had, however, murdered it.

“I think they were bored,” she said bringing out the second bed, this one still intact. They had roomed together so there’s no figuring why one bed was obliterated and not the other. They have their own system of decision-making. It is foreign to me.

They probably are bored. It is winter. Last winter, both Punchy and Swirl were working dogs, except if you look at pictures of them pulling sleds, they don’t look like they’re working. They look happy, tails up, big smiles. They must miss trotting through the pines of the U.P. and being with all their mates.

Oh, I think they like being retired. They get a lot of attention and their dog lives are pretty cushy. But I don’t think they’ve figured out how to handle it, like who am I now that I’m not pulling a sled? You know, like a sled dog identity crisis. I try to tell them that they’ll figure it out but they’re not all that interested in my opinion.

They’ll just have to figure it out on their own like everyone else.

Graduality

It took putting a blanket on the floor and sweet talking him for five minutes to get Punchy to hang out with me in my office. It’s a first, him laying there while I type.

He’s a very tentative dog. Sort of like a guest who’s not sure he should use the good towels. So he hangs back in his uncertainty until he is completely convinced that it is okay for him to do something new. He seems to want a ‘new dog in the house’ handbook so he can get things right and not offend.

I love his utter lack of entitlement, his unassumingness, his patient waiting while his friend dog, Swirl, chews on a bone, only getting up to investigate the bone after Swirl leaves it. He would no more insist or growl or fuss over the bone than he would knit a sweater. It’s not my place, I can hear him saying in his head.

You have to love a dog like that. I’m working on it. Just now I gave him a kiss on the head. He was surprised but stood still. Maybe he’s thinking it’s okay to get a kiss, just like it’s okay to lay on the blanket in my office.

The Mystery of Punchy's Rankness

We’ve been puzzling over it, Punchy’s rankness, figuring at first that it was the accumulation of eleven years in the dog yard with all the spit and mud and rolled-in dead things that might have fallen from the trees or been passed dog to dog down the line, but then we took him to a fancy groomer who gave him a bath and sent him home with a bow, and, yes, he does still smell lovely, depending on where you’re standing but every now and then a whiff of something unlovely catches you in the face like the deep sick odor of the inside of the trash can when you look in it right after the garbagemen come, but it wasn’t until today when my husband saw Punchy’s footprints in pile after pile of his leavings in the backyard that we solved the mystery of Punchy’s rankness.

Jan's Little Book Starring Two Talking Mutts

They’re gone now but the fascinating conversations of Minnie and BowWow live on.

Yes, after overwhelming popular demand (by my husband and one other person), I’ve published a compilation of Minnie and BowWow’s remarkable conversations. Who would’ve thought two ordinary-looking dogs could have such extraordinary wit and political acumen?

It’s a short book but very sweet and extremely funny. It also has a lot of profanity so don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a book for the kiddos just because it’s got talking dogs.

Minnie and BowWow is available right now on Amazon.

If you like it, please take a few minutes to write a review on Amazon. If you think it’s folderol, go read War and Peace and see if you can get a chuckle that way. Just kidding. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Even Minnie and BowWow – which you will see if you buy the book.

Mentorship

Swirl has taken his role as mentor very seriously. He’s introduced Punchy to several dog parks, shown him the ways of the urban world, and how to shake off all that old sled dog yard stand on the roof of your doghouse culture.

So there are some lovely scenes from this beautiful new friendship.

There’s this. So handsome.

And this. So sweet. Isn’t the light lovely?

And then there’s this. Swirl loves having an apprentice. We think Punchy has made his life complete.