FAIRBANKS — Sasha welcomed me with her tail wagging, clearly eager to get petted as she hobbled across the room on two good paws, with a third wrapped in a heavy bandage.
I hadn't expected this from Nina Ruckhaus' 7-year-old husky/shepherd mix, considering the ordeal the dog had recently survived. But then again, Ruckhaus says her dog is known for her big heart, floppy ears and "the loving way she is with everyone she meets."
Ruckhaus, 23, is a senior majoring in biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. My daughters grew up with Nina and her sister, Thea, and I've always thought of her as someone with a special talent for understanding animals.
Sasha was a rescue dog, left behind at a local boarding facility by a guy who didn't have the money to care for her. After some false starts with three or four families that couldn't handle such an energetic pup, Sasha found a home and a great friend in Ruckhaus.
"All she needed was a job like skijoring and to be included and allowed to run. Then she calmed right down," said Ruckhaus.
The big-eared dog with one blue eye and one brown eye became a steady companion, covering thousands of miles in winter on skijoring adventures, summer hikes and trips around town.
"She has a phenomenal drive for running and is also amazing with children and special-needs kids," said Ruckhaus.
Sasha knows more voice commands that most dogs and even some on the unusual side. When she hears "take a break" while skijoring, it means it is time to stop and roll over in the snow. Sasha taught the three other dogs Ruckhaus owns the finer points of skijoring.
"She's always been tops in my team, never skips a beat," Ruckhaus said.
Last month, Sasha ran four-minute miles in a skijoring race and was in peak condition — fast, smart and unbelievably tough. Those qualities are a big reason why she is alive today.
Ruckhaus was Outside on Christmas vacation when close family friends who were pet-sitting took Sasha to Lee's Cabin, which is in the White Mountains Recreation Area, about 40 miles north of Fairbanks off the Elliott Highway.
It's a popular area for hundreds of people, who often take their dogs and head down the trail to enjoy the snow and countryside. There were other dogs around and for some reason Sasha ran off, something she wouldn't ordinarily do.
"I think she was really scared about something because she usually comes back in 10 minutes or so," said Ruckhaus.
Friends searched in vain for many miles along the trail in both directions and near the highway. They continued in the days that followed and publicized the disappearance.
There was no word for a week until a trapper called to say he had found the dog caught by the left back leg in one of his traps on the other side of the Elliott, away from the hiking trail.
It appears Sasha found her way from Lee's Cabin back to the highway parking lot when no one was around and kept wandering until the trap snapped shut on her left hind leg about 3 inches above the paw.
Incidents like this give rise to intense reactions by dog owners, as well as by trappers and anti-trappers, not to mention arguments about outdoor ethics and multiple uses on public land. These conflicts are not confined to the Mat-Su area, where suburbia is right next door.
No one likes to see an animal injured in this fashion. To his credit, the trapper called the number on Sasha's collar.
When she was brought back to town, Sasha weighed 40 pounds, having lost 15 pounds. Her rear leg had to be amputated and she lost three of her toes on her front left paw, perhaps because she pulled it back from the trap.
She had three broken teeth, probably caused by chewing the trap and trying to escape, Ruckhaus said.
"Although I feel very positive that she is alive, at home and that's all that really matters at this point, it's really upsetting to know that a beautiful animal that used to be a race champion is not going to be able to do what she loves again," said Ruckhaus.
"I think she survived that long because she was in incredible condition and she has the toughest mind. She would know, even if something hurt, and she was alone, that eventually she would get home."
Ruckhaus said she is looking into whether a prosthetic leg or brace could help Sasha stay mobile enough to enjoy walking for many more years to come. She said it would be similar to what she might expect for a dog of this size at age 12 or 13.
At the words "go for a walk," Sasha perked up and Ruckhaus took her outside, lifting on a harness to take some of the weight off of the dog's two healthy paws.
Sasha eagerly led her down the snowy driveway on 2 1/2 paws, her head bobbing and her tail wagging.
Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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