By Joseph Robertia
A pixel, in digital imaging, is a term referring to a single element of a multicomponent representation.
This definition is still somewhat appropriate to a dog named Pixel, owned by Sterling musher Ashley Irmen. Alone, Pixel is just a shy, 35-pound, cream-colored husky, but when put with her kennelmates, she is a powerful part of Irmen’s sled-dog team.
But there was a glitch — Pixel’s exuberance for exercise caused her to go on the lam for nine days earlier this month, when she slipped out of her harness on a training run. Her adventure led to many ups and downs for Irmen, who wondered if she would get her dog back. But Irmen never lost hope, and her friends — aided by Cohoe Loop-area residents, where the dog was lost — never gave up the search.
“I’ve been amazed at how kind and helpful people have been,” Irmen said.
Pixel, along with another dog, came into Irmen’s life in December 2008. Irmen takes in dogs unwanted or abandoned by others for various reasons. Pixel came from the Fairbanks Animal Shelter and her adoption was facilitated by Carol Klecker and the Second Chance League, a group that works to find homes for the sled dogs that flood the Fairbanks shelter each year.
“She came pretty unsocialized,” Irmen remembered.
“Many of these sled dogs lived previous lives on short chains, with little socialization, and very limited training, and so many develop shy and skittish personality traits,” said Irmen’s friend and one of Pixel’s searchers, Jill Garnet, who also rescues sled dogs.
“Because Ashley fences her dogs and does not chain them all day long, she has worked with Pixel over the years to overcome her shyness. These days Ashley can get her to come to her during feeding and she will come inside the house,” Garnet said. “But, it’s usually on Pixel’s terms.”
The address of a pixel corresponds to its physical coordinates.
For a dog owner, few things are as frightening as their canine companion running away. When the dog is lost away from home, in an area with which it is not familiar, fear can escalate to hysteria for both owner and dog.
Irmen had loaded her dogs and driven to friend Jane Adkins’ house in the Cohoe Loop area, to run her dogs on the extensive winter trail network used by Adkins and other mushers living in those parts. What had been planned to be a day of fun turned into anything but.
“The dogs haven’t been out much this year because I’m in nursing school and working. They’re been spending most of the winter being house dogs, so their energy was pretty high and Pixel just slipped her harness,” Irmen said.
Initially Irmen didn’t think it would be too big a deal. She thought the dog, although excited, would still come up to her to be re-harnessed and attached back to the sled-pulling lines.
“Instead, she did the exact opposite of what I thought she would. She took off down the trail, and ever since people have seen her dodging moose that have been seen chasing her, loose dogs, dog teams and people who tried to catch her,” Irmen said.
The intensity of each pixel is variable.
“It became clear she wasn’t going to be easy to catch, when the first time I saw her she immediately turned and ran as fast as she could,” Irmen said. “I spent the next day out there snowshoeing through the woods with several other dogs of mine, but only came across tracks.”
Pixel managed to evade her many other pursuers, as well. While she was a sled dog, she had been through a compromising accident in the recent past, according to Garnet.
“Pixel sustained a severe injury to her leg a few years ago. Ashley, who works two jobs to support her dogs, brought her to Soldotna Animal Hospital and footed the bill for the most progressive treatment available. Due to that treatment, Pixel regained full mobility in a leg that was pretty mangled,” she said.
That mobility just enabled Pixel to free her would-be rescuers. Garnet drove to Cohoe Loop in the days following Pixel’s escape, to look for the dog while Irmen returned to work. On the way there she spotted the dog trotting down the middle of the road.
“‘Shoot, I’m too late!’ I thought,” Garnet said. “I got out of my car and as she ran beyond me I called out to her by name. She turned back towards me, but got spooked, turned, and ran again away from me.”
Another car had stopped on the far side of Pixel and a man got out to help. The two of them tried to corral and catch her between them, but the dog ducked them repeatedly and they quickly realized they were making matters worse.
They followed her in their cars, trying to get her to turn around and go back to the dog yard from which she had escaped, but at that point, “She was in full flight mode,” Garnet said.
She spent a few more hours following the panicked dog but eventually lost the trail.
Irmen had posters made with pictures of Pixel, and she and friends fliered the neighborhood and beyond. Almost immediately people began calling in with daily sightings of Pixel, many in the same location Garnet had seen her.
Irmen left Pixel’s dog bed and treats in an area where she was spotted several times, and when she wasn’t there, Irmen said that friends and a few Cohoe residents — Neva Osmar and Debbie Brown, primarily — left out food, too.
“We developed a pretty reliable feeding pattern with her,” Irmen said.
Irmen contacted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to see if she could borrow a live trap, but all were currently in use. While explaining her tribulations to a friend, she offered the skills of her husband, Rick Moynahan, to make her a custom live trap, and he did so within a day.
“I really thought it was our best option. It was put out and I filled it with a mix of fresh straw and straw from all the other dogs’ houses,” Irmen said.
The trap went out on a Saturday, although not set up to catch the dog for the first few days. Irmen said she wanted to give Pixel time to get used to its presence, which she quickly did. She began bedding down near the trap, eating out of it, and allowing people to get as close as 20 feet from her before fleeing. So the trap got set for real, and last Wednesday Pixel was caught.
“I was in clinical when my friend, Sarah Clyde, texted me a picture, and it was Pixel in her car,” she said. “It felt great.”
As soon as she could, Irmen rendezvoused with her friend, picked up Pixel and brought her home to rest.
“She acted totally normal as soon as she got in my truck, and at home she slept on the couch all night and the next day. She was exhausted, and pretty thin from all the running she did.”
Garnet said she was equally happy to hear the news.
“It was a group effort with the best possible ending,” she said.