Snow-puppy and his Isolation Distress

It was a beautiful afternoon. The moon rose at three or so, just as the light was fading. I rode the Sassy White Bravo out toward the creek to give the dog a run and to practice breaking trail in the deep snow (you lose your steering and have to lean to make turns. And don’t ever stop moving because you will sink and then you’ll have to shovel snow out from on top of your skis. I am not great at this, but I am trying to improve). The moon was enormous on the horizon: too big, like an alien spaceship lurking behind the mountains.

I got back from my ride and I couldn’t resist strapping on my ski boots and my gaiters and going for a slide around the loop, just to keep watching that moon, maybe to kind of keep an eye on it in case it had sinister intent. When I got back from skiing, I harnessed the dog and he pulled me around the loop one more time. It was that kind of afternoon. I just couldn’t get enough.


Yeah, that’s like 3:30 pm or something.

I love that I have Daazhraii to count on when I want to go out. He’s a total chicken, (he is scared of fireworks and little girls) but having someone with me – even someone who is absolute yellow-bellied poultry – still eases the anxiety that comes with wandering the arctic night alone. Geoff wanted to stay in tonight (he doesn’t care for skiing anyway) but I didn’t have to go out by myself. I had my snow-puppy right there waiting, begging me with those big brown eyes and that floppy lolling drooly tongue to just please open the door and let that cool comfy air float in, or, better yet, let him go out. I put on my boots and he started to dance. He is great company. daazhraii by the door

The flip side to great company is crushing loneliness, at least for the dog. He has what I guess is called isolation distress: he gets anxious when he is alone. Any company will do, but solitude is unacceptable. He barks and cries and tears things up. He’ll do it for hours and hours. It’s not a behavior issue, it’s an emotional response that’s out of his control. He does things when he’s alone that he has no inclination to do when he has company. Leaving a shirt with my smell on it doesn’t work – he just shreds it in his panic. Playing music, stuffing toys with treats for him to extract, none of it helps. He won’t touch his food when he’s alone. He can’t be left in vehicles: this summer he ate Geoff’s front seat and my best friend’s husband’s head rests. He ate one of my bunny boots (see the above photo) and a thermometer when we left him in the house about a month ago. He sometimes breaks out of kennels, which I guess is better than chewing his own fur off, which some dogs with this problem apparently do when they have no other outlet. If he can’t break out, he’ll cry nonstop for hours and soak the door and the floor around his kennel with slobber. It’s awful to see him panicking like that, but it’s impossible to have him with us all the time.

I wish there were more that I could do. The internet professionals suggest slowly desensitizing him by leaving him for increasing amounts of time, starting with just a few seconds and working up to hours over the course of several weeks. The problem there is that leaving him for a longer time during that therapy period can undo any progress he makes. We can’t take six or eight weeks off from work to practice leaving the dog alone and in the summer we travel constantly. I hope he can benefit from this protocol someday, but right now it’s not realistic. Some people drug their anxious dogs, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve thought about getting him a friend – when loose dogs visit, he calms down immediately – but one dog is a lot of work and I’m not sure I’m ready to take on another, complete with his/her own unique challenges. Besides, it might not help.

For a while, earlier in the fall, he was in a kennel right outside my classroom window during the school day. That was fine. He’d sit comfortably in his kennel, watch the world go by, listen to my voice through the window, and never make a peep. We started slowly moving the kennel and got him comfortable with a spot just outside of teacher housing. Unfortunately, the school district directed us to remove him from school property (in most places, this would make sense, of course, but in this village it is pretty ridiculous. There are loose dogs everywhere). Now we have him across the lot on a run, and he is not happy. In fact, he’s panicked. The barking drives everyone nuts – the maintenance guy, who has to work outside, has walked out over the incessant yelping at least once, and I can’t blame him. We keep Daazhraii at school where I can see him from my window because I’m terrified that if we left him alone on a run at the house, someone would get sick of his yelping and just walk up the driveway and pop him with a .22.

It’s challenging, and it has sometimes seemed like there’s no answer. There was a while in early December where I was missing school days to keep the dog company. Is it a sick day if I’m sick at heart? If it’s me or the maintenance guy? Magically, in the last few weeks, Daazhraii has started calm down, even remaining quiet for half-hours at a time during school and chilling in his dog house. He’s started to howl instead of yelp, too, so things aren’t quite so bad. The howling is pretty cool, actually. Cross your fingers and hope he continues to improve.

When we’re in Fairbanks, there are some different challenges. We can’t leave him in a hotel room, and we don’t like to leave him unattended in the car for long. Geoff and I have found that if we give him a good run before we leave him in the car, he is less likely to eat the seats while we grocery shop. This is not a guarantee, by any means, but it meant that we had a good incentive to take him out and work him every day when we were in Fairbanks last week. We played a lot of football on the lakes out by the airport.


I love my dog. He is gorgeous, obviously, but he is also affectionate, smart, sensitive, willing, hilarious, expressive, and strong. When he’s with his people, he’s mellow, attentive and sweet. He’s so quiet that I sometimes have to look around and check to make sure he’s in the cabin at all. He has learned some fifteen or twenty commands – my personal favorite is “gimmeakiss” – and his manners are excellent. I have taught him to wait for an okay before going through doors or starting in on his dinner. He rings a bell at the door to be let out. He likes to play tug-o-war and keep-away. He often lies with his chin just barely on the tips of someone’s toes. He likes to lie on his back with his spine in a crescent and his back legs spraddly. In the morning, Daazhraii jumps up onto the bed and burrows under my neck with his wet nose and leaves snail-trails of dog boogers all over my face. He likes to nibble my ears and chin. When we go out for rides on the sno-go or for walks or skis or runs, he bounds around exuberantly and throws up snow in great big sprays, that huge tongue lolling, those legs kicking out, that tail fluttering and floofing, those ears swiveling and pointing. It’s impossible not to melt a little inside.

My friend Kristie took these next two pictures, and they are some of my favorites.


This one is in the tent at camp. That’s Daazhraii’s happiest place: he’s free to roam outside and he knows right where to find his people. I love his dog-smile in this photo.

iPhone Image 4B4D0C

One of his cutest habits is burrowing into the snow. He’s always got a white face-mask when he’s outside. He just goes for it in the deep snow, diving like a porpoise. It’s totally charming.

There was a time in my life when I swore I’d never get a dog. There were at least thirty reasons, and half of them were “poops in yard”. That’s the least of my problems, it turns out now. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite, but I never regret bringing him home, even when I’m lost in a hopeless spiral, wondering if Daazhraii’s crying will be the straw that finally gives that extra leverage to the folks who want Geoff out of the village or wondering if someone will decide to take their issues with Geoff or me out on the dog.

He’s wonderful, even if he is imperfect, and I’m not so surrounded by good company that I can afford to reject someone who loves me just because he’s a little bit crazy.

No one else would have gone skiing with me tonight, and that’s worth everything. He’s an amazing animal in his element here, doing what his ancestors were bred for and loving it. He helps me to be my best self, to go out and soak up the moonrise, and he makes me stupidly happy, so I’ll put up with his eating my boots and crying from lonesomeness and love him madly anyway.


How could you not?



Also: If you’re out there dealing with separation anxiety or isolation distress with your dog, I get it. It’s horrible and agonizing. I have a huge amount of respect for those folks who find a way to manage this issue with composure and compassion for all involved.



That’s a mouthful, eh?

fall colors junjik

I have been running on the Mountain Road most clear evenings since school started. While my feet pound and my breath rushes I can let go of the day and let my mind watch the colors change on the tundra. I get to measure daily how far the snow has crept down the flanks of the big mountain at the head of the valley. Daazhraii free runs with me and, in theory, provides some warning in the case of dangerous wildlife. Mostly he lollops along with his enormous tongue hanging out and plunges around in the kettle ponds terrorizing the ducks, though now that I mention it, I realize the ducks have gone.

Last night I put on my hip belt and the dog sat sweetly while I fumbled with his harness. I clipped a bungee line to him and then to me, and Geoff took off on his bike. “Daazhraii, come on bud,” Geoff called, and we were off for the very first time.

It’s called canicross: dog assisted cross country running. It feels like flying. Daazhraii hauls with his heavy freight dog shoulders, chasing the bike, and the bungee rope stretches and pulls on my hip belt. I glide, my arms and hands free to fly.

We ran our usual route, and I didn’t feel that tightness in my belly that means I’m really pushing myself, even though we were moving faster than I usually jog. Daazhraii was focused and bouncy, a little surprised to be allowed to pull, but delighting in the freedom to guide our speed.

I was giddy. It’s fun and freeing and glorious, and it takes teamwork and energy and focus. We practiced “whoah” and “hike”. Once he gets used to pulling (he’s been trained not to pull on leash, so it’s an adjustment for him) we’ll work on “gee” and “haw” and “on by”. I can’t wait for ski season.

He’s a little young to work. You are supposed to wait until a dog is about a year old and his bones and muscles are fully developed before putting him to work in harness. Daazhraii is only ten months, but he isn’t working too hard or too often, and I want to make sure to practice “whoah” while I can still dig in my heels and stop him. On skis, that is going to be a lot harder.

What joy, though. I couldn’t keep from grinning, and Daazhraii ran laps around the driveway when we got home to the cabin, just to let some of the happy fun fizz off the top. daazhraii august snow

In other news,

Inevitably, yet to my continual surprise, things are changing (as they always are).

I have moved into the cabin with Geoff. It’s a contradiction that I recognize. After all, I love living alone. Somehow, though, this makes sense. This arrangement is temporary, as is almost every aspect of my life in Alaska. That certain knowledge frees me from the burden of expectation. I am happy.

I like the warm, cheerful, cluttered chaos of the house. The cabin has no running water, and it’s small for two people who are used to living alone, but I like it. I like washing dishes with water hauled from school in jugs and five-gallon buckets and heated on a hot plate. I like going outside to pee and check on the northern lights.  I like that I can see my snowmachine parked in the driveway from bed. I like the curios and bric-a-brac hung from the beams and tucked into the logs of the walls. I like that I am free to enjoy it all and not worry about what happens next.


As of last week, my freight canoe is finally done. Her name will be Lyra. In June Geoff and I will run down the Tanana and up the Yukon. We’ll take a break for dipnetting and in August we’ll run up the Chandalar to Venetie and then on to Arctic. Is it summer yet? I’m ready for the sun and the smell of green things and the hiss of silty water against the hull.

I feel like the universe is making me eat my words this month. I have decided that I am getting a dog. I feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite: I always swore I wouldn’t do this, and here I am looking for a puppy. Going out alone last week got me thinking: Why shouldn’t I have a dog for company when I go on adventures? I’ve been interested in skijoring since I first learned about it. Why shouldn’t I take my skiing up a notch and get a four-legged partner for speed over snow?

I’m in Boston now, getting ready for an awesome weekend with old friends. The important things haven’t changed.



February Hammock

I hung out in my hammock tonight. Before you ask, I don’t know the temperature, and it doesn’t really matter: when I ski, no matter how cold it is, I usually have to stuff my gloves into my hoodie and go bare-handed to keep from sweating. When I got back tonight, I thought, why not? and hung the hammock out for the first time since September.

I had the realization while I was flying, double-poling, down the Old Airport, that skiing won’t always be an option. Maybe it was this balmy, some-degrees-above-zero night that brought it home for me: Summer will come, and I’ll have to hang up my gear until snow hits again. The sandals and hiking shoes will come out from behind the pile of winter toys, and I’ll have to figure out how to entertain myself on a ground made of dirt instead of snow and ice. It’s so weird, in the spring, when the kids start wearing shorts and I see their knees for the first time. It feels indecent after snowpants in gym class.DSC04482.JPG

I’ve completely fallen in love with skiing this winter. I know I’ve written a lot about it, and I’m sure it’s tiresome for most of y’all, but it really is awesome. After giving up on crossing the slough (it was all overflow, which is absolutely unlike last year, when it was solid all winter) Ben and I explored an old burn just north of the village last night, and I broke trail through this brushy undergrowth, hooking my skis under every fallen limb and punching my poles into the deep snow, nearly toppling off balance with every unexpectedly deep punch, but the sky turned an outrageous tortoiseshell purple, and my chilly cheeks burned from smiling waaay more than my legs burned from plowing all that knee-deep snow. I pinched a bud on one of those wonderful, pungent trees that grow in the wet areas in the flats and it released that green ginger smell into the evening air.

Tonight’s outing was just about flying in the full, cloudy dark for a few minutes, (I like the way my skis rattle on the ice when I’m really moving and I can’t see a damn thing) and coming home with a pumping heart and some endorphins tickling my brainpan. It just feels so good.


I’m not ready to let go of this yet. Jake’s asked me to start harnessing Angel when I go skiing, and to let her run with me so that eventually we can try skijoring. I’m super psyched. I don’t know anything about skijoring or dogs at all, but it’ll be fun to figure it out, and it’ll give me something new to do on the weekends. I want this part of winter to last and last, and it’s a funny thing to think how much I’ll truly miss the snow and ice when it’s gone.