by Grayson Schaffer | on June 4th, 2009 | in Features, Your Questions
Post your training conundrum in the comments section below.
Q. I have two Alaskan huskies that are so smart and loving, but every time they are off-leash they run away and NEVER come back. Two or three days after they take off, someone will find them and give me a call to pick them up. I try desperately to keep them contained or on-leash at all times, but huskies are clever escape artists. I exercise them a few miles a night but they still run away every chance they get. I’ve been told that huskies will always run away, and you can’t train them not to. Is that really true? Is there any way to teach them to come back? —Amber
A. Amber, what you’re hearing is more or less true. Huskies have been selectively bred for their strong instinct to run long distances in freezing temperatures. I interviewed three-time Iditarod champion Lance Mackey for Outside’s March issue, and he had this to say on the subject: They’re designed and raised specifically for this sport. And in reality, they’re useless unless this is what they’re doing. They’re not a real laid back kind of dog. They don’t make good house pets. Their mentality is to run. You take ‘em of the chain and, shit, they’re gone—they run off. Now, Mackey was talking about dogs from his kennel that were bred specifically for racing. If your dogs are a few generations removed from mushing, their drive may not be quite so strong. Here are a few ideas to keep them closer to home.
- If they love their food, you can use this as a powerful reward for a successful recall. You’ll know you can train a recall if your dogs get excited when they hear the rustling of the feed bag or the clang of the dinner bowl. If those sounds have become conditioned reinforcers for the dog, you’ll know you can train other sounds to mean the same thing: Come to food. Read a few of our posts on recall, but a shortcut: Get a dog whistle and give the recall trill just before rustling the foodbag or filling the dogs’ bowls. Do this consistently over several weeks until the link between whistle and food is ironclad.
- You may also be unwittingly reinforcing the running-away behavior. If, on the occasions when the dogs do come back, you immediately leash them and take them home, you’re teaching them that a successful recall means the fun’s over. There’s something called Premack’s Principle in animal psychology, which says that you can use a high-probability behavior to reinforce a low-probability behavior. It’s the old, If you clean your room you can go out and play. If you come when called, you can go run some more. Try this in a big fenced run. (A lot of rural animal shelters provide these for the public free of charge.) Practice your recall. When the dogs return to you. Release them again and encourage them to run and play. The idea is that, through repetition, they’ll stop seeing the recall as a game-ender.
- An e-collar might be helpful, but, with a huskie, you should consult a professional animal behaviorist. With a Lab, the first instinct after getting a jolt will usually be to run to the owner or to scratch at the collar. A huskie may bolt and run into the next county.
Lastly, here’s a high-tech fix that won’t exactly solve your problem, but could help reduce your stress. Garmin makes the Astro GPS tracking collar that can pinpoint the location of both of your dogs on a hand-held screen that you carry. It seems that if your dogs are going to act like a pack of roaming wolves, you might need to take a page from the book of wolf field biologists and wire them up with tracking collars.