Starting Fresh - Again - By Introducing Conall

 Conall at four weeks old.

Conall at four weeks old.

After the horrible summer of 2013 when I said goodbye to both Maia and Meadow, Finn and I felt a bit lost and lonely. The house was much too quiet. I had too much time to spare, time that had been focused on caring for the girls.

In early 2014 I realized a dream and a goal: publishing my first book, a labor of love and tribute to my father and his colleagues in Boeing Flight Test titled Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter. After a flurry of book signings and presentations in the Seattle area, I return to Idaho full time in May. Having lived in Idaho from 2005 through 2008, then returning to Seattle to ride out the recession – following my father’s advice to not sell the Idaho house I’d worked so hard to build – I was able to put to rest any nagging doubts I had about the sagacity of relocating to Idaho. After spending another five years in Seattle-area traffic, noise and rain, having some close calls with unsavory humans and dogs, I knew I was happiest and safest in Idaho. The Idaho house and yard, though, seemed bigger without the girls, and certainly quieter, emptier.

When I adopted my Aussie Finn from an Idaho Border collie/Australian shepherd rescue the summer of 2008, I choose that breed because living in Idaho where wolves are feared and hated – and now legally hunted – made life with Malamutes stressful. I figured a ranch dog would blend in. But life held surprises for me, including moving back to Washington soon after getting Finn. Returning to Idaho for good in 2014, I told myself I wouldn’t get another Malamute because I feared someone would shoot it when we ran or walked in the forest, saying, “I thought it was a wolf.” Trust me, that has happened to many dog owners in Idaho and Montana since hunting wolves has been legalized. It keeps me on edge when I’m in the forest, especially during deer and elk hunting seasons, although wolf hunting season is nine months long in Idaho so really, there’s no safe time.

To temporarily fill the dog void both Finn and I were experiencing, I decided to do something I first did when Maia was a year old: foster a rescue Malamute. Back then, I was testing the idea of a second dog. I fostered three different young males over the course of several months, and Maia loved having them to play with. She bloomed as a dog, become more playful and social. I enjoyed having two dogs as well, watching them play together, so when Maia was two I added Meadow to our lives. I was a convert to the multiple-dog household idea.

Now, with Maia and Meadow gone, and plenty of space, including a fenced yard for dogs (a rare thing in this part of Idaho) I reached out to Moonsong Malamute Rescue in Boise. After checking out me and my home, and Finn, they allowed me to foster their dogs. First one, then another young male Mal-German shepherd mix came to stay for a few weeks before finding their new homes. They were delightful, especially the second one. I considered adopting him, but my fear about his wolf-like appearance – lean and long-legged, silver & black coat with the long shepherd nose that looks more wolf than dog – caused me to decline. The next foster was an older female Malamute, and while initially she and Finn got along well in the house and yard, the second day when Finn was playing and running in the yard, she nailed him, pinning him on his back. No physical harm was done, but the emotional toll on Finn and on me was more than I was willing to risk happening again. With heavy heart, I transported her to Boise so a new foster home could be found. That was hard.

 Riggs the Moonsong Malamute Rescue foster dog hiking on Brundage Mountain, August 2014.

Riggs the Moonsong Malamute Rescue foster dog hiking on Brundage Mountain, August 2014.

But the end result of these fostering experiences was this: I knew wanted a second dog, but I was going to get a puppy so that Finn would always be lead dog and safe, even after the puppy outgrew him. I also realized I really wanted – needed – another Malamute in my life, idiot hunters be damned. I refused to let my fear of them rule my life or my choices. I would simply have to be more protective and proactive, and warier, when venturing into the forest with my dogs.

After some searching I discovered a breeder in Colorado who wasn’t interested in breeding show dogs, but instead bred Malamutes as family pets and for pulling. She and her family brought the puppies inside to socialize them with people, furniture, and regular household noises; when outside, the puppies played with the other adult dogs. Their outdoor enclosure had natural obstacles like boulders and tree trunks for them to learn to navigate, and the adults had several acres on which to play and help socialize the puppies. When I contacted the breeder, she had two litters that were born days apart in December 2014; she steered me toward the litter with the more experienced mother. I decided I wanted another male dog. I was able to pick among the three males still available, based on photos taken when they were three weeks old.

 The photo at age three weeks, prompting me to choose Conall.

The photo at age three weeks, prompting me to choose Conall.

Since the breeder couldn’t know their personalities at such a young age, I found myself picking based on coat color (preferring gray over black) and the symmetry of face mask markings. People were already reserving pups so I couldn’t wait until they were older to choose; there wouldn’t be any left. I knew how silly my criteria was, but I hadn’t nothing else to go on. I was taking a leap of faith that this breeder was truly breeding for personality, not show criteria.

I chose a puppy, gave him the name Conall (meaning “strong wolf” in Gaelic), and arranged to pick him up when he was eight weeks old in late January, 2015. The breeder’s two teenage sons agreed to meet me halfway between their home in Colorado and mine in Idaho, in Ogden, Utah. That was a very long day for me and Finn, leaving before daylight to make the seven-hour winter drive and wait for the teens and Conall to arrive at the shopping mall we’d chosen for the rendezvous. I brought a small plastic dog crate that I’ve used with all my puppies so that Conall would be safe on the drive home. The teens were only 30 minutes late, and said they didn’t crate Conall in their car, that he rode in the back with the two-year-old female Malamute belonging to one of them. They said he never got car sick, a relief. I was handed a 14-pound bundle of warm fluff and it was instant love, at least on my part. I eventually put the squirming Conall down and he enjoyed walking on some grass, playing with the female Mal. When I held him as the teens loaded up and drove away, Conall became confused. When I put him in the crate in the back of my SUV to start the seven-hour return drive, Conall became very quiet. Finn – also in the back, uncrated – was curious and sniffed through the crate but otherwise kept his distance, almost as confused as Conall. I felt it best to have their first introduction be more controlled than in a strip mall parking lot, so meeting through the crate was it for now.

As I pulled back onto the highway, Conall remained quiet – for about 30 minutes. Then the crying started, a high-pitched howl only a Malamute puppy can emit. I tried talking to him, singing to him, hoping to reassure him, but he fell into a pattern of crying for 10-15 minutes, taking a five-minute break, then crying again. I remember looking in the rearview mirror at one point and seeing Finn giving me a pained look that said, “Can’t we take him back? Do we have to keep him? He’s loud!”

After a long drive with several stops to give Conall a break from the crate and Finn a break from the noise, we made it home just before midnight. Thankfully, Finn decided the puppy was mostly harmless, and certainly quieter, once in the house. We were all so exhausted that we actually got some sleep that night.

 Conall and Finn learning to play together in the yard, January 31, 2015.

Conall and Finn learning to play together in the yard, January 31, 2015.

The adventure that is Conall had begun. I’m happy to report that – three years later – Conall and Finn are best friends and allies, and get along wonderfully. I kick myself for not picking up this blog again when Conall came into our lives, to document the puppy-raising phase and all I’ve learned and relearned from Conall over the past three years. I’m sure, going forward, there will be reflections, anecdotes and photos from those “missing” three years. I’ve certainly got tons of photos, and lots of catching up to do.