What do sled dogs have to do with me?

Segundo Llorente was a Jesuit priest who spent 40 years as a missionary in some of the remotest parts of Alaska. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to spend such a long time in such a cold climate with some of the toughest people to evangelize, solely for love of God and souls. 

In one of his books, 40 Years in the Polar Circle (only in Spanish unfortunately), he has a chapter dedicated to talking about his experience with sled dogs. He says, “In the countless hours that I have spent sledding in the solitude of the snowy tundra, I have not been able to do less than study the tricks and good and bad qualities of dogs.” He was struck at the great resemblance they have to us, for, “far from being all the same, each dog is a small world.” 

It’s true. His description of his neighbor Simon’s nine dogs that took him to and from wherever, whenever he needed to make a trip, has some important lessons that can help us grow in self-knowledge. The full description is definitely worthwhile.

Click on the topics below for more. 

Segundo Llorente was a Jesuit priest who spent 40 years as a missionary in some of the remotest parts of Alaska. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to spend such a long time in such a cold climate with some of the toughest people to evangelize, solely for love of God and souls. 

In one of his books, 40 Years in the Polar Circle (only in Spanish unfortunately), he has a chapter dedicated to talking about his experience with sled dogs. He says, “In the countless hours that I have spent sledding in the solitude of the snowy tundra, I have not been able to do less than study the tricks and good and bad qualities of dogs.” He was struck at the great resemblance they have to us, for, “far from being all the same, each dog is a small world.” 

It’s true. His description of his neighbor Simon’s nine dogs that took him to and from wherever, whenever he needed to make a trip, has some important lessons that can help us grow in self-knowledge. The full description is definitely worthwhile.

Click on the topics below for more. 

Pinto, the leader

Pinto, the leader

Pinto is cunning, accurate, sagacious, all abuzz. He knows how to play the fox, act unaware and even deaf when he does not want to hear. He knows how to act as if he were tired; but when he seems to be the deadest, he gets going like a wild bull as though a fox or a rabbit crossed his path. He knows how to pace himself, and neither kills himself by pulling too hard nor slacking too much.

He’s an expert at improvisation. If a puddle, a bush, soft and deep snow, slippery ice or whatever comes his way, Pinto instinctively throws himself to the easiest or safest thing without ever failing. 

When we meet another sled on our way that comes in our direction, Pinto abandons all the canine instincts of fight and turns to one side, dragging behind him the others that bark and struggle to throw themselves into the fight.

To be sure not to fall into temptation, he begins to stray long before the encounter. He knows that if he kills the evil thought at the root, he never reaches the bad deed. 

There have been some famous Alaskan lead dogs that did not sell for a thousand dollars. A good leader saves your life. Pinto, without being extraordinary, is a colossal dog. His qualities of government are unquestionable. In his same bearing he looks bossy and haughty. 

He always knows where he is going and how to get there. He knows all the shortcuts. When he disagrees with his owner, he does everything possible to get his way and only gives in to greater force. 

If he were a man, Pinto would start by being a banker and would end up being prime minister, or at least governor of a very important province.

Lion and Tiger

Lion and Tiger

Behind Pinto come two ten-month-old puppies, twin brothers, named Lion and Tiger. 

A little bit reckless, innocent, bullies, light on their feet and paws, they follow Pinto blindly like two recruits to a sergeant. Simon puts them immediately behind the leader because they are light and are hot on Pinto's heels, making it easier for him to maneuver quickly. In addition, Simon wants to look for Pinto's successor.

It is advisable that there are at least two dogs trained to guide, to avoid any eventualities.

The two puppies, by dint of seeing Pinto perform, will learn his skills and will be able to demonstrate whether or not they both or at least one of them have the qualities of leaders. If they have them, they will be promoted to leaders; if not, they will be placed among the others with no hope of promotion. Lion seems to be a little more alert and less fickle. 

If they were men, today Lion and Tiger would be apprentices for road managers.

Wolf and Cinnamon

Wolf and Cinnamon

Behind these apprentices come Wolf and Cinnamon. 

Wolf is very handsome; tall, well-formed, he eats and drinks well, and is boastful. When a sled dog is too handsome and fat, it's a bad sign. Wolf, certainly pulls his weight, so to speak; but he does so with certain reluctance, without staining his hands or getting his fur ruffled, in the same way a western duke condemned to forced labor in Siberia would drag a wheelbarrow.

I have never seen him make an effort. Another thing: when we have to stop on our way, Wolf is one of the first to get impatient. He likes to travel. Since he doesn't carry much weight, he wants to travel at the expense of the others who carry the load. Wolf is quite lazy. 

If he were a man, he would be "Mister" with a capital "M".

Cinnamon is not distinguished by anything. He doesn't pull much or too little. He is neither big nor small, neither fat nor thin. He is neither stupid nor smart, neither handsome nor ugly, neither young nor old. He is neither choleric nor phlegmatic. I do not even know what color he is. Cinnamon is the common man that Horace abhorred; an ignored pedestrian of the formless masses that stamped on the streets and squares; one of so many who were born as if by chance, who lived without anyone noticing it, and died as if he had never lived.

If he were a man, Cinnamon would be comrade Pepe Juan Pérez García.

White and Red

White and Red

Then come White and Red.

White is a blessing from God; a sanguine if there is one. He’ll do anything for affection; that is why he is so sweet and loving. He is very optimistic. Born for social life, he pulls when others pull and slacks when others do. He has to see everything and walks around looking everywhere. He barks for no reason, but he does it nicely without rage or malice, just to draw attention to himself. Unable to contradict, he says yes to everything. If he is involved in a quarrel, he does not keep any resentment and forgets injustices at once. Of course, he is the last one to quarrel and does it only in self-defense and after exhausting all arguments of peace; but if he is forced to do so, he bites like everyone else and never goes wrong. White loves us all and we all love him.

If he were a man, White would be a journalist in charge of society’s news.

Red is something else. Red is not a bad dog – not at all! He pulls hard and he's the last one to get tired, but he’s a nervous wreck. He is tall and long like a greyhound; he walks squirming like an eel. He is always yelping, barking and howling. He walks on the tundra mourning and weeping, as the saying goes. As soon as we stop, he reboots and struggles to continue. There is no way to please him. During the night he barks for very long periods without anyone knowing to whom or why he is barking. He seems to be made of quicksilver. 

If he were a man, he would be a neurasthenic without friends, full of problems and psychological complexes, broken by doctors and confessors. Poor woman who would marry him!

Raposo and Loyal

Raposo and Loyal

Finally, the last two come: Raposo and Loyal, the opposite poles.

Raposo is what you call a bad dog. With a serious and scolding face, he's worse than a lazy man; he's a criminal. He is so devious that he has discovered the secret of living off of others. He knows that if he takes short steps and goes slowly, he can walk without carrying any load. And that is precisely what he does.

But he has even discovered that if he gently pulls backward, the other dogs will carry him in flight; and that is what he does. Not pulling forward is already a crime. Pulling backwards is a declaration of war.

If we call him names or throw snowballs to encourage him, he gets angry, lowers his ears and pulls less. He does not accept corrections. He knows exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it. 

I asked Simon why he didn't get rid of this dog. He answered that his presence would make the others believe that he was pulling the same as them, and then they would be encouraged to pull, believing that many of them were pulling. This fallacy gave rise to a lively discussion and I proved him wrong. It is not the number that matters, but the quality. A few good dogs pull more than many bad ones.

The story goes that the famous Haitian king, Christophe, after finishing the famous citadel on the inaccessible rocky slopes of a mountain surrounded by a virgin forest, sent two hundred men to bring up some very heavy canons. After several attempts, the two hundred men said they couldn’t, and that more men had to come to help them. 

When Christophe found out, he had half of them shot and ordered the rest to quickly bring the canons up. The remaining hundred, frightened by what had happened, spat on their hands to better grasp the rope and raised the cannons in a jiffy. 

Simon understood the moral, but replied that not all dogs will pull equally; which is unfortunately true, and it would be asking for a miracle that all pull as they should; but one must look for quality and select until they obtain what they are looking for.

Raposo is a mature dog. He eats, drinks, sleeps and has no excuse not to pull. If he wanted to, he could pull like the rest. Each one is what he wants to be. When we propose something seriously, sooner or later we get it. We can do much more than we think. 

If he were a man, Raposo would be a prisoner who might end up on the gallows.

This canine Raposo also ended up badly. Simon believed me about the quality and, shortly before the thaw came, he shot him in the back of the head. Next autumn, God willing, we will travel with a Raposo's successor puppy. 

And with this we come to the last dog, Loyal, who’s just that and to a heroic degree. 

Loyal is a superior dog. Seeing him pull serves as points of meditation for me. The first thing that must be said about him is that he shoots to kill; that is to say, that he perfectly fulfills the purpose for which he was created. The answer to the question: which dog is the best for the sled? Is the cliché answer: the one that pulls the most.

To have pointed or droopy ears, to be one size or the other, to descend from Greenland or Siberia, to have the blood of a wolf or a coyote... all that doesn’t add to or take away, even though it can help. The ideal dog is the one that pulls.

Loyal is four years old, that is to say, he is in the prime of life. At the age of eight, a dog becomes too old for the sled. Loyal pulls with all his might always and without fainting. Sometimes the trail is easy, sometimes hard, sometimes long and sometimes short. The sled can be empty, semi-empty or overloaded. All that Loyal doesn’t care about. He knows that his job is to pull, and he pulls as if tiredness did not exist for him.

It seems that Loyal should have what we could call a bad day. One of those days when you wake up in a dog's mood and everything goes wrong. Days when there's no cake for the oven. Days, anyway, when the best thing you can do is to do nothing. Well, not for him. Loyal doesn't seem to have those days, and if he does, nobody notices. 

Loyal doesn't even bite or get angry. He unites meekness with dignity because no dog can get on Loyal’s bad side. All respect him. No one would think of him as a Juan Lanas, or a brutish beast of burden, or what is called a 'poor man'. None of that. Everyone knows that Loyal is perfectly aware of what he is doing. And even if he wanted to be lazy, he would never want to. Loyal is all goodness and performance.

If he were a man, Loyal would be a canonized saint. Holiness is continuous effort lubricated by the grace of God; rowing against wind and tide without demoralizing naps that leave one at half strength.

Simon tells me he gives Loyal more rations than other dogs, because if he gave him the same as others, he would be left a skeleton from so much pulling. How beautiful! Give and it shall be given to you. The more we give to God, the more He gives to us. God gives to a saint in one minute more than He gives to a non-holy man in one year.

What a pity that the nine dogs are not like Loyal! To the one who sees them from afar, it will seem that the nine dogs are the same or pull the same. But when you look closely, it's a different story. Of course, there is pleasure in variety, and God does not repeat Himself in any of His creatures. Seen properly, nine Loyals would end up being an unbearable monotony. 

The ordinary thing is that Simon drives the sled and I sit there until I need to warm up. Sitting or standing, or lying down, my eyes go as if by instinct to the nice Loyal, the gray dog with blue eyes that is like an open book that God puts before me so that I may learn from him – from Loyal – how to be a good missionary.