Monday, June 11, 2007

How to Train a Husky

My shepherd mix died about five years ago just short of age 16—my constant companion, hiking buddy, best friend. Girl friends were jealous of this dog. I knew I’d get another dog, but I was in no hurry. Hiking alone wasn’t much fun, but I wanted to wait for just the right one.

My vet knew this, and when another client had a litter of husky mixes (husky and lab), she hooked us up. I thought for a few weeks. I went to see the only pup left—the smallest of the lot, a ball of short but thick white fur. “What do you know about huskies?” I asked the vet tech. “The only thing about huskies,” she replied, “When they see a squirrel or something, they just take after it.” Understatement of the century. “About how big will she get?” I asked the vet. “Oh, probably around 48 lbs.” Nice call—today she’s 48.2 lbs.

This was a small dog for me, and I wasn’t sure—but the owners eventually talked me into it. I named her Shanti, which means “peace,” and comes from a Hindu sutra:

Lead us from the unreal to the real
From darkness into light
From death to immortality
Shanti shanti

Banshee would have been a more accurate choice. She’s a V12 engine in a Chevette—incredibly fast, and far stronger than the shepherd mix twice her size. Well, I’ve always been a good trainer, I thought. No problem.

I set up a puppy area in the kitchen, a safe place for her when I was at work, by blocking the hallway with a 4’ high piece of plywood. She took one look and effortlessly sailed over the counter through the open area into the living room. OK. I puppy-proofed as much as possible, and left her the run of the place, ignoring her yips as I left for work. When I came home, she was lying outside—she had managed to break an outside door. I fixed it as much as possible, placing a 4x8 sheet of plywood in front. When I returned, she was inside—and the place looked like a cyclone had hit it. The day after that, she was outside again—went through a window. When the weekend hit, I decided to try short trips to calm her separation anxiety—15 or 20 minute trips to the store. On one, she toppled a wooden bookcase and reduced it to toothpicks. I’m not exaggerating. On another—she went through another window.

OK. Outdoor dog, at least when I’m not home. Since she was such a good jumper—and digger—I knew my fence would never hold her. I built a lean-to/doghouse, bought some hay, plenty of waterproof toys, and got her a 20’ lead of vinyl covered aerial cable--just long enough to give her some room and some shade without getting tangled around the trees. That is, until she tore the lower branches off the trees. I also learned to regularly inspect the cables—she broke a few and went on a neighborhood spree for hours.

Now comes the husky game—ask any husky owner. You get just so close—and at the last moment the dog dodges. Huskies can do this for hours, and they’re very good at it. You literally can never catch them. And they love it. Kind of a challenge for training.

“OK,” I figured. “I’ll lure her with food.” Not so fast. Huskies don’t overeat, the vet tells me, and food isn’t much of a motivator for them. Even when it sort of is…back to that “ever so close” game before that husky dodge. She knows this means the end of the romp. The only hope is to get someone else to call and grab her (huskies are very friendly)—until she figured that one out too.

Once you’ve got the dog by the collar—new problem. Immediately she’s on her hind legs, paws around your arm. I remembered my dad describing this behavior in sled dogs after his trip to Alaska. OK, fine—on your hind legs then. Not so fast. She’d just flip over on her back.

I was always the person people turned to for training advice. I’d never even owned a leash before. My last dog had been calmly heeling beside me at six months. But I was out of my league. I needed help. I asked the vet to recommend a trainer.

Training involved mostly me learning how people train a dog with leash and choke collar, and Shanti wanting to run over and play with the other dogs. I did manage to accomplish a few things—pulling up on the leash to get her to sit, for example—but to a husky, once you’ve done something like “sit,” it’s done, and now it’s time to get on with life, not just sit there. I learned to snap the leash to get her to stop pulling—OK, to lessen the problem of her pulling--but mostly I managed to teach her only that I wanted her to do these things, to recognize them…not necessarily do them.

I expressed my frustration to the trainer, pointing out the virtues of my last dog’s training, that we had been a team. “Look,” he said. “You had an exceptional dog. Now you have a normal dog.” “She listens to you,” pointed out the vet. “She’s half husky,” added her colleague. “She’s that much closer to wild. You’re doing fine.”

At six months, she was due for spaying. This meant she would have to stay inside afterwards for a few days until the incision healed; lying outside was out of the question. I was also supposed to keep her quiet. “How am I going to do that?” I asked the vet. “Well…relatively quiet.” OK. I bought a large metal dog crate and set it up in the kitchen. I picked her up from the vet as late as I could—she was yelping and yelping in the kennel when I got there, and had been all day. She was calm when I was home, but she definitely didn’t like the crate idea when I left for work in the morning.

When I came home, she was outside the crate. She had banged and banged against the door until the latch lifted enough to let her out. Then she trashed the place again. The next morning, I secured the latch. She was outside the crate when I got home—she had banged and banged against the collapsible crate until one wall caved. And she trashed the place. I secured every joint of the crate with wire. She ripped the bars from the welding and bent them back to make a hole and escape. Yes, I’m serious. I decided to risk the chance of infection outdoors.

Then I noticed something—she stood and waited at the open front door. She always does, until I say “OK.” This I could work with. Mainly I wanted to be sure I could control her as a full grown dog, so I invented a game. “Play!” I shout, and she goes nuts, jumping and slashing at my gloves (she plays very, very rough). Then “Enough,” and she sits, watching and waiting for the next “Play!” “Enough.” “Play!” “Enough.” She’s very good about it.

Hiking is another matter. I’d love if she could just run and run, but she’s so fast that she’s gone in a flash. Usually, I just count on a dog to stay nearby to train it for hiking. Trouble is, together with her speed, she has an excellent nose. When I tried to trick her by walking off the trail (to get her to stick closer next time), I just found she could follow my trail at a dead run—including right angle turns. What do you do when her position is “I AM right with you. You’re five miles that way—I can smell you.”? Add to this that she loves people and especially other dogs and will follow them for miles until she finally decides she’s done and comes back (and in the meantime I’ve no idea where she is). I turned to the Internet and the book store. What do professional husky owners do? I soon found my answer, absolutely consistent from source to source: never let a husky loose.

Getting her to leave game alone also proved impossible. Once she sees it, she’s completely and immediately focused on nothing else, and takes off as if fired from a gun—even on her leash. I use the heavy duty 26’ retractable leashes rated for large dogs. She breaks one every few months. Miraculously, she comes right back when I call her. Most puppies will look crestfallen when scolded, but she always just looked at me, sometimes yipping some version of “What? Come on—what’s the problem? That was the third squirrel, damn it. We HAD it man, we HAD it! What’s wrong with you?” I settled for minimizing pulling—but I still have to continually repeat this, and I get a nasty jolt to wrist, shoulder, elbow, ankle, knee, and so forth regularly. Sometimes I have her walk behind me, but since she walks RIGHT behind me, no clearance at all, I usually give up (heeling doesn’t work well on narrow trails).

In the car, she’s always in the way when I get in, but jumps to the back the moment I start the engine. She now comes when I call her for our morning run, instead of standing, stretching her back legs, stretching her front legs—and lying down again. And not in a circle anymore, then only to do the husky dodge. In a straight line. Right to me. I swear (one friend and lifelong husky owner can’t quite believe it). When cars go by while we’re walking down a stretch of road to the trails, she automatically heels, watching me for the “OK.” Truly. And today she comfortably roams the yard on a 60’ lead (which still needs regular inspection for impending breaks)--without terrorizing the trees.

The most unique training was the cross-country skiing. I always had to wait for my shepherd mix to catch up, but Shanti feels only “About time you moved your ass. Best you can do?” Good, but how to keep her on a leash while my hands are occupied with ski poles? I finally hit upon wrapping a short, metal chain leash around my waist, outside my coat, threaded through the handle of the retractable leash. This also allows the leash handle to travel around me when Shanti runs back and forth, instead of wrapping the cord around me. (I used to use my belt, but she kept breaking them and ripping open my coat when she abruptly took off after game.) This works reasonably well—until we come across another dog.

The other problem is pulling—sounds like fun, but it’s often dangerous, depending on the terrain (I ski in the forest) and the conditions (like when hikers or snowshoers have packed the ski trail into a flat field of ice instead of walking in a separate, parallel trail). If another dog is ahead, she knows it, and suddenly we take off. If you see snowplow marks on a flat ski trail and wonder how that happened—that’s me. So the most important command for skiing is “Back!” You do NOT want to go skiing down a curving, forested hill with a husky pulling you faster in random directions while you’re fighting for control—or trying to slow down. Again, she follows IMMEDIATELY behind, but I’ll take it.

So how DO you train a husky? Lots of time, lots of patience, a healthy supply of Icy Hot, Mineral Ice or Tiger Balm, and plenty of ibuprofen.



Two Write Hands said...

Quite an experience for you, huh? My own dog is one of those very well-behaved sorts. Not only does he not run away when unleashed, he doesn't even want to. I'd never dress him up in stupid clothes (he's about 50 pounds anyway and that would just be rediculous) or have someone else groom him, but he is spoiled nonetheless.

Pastry Artist said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this story. You have a gift with words and your words just flowed. My eyes and brain loved the ride. Your puppy dog is a real handful. Give her a hug and smooch for me.

Please visit me and scroll down until you find something you like.……Theresa111

VampireFaust said...

Well, I can honestly say that rules out a husky for me! LOL!

IndyPindy said...

Oh my - yes, it is different. And I agree 100% about never letting a Husky off leash. Their prey drive and indpendent thinking make it extremely difficult to catch them, as you found out.

You may want to join the forum at Lots of very experienced people there. You can get information on crate trianing also. Huskies can be crate trained as long as it's done correctly and they do get enough excercise. Thanks for stopping by my blog! Are you going to post pictures of her?

Holly said...

Actually, it's called, "how to train your human" and every husky knows it and uses it to their advantage to get what THEY want. Good luck! If I were you, I would definitely join some husky groups and learn from the long time pro's!! (lots of husky groups at yahoo groups)


Tobiasadie said...

I to have had great off leash dogs. I rescued 2 of my very best friends in college when I was at OSU at the Bend, Or site. COCC. Sadie a long haired shepard rescue at Lupine State Forest with her 6 brothers found starving in the forest and Tobias a rescue during a drug raid at a meth trailer. He was tow chained to the door and had been used as a stud to breed border collie lab mixes and a guard dog for their lab. They traveled with me for 5 years all over the united states off leash in my VW bus. They probably went to 100 out of the 200 phish shows I experienced. I got them when I was 21. Sadie aka sis left me March of 2007. I had blown out her ACLS marathon training with them. I did not know you could do that to a dog. I cleared out my savings at age 24 7000.00 to replace her legs only to lose her 2 years later to MS in her back which took her out in a minute. She became fecaly incontent and could no longer walk. The day I had to make the descion she was mentally sound and she knew but there was nothing I could do she was in so much pain. I took her to accupunture evry week. I did all I could do and I was a single mom at the time. It did not matter she was my first child I owed her my life and then some. The only thing that helped me after I put her down was A. The Rainbow Bridge because I know she waits and B She rides with Ty in the back seat of the car in her box. She still is in the car with us everyday! Then I had to help my man squeeze and her Tobias. He was so depressed for a very long time. After Sadie went my life was never the same. But in July of 2008 I went to PetSmart going to buy a bag of dog food and saw KYA. A Husky Akita mix. She is a lover dog but OBEDIENCE??????I don't think so. This site has made me feel better that I am not a bad trainer it is the husky in her blood. So she will never be able to be off leash but she too is my lady. She is awesome with my kids. She does kill their stuffed animals only wants to bite their noses and eyes off. She brings me gifts of beheaded bunnies and turtles from our backyard(we have an acre fenced in in an old farmhouse 110 years old. And she keeps my man squeeze very young at his ripe old age of 11. I know this I will never love any dog like I did and do my first two. But I know the love you have for a dog is like nothing you can explain. Sometimes we cry more for our dogs than our own parents. It is an intimate bond that can never be replaced or matched. The only love I have ever known to match is the love I have for more children.

Ringmaster said...

Your blog just gave me so much hope!! I too have a husky lab mix, Molly who I recently rescued after loosing my baby girl Cali to bone cancer. I could go on forever about Cali, but I"ll just say this, she was an amazing Pyrenees mix and one of those dogs that comes along once in a lifetime. I did everything with her off leash. So after I had to put Cali down and I got Molly I thought I could train her too to run off leash -- WRONG. Molly has done just about everything you talk about, but she is still a love and I have just recently realized after much research that she'll never be the off leash dog that Cali was, and that's ok. Thanks for sharing your story!

barbara_thorne said...

Thanks so much for your blog ! I think these canine behaviors are ones that only husky owners can know & understand. Huskys are extremely intelligent dogs, but also very stubborn. They learn quickly, but will often only follow commands if they see the point or if it seems to benefit them in some way. The 'come' command has been the most difficult one for her to obey when she's off leash and I often have to resort to devious tactics to try and out-think her, but she's learning my game and has already out-smarted me. Ugh... it's an ongoing battle.

MKS said...

I just brought home a 6week old male husky mix -- and I can relate to everything your saying! I just hope my 6 year old, female Lab/Rottie mix will help keep him in line!

Husky Lover said...

I loved your story. I bought my first Husky and fell in love with her. So smart and entertaining. then I bought a Husky from a puppy mill as I could not let her go back to that enviroment. Then a friend that had bought the sister to my first husky called and told me she could not take it anymore she had took a freshly decorated cake off the counter or she would go to the dog pound. I now have three Huskies. There are times I think I am totally crazy for having three but at night when the all curl up with me I would not have had the best experience. I am very lucky they all live inside and have never torn up anything expect for toliet paper that my last one thinks she needs to be healthly. Mine are all runners and I chase them down with the car so that I can give them a ride home. They are all three back talkers. They voice their opions alot and you can look at them and tell what they are thinking. I have one that like to tattle tells on the others which makes you laugh and that laughter either sparks excitement or they get mad makes them tell you off with their talking. After having Huskies for 4 1/2 years I still think I am crazy being by myself having 3 huskies.

Anonymous said...

My Bella, after a few months of training, is decent off leash. Only every no and again does she run off, but she usually comes right back. And I've noticed, that she does wonderful with another dog in the mix. My goal: find a more willing breed, and train them as a team. Hopefully that will keep her unusually bright mind occupied. And they are escape artists. Bella watched me close the latches on her kennel a few times and within a week and figured out how to open the latch with her tongue, get out, close the door, and re latch at least one of the latches. Good luck!

Chris Lajiness said...

I have had my lab husky mix for almost a year...i have been really good training Labs before so i thought nothing of this. Boy, was i wrong. When they say a husky is an escape artist, they certainly are not lying. He has escaped from everything. My favorite memory (only memory, it was a nightmare when it was happening) was when he escaped out of his backyard crate. After he got out of the crate, he escaped the yard and went on to explore the neighborhood. When I came outside after half an hour to let him in (he had peed and pooped in the house for the 100th time so i was a little irratated) i noticed him missing. I went around the neighborhood looking for him and ran into a cop running around about 2 blocks down the road. Well apparently, my dog was running up to the cop and doing the dodge game with him! He would not let him catch him. Oh man, I was in tears when the cop was telling me. Thankfully, he was a nice cop and didint give me a hard time.

Chris Lajiness said...

I have had my lab husky mix for almost a year...i have been really good training Labs before so i thought nothing of this. Boy, was i wrong. When they say a husky is an escape artist, they certainly are not lying. He has escaped from everything. My favorite memory (only memory, it was a nightmare when it was happening) was when he escaped out of his backyard crate. After he got out of the crate, he escaped the yard and went on to explore the neighborhood. When I came outside after half an hour to let him in (he had peed and pooped in the house for the 100th time so i was a little irratated) i noticed him missing. I went around the neighborhood looking for him and ran into a cop running around about 2 blocks down the road. Well apparently, my dog was running up to the cop and doing the dodge game with him! He would not let him catch him. Oh man, I was in tears when the cop was telling me. Thankfully, he was a nice cop and didint give me a hard time.