Michael O’Hara

Puppy Love

Michael O’Hara

Adventure Writing 2014

January 30, 2014

 “Just think fellas, I’ll inoculate these this week and you can take ‘em back to school. Imagine the young ladies you could catch with these, huh?”

Having only met local dairy farmer and avid dog musher Doug Butler just an hour before, I could already tell that this uncouth manner was the way he typically went about making conversation. My good friend Joe and I had come to his farm on Munger street in Middlebury, Vermont to learn more about dogsledding from the only real dog racer in the area. That man happens to be the one lovingly nuzzling a small grey bundle of fur held with his left arm, his straw-colored mustache combing the fur like a hairbrush.

A litter of two; one, a black and white female named Lacey, and the other, a brindled grey male named Ben are both cute as buttons, but are destined to become lean, athletic sled dogs like their mother Noomie, a pointer-husky mix, and until her unexpected pregnancy (the result of a very frisky alpha male), one of Doug’s most reliable lead dogs.

You can see a hint of the thinly veiled love he harbors beneath a boisterous personality in his steely grey eyes and in his interactions with Debbie, his extraordinarily tolerant wife, who must be something close to an angel to put up with his twisted humor (and quite possibly even to tolerate the long yellow hair protruding from under his baseball cap). Rather than simply overlooking his defining traits, it seems that she has developed her own retaliatory response to his cynicism. Together they have built a rapport through their disagreements that still displays the love they have for each other.

“I keep threatenin’ to put them in the freezer.”

“I think they should live upstairs by the woodstove.”

But it’s pretty obvious that just as Doug and Debbie so clearly treasure each other, Doug has a similarly massive soft spot for his dogs.

A devoted and serious dairy farmer, on a daily basis, Doug effortlessly converses with a seemingly endless string of farmhands, buyers, dealers, delivery men, mechanics college students working on a project about dog mushing, and he somehow manages to transition seamlessly from one moment relaying instructions to his employees, to the next reliving memories of his childhood life in rural Vermont, then to making a (generally non sequitur) joke about sex or drinking or some such debauchery. He manages to take most things in life with a grain of salt, even in serious business, but every once in a while from his fount of ceaseless animated dialogue comes a somber anecdote accompanied by a slight pause—a rare and reverent moment of silence—only to be followed immediately by his addictive lighthearted banter that is so unique to him.

Doug also takes dogsledding extremely seriously. Since 1977, Doug has been involved in the sport, training and running dogs, and racing them in eight or more events each year, most of which are in Quebec. He and his dogs race almost exclusively the most competitive, most difficult circuits in the northeast and Canada, meaning not only that his dogs have to be in shape suitable for racing for months leading up to the mushing season, but that Doug needs up-to-date paperwork for all 50-plus dogs, each of which he knows by name. More than a job, mushing dogs is Doug’s vitality.

“We gotta be so careful with these athletes,” he stated during a rare lapse in humor while giving us the tour of his farm and his sled route. Doug had expertly maneuvered the conversation from “we’re looking to track down some ladies, can you help us?” to this sobering statement delivered so flatly, laughed off with a lighthearted “and you wonder why I drink!” Despite the levity in his demeanor, his point hit home with me. It was a moment of clarity, something that cut to the core of his persona, the one so invested in training and racing dogs. His dogs are so much more than just a means to the end of a race. They are much more human in his eyes; these dogs are his protégés, his finely trained students, and his loyal friends. He expresses genuine concern for the safety of each and every dog, telling us how he has to wait for the right conditions to run the dogs in order to avoid wear on their claws and painful fissures on their paw pads of his loyal companions.

Of course, the dogs aren’t the only animals on the dairy farm. Doug is also extremely passionate about his cows and their well-being, going lengths to keep them comfortable and producing milk. “We don’t shock them with electricity to milk them like some other farms,” he told us. His avoidance of machinery and electro-shock techniques to harvest milk from his cows shows not only his strong moral character, one not influenced by the allure of profit, but it exposes his caring spirit. He may not nuzzle and coo at his cows the same way he does with Ben and Lacey, but the way he looks at the heifers and calves, with a glint of admiration and content aglow in his eyes, it’s apparent that he really and truly takes pride in what he does.

 

•••

Each pair of dogs is in step, the entire team perfectly in sync. I can feel the energy radiating off them, flying past my face like their misty breath, and I can see their tongues lolling from their grinning, eager mouths. Wind whips against my tinted ski goggles as we speed across snowy fields.

•••

 

“No I didn’t have fun, I got the shit kicked out of me! Them French cocksuckers, now we gotta work harder to beat ‘em,” is Doug’s vehement response to Jimmy’s question. Doug had just faced whiteout snowstorms on the 300-mile trip back from an unsuccessful race in Quebec, arriving back on his farm at 3:00 in the morning, only to face the last question he wanted to hear: “did you have fun?”

“Well you gotta go buy yourself some big, better, faster dogs,” suggests the farmhand.

“You don’t buy the best; you have to train ‘em. You don’t have enough money to buy other people’s dogs. That don’t happen in this world.”

Doug keeps surprising me. Every time I see him he seems to say something so profound yet so characteristic of him that I have to mentally backpedal and sift through the vulgarity to reach the wisdom. To dig through the bullshit is dirty work, but the message is figurative gold.

He isn’t the type to get philosophical very often. Most often, in fact, he is more prone to tell a story about the first time he took Casey, his second-in-command to a strip club, drank copious amounts of alcohol while his employee was in a back room somewhere spending $200 on we can only guess what, ending the story with a comment on the reaction that arises from Casey at some point during what is no doubt his umpteenth retelling. When he does venture to a more serious topic however, it usually happens to be about his team.

His dogs are all a mix of Siberian Husky and German Shorthaired Pointer, a mixed breed referred to in the dog mushing community as a Euro Hound. They are bred to balance the durability of a Husky with the agility and speed of a Pointer, and until relatively recently have been utilized only by a select few, one of those outliers being Doug himself. They’re slender dogs—most of them even weigh less than 50 pounds—and by the looks of them, they wouldn’t be able to pull a sled at all, let alone keep warm throughout an entire race. But when they jump up on you and grip your torso with their front legs, you can feel how muscular their thin, powerful frames actually are. When you hold your hand on their ribs, you can feel the heartbeat that constantly pumps pure canine energy through their veins.

All fifty of the dogs are on a strict regimen. Every day they are fed a mixture of hot water, meat, kibble, and blood to keep them fully-nourished and hydrated, so they don’t collapse under the pressure and strain of a race. The “bait” he feeds them is also laced with a small amount of medication to keep the dogs free of ringworms, hookworms, and heartworms, which is a practice that Doug passionately defends. During races, there’s no time to take breaks, which means that if the dogs have to defecate, they have to do it on the run. This inevitably leads to other racers running over the waste, and if the feces contain worms, they spread rapidly among the contenders. He sees this as a disregard for the health of the dogs and as negligence on the part of the men and women who race them. “It’s not fair to the dogs,” he says sternly, stirring the mix of hamburger, kibble, and bloody water into a makeshift soup.

When weather permits, Doug runs them on a sled or an ATV to keep them fit. Though only the lead dog recognizes the commands to turn right or to turn left, Doug inculcates his athletes with compliance and loyalty to his commands, stoked by their absolute adoration of him. His is a team of extraordinarily well-trained athletes, ready to sprint through a race at full tilt, muscles taut and tongues trailing from their mouths.

They may be strong and fast, but the slender frame they inherit from the Pointer means that these dogs are more susceptible to injury than a true Husky would be. For that reason, they are trained specifically for sprinting through a shorter race that takes place over a single day, and thus it is not as important that they have as thick a fur coat as the Huskies that run for the long haul. Though there is little chance that dogs like Doug’s could physically cope with a thousand-mile endurance race like the Iditarod, more and more competitors are breeding similar mixes to compete in smaller races, much like the ones that Doug competes in in Quebec. “The competition is just incredible,” means he’s angry, but it also means he’s inspired to work harder with his dogs to get better and to get faster.

•••

            On the dirt road leading to the ten-mile course we were set to run, Doug lamented that the speedometer on the ATV was broken, so I pulled out my iPhone and opened Snapchat, snapped a photo and turned on the speedometer tag. Overlaid on the picture of the dogs I had taken was our current speed: 18.7 miles per hour. Doug laughed, “the dirt road hurts their feet, we’re going slow.”

•••

 

“Fuck class, be here at 2:30. I’ve got two teams to run today.”

Number 92 on the list of “100 Things To Do Before You Graduate Middlebury” is along the lines of: “Calculate how much money a single class is, then skip one, and do something non-academic worth that much to you.” I guess Joe and I are crossing something off that list today.

We take inventory of the clothes and cameras we need for the excursion ahead of us as we don and pack them in a hurry, eager to follow Doug and a score of his best dogs as they run a thirteen-mile trail across snowy Vermont farmland. Instead of a sled, we will be running the dogs with their tug line hooked up to an ATV, which Doug runs in a low gear, essentially lessening the load that the team needs to pull. We don’t really care though—for us, this is huge.

Harnessing the dogs is more challenging than anything we had done for Doug previously. The almost rabid energy that the dogs have makes it an effort to pull the harness smoothly over their head and shoulders, so instead we have to wrestle each writhing mass of fur and muscle through a tangled bundle of padded nylon cord that no self-respecting poodle would wear to a doggy fashion show. Once the dogs are outfitted though, they look like they could be ready for anything. Side by side, they look like a broad-shouldered action team ready to pounce on whatever comes between them and the finish line.

As a recent initiate to the sport, the placement of dogs seems a triviality, but Doug seems to have an internal lineup in his head, as he continues to bark orders, instructing us where and in which position to place each team member on the tug line. “Gunner is recovering from an injured Achilles, so we’ll put him in front of the wheel to see how he’s doing,” he points at the second-closest position on the line to the sled. I oblige, clipping his neck line to the tug, then his tow line to a longer lead, slightly further back.

Gunner, a veteran racer, calmly awaits Doug’s signal to launch forward, but there are several rookies on the team who don’t have quite the same amount of patience as the more experienced teammate. As soon as they are secured in their harness, they strain against their bindings, surging forward, only to be pulled back immediately by the weight of the tug line. It’s a comical scene to behold, but at the same time it’s strangely invigorating, as if this leaping, thrashing, falling, and repeating foreshadows what happens next.

 

•••

I’m conflicted between getting a good shot with my GoPro and keeping my eyes focused intensely on the tautness of all thirteen tug lines, on the neck lines that the dogs so frequently chew through. Beebeebeebeebeebeebee The cold kills my GoPro, so I shove it in a pocket somewhere deep within my down jacket to warm up. I thank the 9º weather and return my attention to the team and the rigging. “Rock and roll, baby. Rock and roll!”

•••

            There’s a certain thrill you feel when you’re moving inordinately fast—your eyes dilate when you pass 80 miles per hour, a grin creeps across your face as the speedometer hit 90 miles per hour, the adrenaline starts flowing freely at the moment you break 100—but for me, that’s usually in a car. With sled dogs, you don’t get going any faster than 30mph at any given time, but once you’ve spent hours on end with these dogs, feeding them, replenishing their bedding, you suddenly understand why these extroverted animals must remain chained to a stake when not racing. As soon as they are let loose at the starting line, their intense training and massive energy take over and they hurtle forward at speeds that seem far too rapid for a wiry 40-pound body to cope with. That’s when you remember that there’s not just the one dog. When there are thirteen powerful hounds running in unison, you can see that they motivate each other to run and to keep running at top speeds.

Without a bucket seat to be pressed back into or a seatbelt to secure you, and with a team of thirteen muscular dogs running flat out, shooting across the snow at around 25mph, the thrill is present. The cold wind bites uncovered skin, but when your eyes are focused on the synchronization of each pair of dogs, the stinging goes unnoticed. Fingers go numb, but the feeling is replaced with a practically tangible buzz.

“If this doesn’t give you an erection, nothing will.”

We had put in 5 or more hours of work on Doug’s farm, and it had culminated in this. We were finally running the dogs, even if not on a proper sled. The dogs were able to easily pull the heavy all-terrain vehicle at fifteen miles per hour by their own power, and managed to keep their harnesses taut as they sprinted steadily and constantly along a thirteen-mile track. Each team member kept stride with his partner, matching rhythms, maintaining the same straight-as-an-arrow trajectory of the team as a whole. The snow sprayed up from under their incessantly pounding paws, not a single runner releasing the tension of the harness for even a second. None would let up, none slowed. These were amazing athletes at work, my eyes were riveted and my heart continued to hammer for the whole ride.

“Now you see why I love this dumb sport.”

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