Updated: Apr 28, 2020
For the second installment of this series, I had the pleasure of continuing my conversation with fellow dog trainer Kristi Benson. Kristi runs Kristi Benson Dog Training in Manitoba, Canada and is a fellow lover of huskies and all things sled dog. Kristi’s column in The Sled Dogger Magazine is even titled Husky Help Line. Kristi has also devoted time to rescuing sled dogs. If you missed what she had to say in Part 1, click here.
Glenna: How did you get your start working with sled dogs?
Kristi: I got my start with sled dogs when I was working as an anthropologist in the Canadian arctic community of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. I’d moved there with my partner for work (and adventure) and a few months after we arrived, we got this random phone call late one evening. A musher had gotten our name from a friend of a friend and was wondering if we’d be willing to house-sit and watch some of their sled dogs as they went away for a few months racing. We said sure, because… obviously, why not!? It turned out to be a crash course in mayhem, with thirty dogs to feed and care for. Fast forward a few years and we were leaving Inuvik to move to our currently home in Manitoba. We adopted 12 semi-retired racing dogs at that time.
Glenna: And what made you stick with them?
Kristi: We enjoyed sled dog sports enormously, including dog scootering, skijoring, and running small teams. And I like how independent and forgiving sled dogs are…they’re happy to have me around, but they’re also happy to do their own thing. They’re scrappy and silly and fun. And man, do they pull hard. Has [your dog] ever done traction sports or worked in harness?
Glenna: I've never had the opportunity to have Portia pull in harness actually! All we've done in that sort of vein is canicross. Of course I would be so excited to try something like that but I don't know anyone locally that could help us get started. I would love to know how sled dogs are trained in directional cues. How do you go about training your dogs 'gee,' 'haw,' etc.?
Kristi: We never really taught directional cues. If the dogs went the wrong way, we’d just brake. At some point they’ll try the other way. At that point: release brake. If you need directional cues, you can free shape them or just add a cue to the protocol above, and use some Whoop Whoop Whooping and speed up briefly (both of which are generally a bit reinforcing to sled dogs) when they make the right call. There’s a book on training leaders which involves setting up a trail that is a big wagon wheel shape…and you go around making turns at all the corners (or not). We played around with it a bit, but if you’re not racing and therefore not around other teams, cues are not super important.
Other cues that might be fun to train if you like training, though, are “on by” which means pass whatever it is you want to stop and investigate, and “tighten up” which means two dogs must get close to pass between objects that constrict the trail. That’s useful on urban trails with posts.
I trained some dogs to “line out” but since I’m lazy to the extreme, never took it to the end point (line out and stay for a minute despite dog distractions etc.)
Glenna: I've been perilously close at times to adding another husker to the household, but my dog is really a loner and doesn't live happily with other dogs. I'm always struck by how amazing it is that people that are hardcore into traction sports are able to work with up to 14 dogs on a single team, and the amount of work and care that goes into that. I do have a hard time accepting the 'tied up in a dog yard' life that many sled dogs are relegated to, however. I'd love to know your thoughts on the subject.
Kristi: I’m against keeping dogs tethered. I’m not against tethering in dog yards for a few hours here and there, or even “when owner is away at work” or something. But I’ve come around to believing that sled dogs in dog yards live terribly unenriched lives. It will be illegal in our lifetimes, and already is in many places. The vast majority of dogs live better, happier lives inside, and they should be given the choice.
Glenna: What advice would you give to folks who are interested in trying traction sports but who have no idea where to start?
Kristi: Check in your local area for recreational micro-mushing activities. Attend a few events and see if any of the particular activities grab your interest… if so, there is probably a class or workshop where you can learn to fit the harness and safely start out. If your dog isn’t in great shape, you’ll want to check with your vet first to get the all-clear. There is a caveat: avoid instructors who make use of aversive tools such as shock collars, yelling, or similar. Dogs pull in harness because they love to pull, and learning how to work as a team with your pulling dog is less about discipline and more about collegiality.
I’ve never lived in a city with a husky, and I always find it so great how people manage to make it work. Can you tell me some of the ways you meet her needs while living in a populated area?
Glenna: That's a great question. When we lived back in Tennessee, we were very close by to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park and would frequently hike there without encountering anyone. My dog, Portia, has always been given the standard daily walks, but we also feed her kibble exclusively from work-to-eat toys and are always working on something training related. We've also had our times of running together on a regular basis, not so much these days unfortunately!
Now that we're in New Jersey, the only challenge is being surrounded by considerably more people and dogs. But truthfully there are more dog friendly spots here than where we were before, plenty of hiking and opportunities to visit the beach. I've also found that I am able to walk her more here since leash laws are strictly enforced. You typically don't see that kind of thing in more rural areas.
Enrichment in the form of toys and training is so important for her though. I strongly believe that if you provide your dog's mental and physical needs through other outlets, it is not necessary for them to have a large fenced in yard or be banned from apartment life. I've had a husky for nearly 10 years now and have not once lived somewhere with a fenced in yard. This is where I clash with a lot of husky based rescues, who often make that a requirement of adopters. I feel like a lot of potentially great homes get filtered out that way.
On that topic, what were the sort of traits you looked for in folks wanting to adopt a sled dog from your rescue?
Kristi: When I was in conversations with potential adopters, I was looking for a few things. They had to be willing to consider only the use of positive reinforcement techniques to train the dogs, even if they had used coercive training in the past. This was particularly important considering many of the dogs who came through our rescue were a bit fearful of new people. If people were immovable about their knowledge of dogs and the need for painful or scary training, they were politely declined. I also wanted to know the dog would be exercised reasonably. Sled dogs are active (although not nearly as much as some of the herding breeds) and they need daily exercise. I was also keen to hear that the dogs wouldn’t be left alone longer than a standard work day. And finally, there is a big risk with sled dogs: bolting. After a few very heart-breaking instances where we lost dogs to bolting, we got serious about the risk of bolting with our adopters. Outside of these items, we were happy to have any type of family apply!
What do you wish you had known about northern breeds before you and Portia made a team?
Glenna: Not so much regarding northern breeds specifically, but I wish I had known about socialization when I got Portia. I was very ignorant of how to raise a puppy and thought that all dogs came from the box liking other dogs and strangers, and the ones that didn't were exceptions to the rule. How very wrong I was!
A big thank you to Kristi for the great conversation and I look forward to continuing this series in the future. If you'd like to learn more, you can read Kristi's blog and find her on Facebook. All photo credit for this blog post is to Kristi, we appreciate her sharing her adorable pups with us!