Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Honoring a breed that was nearly extinct
We had just toured the Balleek factory in Fermanagh, Northern Ireland and most people had questions about the design and making of the high-quality, handmade porcelain pieces produced there. All I wanted to know was why the Irish Wolfhound has been on the stamps that marked every piece of Balleek pottery since 1863, along with other distinctive Irish symbols such as round towers, Irish harps and shamrocks. The tour guide’s answer was that at the time that the stamp was designed, this treasured breed was nearly extinct, and the owners wanted to pay tribute to this symbol of national pride.
The Irish are not the only group to take a strong interest in a dog breed whose history is strongly linked with their nation. There’s the Saint Bernard, so beloved by the Swiss, the Keeshound which is the national dog of the Netherlands, the Coton du Tulear from Madagascar, the Havanese of Cuba, the Rhodesian Ridgeback originating in Zimbabwe, and the Fila Brasileiro which comes from Brazil, to name just a few.
During the month I spent in Scotland, I met many people who pointed out with pride that their dogs are “proper Scottish dogs!” This description was used to refer to Scotties and Westies, of course, but also to a large number of collies (Border Collies, Smooth Collies, Rough Collies and Bearded Collies) and a variety of terriers (Border Terriers, Cairn Terriers, Skye Terriers and Dandie Dinmont Terriers, which is one of my favorite breed names ever.) Dog breeds are so closely linked to Scotland that virtually no souvenir shop lacks for stuffed fleece dogs to sell to tourists, including my sons. Both chose, for their one souvenir from Scotland, a stuffed Scottish dog—one picked a Westie and the other bought a Scottie.
Are your particularly enamored with a dog breed because of your interest in its country of origin?
With summer in full swing, perhaps you’ve not yet made plans for that special getaway—an escape that both you and your canine co-pilot can enjoy equally. We offer up five of our favorite dog-friendly destinations. Each makes a perfect summer getaway for a week or weekend. In our estimation, these places are special.
Bozeman, Montana not only has unforgettable big sky vistas, but ample space for dog outing recreation. Not only does the city boast of a 37-acre off leash dog area at Snowfill Recreation Area, but the county and a volunteer group, Run Dog Run, have just broken ground at Gallatin Regional Park for a new 13-acre dog park with amenities like ponds, diving docks and a dog sports area. The same group is responsible for developing a series of smaller dog parks throughout the whole area. Kudos to them, they know how to get the job done. Bozeman is the gateway to day-trips that will satisfy every level of outdoorsperson (and dog) ranging from mountain hikes to rafting and canoeing, plus world-class fishing. Montanans love their dogs, and see nothing unusual about including them in just about everything they do—outdoor adventures, dining, socializing—you’ll find dogs at every turn.
Asheville, North Carolina, offers a unique take on southern hospitality—mixing traditional and bohemian cultures into something special. Summertime brings a lively mix of music and arts festivals, a handful of which are dog-friendly. A host of the city’s al fresco dining areas welcome dogs, as do many of the area’s nearly two dozen microbreweries. Even some of its farmers’ markets are canine-friendly. At nearby Pisgah National Forest dogs can be unfettered by leashes as they hike through its thousand of acres and their stunning waterfalls. In the nearby town of Brevard book at stay at DogWoods Retreat surrounded by broadleaf forests and with easy access to the unforgettable Blue Ridge Parkway.
Seattle, Washington offers a little of everything: cultural attractions, great local fare and untrampled wilderness a car (or ferry) ride away, all in a still manageable urban setting. While Seattle’s sometime chilly embrace of strangers known as the infamous “Seattle freeze” survives—they do love dogs. The city’s dog-friendly amenities reflect the statistic that shows that there are more dogs than children according to the recent census. There are 11 official off-leash areas in the city proper, plus Marymoor Park, the 40-acre off-leash paradise with meadows, trails and river access located 20 miles east of the city. Marymoor Park is a must-see to experience how a dedicated dog community can partner with municipal leaders with great success. Seattle claims 45 pet-friendly hotels, 150 pet-friendly restaurants where one can dine outside with a pup, plus loads of special doggie events ranging from ice cream socials to Dogtoberfest plus an outdoor movie series that welcomes dogs. While Seattle’s leash laws are strictly enforced, much of the city is dog-friendly, so whether you are shopping, dining or sightseeing … chances are your pooch can tag along.
Marymoor Off-Leash Area outside of Seattle is one of the finest municipal facilities in the country (left); Sonny, an official Canine Ambassador at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, near Banff, Canada (right).
Minneapolis, Minnesota or the “City of Lakes” has much to offer visitors, and not just those that love the water. It’s vibrant art scene includes the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center, two venerable cultural institutions. Still, the canines in your pack will be more interested in the city’s seven dog parks, our favorite being Minnehaha Falls Dog Park nestled along the Mississippi River with water access and acres of woods to roam. Check out the nearby 53-foot waterfall and surrounding limestone bluffs. For nearby day trips, head in just about any direction to enjoy a canoe or kayak trip with your dog. The nearby Cannon and St. Croix Rivers are scenic and relatively easy, though start early to avoid the tubers. For serious canoers and kayakers, the trek north (4+ hours) to Superior National Forest and Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness will provide you and your co-pilot an outdoor experience of a lifetime.
Banff, nestled in the Canadian Rockies, provides an awe-inspiring outdoor experience with its majestic peaks, dense forests and scattered valleys, rivers and lakes. It is a popular tourist destination, so if you and your pup are seeking solitude … search elsewhere. The first-class amenities do make up for the crowds, and it’s not that difficult to locate an unbeaten path. Dogs are welcome at Banff National Park and nearby Jasper National Park, Canadian National Parks are significantly more canine-friendly than their American counterparts. Lake Louise, Lake Agnes, Lake Minnewanka—all offer incredible views and boating of every kind (even the commercial scenic tours are dog-friendly). As for those first-class accommodations—splurge and stay at the historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel, old-style luxury that welcomes four-footed guests.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
No-fee housesitting is a boon for the adventurous animal lover.
Dot, my new roommate, and I just returned from a walk in the woods around the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While I stumbled over roots, Dot reveled in the fresh smells of a muddy creek bed, hid behind me when approached by a large dog and snuffled with delight through a pile of pine needles.
Dot is a 10-pound Jack Russell named for the single brown splotch on her right hip. I moved into her home two weeks ago, settling in for a six-month stay. Her people—Shari and Mark—are exploring India and I’m occupying their house while they’re away as part of a year-long house-sitting adventure, moving around the country in search of a permanent location.
It’s a no-cash exchange that suits all of us. I get to stay in their lovely home with its wraparound porch and wood-burning stove while becoming more familiar with this part of the country. They can rest easy knowing that their property and companion animals are well cared for. Best of all, Dot and her three feline buddies are able to remain at home in familiar surroundings.
We’re part of the new sharing economy energized by the Internet. Sure, house-swapping has been around for decades, but the Internet allows homeowners and house sitters to connect much more easily. The desire for in-home pet care is the major factor driving the trend.
“The most important thing to most homeowners is that they have happy pets cared for at home,” says Andy Peck, founder of the London-based TrustedHouseSitters.com, one of the websites I’ve used to find assignments. “Eighty percent of the people looking for a house sitter have pets. More and more people don’t want to use kennels.
“It’s a win for both parties. The sitter goes the extra mile—it’s not liking asking a reluctant nephew to do the job. And a lot of people genuinely love looking after pets while having a ‘staycation’ in a great place, a vacation where they can live like a local.”
North Carolina was my third house-sitting assignment in 2014. I spent 10 weeks in the spring in Bethesda, Md., and two months during the summer in Santa Barbara, Cal. After talking with Shari via Skype, I drove from Bethesda to Chapel Hill to meet her and her husband. In-person meetings aren’t necessarily the norm; Peck says that between Skype interviews and reference checks, many homeowners know more about their house sitters than they know about their neighbors. But in my case, the visit sealed the deal, primarily because Dot took to me at once. Within days of my arrival, she was giving me a nightly signal that it was time for us to repair to the bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed next to mine.
References definitely play a part. On TrustedHouseSitters.com, for example, they’re sent directly from the homeowner to the website; the sitter doesn’t have the opportunity to modify them. Some sitters also provide police background checks. However they’re handled, responsibility for checking references belongs solely to the homeowners, and snafus are not unknown. A sitter or homeowner can cancel at the last minute, leaving both parties in the lurch.
Some match-ups are better than others. I read listings carefully, looking for clues to the homeowner’s personality and expectations. One listing, for example, sought a sitter with an “alpha personality” to deal with their dogs. Not me! And sometimes, it’s the homeowners who are unreliable, as a friend discovered when she accepted a month-long assignment and the electricity was turned off for non-payment the first week she was there.
Assignments range from a few days to a few weeks, or as long as a year, and the listings are often mini-biographies that, though brief, reflect the homeowners’ love of their dogs.
“We are in our very early 70s and would like to go to the UK to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with friends and family,” wrote a French couple recently, looking for house sitters for a week. “Both of our dogs are rescue dogs and we are reluctant to place them in kennels. … We live in a large renovated farmhouse with pool. No neighbors, but not isolated.”
Another couple wrote: “We live in Southwest Calgary, about a half hour from the downtown core. We are looking for someone to feed our dogs and give them lots of attention as well as take care of our home, water plants, etc.”
That listing (which, by the way, also mentioned wi-fi, cable television, a home gym and an infrared sauna as well as proximity to ski areas) included pictures of a doleful English bulldog, Ginger, and a very perky Coton de Tulear named Willow. Browsing the pet photos alone is enough to make me smile.
House sitters and homeowners alike tend to be baby boomers who want to indulge their lust for travel, says Peck. These no-fee house-sitting arrangements significantly cut the costs of travel for both, allowing them to fulfill their dreams of traveling during retirement. Not to mention that some assignments involve staying in luxurious properties—sometimes quite decadent luxury.
Ocean-view estates in Costa Rica; country mansions in Great Britain; and apartments in New York, London, Paris and San Francisco are frequently among the thousand-plus listings in 60 countries on TrustedHouseSitters.com and other sites. There are always lots of listings for Australia, New Zealand and Canada; house sitters just have to keep local weather in mind. Australians flee their country during its torrid summers, while Canada has the most listings during the winter months (great if you’re a skier).
Everyone whose home I’ve cared for has introduced me to friends and neighbors. Interacting with locals makes for a more personal experience, sometimes one that’s life-changing.
“We got a letter from a widow who said she decided she could travel on her own as a house sitter because she would have the companionship of the homeowner’s dog,” Peck recalls. “She was out walking the dog and got invited around for coffee with a neighbor—they are now romantic partners. She found love through housesitting.”
Dog's Life: Humane
Partnerships that help alleviate animal suffering in popular resort areas.
Which of these things is not like the others? Sun, surf, sand, fruit drinks, stray dogs. While on the surface, the last is the odd-dog out, the truth is that in many tropical vacation paradises, emaciated, mange-afflicted and lonely canines (and felines) roam the beaches, alleys and streets in heartbreaking numbers.
Among the humane groups that have sprung up to address this situation is Cats and Dogs International (CANDi), whose mission is “to save the lives of stray cats and dogs in Mexico and the Caribbean through spay, neuter, adoption and educational programs, supported and funded by the tourism industry, travelers and pet lovers.”
CANDi was founded by Canadian Darci Galati, an avid traveler and natural-born entrepreneur, who was inspired by her daughters’ concern for the strays they saw while vacationing in Cancun, Mexico. The girls would do what they could for the animals they saw wandering the streets and beaches, but knew that when they left, these dogs and cats would once again be on their own. Galati made her daughters a promise that she would do something to make the animals’ situations better, and CANDi was born.
The group has no brick-and-mortar shelters of its own, but rather, enlists what it calls “humane partners,” local rescue groups that have charitable status, a substantial and active volunteer base, and a focus on spay/neuter and other prevention work, as well as documented recordkeeping and administrative capacities.
At first, CANDi sponsored free spay/neuter clinics, which became wildly popular with local dog and cat owners, who would line up early on clinic days to have their pets altered. Galati then decided to kick it up a notch—to find a way to address the larger systemic problems by involving those who benefit financially from the tourist trade: hotels, resorts and airlines.
This was an area Galati knew well. Founder of an interline travel company that went on to become one of the largest in the UK and North America, she knew how the tourism industry worked, and how much it depended on the good will of those who enjoyed it. She was determined to parlay that knowledge into a model that would benefit animals in need.
For example, with the group’s “Make a Difference” program, participating hotels invite guests to add the equivalent of $1 per night to their bill at checkout, with the money going to help CANDi provide clinics and educational programs in the local community. While guests are under no obligation to sign up, CANDi’s research indicates that about 75 percent of them elect to take part in this fund-raising activity.
Finding adoptive homes for animals in need locally is another primary activity, but the group also reaches out to the international community, both as adopters and as travel partners to transport dogs and cats to new homes in Canada and the U.S. Currently, ACTA (the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies), Air Transat, CEO Mexico and RIU Hotels and Resorts are actively working with CANDi in support of its mission.
In her work with CANDi, photographer, volunteer and board member Tracey Buyce has had numerous experiences with local communities, and understands the struggle many have just to feed and house their families. According to Buyce, people tend to be judgmental about the animal situation in, for example, Mexico, assuming that the local people are just neglectful. “The reality is, as I spent more time in these areas, I realized that these neighborhoods are filled with people who do love their animals, but have absolutely no means to care for them.” This is the gap that CANDi helps fill.
Buyce’s introduction to the issue also came during a Cancun sojourn. As she and her husband were taking a moonlit stroll on the beach, they encountered a starving stray and her equally malnourished puppy. Not knowing what else to do, Buyce shared her dessert with the dogs, but the encounter shook her. Once she returned home, she began an online search for animal rescue groups working in the area, and found CANDi.
When asked what individual travelers can do to assist, Buyce had several straightforward suggestions: “As a tourist, if you see a stray animal in need, feed that animal; if possible, take it to a vet and have it spayed or neutered. If you fall in love, bring the dog or cat home. There is no quarantine period when entering the U.S. or Canada from Mexico, and it’s very easy to do. Not traveling? Donating just $25 to CANDi can save a dog’s life. And, of course, volunteer.”
Read more about Tracey Buyce’s experiences in our interview.
Dog's Life: Travel
Go west, and take your dog along.
Hankering for a taste of the Old West? Want to take your canine companion along on a fun-filled and unique summer vacation? Consider a dog-friendly dude ranch. More dude ranches—or guest ranches, as most are now called—are catering to those of us who can’t imagine a vacation without our dogs. Each has different rules and expectations for dogs, so contact any ranch you’re considering visiting and speak to them about the specifics of their dog-friendly policy before setting out, and ask about extra fees. Make sure you and your dog will enjoy the setting; you want a fun, yet safe, stay.
There’s something so elemental and special about heading down a trail on horseback, your dog happily trotting alongside. If your dog is fit and well-behaved, and won’t chase the horses or wildlife, he or she is the perfect dude ranch candidate. Even the older, more retiring canine can still enjoy these ranches, staying behind while you ride, joining you later for a swim or stroll, far from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Don’t ride horses? That’s fine; most guest ranches offer a multitude of activities, from fly fishing and rock climbing to hiking or hanging out by the lake or pool. You might even learn to square dance! And don’t forget the down-home, family-style meals.
Flying U Guest Ranch Situated in British Columbia’s gorgeous Cariboo region, the Flying U is the only guest ranch in North America that allows unsupervised riding on 40,000 acres of aspen-dotted forests and meadows. Well-mannered dogs are welcome, off leash, in the cabin and lodge area as well as on your rides. This rustic yet comfortable resort also offers canoeing, swimming and fishing. Recently purchased by Mauritz and Enka from South Africa, the dog-friendly policy will continue. (Read about the author’s 2004 visit here.)
Sundance Trail Guest Ranch At this relaxed high-country getaway, set at 8,000 feet near Red Feather Lakes, Colo., canine guests may be off-leash as long as they get along with kids, horses, goats, sheep and other dogs. While trail rides here are supervised, owner Ellen Morin says, “We’re not a nose-to-tail outfit. Groups are small—no more than five riders per wrangler,” so each group rides at its own best pace. Is your dog a little pokey? Borrow a crate and let him snooze safely in your room while you’re riding.
The Resort at Paws Up If you and your canine companion are looking for a few days of pampering, this is the place. Located in the Clearwater Valley outside of Missoula, Mont., this resort offers wilderness rides, fly fishing, rafting and mountain biking. Try glamping—glamorous camping—featuring five-star amenities in a huge canvas tent! Dogs inspired the resort’s name, so of course they’re welcome, indulged with the “last best doggie bed” and their own stylish Paws Up collar and leash.
At the end of your dude ranch stay, all of your cheeks will be sore—those on your butt from bouncing in the saddle, and those on your face from grinning ear to ear as you watch your dog have the time of her life.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Travel provides opportunity
My dog life is very America-centric. I have not owned dogs anywhere but in this country, nor have I taught dog training classes elsewhere. Except for the occasional seminar in Canada and some ad hoc consultations in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, my canine experiences are confined to the United States.
This summer promises many lessons because my family will be spending the entire season in Western Europe. So far, what I know about dogs in that part of the world is that they are not spayed and neutered at nearly the rate of dogs here, there is some evidence that they live a little longer, and they are rarely vaccinated against rabies because that disease has been essentially eradicated in the region. I also know that a lot of canine research is currently being conducted in Europe.
Based on the limited level of knowledge that is my starting point, it is exceedingly likely that I will be getting quite an education during our travels. I look forward to everything from observing how people interact with their dogs in different countries to meeting new breeds to seeing how dogs behave in public and what is expected of them.
For those of you who have personal experience with dogs in Europe, please tell me what pleasures you expect await me. All advice about observing and enjoying dogs in countries that are (mostly) new to me is welcome!
I’ll be spending a month each in Scotland and Germany, plus making short excursions to Ireland, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and possibly Poland. The trip is for my husband’s work, and we expect him to be busy. That puts me on full-time duty as recreation director for our kids. I’ve never taken such a long hiatus from work (not even after the births of the children) so this promises to be a new experience. I will miss, among many other aspects of my professional life, blogging here for The Bark. I’m already looking forward to resuming that when we return in August!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Should your dog come with you?
My family visited Yosemite National Park over spring break this year, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that a large number of families brought their dogs along on their vacations. Of course, I’m completely accustomed to people traveling with their canine family members, but I haven’t been to Yosemite since I was a child, and things seem to have changed. While there are still a lot of limitations on dogs in our national parks, it is easier to bring them along than it used to be.
In Yosemite, dogs are allowed in developed areas, on paved trails unless signs specifically indicate that they’re not allowed and in most campgrounds. They are only allowed on the floor of Yosemite Valley, which means that they can’t go on the vast majority of hikes in the park, since most of them involve hiking up towards waterfalls or to reach various lookouts. They can walk to the bottom of Yosemite Falls, which is certainly a classic Yosemite experience. Dogs have to be in a crate or on a leash no longer than 6 feet in length at all times, and are not allowed inside buildings.
If you are considering taking your dog on a trip to a national park, do your research first to decide if it’s the best plan for you and your family. Of course, all the reasons to take your dog with you are obvious. It’s great to have them with you, and it’s often no fun to leave them behind—for them or for you. On the other hand, bringing your dog will limit what you can do considerably. If you want a few easy walks in the park or will mainly be driving and enjoying the park from lookouts or in a campground, then a dog-inclusive vacation will likely suit you. If you want to explore remote regions of the park or hike the most scenic trails, your dog will be a barrier to that experience.
It’s worth considering the risks to your dogs of coming along with you to a national park. The danger of attack by wild animal or contracting contagious diseases from wildlife are relatively small, but it’s worth assessing that risk for the particular park you have in mind. Fleas and ticks are a concern as they are in all wild areas, so a prevention plan is important. More likely to be a problem for some dogs is being uncomfortable in a new area. If your dog is a happy-go-lucky type who is completely content in any situation as long as you and the food are around, then this is not an issue. If your dog struggles with new situations and places or in the presence of strangers, the national parks and the crowds they involve may make the vacation stressful for your dog.
The dog friendliness of national parks varies considerably, and only a few welcome dogs wholeheartedly. Yosemite is probably at the lower end for canine opportunities, but Acadia National Park allows dogs almost everywhere, including all trails except those few with ladders or other obstacles. Similarly, Shenandoah National Park allows dogs on over 95% of its trails, and the restricted ones all require rock climbing or other challenges.
Has your dog vacationed in a national park?
Dog's Life: Travel
Florida attracts visitors year round, but the winter and spring seasons are especially inviting. On the northeastern shoreline—known as the “quiet side”—Palm Coast and Flagler County deserve special mention for their dog-friendliness. This stretch of oceanfront has a laid-back, smalltown flavor; unlike other coastal areas, the beaches are uncluttered by cars or buildings—no high-rise hotels here! Hiking opportunities abound, with more than 100 miles of trails. Plus, the longest designated scenic highway on the East Coast—the A1A Scenic Coastal Highway—passes through, so there’s always a reason to take a ride and see the sights. The tourism folks offer other tips on planning your “dog-cation,” with a list of activities that includes paddle boarding; hikes along the eight-mile-long Lehigh Trail (part of an abandoned 195-acre railroad corridor); and visits to the popular Wadsworth Park, where you can meet up with the locals at its fenced dog park, which has separate areas for large and small dogs. A must-stop for nature enthusiasts is the 1,500-acre Princess Place Preserve in the northern part of the county. Its many scenic viewpoints provide lots of places to catch a sunset. (Wild hogs and alligators also call it home, so best to keep your pup on leash.) Among the affordable accommodations with dog-welcoming policies are Whale Watch Motel and Fairfield Inn and Suites. Or, if you’re interested in private rentals, try vacationrental pros.com; for camping recommendations, check floridastateparks.org. For good eats, there’s Johnny D’s Beach Bar & Grill, Flagler Fish Company or the High Tides at Snack Jacks. Finally, make it a point to stop by the Bark Spot, the local dog boutique. Palmcoastandtheflaglerbeaches.com
Dog's Life: Travel
A magical late-winter carnival in Rottweil, Germany.
Cradling mugs of ale and sporting goofy grins, the citizenry of Rottweil in southwestern Germany weave through the streets, planting kisses on one another’s cold cheeks and hooting in a cartoon falsetto, like crazed owls: “Hu-hu-hu! Hu-hu-hu!” I clutch a cup of steamy, sweet glüwein (mulled wine) and join the tradition, hu-hu-ing until I’m hoarse, relieved that, for the moment, my lousy German doesn’t matter.
I’m here for Narrensprung, or Fools’ Jump. In this storybook town at the edge of the Black Forest, Swabian rituals of Carnival have changed little over the centuries—handily holding their own against the commercial spectacles of big cities.
Founded by the Romans in 73 A.D. as a military outpost and trading center, Rottweil’s heritage shows in its tidy prosperity; ruins of temples and baths; and famous export and namesake, the Rottweiler, a sturdy canine descended from herding dogs bred by Roman cattle farmers. As the settlement evolved, so too did the role of Rottweilers, who became draft animals and butchers’ shop companions.
“Ich bin ein Rottweiler” is the bumpersticker of choice. Garlands of yellow and black, the official town colors, are draped across storefronts and lamposts. Lifesize plastic Rottweilers guard doors, plush toy Rotties stare from windows.
Narrensprung’s pagan roots are augmented by Catholic pre-Lenten fervor. Winter and its cold spirits must be expelled, and so after a formal declaration, the icy cobbled streets fill with celebrants eager to witness a grand procession of narren, or “fools,” in kaleidoscopically colored costumes and hand-carved masks, most of which have been handed down through generations of families.
Each narren does his part: the Benner Rössle prance astride hobbyhorses; the Gschell toss candy and clank their bocce-ball-sized metal bells in a thumping rhythm. The Guller, a lone strutting rooster, represents fertility.
I’m temporarily blinded by a mass of stinky-sweet horsehair dangled across my face. Grunting lecherously, a Federahannes dusts my winter away with a long tufted pole. Just as suddenly, he balances on the pole and vaults above us all, feathered cape flying: a jumping fool.
There are Boxers, Beagles, Labs and Bernese Mountain Dogs among the spectators, but curiously, no Rottweilers. Outside the Konditorei (pastry shop), a clutch of revelers disguised as rabbits and frogs chat with a woman swathed in fox who’s tethered to a giant Standard Poodle.
“Where are the Rottweilers?” I chance asking this stranger.
We discover that we share the name Erika, and are immediately comfortable. Her English makes my German unnecessary, allowing us—encircled by a frenzy of hu-hu-ing—to talk. “Shouldn’t Rottweilers be part of Narrensprung? Can I meet one not made of plastic?” I ask.
Erika pauses, then leans toward me and whispers, “There are puppies.” Soon, I’m a passenger in her car, circling Rottweil’s outer reaches on a quest.
We find the house, festooned in yellow and black and with an etched profile of a Rottweiler on the door. Eminent breeder and trainer Bernhard Schwabe’s place is chockablock with Rottie statues and Carnival regalia, not to mention dogs. Two stately canines snooze by the fireplace; their eight fuzzy offspring, squirming under heat lamps, are already promised to families. One of the Rotties approaches and rests his blocky head in my lap.
Over coffee, Erika translates as Bernhard expounds about the history of Narrensprung, and his beloved dogs. He shows us his Federahannes mask, but seems most proud of a faded photo that captures him parading in a butcher’s costume, flanked by a Rottweiler pulling an antique cart of yellow flowers.
For this moment, issues of breed discrimination, overpopulation and rescue societies are a world away.
Back in town, Benner Rössle prance and crack their whips into the night as the ritual winds down. Masks are lowered and folks retreat to the warmth of the gasthaus (inn). The old magic must have worked, because spring arrived in the Black Forest soon afterward.
Dog's Life: Travel
Volunteering at Hetta Huskies in Finnish Lapland
It’s hard to believe that this time a year ago, I was fumbling in the pre-dawn darkness, pulling on multiple thermal layers to face the Arctic weather and more than 100 spirited, vocal sled dogs. I never knew what each day would hold–breaking up fearsome fights, marking trails, checking stock, giving medication or butchering fresh meat for evening meals. I’ve held demanding jobs in my life, including time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Central Africa, but tackling a three-month volunteer stint at Hetta Huskies high in Finnish Lapland pushed me to my limits. However, despite the daily mélange of euphoria, anxiety, pride and anger, I emerged victorious. And I brought home a Husky to prove it!
My time with Hetta Huskies was part of what turned out to be an almost two-year-long backpacking trip around the world with my husband, Steve Aguirre. Our bold decision to undertake a shared epic journey was precipitated by a year of loss. In 2011, my best friend was viciously murdered, and our beloved dog was hit and killed by a car. Every two months, it seemed, there was a new trauma. We finally realized that life really is too short; if we didn’t leave soon, we may not have the chance later.
Before we knew it, we had walked away from our jobs and said goodbye to friends, family and favorite San Diegan locales. We started in Guatemala and wove our way overland through Central and South America, flew to New Zealand, then up to Thailand, Dubai, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia and the Ukraine before zigzagging through Eastern Europe, up to Finland and over to the Netherlands. We rounded out our trip by wending through the UK. In total, over the course of 20 months, we visited 27 countries and five continents. We also relied heavily on Workaway opportunities, in which hosts provide full room and board in exchange for daily volunteer work. As the Workaway site describes it, the swap was simple: “a few hours honest help per day in exchange for food and accommodation and an opportunity to learn about the local lifestyle and community, with friendly hosts in varying situations and surroundings.”
All 19 of our Workaway experiences were transformational in their own ways, but the one that had the most impact also happened to be the most grueling and beautiful. While still in San Diego, I clicked through possible Workaway experiences and happened upon a sled dog farm in remote Finnish Lapland. One of the pictures accompanying the lengthy list of volunteer expectations and requirements was a close up of a blue-eyed puffball of a Husky puppy, which I promptly emailed to Steve with the subject line “This is what you could be looking at instead of spreadsheets…” We’re both wild about dogs, and we knew that a stint with Hetta Huskies was definitely in the cards.
Thus, in September 2013, we found ourselves in the tiny reindeer herding village of Hetta, 130 miles above the Arctic Circle, after 17 hours of travel via train and bus. Hetta Huskies is owned by two former professional athletes and explorers, Finn Pasi Ikonen and Brit Anna McCormack. Our bosses expected a consistently high level of professionalism and perfection.
At 32, Steve and I were among the oldest in the group, which consisted of as many as 16 volunteers living dorm style, sleeping in bunk beds and sharing a toilet, shower, living area and kitchen. Cooking and cleaning duties were unofficially rotated, and every night, four to five dogs from the farm would spend the night with us for either medical or socialization purposes.
We were in charge of 116 howling, furry, excitable powerhouse work dogs (and 86 at Valimaa, a second farm) who needed daily care. Our work days were at least 12 hours with a half-hour lunch, and we worked between six and nine days in a row before we had a day off. Daily tasks included administering medication, prepping, delivering and cleaning up the dogs’ food, groundwork maintenance (refilling holes, raking running circles near the kennels, making sure there were no tree roots to tangle the chains), heat checks for the females, cage repair, taking sled teams on practice runs, giving tours to tourists, data entry and a litany of other tasks that seemed to spring up daily. Because this work is so serious, Hetta Huskies has systems and trainings that rival those in any corporate setting.
As mentioned, we also spent time at Valimaa, which Hetta Huskies had been contracted to oversee for another company. The setup there was a bit more primitive and remote, and the dogs themselves needed a little extra love and attention, since they were a bit wilder and more likely to be afraid of humans than the Hetta dogs.
At Valimaa on one memorable evening in February, I spotted a pulsating green aura and my heart jumped into my throat—it was the aurora borealis, the northern lights, live and in otherworldly greens! As Steve and I lay on the frozen ground, inhaling the frigid night air and looking up at the amazing sight, a sonorous canine chorus rose up and enveloped us in the moment. It was pure magic. For more than a half hour, we were transfixed by the celestial show.
The night before we left Hetta, Steve and I took out the first sleds of the season. We flew across the frozen tundra under a fiery sorbet sunset behind exuberant teams of canine dynamos—dogs who love nothing more than the feel of snow under their feet. That single moment made the aching bones, stress, lack of sleep and paltry food all worth it. In fact, our time in Hetta so defined our world trip that we decided to go for the ultimate keepsake in the form of a three-year-old female named Theta. Her Dalmatian-spotted ears and black mask had charmed me at first sight. When we learned she was available for adoption, we did the research and discovered that it would be neither expensive nor complicated to bring her home.
After departing Hetta Huskies and making our way through the UK for a few more months, we finished our adventures back in Helsinki, where we collected Theta and boarded the first of three planes that would take all three of us back to Colorado. Theta adapted quickly to her new situation, which included everything from a name change (after seeing her run and pounce in the snow, we re-christened her Naali, which means “Arctic fox” in Finnish) to playing with toys for the first time. And during a road trip to San Diego, she took her first dip in the Pacific Ocean—a big step for a dog who had never seen open water in her life.
Nowadays, our little family indulges in a group howl before work in honor of the pack mentality, and we delight in taking Naali to the dog park (where she gravitates toward other Huskies) and giving her lots of belly rubs after long runs on a skijoring line to simulate her sled-pulling days. Though Naali has decided that laughter and the television aren’t threats, the jury’s still out on parked cars and the sound of compressed air. She’s also learned that cute behavior leads to more cuddles and treats. As we work on our own re-acclimatization to post-trip life, she’s proven to be a welcome distraction.
We’ve never had a moment’s regret about our decision to throw caution to the wind and embark upon the most epic adventure we’ve shared to date. I’m also reminded of our adventures by the best trip memento we could have asked for: Naali, our very own living slice of Arctic Scandinavia.
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