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Mervyn The Hired Hand

Sunshine and Snow for Santa

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Mervyn The Hired Hand

Sunshine Silverheels was a reindeer herder, or more precisely a descendant of reindeer herders, a primitive breed of dog known as a Samoyed. The name Samoyed comes from the Samoyede, a semi-nomadic people from Asia who migrated to Siberia and neighboring Lapland in northern Finland a thousand years ago. They bred dogs for hard work in the coldest habitable places on earth.

Samoyeds are substantial but graceful dogs standing anywhere 19 to 24 inches at the shoulder, sometimes running 70 pounds without fat. Powerful, tireless, with a long, thick all-white coat impervious to cold—Samoyeds are beautiful and highly functional. They also have some quirky characteristics.

Samoyed fur is sometimes used as an alternative for wool, with a soft texture similar to angora. Samoyed fur sweaters have been reported to handle temperatures well below freezing. Sunshine’s fur made a beautiful scarf and beanie for my wife. The fur is sometimes also used in making artificial flies for fishing.

The Samoyede people depended on reindeer as a vital source of food, fur, and leather. At first, they used dogs to hunt reindeer. But in time Samoyede culture shifted from hunting reindeer to herding them. The bold white hunting dogs found a new role as stock dogs, moving and protecting the herds.

Early on, the Laplanders found it desirable for their herd dogs to not have a taste for the animals they were protecting, and the diet of Samoyed dogs was shifted to mostly fish. Perhaps as a result, Sunshine could always be found hanging about under foot in the kitchen whenever fish was cooking. And when a can of tuna fish was being opened, Sunshine would come running.

Samoyeds are smart, stubborn, social, mischievous dogs who demand love and attention. Often difficult to train, they need a very firm but loving hand in the process. As pack animals, they must learn early who the alpha dog is—and the alpha dog must be their owner. Once that is established, Samoyeds are attentive and eager to learn. Sunshine knew a vocabulary of over 50 human words before he died at 14 years, and was always listening for words like “walk,” and “ride,” and “treat,” among others. He could also tell what one’s plans were for the day by seeing what pants one put on in the morning.

Samoyeds proved amenable to herding Santa’s reindeer and small children, but never showed much interest in herding sheep or cattle. Not as fast as a sheltie or Australian shepherd, Samoyeds use their bulk to stand in the way to turn reindeer, and will often play with toddlers by walking with them and turning their paths back and forth across a yard for long periods. Samoyeds are excellent companions, especially for small children or even other dogs, and they remain playful into old age.

Known as the smiling sled dog, or “smiley dog,” Samoyeds have a perpetual smile that is both endearing and functional. Upturned corners of the mouth keep Samoyeds from drooling, preventing icicles from forming on the face in arctic weather often 60 degrees blow zero F. When told to smile, Sunshine would obediently come and sit in front of anyone who spoke the command, and stare into their face lovingly, with his white eyelashes and black button nose.

Sunshine had copious amounts of hair growing between his toes, long enough to cover the pads of his feet if not trimmed, an adaptation that allows Samoyeds to run long distances on snow and ice without harming their feet. Still, he was fairly comical on occasion when his feet got cold and he began holding  them alternately off the ground, especially when he tried to lift a front and rear foot at the same time. Samoyeds also habitually curl their tails on their backs, presumably to keep from dragging them in the snow and ice. When their tail is down, its usually because they are sleepy.

Sunshine loved the snow, and would chase snowflakes and try to catch them in his mouth endlessly. The first flake of winter he saw was an especially joyous occasion. He also loved to eat ice cubes and carrots, presumably in part due to the crunchy texture. After one storm, he ate enough 2” hail stones that he began to shiver uncontrollably, and had to be restrained from eating more.

Samoyeds know how to pull. An untrained Samoyed may be seen taking its owner for a walk, or perhaps a jog at the end of an extended leash, rather than walking alongside. Samoyeds will pull a skier with enthusiasm all day in a ski-joring harness.

Fridtjof Nansen believed that use of sled dogs was the only effective way to explore the north and used Samoyeds on his expeditions in search of Santa and the North Pole. Two Samoyeds, Kaifas and Suggen, were the lead dogs for Nansen's North Pole expedition. He claimed to find the North Pole, but never found Santa, presumably because Santa’s workshop is a magical place that only allows those who should to see it.

In his youth, Sunshine briefly thought he could walk on water. As a pup beside a swimming pool, he sniffed a couple times and then blithely stepped off the rim of the pool, only to find he was not after all supernatural, abruptly learning he could swim, at least until pulled from the pool by the scruff of his neck. Then carrying about 10 pounds of additional water weight in his heavy fur, he unsuccessfully tried to shake it off and almost wound up in the pool again. Later, after regaining his composure during a short drive, he picked up a large chew stick and posed for the camera like Edward G. Robinson enjoying a cigar.

Although pups don’t care much, adult Samoyeds are a bit vain about their appearance after a bath, often hiding behind a chair or couch for awhile until they dry out. But baths are rare, because a light oil in a Samoyed’s fur encourages dirt to fall off when it dries dry—they are very clean dogs. When they feel threatened, they can puff out their fur so they look about twice as big as they really are, especially around their face and ruff. When Sunshine met a huge statute of the White Horse Whisky horsed along the Trans-Canadian Highway, he woofed his way around it with his ruff as large as a lion, until convinced it wasn't going to step on him.

Some say Samoyeds' friendly disposition makes them poor guard dogs; an aggressive Samoyed is rare. But they are excellent watchdogs, and will bark at anything that encroaches on their territory, unless trained not to do so. And my spouse maintains the walking down the street with a Samoyed is one of the most secure feelings one can have, as they look larger than they actually are.

Surely this must be the ideal dog for Santa Claus: friendly, loves snow, small children, and reindeer, smiles all the time, loves to pull sleds, eats fish and can keep a secret. Santa would be hard pressed to find a better candidate to keep his toes warm under the desk on those cold arctic nights.

Sunshine Silverheels.jpg


Edited by Mervyn The Hired Hand
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Black River Santa

Beautiful dog and a magnificent breed! Thanks for sharing.

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