I recognized the doubt rooted deep in Charlotte’s eyes as I answered her question. I knew that look well; it had been plastered all over my face just three short weeks earlier.
“There are so many of them. How do you remember all of the names?”
“I…well…it’s actually pretty easy. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but you’ll get it…I promise.”
Eyes wide, brows raised, she stared at the 60 Siberian Huskies plus three Finnish Lapphunds waiting to be fed at Usvatanssin Kennel. Sixty three energetic pairs of eyes stared back at her, tails wagging in expectation. Another familiar look crossed her face: Yeah right.
It’s funny. I can’t recall the moment it clicked, the moment each dog transitioned from an impersonal description (the huge, black fluffy one) to a name with an individual personality (Jahken, who might seem a little…intimidating at first because he gets a wee bit over excited about pretty much everything, but he’s really just a happy, huggable, lovable bear of a puppy dog); the moment the kennel magically transformed from a never-ending sea of identical dogs, into an outdoor home of my friends and companions who couldn’t be more different from one another. It just…happened.
I’ve been accidentally pawed in the face by dogs extremely excited to get harnessed, head-butted by even more excited, oh-so-ready-to-run dogs hooked up to the gang line, bitten on the hand breaking up puppy arguments, and tackled to the ground with sloppy kisses and full body hugs. My arm has been twisted in directions only Barbie should twist, yanked around by energetic, happy dogs walking to the line, my pinky looks broken from who knows what, my back is on fire from daily poop scooping and minced meat handling, my ass has the pleasure of serving as kindling, my forearms have these weird bulging muscles that I am pretty sure don’t exist outside of Finland, my entire body is littered with ugly bruises from ungracefully falling into Jaana’s sled during puppy training, my fingers might be experiencing an early onset of arthritis, and my face has been slobbered on by all 60 huskies. I’ve made sure of that.
And somehow, during the excitement and the gaps in between, I suddenly knew every husky at Usvatanssin Kennel.
Dogs, much like people, are so much more than their appearance, and the more time you spend with them, the more you get to know them. You learn their pre and post dinner dances: Peanut runs circles around you while Pepper hides in the house, Monty tries to distract you with his loud bark and piercing pale blue eyes in efforts to steal a few biscuits from the bucket, Iinna and Iisku bounce back and forth on their front paws in can’t-take-it-any-longer anticipation, O’Bark and Onni become living pogo-sticks, Orabella turns into the biggest, squeakiest mouse in the world and Iduna howls like Michael Jackson until she is fed, while Ivan and Flame taught their boys, Loiste and Liekki, to wait patiently (aside from a few welcomed kisses) until you place their bowl in front of them. Sixty huskies, with 60 different You’ve Got Food!? reactions. You quickly discover who you need to watch whilst feeding, who tries to steal from whom, who the master escape artists are, and who wants cuddles even more than kibble.
And that’s just from feeding.
Preparing the dogs to run, you get to know them on a whole new level. You figure out which dogs are “safe” to harness first, and which special ones to save for last to avoid blown ear drums and excited scuffles. Often put out first, Sigga and her girls Gina, Greta and Ginger are nothing but ladies as they wait on the line. Sirius and Seemi, the kennel mascots, step expertly into their harnesses and saunter over to join them, rolling over on their backs, pawing at the air for a belly rub (I dare you to resist). Old man Kilimoja and Hapsu, the biggest husky in the kennel, walk patiently to the wheel position and sit relatively quietly, like the professionals they are (even professionals have their days). At lead, Flame and Hyrrä set the perfect example for all of the young dogs behind them, as they sit and stare straight ahead, internalizing their excitement, saving every bit of energy for the run.
And then there are the “special” dogs. Jompa (Chompa) and Julja will chew you out of house and home, harness and rope, the moment you turn your head, even if you swear it was only for a second. I am pretty sure sweet little Iinna’s main goal in life is to see how many times she can wriggle out of her harness before you get the whole team ready to run. Whether harnessed on the gang line or left in the kennel, Juoksa and his sister Juoksahkka howl with anticipation to run, or disappointment at being left behind. Hiutale barks and lunges forward, throwing his whole body into the air, wanting so badly to show off his excellent running skills, while next to him, Sievä leans as far away as possible in her own world, pretending she’s the only dog out there. Janihta’s entire face is drenched with slobber before you even think about tugging your anchor line, as her mouth will not close or quiet until her body is running as fast as her legs can carry her.
And when you run with the dogs, well then, you see their souls.
To say these Siberians are born to run would not only be a cliché, but an understatement. For all of the excitement while anchored to the tree, the moment you release the dogs, all goes quiet, all but the sound of the sled gliding on snow. I had the privilege of running with the Q puppies in a team for the very first time. While some things can be taught (the correct way to wait on the gang line, how to behave while being harnessed, etc.), the love for running is something that comes from inside of them, something so strong and uncontrollable, it oozes out of their hearts, through their body and out the bottom of their paws. I watched in amazement as Quantum, Quest and Quasar fell into a happy rhythm next to mom Souhpan and dad Hÿrra, as if they’d been running in a team for years, tug lines tight, ears back, tails down, tongues swinging side to side. And huge smiles on their faces. Finally, they seemed to say.
My experience here is nearly impossible to put into words, but maybe this video put together by previous volunteers will help. I’ve called Usvatanssin Kennel home for just over a month now. But I clearly remember my second day, as I stood outside the kennel, staring at the never-ending sea of identical dogs with unpronounceable names, with that same look of doubt I caught in Charlotte’s eyes. I took a deep breath and glanced at Jaana.
“Okay. I can do this,” I exhaled, not really believing myself.
Jaana replied, unconcerned, as she’d seen that doubt countless times. “Of course you can. Everyone else has.”
No pressure, Charlotte.