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
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.