(no fear - everyone is fine!!)
Cutting young dogs from my training pool is never an issue for me. There is always 'next year' for them. In fact, I love being able to give the dogs the extra time to mature, mentally and physically. I see so many behaviors in dogs that folks write off for physical reasons - he's dipping for snow all the time, she's backing off on hills, he's aggressive with other dogs, he has bad eating habits, etc, etc - that I think are just dogs 'acting out' because of being 'pushed too hard' in training. "But his brother is okay"....yeah, so what - he isn't his brother.
Each dog deserves to be treated as the individual it is. Having a relatively large pool of dogs to work with allows me to give a dog that extra time to just 'grow up'. I love it.
Now, cutting older dogs from the team is a whole different story. With
young dogs, the future is still there, but with old dogs you are
admitting that time is passing by. Admitting they are aging.
Cutting older LEAD dogs from the team is yet another story. Cutting older MAIN lead dogs from the team is perhaps one of the hardest things I do.
On Sunday morning I made that call.
Jinx has been a solid presence in the front of my dog team for many years. In 2007 she was already a key leader, but when her half sister, Snickers unexpectedly passed, Jinx stepped up and took over main responsibilities in front of my team. Yup, other dogs were there lots too, but Jinx was the girl I looked to when the going got tough. My 'Go-To Leader' I called her.
I have, without question or exaggeration, put my life in her paws many times - she has never let me down in a jam.
She remains the most phenomenal 'storm leader' I have ever met. Many other mushers owe her for leading my team through storms so they could follow when their leaders wouldn't.
"How do you train a dog to do that?", one musher asked me after Jinx had pulled us both through a significant storm going over Rainy Pass on Iditarod. I smiled and shrugged. I didn't train her to do that, she just did it on her own.
Even this past year on Iditarod it was her that I turned to in the worst of the storm we encountered crossing Norton Sound - and it was her that trotted us across the finish line.
Now, don't get me wrong, Jinx is FAR from a perfect and flawless leader. She is moody, petulant, and temperamental. I've sworn at her and called her a variety of names over the years. I'm sure she has done the same in return.
I liken our relationship to a crotchety old married couple that gripes and bickers, but underneath it all has tremendous love and respect for each other.
Although much was made over the years about her half brother Crunchie and how few people ever had the opportunity to be behind him in harness (I think there were maybe 2), the list for Jinx is about the same. She was 'my' girl. We have an understanding - a relationship that works for us.
I'd been seeing a few small signs here and there that age was catching up with Jinxie, but it was easier to acknowledge the signs that she was not aging - partially because I hate my dogs getting old - and partially because it is hard to 'give up' those great leaders that you have depended on for so long. They are 'crutches'.
After the '12 Iditarod I talked to her about retiring, but when training started this fall, she was doing well and remained in the mix.
But lately, maybe not to all, but to me, the signs were becoming more obvious. Her petulance was greater, a bit of a change in her gait......
I rarely put her in lead in training - she has never been a good training leader - but on Saturday put her in lead with 'adorkable' Turtle. She wasn't pleased with having to put up with his antics and made that perfectly clear to me. I eventually swapped him out for Tramp. Jinx was happy with that and put in a stellar run over to our campground.
But watching her, I could see it.
When we stopped for a snack break, I went up front and told her this was going to be her last run with the main string. I snapped this picture to immortalize the moment - and maybe to help 'seal' my promise to her.
Over the rest of the miles on our run I waffled back and forth on my decision. Things would be going well and I'd tell myself I was crazy to retire her. Then I'd see something that reminded me she was 9 1/2 and be confident in my decision.
When Brittany joined us at the campground, I was going to ask her to do some 'juggling' of dogs in the main yard before I got back to clear a 'retirement spot' for Jinx. I didn't though.
When we got back to the yard I was going to move dogs around myself to make a retirement spot for her. I didn't.
But the next morning after feeding everyone, I unsnapped her chain and asked Brittany to move See up to Jinx's spot. Brittany did a double take and I admitted it 'was time', then bee-lined for the house with Jinx before I could change my mind.
Jinx spent a few hours hanging with us in the house. The leader that considered every night run I ever did a giant hunting mission and used to round corners with head up and ears forward hoping for some form of unsuspecting 'prey' to be on the trail even hung out happily with Mark's Stupid Cat. After a while though that infamous whine that every handler/helper around here knows all too well started. Although not a 'noisy' dog, Jinx has a whine that is about the canine equivalent of nails on a chalkboard and she is PROFICIENT at using it to get her way.
No 'house dog' status for this gal, she stated.
A gold watch, a gold harness....no gift like that could ever repay this girl for all she has done for me over the years. Smart, responsible choices for her as she ages will - and as hard as it is, that is what I'll continue to do for her.
Love you Jinxie. Thank you with all my heart.