Fletcher runs through the snow on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, on Diamond Ridge near Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Fletcher runs through the snow on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, on Diamond Ridge near Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Out of the Office: How all the dogs in my life have kept me sane and happy

I have written before about the virtues of big, rowdy dogs in developing an exercise plan. In my more than 40 years in Alaska, I have always had large dogs. So imagine my surprise when this past fall my wife and I came to be rescued by Fletcher, a small, 23-pound dog of the size I once derisively might have called “a drop kick.”

I take that back. Large dogs are the bomb, but small dogs can be not just We Rate Dogs-level adorable, but also a heck of a lot of fun.

I will pause here to remember and honor all the dogs of my life, which as I list this, turns out to be more than a few. We came to be rescued by Fletcher because right as the COVID-19 pandemic turned our lives into a dystopian mess, we also lost Princess Leia, madly and truly The Best Dog Ever. I don’t say that lightly. I have had some pretty awesome dogs, as follows:

• Ginny, my first dog. The family legend is she came to us in a Florida thunderstorm back when I lived on the grounds of the tuberculosis hospital in Tampa, Florida. Come to think of it, Ginny was on the small size, too, maybe 30 pounds of mutt.

• Ouzel, my first Alaska sled dog. I got Ouzel in 1983 from my musher friends Janet and Dan as appreciation for housesitting their team when I lived in Anchorage. Ouzel was from the bird litter — each of the dogs named after birds.

• Alice, Cora, Oscar, Tina and Yuki. In the fall of 1984 after moving into the little cabin that Janet and Dan once occupied, I got it in my head to build a sled dog team. I am grateful that my wife, Jenny, went along with this crazy idea and also that she put up with living in that cabin so small it had a shower in the kitchen. Really.

I got this batch of sled dogs from Con Bunde, a Rabbit Creek musher who was getting out of the enterprise. Con was selling Alice for $300 or Alice and a few more for $400. Alice was a gee-haw command leader, which meant she would turn instantly on a quick command. She taught me as much about mushing as I learned from stupid experience.

• Kiana. In Anchorage I joined the Alaska Sled Dog and Racing Association and started hanging out with other mushers and ran a few races. Seasoned mushers just love new mushers because they’re building teams and happy to take B-team dogs, which is how I got Kiana.

• Rasta, Tosh, Wailer, Moya, Rita, Marley and Zydeco. I hadn’t intended to breed any sled dogs, but one time Cora went into heat and got loose and Ouzel wooed her with his charms. A few months later we had the reggae litter. I named all the dogs after reggae musicians or things reggae, but then I ran out of names and dipped into Cajun music.

We sold all but Rasta, Tosh and Wailer, except Zydeco got returned because he had a weird birth defect that made him pass out when he got exerted. Our vet figured out he had paralyzed vocal cords and cut them back, essentially debarking Zydeco. He had this weird, raspy bark. While he was being rehabilitated, Jenny and I adopted him as our house dog.

• Bobo. In Rabbit Creek we lived next to the Rabbit Creek Kennels, where Jenny and I worked while I was a struggling science fiction writer and part-time college instructor. I should probably mention here that in addition to getting Con’s sled dogs, he also enticed me to teach Beginning Dog Mushing in the Alaska Wilderness Studies program at the University of Alaska Anchorage after Con had to leave teaching when he was elected to the Alaska Legislature. Anyway, Bobo was a rescue dog at Rabbit Creek Kennels that Jenny adopted, and our first Irish wolfhound mix.

Bobo absolutely adored Jenny and guarded her like she was the president. I never worried about Jenny walking on the Anchorage Coastal Trail because any strange man she encountered — which in Bobo’s book was pretty much any adult male — got a full-on throat growl and baring of teeth.

• TC. OK, TC was our first and only cat, but he fits here in the chronology and is worth mentioning just because he was pretty much the best dang cat to ever cross my life.

• Frazier. After we moved to Homer and Bobo died, we adopted Frazier, another Irish wolfhound mix. He came into our lives when we saw him in a Friends of Pets ad in the Anchorage Daily News.

• Leia. She came into our lives after Frazier died, another bit of rescue magic thanks to our friend Adrienne. I have written before of Leia the labradoodle. Oh my gosh, was she ever a wonderful dog. If you can have one dog like Leia in your life, consider yourself blessed beyond measure. Having her die was just the rotten cherry on top of the rancid cake that has been the pandemic.

And now here we are with Fletcher. There have been stories about how during the pandemic it has been almost impossible to find adoptable dogs through local shelters. With our normal social circles vastly reduced, is it surprising we have come to seek canine companions for love, affection and cuddles?

We had no intention of adopting a small dog. Jenny and I had been cruising the web for possible labradoodles and even thinking about buying a puppy. Then our friend the other Janet came across Fletcher and took him out for a trial run. We borrowed him for an afternoon because Janet wanted to know our opinion of him.

“This is an amazing dog,” we told her. “You should adopt him.”

She did, but then Janet developed allergies and sadly couldn’t keep Fletcher. “We’ll take him,” we said, and after a bit of rescue dog paperwork and interviewing, shazam, he came into our lives. Janet is Fletcher’s auntie and in our gratitude for bringing him into our lives, she sometimes takes him on play dates.

Fletcher might be a little dog, but he has big dog personality. He absolutely loves pretty much anyone he encounters. A mixture of Coton de Tulear and Australian shepherd, he’s a big bundle of fluff. The rescue people said he didn’t like snow or the outdoors, which turned out to be a misconception. This guy loves beach walks (although watch out for the otter poop) and skiing and snowshoeing.

We’ll take him out back in his little red fleece jacket and let him run. Sometimes he gets riled up and gets what we call the zoomies, a manic tearing around in circles or up and down the trails. This past fall he got into a barking match with a moose, and when the moose didn’t like it, I had the horrible vision of seeing Fletcher run down the path straight toward me with a moose on his tail. He outran the moose. The moose veered into the woods. Whew.

I’ve discovered one thing about Fletcher I’d forgotten about my first small dog 61 years ago: he can sit on your lap comfortably. Sometimes I will sit back in my chair and watch streaming videos. Fletcher jumps up, snuggles in and warms my heart. Now that I am working at home, I confess that I will take Fletcher lap breaks to dial back the stress.

How many dogs is that in my life? Nineteen? How have I been so fortunate? I think the secret to dog companionship is the same as meeting a life partner: open your heart to love and so it will flow into you. Let that love hold you in times of stress, and it will heal you — and, of course, get you outdoors.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.

Michael Armstrong and his dog, Fletcher, take a break from snowshoeing on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, on Diamond Ridge near Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Jenny Stroyeck)

Michael Armstrong and his dog, Fletcher, take a break from snowshoeing on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, on Diamond Ridge near Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Jenny Stroyeck)

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