Andrew L. Pincus: Chubber: The gentle wolf

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LENOX — "Get away, wolf!" the boy cried and jumped back as Chubber and I rounded the corner, catching him by surprise. The kid was right. Chubber indeed could be mistaken for a wolf. But Chubber was as gentle with children as he was with puppies, licking their faces and wagging his curled tail in affection. To dogs that wanted a fight he turned his shoulder in manly disdain.

Only once, when a team of huskies lashed to a sled jumped him, did Chubber fight back. He would have taken on the whole eight of them if their owner and I hadn't broken it up. Chubber was made to be a leader of dogs like them. He was the gentle wolf.

Chubber was a Siberian, 90 pounds of sinew, bone and ermine hair, with a husky's — wolf's — fleur-de-lis face mask of black and white. But why a husky when you could have an easy-handling Lab or puffball of the kind so popular nowadays?

Well, because a few weeks after our beagle died, the house rattled emptily around us and we heard of a husky that needed a home. A widower was going into a nursing home and had to give up the dog. The story moved us. We pictured master grieving for dog, dog grieving for master. But when we inquired, we were too late. Our husky was gone.

Husky, wolf, wilderness, sled, sinew, mystery: in our western corner of Massachusetts before its colonization by second-homers from the city, something about the breed took hold in our imaginations, growing until we became like Eskimos, our destiny linked to the creature of the North.

We called kennels and renewed our watch on the want ads. Since destiny by now had taken a hand, the ad we were looking for soon appeared. A couple who bred Siberians had a litter of two male pups for sale, one a future champion, perfect in bones and gait, his brother equally well formed but more amiable in disposition and therefore less trainable for showing.

We took the good-natured one, of course. The lower price was a consideration but not the decisive one. No, what did it was the way Chubber, with his fleur-de-lis mask, erect ears and sense of calm self-possession even at the age of eight weeks, ambled over, licked Kate's hand and then turned around and puddled. That was our dog.

CHOSE HIS MASTER

The temperature was below zero on a starry January night — husky weather — when I drove us home from the kennel. Chubber curled up in Kate's lap and went to sleep as if he had chosen her, not she him.

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From that night on, he was Kate's dog. I might be the one to walk or run him or roughhouse with him in the yard but at night in the living room it was by Kate's feet that he settled. With his one brown and one blue eye, he would watch me across the room as if to guard his mistress and admit me to her company as an equal, but no more than an equal. The name on the pedigree papers was mongrel Eskimo — something like "Nuniak's Snowboy." We took the name Chubber from my college's term for a rugged outdoorsman.

In "King Solomon's Ring" Konrad Lorenz writes:

"One of the most wonderful and puzzling phenomena is the choice of a master by a good dog. Quite suddenly, often within a few days, a bond is formed which is many times stronger than any tie that ever exists between us human beings. There is no faith which has never yet been broken, except that of a truly faithful dog. Of all dogs which I have hitherto known, the most faithful are those in whose veins flows, besides that of the golden jackal (Canis aureus), a considerable stream of wolf's blood."

And the most wolflike are these northern dogs, the huskies and malamutes, bred from wolf stock to pull sleds and share the life of men in the wild.

Although a husky loves games, he demands and gives a fierce allegiance, an acceptance that some things are wild and should forever stay that way. A husky will stand between you and a stranger, barring his way with an unyielding wolflike stance. He will come when called but only after showing the decision is his. Obedience training is useless. Kate took Chubber to the Y's classes and received a diploma as the most improved handler. Chubber earned nothing.

Chubber was death on woodchucks, outrunning them, seizing them by the scruff and breaking the neck with one snap. But he didn't eat the kill. He stood over it, sometimes for hours, guarding it for some family he remembered or imagined from his wilderness lineage.

From Chubber I learned to watch the woods and fields for deer, woodchuck, grasshopper and mole, the sky for raven and hawk. He taught me to size up people and situations coolly, assuming neither too much nor too little. He made me understand that excess — whether of food, activity or noise — is an affront to nature. He showed that more is won by loyalty, grace and intelligence than by strife.

If there is reincarnation, I wanted to come back as a Chubber.

Andrew L. Pincus writes about classical music for The Eagle and is an occasional op-ed page contributor.


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