"Let Your Dog Teach You"

by Roger Powell

Kaloosit watches me as I get up each morning. Her eyes look into me as I sit on the side of my bed, looking back into her eyes in the photo on my bedroom wall. Her eyes follow me as I walk around the bed. She watches me as I go to sleep. 
Kaloosit joined Consie and me as a 13week-old puppy on a wintery January day in 1974. The first weekend after we got her, we went snowshoeing with her. We lived in Upper Peninsula Michigan, where snow gets deep, and she struggled a bit in the snow. She also began learning not to step on the tails of snowshoes. For the rest of that winter, she joined me in the woods on days when I did not have to snowshoe too far looking for fisher tracks and doing other work related to my Ph.D. research. She and I played "stick" along my snowshoe trails. And on real cold days, she started her job as a hand-warmer. Nothing beats a Newfie's tummy to warm cold hands at 20 below. 


On other days, she stayed home, closed in the kitchen (we had not yet learned of crates). And on one of those days she learned just how much pecan sour cream coffee cake a puppy can snitch before she gets too stuffed. She was a good puppy but not too good. Nearing Kaloosit's first birthday, I ordered a harness for her from a harness maker I had met in Ely, Minnesota. Steve Starkovich generally made siwash harnesses for racing huskies, so Kaloosit's came to us marked EXTRA HUGE. She outgrew it by the time she was two but used it all of her second winter with us. 
Kaloosit hauled live-traps and other gear into the woods for me, and she hauled fish out of the woods when we caught them. She learned to be calm around the diversity of critters that my live-traps attracted. Once a porcupine left a trap and walked directly towards Kaloosit, whom I had left sitting in what I thought would be an out-of-the-way place. The porcupine walked right over Kaloosit's paws, but Kaloosit did not move and did not touch the porcupine because she had been told not to. She was equally trustworthy with skunks. Late in that winter of 1975, Kaloosit hauled some 200 pounds of equipment and gear for a telemetry tower I needed to erect some three quarters of a mile into the woods. We hiked along an established snowshoe trail, yet hauling that loaded toboggan was tough work. I would like to be able to say that I helped Kaloosit, that I hooked another rope to her toboggan and that I pulled, too. But I did not, and she hauled that heavy load the whole way through the snow by herself. At the end of the day, after the tower was erected (that is a whole, other story), Kaloosit told me in no uncertain terms that hauling the gear to the site had been her job for the day and hauling the now lightly loaded toboggan back to the jeep was not in her job description. She refused to come to me when I called and she refused to cooperate to be hitched to the toboggan. Finally, in aggravation, I told her she could stay in the woods all night for all I cared and I started hauling the toboggan myself. That she would not tolerate, however, for if hauling the toboggan that evening were not her job, she knew very well that it should not be anyone else's, either. So, before I knew it, she was next to me, right in her spot, willing to be hitched. We hauled the light load back to the truck together. Newfies work well for people but they work best with people. Kaloosit taught me to look when I hiked in the woods. She smelled things I could not smell, but if I looked hard I could often find visual sign of the animals she smelled. I suppose I looked pretty funny some days on my hands and knees, smelling what Kaloosit was smelling, but that helped me open my eyes to the woods around me. She also taught me to watch her and to look at the woods from her point of view. She was keenly aware of the woods around her and knew when to jump over something and when to skinny under. She once jumped over a large log only, unexpectedly, to find another just beyond it. Light as a feather she balanced on that log, some three feet above the ground, and then jumped down. She knew when she needed help guiding her toboggan or travois through rough terrain and would tell me; she knew when she did not need help. During those days in the field in the UP, Consie and I talked about the new NCA Water Tests and how much fun it could be for people to test their dogs at draft work. By the fall of 1978, we had put together the first rough draft for the NCA Draft Test Regulations. I like to think that the spirit of Kaloosit lives a bit in each NCA draft test. Because Kaloosit was so good at judging the terrain and the woods, and often was better than I, I trusted her to make her own decisions. Invariably, she judged the terrain correctly, although her decisions were not always the decisions I wanted her to make. 
Explaining this requires a slight digression. In the summer of 1980, I did research on weasels on the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior, and Consie and I camped with Kaloosit in a wilderness site on Stockton Island. Kaloosit was to haul my heavy, wooden live-traps and gear on a travois to all corners of the island and she was registered with the National Park Service as a work animal. Before leaving for the Apostle Islands, we built a travois for Kaloosit because my traps were too heavy for her to pack. Building the travois posed a problem. Travois used by Native Americans were shaped like a large capital 'A' and spread widely behind their dogs. We had to work on thickly forested islands where a wide draft apparatus was not suitable and a wheeled one (which is always preferable in smooth terrain) was out of the question. Designing a travois that was skinny yet stable, that held its load above the ground and that would flex and bend as it was pulled over rocks and logs was a challenge. Kaloosit took to the travois like a pro and learned its nuances quickly. Before the first day of work was finished on Stockton Island, Kaloosit had shown us that the hammock that carried the load had to be higher and that the whole travois had to be more flexible and able to contort to remain stable going over rough ground. That evening, Consie and I worked late on the travois. On that first day, Kaloosit knew immediately how to manipulate the travois and how to prevent it from getting snagged on rocks, logs and roots. And, Kaloosit knew exactly how to catch that travois on every snag in the woods. 
Sometimes I needed to work on other islands and Kaloosit could not always come with me. On the day I asked her to haul gear to the boat landing for a four-day jaunt to Manitou Island, she had watched and had seen that none of her gear was loaded onto the travois or into my backpack. For the first three quarters of a mile towards the landing, she caught the travois on every rock, root and log. She balked at the slightest bump and hung her head. At first, I figured that she knew what she was doing and that this trail was a problematic one. In time, I deduced that, indeed, she did know what she was doing, but the trail was not the problem. Irked, I squatted in front of her and took her by the cheeks. I told her I knew what she was doing, that she needed to shape up, and that sometimes we all have to do jobs we do not think are fair. She did not hit another snag the rest of the way to the landing, another three quarters of a mile. 
That summer Kaloosit did the toughest hauling in her life. 
To trap one part of Stockton Island, she, Consie and I hauled and packed traps along a mile long stretch of Julian Beach. Sand is a tremendous drag, especially on a travois. Consie and I sunk on each step, carrying huge packs loaded with traps. Kaloosit sank each step and so did her travois. With frequent stops for drinks and swimming (Lake Superior was, after all, right at hand), we all reached the end of the beach. Kaloosit was proud that day and wagged her whole body. She knew when a job had been well done. 
When we finally had to leave the Apostles, Kaloosit, Consie and I hauled our gear from our campsite and from the woods to the boat landing. The day that Kaloosit and I hauled the traps back across Julian Beach and to the landing was hot; I dripped with sweat and Kaloosit's tongue hung to the ground. We talked as we worked together and she knew that we had to get those traps to the landing. A boat load of tourists had just arrived and as we pushed our last 50 yards to the landing, a woman in street shoes, white pants and a pastel blouse said, "Oh, isn't that cute." I was livid! This dog was working her heart out! She was magnificent, she was wonderful, she was majestic, she was exciting to see and thrilling to watch, but she was not 'cute'. 
Kaloosit kept her tongue, and so did I. Her patience exceeded mine, and helped me learn when to control my temper. We learned yet more from Kaloosit, other dogs who joined our family learned from Kaloosit, and we learned from them in turn. Now we pass on to new dogs the lessons we learned from Kaloosit and from the Newfs that have followed her. And, we still learn new lessons from each new dog who joins us. You have lessons to learn from your dog. Give her a hug from me. 



reprinted from NewfTide 1997