By Cathy Withall
“You can’t do agility with a Husky”, I was told. “They won’t listen! You can’t let Huskies off-lead! They won’t come back. They’re not trainable!” If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard these comments I’d have a full set of agility equipment by now, and a field to put it in!
Storm is a Husky x Northern Inuit, a big girl (32kg) with a high prey drive. She is independent, strong-willed, sensitive and intelligent. She loves people and other dogs (although not as much as she likes chasing deer) but she’s not really what most people would consider to be a typical candidate for competitive agility, and it certainly wasn’t something I had in mind when we got her!
People have asked me what it’s like training a Husky. It’s not like training a ‘normal’ working breed with a drive both to work and to please you. It’s like training with your lively, independent best friend, who has a mind of their own and doesn’t always want to do what you want to do, and is just as likely to say “I’m off! I’ll meet you at tea time!” They are partners, not biddable, obedient pets. They will take over your house, your car and your life. But the positive side is that they are wonderful, joyful dogs, and the fact that you have to work so much harder to create that partnership make success all the sweeter.
Our first dog, Gypsy, was a Labrador Mastiff cross. I had longed for a dog for most of my childhood, but had to wait until just after my 21st birthday. I was mildly obsessed with wolves, and would have loved a Husky, but we couldn’t afford one. Gypsy was the perfect first dog, devoted to us, had perfect recall, and did pretty much everything I ever asked of her. (I joke now that I know exactly what a dog with perfect recall looks like – it just isn’t the dog we have now!). We did a bit of agility for a couple of years, but completely failed to teach her to weave so we never competed. Gypsy was my constant companion and when we lost her very suddenly to cancer in December 2013 – just ten days from diagnosis to the day we let her go – I realised just how big a part of our lives she had become.
We had originally intended to have two dogs, but Gypsy put paid to that. She wasn’t keen on other dogs and even became shut down and miserable when we had a family member’s Spaniel stay for a few days, so we felt it wasn’t fair on her. But now she was gone, and the house was far too empty. We started the search for our new family member the following day.
We spent days hunting adverts – rescues, rehomes, puppies. We knew we wanted a Husky or Husky cross. After several unsuccessful enquiries, the day I collected Gypsy’s ashes from the vet I phoned about a nine week old Husky x Northern Inuit. As soon as we spoke I felt like I had known the breeder for years. We spent nearly an hour on the phone, and arranged to view the pup the following evening, driving through high winds and floods to get there. As soon as we walked through the door a stunning silver bi-eyed pup bounded over and greeted us with paws and kisses. “She hasn’t done that with anyone else!” remarked her breeder. So that was that. The dog’s mother was gorgeous with a lovely temperament. The breeder had intended to keep this pup herself but decided, in the end, that it wouldn’t be fair on her partner’s older dog.
I suggested Storm as her name, and my husband, Malk, agreed as it was more than appropriate considering the weather! It turned out to be even more so – she definitely stormed through our lives and turned them upside down! But she was the perfect puppy; happy, confident, sociable, and almost completely house-trained. We collected her 2 days before Christmas. I phoned the agility trainer I’d been to with Gypsy years before. “A Husky? Oh my,” she said. “Crossed with a what?”, she added. “You’ll have your hands full there.”
A couple of weeks into classes, a friend of hers commented “Not really a suitable breed for agility.”. but Storm won hearts with her happy-go-lucky, loving nature, and some of the biggest sceptics became her greatest fans.
We quickly learnt that our confident pup had a sensitive side – I shouted at her once when she got out of the front gate. She ran down the road through six gardens, leaping walls, crossing the road, and back up through another six gardens before she would come anywhere near me. I learnt not to do that again! Her recall was perfect until six months, when out one day I called her. She stood on the other side of a ditch and looked at me, and I swear I saw her think “Nope!” just before she turned tail and vanished back into the woods. I had to go after her and extract her from a dead bird…. Far too intelligent and instinctive for her own good (and ours!) she was soon a proficient hunter of mice and, much to my delight, spiders. Unfortunately she also soon discovered deer, and what little recall she still had vanished like the morning mist.
I shed a lot of tears in those first few months! But as frustrating as she could be, Storm reminded me daily that life was for living and enjoying, with as much enthusiasm as possible. If she’d been our first dog, I would probably have had a nervous breakdown. As it was, we coped, managed and trained. Our lives started to revolve around her, but we learnt so much. A lot of long line work and an expensive recall training course followed, and several months later we could let her off in ‘safe’ areas, or on the beach without much worry. She loved other dogs, and could read their body language perfectly. After years of having a reactive dog, and tensing every time someone else’s dog made a beeline for ours, we learnt to relax. In fact I was kept busy arranging play dates for Storm with other dogs – she had a better social life than we did!
Her recall (re!)training began with simple games like collar grab, the name game, and lots of training with a whistle and her meals. We had used a whistle for Gypsy – the only mistake we made then was to train her to a random whistle we bought somewhere, and we could never find another one that she responded to so well! So this time we used ACME whistles, guaranteed pitch and tone and easily replaceable when Storm decided to chew one. Using a whistle also means that however frustrated you get, the whistle remains the same tone. The only downside is when you meet someone else with the same whistle and they get your large dog barrelling towards them, or when in an agility ring and they’re running a gundog scurry about 50 metres away! We learnt through trial and error which treats she liked best, and to always have a selection as she became bored quickly. The other tip which seems obvious, but I only picked up recently, was to always use the highest value reward for the most difficult behaviour – in this case, recall! I had been guilty of using second rate treats to reward recall, and the highest value for agility. I’ve since started taking high value treats out when we’re at the beach (where we do most of our recall practise) and it definitely make a difference.
Recall with a northern breed is the holy grail of behaviours – most owners will tell you it’s impossible, and letting them off lead is downright stupid. We worked very hard with Storm, and we’re in a fairly good compromise situation. She’s not allowed off in forestry or around livestock. But on the beach she is fine, and in open fields with good visibility. She’s generally responsive unless she goes into hunting mode, in which case you might as well give up unless you can catch her. The biggest difficulty has been working with distractions, and being able to gradually build up the levels of distraction whilst training. We’re lucky enough to have access to a wooded fenced area, which is great for practising recall with higher distractions, and to let the dogs have a good run safely. I once attended a seminar with trainer David Ryan on chase behaviours, and although I didn’t put many of his methods into practise, the one thing I took away was that if you try and completely suppress a strong natural behaviour, you will get other behavioural problems elsewhere. Storm needs to run and chase, but it doesn’t have to be hunting. She loves bikejoring, especially if she’s on Malk’s bike chasing me – and of course chasing me round the agility ring!
Once she was old enough, we moved on from puppy classes to agility, and she loved every minute. Often she would become so excited at training that she would do zoomies round the barn, taking jumps and tunnels and top speed. I learnt not to try to catch her (impossible anyway!) but just stood with my arms folded until she stopped. She gradually learnt that it was more fun to play agility with me. Our trainer was lovely but old-fashioned in her methods, and we did everything wrong by what we know now – starting equipment on lead, lured weaves and keeping your eyes on your dog at all times (lots of rear crosses!). Storm learnt quicker than I did, and her frustration with me combined with lots of luring with treats led to her biting my arms frequently – I would come home every week with a new set of bruises.
But slowly we progressed, and when she was nearly two years old our trainer suggested we enter a small local competition. Well, she wee’d in two of the rings, and poo’d in the other, but we both loved it. A couple of months later, she got her first clear steeplechase and I cried – happy tears! – and the buzz was amazing. I posted on the Agilitynet Facebook page, bursting with pride, and the judge from her agility round (Becci Chant of Positive Agility) commented, congratulating us. She was a local trainer I’d been aware of for a while, but I was wary of going to trainers without knowing if they were sympathetic to northern breeds. When I saw her comment I booked some training, little knowing our agility journey was about to take off in a whole new direction.
In hindsight there are so many things about Storm’s early training I would have done differently. We slowed her down, didn’t build drive and independence, and didn’t teach value for equipment. But agility training has changed beyond all recognition in the past few years, and luckily we found a way of training which has suited us both. Slowing Storm down and not teaching forward drive were probably the two issues that have taken us longest to address. We have only just started to see real speed from her in the past few months, and she is still reluctant to drive forwards in a straight line without me.
A handling workshop with Becci was a real eye-opener, highlighting our weaknesses with a very bright spotlight. Becci said that she could help re-train Storm’s bouncy, frustrated weaves, so I booked a 1-2-1 session. We learnt about ketschkers and front crosses, forward focus (the discovery of the lotus ball was a revelation for our foodie dog!) and weaves.
Game-changing weaves. Inspired, we practised at home and within weeks her weaves were transformed – and Storm was loving every minute. Course running nights were a chance to train in a competition environment, something I had never known about before. The biting stopped almost completely as Storm became less frustrated; I was now giving her clearer signals in good time. We continued with lessons over the winter, and soon had a place in a weekly class. Only a few months previously I would never have imagined spending this much time and money on agility. But our new training had fanned the flame of enthusiasm, and the fire demanded fuel…
We struggled with focus once the outdoor season began. Our first outdoor clear came with an agility run at Carn Brae show in May, and then we had nothing for weeks. I could see the pieces of the jigsaw coming together, but Storm was still easily distracted and we lost a few runs when she dived out of the ring to find Malk, or on the all too common G1 courses with long straights – she was still looking at me too much and I couldn’t send her on ahead. But we had a good summer, learning lots both in and out of the ring.
I also learnt about looking after the health of our dog, and Storm had her first McTimoney treatment to help maintain fitness. I helped on a ring for the first time, learnt to score and scrime, and understand how shows worked. At the beginning of the year I’d said to Malk that it would be nice to do one show a month this season. By the end of 2016 we had racked up 16 shows, including our first weekend away. With hindsight, although I sometimes I wish I had started agility sooner, I don’t think I would have been able to cope, either financially or with the confidence needed to travel and compete on my own (Malk enjoyed coming with me, but wasn’t always able to due to work.) I have never been good at meeting new people, but I found it easy at shows – most people were friendly and welcoming, and we all had something in common.
At the beginning of August, after weeks without a clear round, and yet to place, Storm showed us all what she could do by taking rosettes in six out of seven classes – including winning an Agility class to take us to Grade 2. I cried again, so proud of our crazy girl. We’d had an emotional few weeks after issues with our other dog at the time and, true to form, Storm knew just what to do and how to pick me up when it mattered. She went on to take a second place in Jumping the following month, and had a Jumping win at a Champ show in October.
Of course, as in all training, we’d taken three steps forward and one step back. We now concluded that the next area to work on were her contacts. Storm was prone to jumping off the A-frame, and her dog walk was creepy and required me to control her on every inch of the down plank. However, she was highly motivated by chasing me, so rather than try to fix her non-existent stop contacts, we made the decision to train running contacts over the winter. I hoped that this would give us an edge on speed, as slowing down took a lot of momentum away from Storm, and also be better from a health point of view as she wouldn’t be stopping suddenly and throwing all her considerable weight through her front legs.
If you take this route with your own dog, don’t do it lightly. It can be frustrating, it needs to be practised frequently but in short bursts, and it requires you to develop an eye for seeing where your dog hits and an ear to hear their stride pattern. Running contacts are rapidly gaining in popularity, but they are not always trained well, and require patience and discipline to develop and maintain criteria. There are several methods, and some good online courses, or you may be lucky enough to have a trainer like Becci who has trained and retrained a variety of dogs on both running and stop contacts. Also, DO NOT compete in agility whilst training – trust me when I say it will only make the process longer – I should know! Stick to jumping, if you have an already competing dog.
The A-frame was a relatively easy exercise, and with the aid of a stride regulator and some back-chaining we cracked this in a matter of weeks. Storm already had a kind of bang-and-go see-saw, and hadn’t missed a see-saw contact since I could remember, so we left that alone. Which just left the dogwalk. Becci had retrained some of her dogs previously, so had looked at several methods. We played about with a couple of different ideas to see what would work best for Storm.
We spent weeks practising with a plank in the garden, trying different words to get her to run faster. This was where our lack of foundation came back to haunt us (again!) as Storm liked to focus on me and not forwards on equipment. I tried ‘run’, ‘go’, ‘hike’ (she knew that from bikejoring). Becci and I discussed the merits of the different verbals, tone and pitch of voice, length of sound, and eventually we settled on a flat sounding ‘frame, frame’ for the A-frame, “see, see” for the see-saw, and for the dogwalk a high pitched “walk, walk” to indicate the equipment, followed by an excited “go, go, go!” once she was on it.
I’m not going to detail all our training – 95% of it was Becci’s work, and I think Storm and I frustrated her a lot that winter! Suffice to say it was a little unconventional, but we made progress. I have to say that without my lovely friend Shirley, we would have really struggled – she lives a few miles from me and has her own equipment, and I practically took over her dogwalk that winter, lowering it onto boxes and turning up 2 or 3 times a week to practise.
We went to a UKA show in January to train in the ring, but it was too soon for Storm, and although the A-frame was good her dogwalk was pretty appalling. It was just the start of a spell of frustration – a minor injury showed up at our first KC show of the season, the only symptoms being her refusal to left wing wrap and sniffing round the course. The only bright point was being told that I had become an ‘enlightened handler’ – instead of thinking my dog was being difficult, I had immediately assumed that there was something physically wrong.
It’s so important to have our dogs regularly checked physically, not just by a vet, but a specialist like a physio or chiro. Unlike us, they don’t moan about minor injuries and ailments, and will keep trying to do what we ask. Fortunately Storm has a strong sense of self-preservation, and tends to NOT do what I ask her if it hurts. But she’s also not really built for agility, and usually needs some minor treatment during her three-monthly checkups. Our agility dogs are like athletes, and so just as human athletes have regular treatments both for maintenance and recovery, we owe it to them to do the same. A routine checkup for our younger dog, Morgana, showed up a significant imbalance in her growth which resulted in us pulling her out of foundation training in November and putting her on a rehabilitation plan. Six months later she is improving, and I hope that she will be able to start training again in the next few months. But without that we could easily have carried on and caused long-term damage.
Storm soon recovered, and we got back to training, but the dog walk was still hit and miss (pun intended!). Toys were not rewarding for her, she wanted food, which made training in the ring difficult. I bought a remote treat dispenser to help Storm’s forward focus. I thought we were progressing in April when she hit her first running dog walk in the ring. But by early June we hit rock bottom. I was frustrated and becoming tentative in the ring, with the result that Storm was getting slower and more unsure of what I was asking her to do.
Part of the challenge of competing with a northern breed is motivating them. Fortunately Storm loved agility from the start – she was the reason I started competing in the first place. There were times that year when I questioned this, but the photos of her in the ring told me that she still loved this game; I was just putting too much pressure on her and myself. And it wasn’t until Becci watched us compete, and managed to work her usual miracle of giving me an ear bashing and pep talk combined, that I realised just how much my mood was affecting Storm.
I have always struggled with nerves, and spent months in our first year of competition standing in queues repeating in my head “it’s just another practise run”. In our early competitions, when Storm was as likely to visit the judge or do zoomies round the ring, I learnt quickly that the more wound up I was, the worse her behaviour was and the more I anticipated that behaviour and worried about it… the phrase “vicious cycle” comes to mind! Now I was learning that factors outside agility could also affect our performance, and if I wasn’t 100% in the game, she wouldn’t be either.
We decided to concentrate on making Storm’s runs happy and fast, regardless of the results. We progressed, getting some better times and even a clear agility run – albeit at a snail’s pace, as it was the last run of a weekend on Sunday and I had woken her from a deep sleep to do the course! By July she had started her old trick of doing zoomies in the ring, and although I removed her immediately (at least once I could catch her…), I wasn’t unhappy as it meant she was having fun. In early July she got her second G2 Jumping win.
Storm had also started to eat grass in the ring – not just little nibbles, but great mouthfuls of loose grass. I tried various methods – removing her immediately, carrying on running and screaming like a banshee – nothing really helped. She would dive for clumps of loose, cut grass, even run under jumps – quite a feat for a dog her size – and she once ran a whole jumping class whilst eating grass. It felt like a compulsion rather than a behaviour, so I started adding green vegetables and SmartBarf to her raw food, both of which she loved. As I write this it seems to be helping – time will tell…
Then, at the end of July, I put Storm in a practice ring at a show. She did a perfect dog walk first time, and I threw treats at her like she hadn’t eaten for a week. Apparently someone watching said, “And THAT’S how you reward your dog!”
I felt the nerves start to bite as I queued for our agility run, but quickly stamped on it – just more practise, I told myself. On the start line the scrime said “Ah, I’ve been told to watch your running contacts!” I cringed inside, but just replied that we would see. It was a lovely straight dogwalk entry and exit, but I couldn’t have told you if she hit it or not – I just kept running. Storm handled the lovely course beautifully, and I gave her a jackpot reward when we finished. Then I realised we’d gone clear… and won! The only clear in the whole class, and we were now Grade 3.
Finally, it was starting to click – Storm was starting to understand what I was asking her to do, and as long as the course was right for her, and I handled it properly, she would hit the contact. She was now hitting fairly consistently in training, although we still had a long way to go. But more importantly after the past few months she was happy in the ring again, and so was I. She came 5th in her Agility at her first G3 show – only let down by a sniffy grass eating moment in the weaves. By the end of the year we were placing regularly in G3 classes. We were also doing more UKA shows, and in January we had qualified for the first ever South West Winter Finals in both Steeplechase and Performance (both with wins). I was delighted with her performance at the Finals. We got through both the semi rounds and placed 5th in the Steeplechase and 3rd in the Agility, beaten only by G6 and G7 collies! We also had a massive compliment from the judge about our ‘amazing’ running dogwalk.
At our first KC show in February, she placed in both Steeplechase and Jumping, and went on to win the Combined G3-4 agility – by just 0.003 of a second! G3 was the grade I had thought we would struggle to win out of, but just six months after our last win out she’d done it again. As a bonus we also now had enough points that Storm was now Storm Wolfdesigns AW(B).
This spring we have been working on waits. Now pretty good in training, I decided that the only difference between the competition ring and training was me so I resolved to throw runs if need be. After all we were now G4 and I was going to start really needing a wait! I actually shocked myself as to how easy it was once I changed my mindset. Determined not to let Storm break, I walked into the ring with no thought for any result but a wait. And there it was. Twice. On the second run she stood up, so I went back and reset her, and watching the video back I swear you can see Storm thinking “Oh, you actually mean wait? OK then.”
I did have to throw a run the following week when she broke her wait and took the first jump but the rest of the runs were fine. Another lesson in just how important our behaviour is. If you’re struggling with something in the ring that you can do perfectly in training, look at all the factors, from your warm-up routine, to what you do in the queue, and have someone video you both in training and in competition.
We’ve already completed two of our goals for this year – G4, and her first agility warrant. The rest of this year is now about relaxing in G4, dog walk turns, and chasing a few ABC qualifiers. My dream is to qualify Storm for Crufts, and prove to the world that you can do agility with a Husky. I realise just how high I am aiming in trying to qualify her for a national competition. She’s not the easiest dog to train, and she certainly tries my patience (and positivity!) at times. But that makes the moments when it all comes together all the sweeter. And I remind myself that she is first and foremost our very special girl, part of our family, and although agility might be my obsession it’s not everything. And so with the backing of my wonderful husband, my inspiring trainer and the amazing friends I’ve made in the world of agility, we’ll keep trying. Because if you aim for the moon, even if you don’t make it, you’ll land amongst the stars.