The leader of the pack — now he’s gone
“He’s always looking for a good fight.”
Few can brag of visiting the North Pole once — but a crotchety old sled dog named Apu has been there four times.
Fewer still can claim to have accomplished that feat while living by this motto: “If you can’t eat it, and you can’t screw it, piss on it.”
Apu, short for Aputi, retired last month when polar explorer, sled dog trainer and Iqaluit resident Matty McNair pulled him from her team.
McNair has run sled dogs for more than 30 years. She says her job is like trying to control an unruly class of kids, each with his or her own distinct personality.
If so, she knows exactly the kind of student Apu would be.
“He’d be the troublemaker. He’s always been an asshole.”
Apu gobbled up the other dogs’ food, brawled incessantly, and always had his way with the bitches.
He got away with it all because was the boss dog, and he never let the rest of the pack forget it.
“He’s always looking for a good fight,” McNair says.
But Apu excelled at what counted: “He pulls like hell,” McNair says. “Steady, doesn’t quit, just keeps going,” is how she describes him, even though at around 85 pounds, Apu isn’t big for a sled dog.
And despite his abusive leadership of the pack, when approached by a trainer, he won’t hesitate to roll over on his back, stick his feet up in the air, and stare expectantly, waiting for his belly to be rubbed.
“He’s a very friendly, affectionate guy,” McNair says. “The ones who are the biggest fighters are the biggest sucks with people.”
Apu turned 10 years old in April this year, making him pretty old for a sled dog. Most hit their prime between three and five, and retire by eight.
That didn’t stop him from making his fourth run at the North Pole this spring, on an expedition that covered more than 700 nautical miles, over deteriorating ice conditions, lead by Paul Landry and his and McNair’s daughter, Sarah McNair-Landry.
Boss dogs shouldn’t be confused with lead dogs, which stand in front of the team, setting the direction and pace.
Boss dogs usually stand at the back and nip at anyone who isn’t pulling their weight, and break up fights.
But during Apu’s four-year reign as boss, he would often start brawls. “His leadership style isn’t the greatest,” McNair says.
The boss dog is always the alpha, or leader, of the pack. But that doesn’t mean he’s the biggest, or even a he: the boss could be a bitch, if she commands enough respect.
And if you put the boss dog’s nose out of joint, the rest of the pack will behave like a crew of striking union workers. “If the boss dog doesn’t get up, no one gets up,” McNair says.
Fights usually happen at the end of the day, when the pack’s tired and grumpy. McNair says it’s unusual for her team to have a “big blow-up” more than once a year — although inevitably, if there’s a camera crew watching, they’ll find a way to misbehave.
There’s a misconception that when a boss dog gets too old, the pack turns on them, and the aging boss needs to be pulled or the team will tear him or her to bits.
Instead, the pack behaves as people do under a weakening leader: they gave homage to the boss, while the real power fell into the paws of the younger, stronger members of the pack.
So as Apu mellowed, Qimmik took control.
Like the rest of McNair’s sled dogs, Apu is a purebred Canadian Inuit dog, the last indigenous breed of dog in North America.
They aren’t pets, being too rambunctious to keep indoors. And there’s plenty of fear and ignorance about sled dogs in Iqaluit, McNair says. She thinks they’ve got a bum rap because they resemble wolves.
Meanwhile, she’s caught kids running between her dogs, which are staked by the airport. It’s not a game she recommends.
“Dogs smell adrenaline. They don’t know if they’re going to be attacked, or if you’re scared,” she said.
Any dog can be dangerous if provoked — particularly if it’s been neglected or abused by its owner. McNair says sled dogs in town receive ample food and exercise.
A bigger worry are the dogs left tied up in yards all day, receiving little attention other than the taunts of neighbourhood kids.
And while pictures of sled dogs are used to lure tourists to the North, McNair says there isn’t much support in town for sled dog owners, who receive flack from city and airport officials.
As for Apu, he’s now in the hands of Karine Gagnon, who worked as a sled driver for McNair last year and is now starting a dog team of her own.
Apu will help keep an eye on two sled puppies. “By the time they’re in their terrible twos, he’ll be in dog heaven,” McNair says.
Asshole or not, McNair says when Apu goes, he will take a little piece of her heart along with him.