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Outdoors/Adventure

The dogs that stay with us after they are gone

Tripod, who likes to patrol for bears, stands guard at the Red Salmon Cannery in Naknek. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

Do you still have that big German shepherd? I get this question a couple of times a year.

Collin was born in August 1970. No, he is not around these days.

Collin died 38 years ago, but I still think of him often. Others who knew the dog only in passing also remember him. A half-dozen times every year someone comments on Collin.

What makes a dog so memorable? Associations and relationships keep the dogs we have lived with in our memories. That doesn't count. I speak of dogs that have an impact on those around them.

Balto, the sled dog made famous for his role in the Nome serum run, comes to mind. This dog is in our memories because of an event that touched many lives. There are many dogs around the country that have local fame transcending the years.

Thousands of dogs have some special quality that strikes a chord deep within us. Collin is only one of the thousands of dogs that have caught the attention of many. Dogs with that undefinable quality can impact even those who are not dog owners or even dog lovers.

Dogs have evolved along with humankind. They are the only animal that can follow the direction of a glance or the direction of a pointing finger. Chimps can't do this. Dogs can read our facial expressions. They can read sickness in us. They are loyal to a fault.

There is an old joke that defines our canine friends well. "Lock your dog and your husband or wife in the trunk of your car and drive around town for an hour. See which one kisses you when you let them out." Those are our compatriots, the dog.

My first memory of dogs is being bitten by a cocker spaniel when I was 3. There has been a dog in my life, usually many, at all times since.

Three have struck me deeply. Collin, the German shepherd, was the first. There was also a pup, Neon, with whom I had only a short association before he passed prematurely.  The third dog, Tripod, is still very alive and active.

Tripod, as one might guess, is missing a leg. The popular story is he lost his leg to a bear, but reality is likely somewhat tamer. Somehow the dog got wrapped in a wire or chain and lost a leg.

Tripod has no idea he might be considered handicapped. He lives at the Red Salmon Cannery in Naknek during the summer fishing season. His owner of record lives just down the road from the Red Salmon Cannery, but rarely does Tripod spend the night at his own home during June and July.

He is a medium-sized dog of indeterminate ancestry who patrols the cannery in pursuit of bears. He can be heard barking at all hours of the night.

Most of the day he spends playing with a piece of rope or sleeping in preparation for his evening job. Tripod's method of dealing with the brown bears that wander the cannery boardwalks from dusk to dawn is somewhat unique. He is not extremely aggressive.

Tripod closes on the offending bear and barks. Many times he is only a couple feet from the head of the bear. He rarely approaches bears from the rear. Occasionally a bear will make a short run at Tripod, who, despite his missing hind leg, seems easily able to avoid the rush.

Fishermen walking the dock in the evening will find Tripod appearing at their side on the lookout for bears. The mention of the word "bear" will bring his head up with a questioning bark:  "Where?"

Many fishermen and cannery workers have been escorted down the walkways by Tripod. All will remember him. Twenty years from now, folks will be asking the whereabouts of Tripod, much as they do today with Collin.

There have been many famous dogs throughout history. Many, like Rin Tin Tin and Sgt. Stubby, became famous for their actions in movies or under the stress of war.

However, there are dogs in every town and scattered through every walk of life that are notable for the look in their eye. They have a quality that causes humans to stop for a second look. Dogs have evolved with us for untold generations; it is only natural that they have become family.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

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