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Jill Burke: When average dogs cross the finish line

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published March 6, 2016

It may not be under the burled arch in Nome, where extreme canine marathoners run and pant their way to victory, that the average dog finishes his or her last race. But rest assured, their journeys are as heroic as any Iditarod champion or red lantern lead dog after a nearly 1,000-mile journey across the wilds of Alaska.

With the death this week of our golden retriever, Belle, the two great dogs that followed me out of an old life and failed relationships into a new life with kids and a spouse have bookended the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, an event I've covered more than once as an Alaska-based journalist.

Sophie -- the original great dog, an orange-and-black shepherd-mix pound pup who turned into an impressive hiking companion and loyal family member -- followed my then-girlfriend and I all the way from Colorado to Alaska to start new lives full of promise.

Sophie had started life nervous and shy. We tried kennel training, but she would always break out, bashing the kennel into the wall and bending the metal door just enough to squeeze through, then jump out a window and beg the neighbors to let her in. This was an virulent strain of separation anxiety bad enough that we worried we might have to return her to the pound, where we'd found and fallen in love with her.

But with training and patience, Sophie eventually flourished. She found confidence, playfulness and a protective instinct.

By the time Belle came along, the balance of life had already begun to shift, at first for the worse, then ultimately, for the better. As Sophie at first rejected, then came to mother this furry ball of puppy terror, my girlfriend and I, who had split up, each found human partners better suited to our needs and temperaments. While I held on to Belle, we split custody of Sophie. Both dogs eased our hurts and fears and had an unlimited offering of warm nuzzles and snuggles to soothe any mood.

The dogs, mainly Belle, smelled. My ex and I didn't care, but my new family members would eventually begin to protest.

As a puppy, Belle chewed baseboards, zippers, book spines, car seat belt buckles and a parking brake. She once ate an entire gallon Ziploc bag of artisan double-chocolate ginger cookies, and would pull the insides out of anything stuffed.

The older dog, Sophie, learned to swim by chasing seagulls in the river at Six Mile Creek, a fishing hole on the way to Hope, a small community about 90 minutes south of Anchorage. Years later, it was there that she would -- like a diamond thief seizing on a serendipitous opportunity -- swallow a salmon hook wrapped with cured fish eggs, the salty bait too tempting to resist.

She sat on the beach with her trademark smile, attempting to hide her guilty pleasure. Pleased with herself. But a telltale single strand of fishing line hanging from her mouth gave her away. It took a trip to the vet to extract the hook from her stomach.?

Both dogs had done so much to help all of us -- old loves, new loves, children -?- grow personally as humans. The relationship with Sophie was special. She'd learned to trust us, a bond we took seriously. True to a shepherd's temperament, she was always on watch; she'd run ahead and stand on point during hikes, wait for the group to catch up, then run to the back. We always believed she was counting heads, keeping tabs on everyone and making sure the trail ahead was safe and clear.

When the occasional bear showed up on a trail, she would sit as commanded, stay quiet, and wait for instructions. When a group of hikers -- for reasons we never fully figured out -- brought her hackles out, she often would refuse to pass them. She was a small dog, only 45 pounds, but could muster the largest doggie defense bark if she sensed a threat was near.

Still, Sophie was sweet and gentle, and would lean against your leg for a few moments of affection. We'd read the behavior was actually a display of dominance, but it mattered not. It gave us a chance to feel her warmth, given willingly, and scratch her head as she steadied against us.

Sophie died a few days after the 2011 Iditarod winners had rolled through Nome. From a hotel room in the gold rush town, where I was finally in cellphone range after covering the race, I got word Sophie wasn't doing well. Within days after returning home, after failed attempts to manage her pain, we made the decision to send her on her way. She was euthanized at the vet's office around 1:30 on an early Saturday morning, surrounded by the humans who loved her.

Belle unexpectedly died last week while the rest of us slept, five days before the 2016 Iditarod launched from Willow bound for Nome. She'd never been the same since joining this new, large family I co-created, or after the death of her companion, Sophie.

She was a long way from the home we'd created together as a single dog and a single woman navigating life together. There were fewer naps with her curled behind my knees. Fewer walks. Less ball-throwing in the backyard. And yet, she remained loving, loyal and sweet, always ready for a pet, to bury her head between your knees, to give a lick to any bare foot.

Belle allowed our toddler to pat, kiss, pet and pull at her. Occasionally, they napped together. The dog had a remarkable ability to stuff three tennis balls into her mouth, and proudly return to sit before you with her tail wagging, the balls stretching her jowls to the max, as though she'd found the Holy Grail.

With both dogs, whenever we'd enter the house or wake up, regardless of where in the house they were, we'd hear the thwack thwack thwack of happy tails, a sound of loving welcome. A sound that's now absent.

The dogs and mushers bound for Nome are in an iconic race that will test their skills, planning, perseverance and stamina, will bring them closer to themselves and whatever exists beyond us as they traverse under dark skies and isolated stretches.

Our family dogs did the same for us. They stuck with us, loyally, through the greatest highs and the lowest lows, a few dangerous close calls -- but mostly, they were steady companions over the course of more than a decade, doing average family things, daily things that enriched our lives. Sophie and Belle have crossed under their own burled arch to new adventures. Greatly loved, they are now sorely missed.

For Belle and Sophie: Chase balls. Tree squirrels. Eat human food. Roll in fish. Nap in sunbeams. Hike. Adventure. Wherever you've gone, whatever you're doing, keep sharing your love.

Jill Burke is a longtime Alaska journalist writing from the center of a busy family life. Her father swore by "Burke's Law No. 1 -- never take no for an answer." Meaning, don't give up in the face of adversity. The lesson stuck. Share your ideas with her at, on Facebook or on Twitter.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at) Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any web browser.

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