October - Handler story pt2
Updated: Nov 21, 2020
When I arrived, it was dark and raining. Their Australian shepherd bolted up off the porch and ran down to my car, barking viciously at me without stopping.
Foreshadowing for what was to come, perhaps.
I got out of my car, wary of the dog still continuing to bark at me and went up to the house to knock on the door. Ed answered it and ushered me inside. Quickly he and his wife laid down the ground rules - schedule, responsibilities, living arrangements, etc. But he was also very careful to mention social media rules - he was extremely wary of animal rights activists who look to shut down sled dog kennels. He told me not to include any of the dog houses, chains, or mud in any photos I post on social media, which at the time I thought was reasonable.
Meeting the dogs the next day was overwhelming. He had between 120 and 130 dogs, and the sound of them all barking and howling was eerily like a train going by. I immediately fell in love with them, and that love blinded me for the next several weeks - even to the ridiculous amount of labor I had to do to take care of every dog. I was the only handler to scoop poop every day and water each dog twice a day.
No later than 3 days after I arrived, I posted this photo on facebook.
Darla's coat was as soft as freshly laundered silk. I was careful to crop out everything according to Ed's directions.
The next day, Ed approached me and reprimanded me for posting on facebook. He told me his rules again, that closeups are fine but crop out the rest of the dog yard, even though I thought I had followed them. I was confused - if I had followed the rules, then why was he angry at me? So I stopped posting on facebook completely, after only one post - I only posted sparingly when I was one hundered and fifty percent sure that Ed wouldn't get angry with me. My defense mechanisms of my upbringing kicked in, and the more that Ed exerted this kind of power over me, the more difficult it became for me to ask or do anything that might upset him in the slightest.
October 6 - seven days later - Ed and I were sorting bones for the dogs' dinner. He was chopping large beef spine bones into individual chunks with an axe, and once the first few were chopped, he said to me, "Put those in a bucket." I pulled a bucket from the stack and returned to the bones where they lay on the ground, looking down and reaching over to pick them up. Suddenly, the axe head comes down a foot from my head with a loud SMACK. I flinched, and immediately Ed says to me very seriously, "Never bend under an axe." I was shocked. I couldn't believe he blamed this on me, but I brushed it off as part of the old gruff man aesthetic and continued to sort the bones, albeit shaken up with my brush with mortality.
Three days afterwards. It was pouring rain, and Ed and I were running around moving dogs to the driest parts of the dog yard. I was walking Sonic, a large black/white/tan husky, trying to keep my balance in the mud without falling over from being pulled every which way by a very excited sleddog, when the wet leather leash slipped over my hand and snapped around my finger. Sharp pain accompanied the snap, and after clipping Sonic into his new tether, I leaned over to inspect it. Something wasn't right, it wasn't just a normal injury and the pain was only increasing. As we went through the feeding ritual, my finger started to swell viciously so I raised it above my head, holding it there as I tried to finish feeding as quickly as possible in the downpour. My fear of Ed kept me from asking to leave before we were done to seek medical care. Ed asked me what I was doing, and I told him I thought I broke my finger. No other comment from him. As soon as we were done, I looked up the closest urgent care and drove myself there. The x-rays confirmed it - a fractured finger.
I came back to the kennel with my finger in a splint. Truly it wasn't a terrible injury, but I was slower doing my work over the next few days which was something I would come to learn was unacceptable. It wasn't even the first time I had injured myself - I tweaked my knee the first week while leading Tex, a giant 75 pound beefcake and the biggest dog in the yard, to the staging area where we would hook up teams. He was incredibly strong and dragged me across the slippery mud while I tried to hold him back, and struggled to walk without pain on every step for the next few days. This knee tweak would even come back to haunt me several times over the next few months because I was never given the chance to heal.
Every day, with a rest day every two or three days, we would take two or three large teams out on a training run. Sometimes ten dogs, sometimes any number up to twenty dogs. It would work out so every dog in the yard got a run in two or three times a week.
On one such morning, the usual chaos of hookup was in full swing. Dogs who were already hooked onto the gangline screamed and hammered, and even more dogs on the picket line waiting to be hooked up barked and jumped as high as their tethers would allow. The sound was deafening and the energy levels were extreme, the dogs wanted to go go go! I hooked the second wheel dog in, a big black hound with 65 pounds of muscle. He jumped and screamed, and with no release for his energy, turned and attacked his partner. The first wheel dog responded in kind, jumping and snarling, trying to wrap his jaws around the other dog's neck. I was frozen. I didn't know what to do, or how to break up a dog fight this intense, but the dogs were trying to destroy each other right in front of me. Ed was about 30 feet ahead, near the leaders, but looked up when he heard the sounds of a dog fight. "Don't just stand there, smack them!" he snarled at me. "Hit them hard!"
My mind just shut down and my limbs moved on their own. I was more afraid of him than I was worried about the dogs, so I did just that. I hit them on their rear ends until a few moments later, they quit.
Looking back on it, I am beyond ashamed of it, and it wouldn't be the last time I hit a dog to break up a fight while I was at his kennel. This, I think, is one of the worst things he inflicted on me - causing the dogs pain using me as a conduit. I was so ashamed that I told no one for months and months and continued to beat myself up for what I did long long after it happened.
We finished hooking the dogs up, hopped into the 4x4, and took off. As soon as the adrenaline wore off I burst into tears, bawling without control. I couldn't believe what had just happened. Ed tried to console me by telling me stories of times his other handlers fucked up and something happened that wasn't their fault, and cried because of it, but I gotta tell you, he is not the most empathetic person.
Many times after that he would talk about using pain as a training tool. When a dog he didn't raise would fight, or chew a line, or shy from people, he would blame their previous owners for being too afraid to whack them in the head. Pain was the golden standard for him. Many times he would tell me, "Amazing what a little pain will do." He would threaten to shoot a dog every other day after they jumped on him, or chewed something, or bit him. Ed would brag about the different training methods using pain he perfected - he told me he used to keep a plastic bat in the harness shed, and would use that to hit dogs and break up fights during hookup. He told me that the loud sound it would make would surprise the dogs out of fighting more than the actual physical hit of the bat. Ed bragged about how skillful he was at using a whip, and not just for the cracking sound it made. He perfected aiming it and smacking one of his dogs when they would dip their head to grab a mouthful of snow while running. Even with all of this, he told me to never hit a dog in front of tour guests or visitors. Indeed, the only time I ever saw him giving affection to any of his dogs was when he had an audience - it was all an act for him. As his handler, I knew how he really felt about the dogs.
At the end of October, Ed held a meetup with some local mushers and friends. Immediately it felt like I was seeing a different person. Ed would not let anything go wrong, and needed to be seen in the best light possible, and set me to mowing his many lawns with a push mower for hours. He and I spent days "cleaning" his property, which was just moving trash from one pile to the next. As soon as guests arrived, it was like he forgot about me. I didn't matter to him, when there were guests to impress. He spent all evening bragging about race wins and telling stories to the "oohs" and "aahs" of the other mushers.
The next morning, I got up to water all 120 dogs by myself. Ed was too preoccupied shmoozing with friends to bother taking care of his dogs. He came by at the end to tell me we would start getting the teams ready to run at 9am. So like clockwork, I came back to the dog yard an hour later and started bringing the first team - the team we always run first - to the staging area. Ed arrived at the dog yard when I was halfway done and I swear to you, his eyes bulged with anger. "What are you doing!" he screamed at me. "Did I tell you to bring that team up to the staging area?!"
"I was trying to anticipate your needs," I mumbled in response - something he had told me to start doing.
Ed, still furious, told me that we were changing plans and weren't going to run dogs until 9:30am. And instructed me not to take any dogs to the line unless he tells me which dogs to prepare. Shaking, I brought each dog back to their chainspots. It didn't seem like it was such a big deal to me. Why get so angry over something so little?