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Friends, Part 2
by Mark Hamilton
When I wrote my opinion piece for the June, 2007 issue of The Fan Hitch I didn't realize there was going to be a "Part 2" to the article.
On the morning of June 23rd, Sue was the first one up into the kennel. As I walked up behind her, I could hear her calling to Aqsaq. When I got there I saw Aqsaq curled up in a comfortable sleeping position, with her chin on her forepaws, eyes open, ears erect. Qiniliq and Sunny were visiting with her, sniffing at her ears, but she wasn't moving. In fact, she apparently had died quickly and quietly in her sleep some time ovenight.*
Aqsaq had been quite a challenge for us during her entire life. She preferred that no boundaries be imposed on her. Her choice was to be wild and uncontrollable. But she would do anything to be rewarded with human praise and attention, and we used that as our principal tool in all our training with her. On a leash or a stakeout chain she was absolutely trustworthy around humans, even small children. At lead, on a number of occasions she took her team past herds of white tail deer and only very rarely did she ever "blow" a command when in harness.
Off leash and out of our control, Aqsaq responded to her own inclinations. She charged fences and fought with the dogs on the other side. She body slammed the other dogs in her playgroup and used her mouth aggressively. She incited wild behavior in Sunny, and when she vocalized she bellowed. As a young adult she tried to eviscerate her mother, and more recently had made a couple of attempts on Pakaq's sixteen-week-old life shortly after he was introduced to Aqsaq's play group. Basically, on her own she was loud, bullying and always aggressive.
But Aqsaq was completely trustworthy. There was never any question as to what she was going to do in any given situation or how she would respond to us. In all circumstances her behavior was completely predictable, without regard to whether it was something we would like or something we wouldn't like. She was a hard worker, a command lead dog, intensely social and our friend.
Over the years we've found that some, but certainly not all of our dogs have wanted to be our friends. Others seemed quite satisfied for their relationship with us to be companionable instead of a friendship. The dogs that shared the most directly with us in our various endeavors, lead dogs, boss dogs, dogs that traveled often with us were the ones most likely to evolve their relationship from companionable to friendship.
Many of the BAS veterans that we have spoken with have voiced similar views on their relationships with the dogs while in Antarctica. Those dogs were their friends, which probably explains why so many of the BAS veterans still morn the loss of those dogs and resent the circumstances under which the dogs were 'lost'. Everyone misses their friends when they are gone.
So just now it's Aqsaq that we miss the most, as she's the most recently gone. Qiniliq and Sunny are working out new parameters to their relationship with each other. And the other dogs in the kennel are revising their relationship to the dogs in the run that no longer contains Aqsaq. Likewise Sue and I are making adjustments. Without Aqsaq's steady performance alongside him at lead, Sunny will be tested based solely on his own ability as a lead dog this fall. Even after all the adjustments are made and the kennel, the dogs, and the teams are once again in order, we'll still miss Aqsaq because she was always a friend.
* A gross (no microscopic examination) necropsy, performed by a sled dog veterinarian later the same morning, revealed left-sided heart failure – a condition, the veterinarian explained, which is not detectable by routine means, can have virtually no obvious warning signs (as was Aqsaq's case and that of other similarly affected canine and human athletes) and is only diagnosed after death. In fact the only "clinical" sign is death so sudden that there are virtually no signs of struggle or distress. Aqsaq, who arrived with her littermates in Connecticut from Pond Inlet in the belly of her mother, Amaruq, on August 28, 1996, would have been eleven years-old on September 1st.