My dogs made me less dogmatic

So there's always this question: Should you teach your kids to believe in Santa Claus? It may be a question for others, but it isn't for me. I like reality. None of this "Be good or Santa won't bring you any presents." I prefer more realistic threats: "If you touch anything in this store I'll tear your arms off."

When I first got sled dogs, I figured it was a good training ground for the habits that would be necessary in raising children. And like kids, dogs like to have something to look forward to, something to motivate them. That's why Sepp, this really cool German hippie, taught his dogs to believe in Santa.

Moose are very dangerous to dog teams. When I would come down to the lower 48 from my home in Fairbanks, Alaska, to visit family and friends, everyone was concerned about how one deals with bears. That, and the unthinkable horror of using an outhouse. But far more dangerous than bears, outhouses, or even rush-hour traffic, are moose.

The two trickiest things about moose encounters is their fierce defense of their offspring and their bit of trail. No kidding, moose get possessive of what they believe to be their section of forest where the snow isn't up to their armpits. On a heavy snow year, moose will starve while standing on a hard-packed trail 80 feet from good forage because the energy they'd expend plowing through the snow exceeds the nutritional value of the food they would reach.

You know how pet dogs like to chase cars, bicycles, and delivery drivers? That's because they are deprived of moose. So you can imagine how much fun a moose encounter can be. Take that pesky neighborhood pet, get him in really good shape, lash him and 10 of his buddies to a 100-pound dog sled with you on it and you get a view of the fun that can be had.

But I taught my kids, er, dogs, that the price to be paid to me was greater than the joy derived by chasing down angry moose. When we came across moose on the trail, I could see the dogs' ears perk up and they'd lean into the harness. Then I would say very calmly, almost under my breath, "Whoa, whoa. We won't be doing any of that today." And we'd come to a stop with little event. I would then wait for the moose to leave the trail, or if the moose felt like making a big deal of things, I'd tell the dogs to turn around, and we'd find another way to where we were headed.

Sepp had a different approach. One time I followed him along his trapline in the Brooks Range, about 250 miles colder and darker north of Fairbanks, and learned a little trick.

Falling through the ice is no fun. Duh. When traveling long distances on a trapline, the dogs will look for any excuse for a diversion. They'll chase a ptarmigan now and again, but mostly they think every time the sled gets a little harder to pull that it's time to stop and goof off. So, typically, you have to do a good bit of selling if you've got a steep hill to pull or some deep snow to slog through. But there's no time for that when you break through river ice; you need the power now.

Sepp and I were traveling the miles between two of his cabins, and the sun was up. It was spring so the temperature during the day was nice and toasty. It was the sort of day you'd like to spend staring off into space and dreaming away the miles as you kick along behind the sled. Our sleds were pretty heavy, no big deal. Sled dogs are smart, like people, when it comes to avoiding work, so when you are running down a river they always head for the areas where the snow is not as deep. This is a mixed blessing; Why is the snow shallower there than here? It's usually because the ice is newer there; a current or spring has kept the water open.

But one benefit to running so far north is that the severe cold at night keeps the ice pretty safe. Twenty below at night, 10 above during the day. Perfect conditions, but Sepp still fell through the ice. Dogs are light, so they stayed on top, but the sled and its human splashed right through. The tough problem, usually, when you fall through is that the dogs think it's break time. The sled just got really hard to pull, so let's stop. The average guy has to haul himself onto the good ice and help the dogs pull the sled out of the water.

But not Sepp. He yelled "Moose!" The dogs bolted ahead and he popped right out on top of the good ice! Clever guy. I might still be there trying to explain to my well-behaved dogs the urgency of the situation. It may sound like an unfair trick, but it worked out nicely. The dogs tore ahead, expecting to take chase, but he stopped them right away, hugged them all, and broke out the treats. So it's not as if he promised them a moose chase and ripped them off; they ended up happy just the same, and Sepp spent much less time in the water.

So what do we bring to parenting from this lesson? I can only say that the good humor of situations like this have helped me to be less dogmatic in my child-rearing. I had extraordinarily well-behaved dogs. When I went to sell them, important people offered me good money. But I'm not selling kids. So besides the harsh formal discipline I find it so easy to live with, I mix in a little good-natured motivation, some tricks here and there, and things work out just fine. So far.

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