Arthur was a bumbling brown 85-pound youngster when he taught me the wheelbarrow trick.
I was pushing an empty wheelbarrow past his picket when the bright-eyed husky indicated with an eager glance that maybe it would be a good idea if he tried to climb into it. I stopped my craft beside him.
“OK, Arthur,” I told him, mostly as a joke. “Up!”
Our dogs all know “up” means to jump onto a dog house. Arthur peered into the wheelbarrow and suddenly didn’t think jumping into it was such a bright idea. “It’s OK, Arthur. Up,” I encouraged, making a familiar sweeping gesture with my hand. I kept my tone casually inviting. It’s up to you; no big deal if he refused.
The big brown dog couldn’t resist. He tentatively stood on his hind legs and put his front feet into the wheelbarrow as I steadied it carefully. Rolling worried brown eyes at me, he hesitated. “Up!” I invited, and he jumped right in, gazing proudly around at the world from his new-found height.
“Good boy!” I shouted. Bracing the handles with my legs so the wheelbarrow could not tip, I praised and hugged Arthur enthusiastically. “What a good boy! Look at you!”
Well! That really went to his head! He wiggled gleefully, slapping me with his tongue.
Miki invites Kraki to learn the wheelbarrow trick. He’s not too sure, but with some encouragement he climbed in. Keeping the wheelbarrow from tipping over is imperative to the success of this exercise! Photo by Julie Collins 2006
Arthur’s brother Beau had been watching, and now he started hollering, wanting in on the action. When Arthur jumped out, I wheeled over to Beau. Being a little more intelligent than his brother, Beau viewed the wheelbarrow with considerable skepticism. But when Arthur started shouting about how he wanted to do the trick again, Beau eased himself cautiously into the curious craft. Even with generous praise he remained doubtful, soon hopping out.
Some of the young dogs wanted to know what the big deal was. I wheeled around the yard, inviting each dog to jump in. A few politely declined, but most scrambled in with just a little encouragement. They had seen Arthur get heaps of praise for doing so, and by golly if he could do it, they could do it. With a few days of observations and practice, every dog in the yard readily climbed in.
Why would any musher want to teach such a silly trick? Dogs genuinely fear climbing into an unstable object. They won’t do it if they don’t trust me. Holding the wheelbarrow so it doesn’t tip is critical to the success of this trick. Once they manage to overcome their fear, Wow! What a good dog! What a wonderful, brave, heroic dog!
The dog’s trust in me and my judgment is redoubled. He’s also so proud of himself that he wants to please me, no matter what. Get in the car? Ride in a dogsled? Stand on the vet’s table? Climb into a canoe? Easy, compared to that wheelbarrow!
Mushing out the trapline one spring day a few years after Arthur taught me the wheelbarrow trick, my dogs and I came to a creek opened by warm weather. Although only a few feet across, I didn’t really want to wade that waist-deep water. The dogs didn’t either.
I found a spot where underwater logs and shelf ice could support my long basket sled. Turning each of the eight dogs loose, I shoved the craft across, the long runners spanning the open water. Calling my big brown wheel dog I swept my hand toward the makeshift bridge. “Up, Arthur!”
Arthur wasn’t very bright, but he knew exactly what I intended. Just as importantly, he trusted me. Climbing atop my loaded sled, he tiptoed down its length, just above the water, and jumped off on the far side, quite pleased with himself. I called the others over. A few hesitated; others shouldered each other good-naturedly trying to go first. Each in turn climbed aboard and crossed over. I cautiously followed them, quite pleased with both myself and my crew. I dragged the sled safely across, hitched up my scattered team, and dogs and I mushed on our merry way.
Our next generation of dogs saw the older ones doing the wheelbarrow trick, and they wanted to try it too, as did the generation after that. Now here we are, over two decades later, still encouraging yearlings to climb into a wheelbarrow.
There is one disadvantage of teaching dogs this trick: I can no longer run a wheelbarrow through the dog yard without having everyone trying to climb in!