YES! You can train a husky. Or a wolfdog. Or a Shiba. Or any of the intelligent, independent, willful Asian or Northern breeds. :-) Want some tips? Here are my go-to moves to build a solid working relationship with a primitive dog.
*TLDR at bottom, click here
The primitive dog asks, "Why?"
Many dogs will eagerly try to accomplish whatever you ask of them, just because you asked for it. I can hear you husky people laughing already. Northern breeds disdainfully receive your "commands", and ask, "Why?"...and you'll need a good answer. It usually comes down to three things.
-Who the heck are YOU, and why should I listen to you?
-What's in it for me?
-What happens if I don't?
These questions will be answered below, but here are a couple of good introductory links on the topic: Hard to Train Dogs and Who do you think you are?
Who works for who?
Let's face it, whether it's the office or at home with your dog, someone's got to be in charge. Dogs don't understand democracy, and if *someone* is going to be directing the show, it should be YOU...not your dog. Dogs are the perfect sidekick! But, you should play the role of the "hero", the one who comes up with the plan.
Essentially, what you want is to establish a permission-based lifestyle. This link from The Good Dog talks about what that means, and why it's so effective.
Leadership is a key element in working with primitive dogs. These breeds tend to still have a fair amount of rank drive, and social expectations. If there is ONE thing I recommend above all others to create a nice dog out of the "high end" breeds, it is solid, believable leadership. (Positive reinforcement is a close second. Yes, SECOND. That should tell you how important good leadership is! Between those two, you are well on your way to creating a respectful and responsive dog, who is a joy to live with.)
My own program for developing a state of "Me Leader, You Follower!" is over here: Follower's Boot Camp. Not every dog needs all of the things in that program. It was created as a resource, to give lots of options and to handle ANY dog, no matter how confident or self-important he may feel.
There are many different trainers who have written on the importance of good leadership. It's brought up again and again, because of how powerful this one facet of the relationship can be. Most people with well-adjusted dogs are doing a decent job of it by by default, even if they're unaware of doing it...but I feel like being self-aware of the mechanisms is often helpful, so here are some more great resources on Leadership. leadership links Remember: Leaders initiate; followers react.
Please note that "being the boss" should never be about physically bullying a dog into compliance...and while many dogs are so forgiving that they will accept your shortcomings and comply, primitive dogs may not be so tolerant. If you physically correct an adult primitive with whom you have no relationship, they may ignore you, or even come up the leash at you--for they (understandably!) see your correction as, not respected guidance from a trusted superior, but rather a physical assault from a stranger. However, corrections are generally well-received and deferred to, when they're coming from someone with the "right" to correct, in the dog's worldview. Not everyone is automatically "the boss of" a primitive dog, but what somebody *important* says, matters. An interesting example of how rank makes you worth listening to, and learning from, can be found here: Miklosi paper on social learning. Social privilege is PSYCHOLOGICAL. You have to win their minds.
Teaching the distracted pupil
Once you have his respect, you can start teaching! It's never too early. Puppies can learn to Sit reliably as early as 6 weeks of age.
I use mainly positive reinforcement training when teaching new behaviours. Most folks are already familiar with this, and there are a ton of resources available on the internet. I especially like "bridge and target" training and luring, to get them into positions. I'll also sometimes use mechanical placement, because in my experience, it is so much simpler and less frustrating for both human and animal, to physically show what you want rather than to wait around hoping the animal will accidentally offer the behaviour. I've never had the patience for "shaping", and I've found that primitive dogs don't seem to, either.
I like to explicitly teach eye contact and focus. Here are some links on a great game to get your dog to make eye contact, in order to get what he wants: description video example Once he learns eye contact, encourage him to USE IT! Require eye contact to ask for permission, any time he wants something. Reward him for "checking in" during walks. You are building two-way communication here.
Practice obedience. Teach tricks. Even if you don't care about the commands themselves...the specific commands are not the point. The point is the interaction itself, the (rewarding) games, and the dog responding to human cues. What you want is to convince the dog that *he works for you*, and to get that habit ingrained to the point where it's basically a reflex. You have brainwashed your dog! :-D But, it's using your superpowers for good, not for evil. I teach young wolfdog puppies to Sit for food, ask permission via eye contact, yield to physical restraint or spatial pressure, and defer to humans...and when they're old and grey, they don't waver from it.
Set your dog up to succeed. When you train, try to be in the right frame of mind. Make it fun. Make it easy. Don't wait for him to screw up--control the environment so that it's hard for him to fail, and be explicit about what you expect. "Don't do that!" doesn't give enough information...What DO you want? Show him that. Praise and reward his successes. You're not only bonding and building his confidence, you're creating his investment in the interaction. We like to play games that we understand, and that we can win.
Teach words, including Yes and No. Dogs don't know what "No" (or Ahh!) means until you teach them. The right body language on your part goes a long way towards helping them understand... I don't use a clicker, so Yes is my reward marker. :-)
Some primitive dogs are not food-motivated. There are ways around this, such as using praise or toys as rewards, using small pieces of their daily meals as a training salary, building food drive (very interesting link on this here), upping the value of the rewards to something like freeze-dried liver, hot dogs, rotisserie chicken, or cheese...or simply not relying on food to train. Read on for ways to train without food...
Life rewards and self-rewards
Big Trick #3 for primitives is to teach "indirect access". They have to go through YOU, to get what they want. If they want a walk, they have to Sit and give eye contact. If they want to sniff a tree, they have to ask permission by giving eye contact, then walk over on a loose leash. If they pull, the walk stops, or moves in a different direction. The No Free Lunch program, mentioned in Follower's Boot Camp, is a good example of working through the owner to accomplish what they want. There are some more examples at this link on indirect access. Waiting politely for the owner to go through gates or doorways first will not only build self-control, but will also teach that the dog only goes through once his owner has "cleared the way" and given the approval. Wait him out! You can be more persistent than a dog. If he's jumping at the door, ignore him. When he comes to you, sits politely, and asks for you to open the door via calm eye contact, then the door will open. Remember that what you reward--be it calm energy, polite behaviours, or obnoxiousness--is what you'll get more of. Dogs do what works.
Don't let him self-reward. If he blows past you at the door and gets to party in the yard, he controlled his own rewards, reinforced his own behaviour, and you have just become irrelevant. What do you think will happen next time? If you know he doesn't hold back at thresholds, work on that. Keep him on a leash. Crack the door open, and if he tries to squeeze through, close it. The door never opens until he is sitting calmly a few feet away, respectfully giving his owner some space. Susan Garrett's "Crate Games" is a great way to teach dogs about thresholds!
BE CONSISTENT. If you give a command, make sure it happens...even if you have to assist the dog in getting into position. If you call him and he ignores you, keep him on a long leash and reel him in. Never give a command you can't enforce. Yep, this requires discipline on the part of the human, too! :-D It's much easier to just let them do what they want, but not enforcing commands is effectively teaching them that your words are only "suggestions", and the dog can choose whether or not to listen.
Don't let him!
At the end of the day, your dog only has so much power. You know how the world works. You have the opposable thumbs. If he's doing things you don't like--Don't Let Him! Control the environment, so that he doesn't have the ability to wreak havoc. Free rein of the house is a privilege, and privileges must be earned. It's not something that you "owe" your dog...and *especially* not your puppy! I see so many people getting frustrated, because their dog races gleefully from one disaster to the next, and they feel very helpless and overwhelmed. Give yourself a break! You have the right to some peace, as well. Dogs do not need to run about aimlessly, 24/7. In fact, wild dogs sleep 20+ hours per day...so when you're off your A-game and you don't feel like training, put him up. Management is a great way to prevent mistakes, and prevention is always better than rehearsing the things you DON'T want! :-) Crate train him, and/or put up a secure fence so he can learn to relax and manage his time, without requiring constant supervision. While I'm not a huge fan of crating huskies--I'd much rather let them run around in a securely fenced yard, with a canine playmate--all dogs should be acclimated to the crate, so they don't stress out if the crate is necessary, and so they can learn to self-soothe. Fencing can be tough for huskies, wolfdogs, Shibas, and similar dogs...but here's a link to improving your fencing security. If you have an escape artist, hopefully you'll find a modification here that works for you.
When training, set boundaries for your dog, and enforce them. Keep him on a leash if you need to. Interrupt or correct him, if you need to. Use those opposable thumbs and that big brain. If he shouldn't be doing that, then Don't Let Him.
"But I WANT!"
Impulse control tends to be a big thing, with Northerns. They're high energy dogs that are used to looking out for #1! They trust their own judgment, probably more than they trust yours. It will take time and effort to change that.
Some of the techniques mentioned earlier will help a lot with impulse control. Consistently enforced obedience, Doggie Zen (to get the treat, you stop trying to grab the treat--and give eye contact instead), Crate Games and respecting thresholds will all build self-control. Remember that you can backtie the dog to prevent him from jumping on you or grabbing food, if necessary. You never want it to become a physical competition, or a battle of wills. Just strategically set the environment up in your favor. Other good impulse control exercises include Leave It, Sit on the Dog, and teaching the "Settle" command. Here's a fairly comprehensive link on impulse control: impulse control basics
Another exercise in patience, focus, and self control is the loose-leash walk. Daily walks are great for bonding, team-building, mental enrichment, and leadership. However, being yanked around by a dog is pretty much the opposite of leadership! I strongly recommend teaching the dog to respond to leash pressure. Here are some good videos on leash pressure: Tyler Muto Michael Ellis You want the dog to stay aware of YOU, and not only because he can feel your drag on his leash! He should be anticipating your direction and speed, and be ready to respond to that. Week One of Koehler training is a great way to establish this attention. Link here: Koehler Week 1
I have a little routine that I use for leash walks. The dog Sits to have the leash put on, waits until I open the door and walk through it myself, and then follows after me when I announce, "Let's Go!". This makes sure the dog "has his ears on" and is attuned to me before the walk begins. If your dog is especially excited, waiting for calmness and/or practicing a bit of obedience first can be helpful. :-)
Take the time to teach loose leash walking, and walks will be a relationship-builder instead of a chore.
Losing it in translation.
Primitive dogs expect you to meet them partway. I know, I know. You're not a dog. THEY know you're not a dog. But I don't "get" the idea that it's somehow demeaning to learn their language, and try to approximate it enough that you have great, two-way communication. If you had a friend who was French, would you demand that he learn English, because "it's ridiculous for you to learn French--you're not French!"? Your dog is just a freaking DOG--if he can learn a whole bunch of human-speak, the least you can do is develop a bit of knowledge of his language as well. There are lots of great resources on canine body language out there. It would help if you learned some of their social rules, as well. Your dog will judge you by his own worldview, because that's all he is capable of. Try not to be rude. ;-)
Also, be aware of the language barrier, and the culture gap. So, he disobeyed--was it due to fear, dominance, hyperactivity, lack of focus... or, could it be that you just haven't taught this command to the point where he fully understands it? Start with low distraction, and work your way up. Be flexible--not every dog has the same motivations, or concerns, or level of confidence. Try to take a dog's-eye view, and be aware of what's going on with your individual dog. If you're not sure, get a second set of eyes on that, either through a trainer, an experienced friend, or a video that you can share.
"A tired dog is a good dog..."
Within reason, a well exercised dog tends to be calmer and better behaved. However, don't think you can jog the mischief out of a husky! The more you exercise them, the more you are building the stamina of a canine athlete. Some people have literally scheduled *hours* into their day for exercising the dog, in the futile hopes that this will cure all his problems. Train him, manage him, correct him when necessary...these will do far more than any amount of exercise is likely to. Bear in mind that mental exercise is often more effective than physical exercise! Obedience or trick training, stuffed Kongs, puzzle toys, new places, group walks, unfamiliar smells, car rides, doggie playdates...all of these can wear your dog out where it counts. Don't forget to provide an outlet for the prey (play) drive!
Just as humans with good social skills tend to get ahead in life, so it is with dogs. A well socialised canine can navigate conflicts that would throw a lesser dog into a fight, or at least keep him from his goals. While dogs do know that we are not dogs, many symbolic actions easily carry over, and are understood. Meeting a primitive dog partway is an incredibly effective way to communicate. Dogs are nonverbal, and therefore very physical animals! Don't be afraid to handle your dog. He is not fragile. (Anyone who's watched dogs play hard together, knows that!) Teach restraint--the collar grab, full body hugs, being picked up, handling of all body parts. Pet 'em like you own 'em! Teach respect for your personal space. Dogs are very aware of spatial pressure--often far more than most humans are aware of the spatial pressure they are putting on the dog! Here are some links on using space: space, 1 space, 2, and yielding to spatial pressure.
You can learn an enormous amount about dogs, by just sitting quietly and observing them. Primitive dogs (and wolves) tend to be especially clear and obvious in their communications. I also recommend researching canine drives, the science of ethology, and social interaction in general.
I've seen many complaints from people who baby their dog, and are constantly trying to engage with him and give affection. They're often disappointed to find that the dog they worship actually defers more to their standoffish partner, and listens better to him, and is more eager to gain his favor. This is because being "cool" and somewhat standoffish elevates you, in dog society. Look at the way dog or wolf puppies defer to the adults, and note the body language and composure of those adults. Ignoring a dog, especially upon the initial greeting, creates respect. Calling him to you for attention on your terms, rather than allowing him to demand it by forcing himself into your lap or barking, creates respect. In fact, the technique of "social isolation" is one way to restore your position, if you have a dog with rank issues. Metaphorically, he is a serf, not the King--don't tailor your life around catering to his desires...or if you do, don't let him know it!
At the same time, it's very important to build a bond with your dog! Many of the things mentioned above are very bonding. Working for you builds attachment. Walks with his "pack", games, petting and grooming, two-way communication, feeding rituals, and sharing new experiences are all very team-building. I like to put extra effort into mental enrichment, with primitive breeds, because they are so intelligent and seek novelty. We play lots of games, especially prey games, to keep their minds fulfilled. ANYTHING can be a puzzle, or a game! Cheap toys from the thrift store, or empty boxes or bottles, can easily be repurposed for the day's Game. some of our games...
It's about Family.
It's easy to get caught up in what your dog does wrong, but don't lose sight of the friendship. Remember to spend even more time having FUN together! I'm sure this whole training discussion sounds a bit boot-campy, but it's balanced out by letting the dogs have a large chunk of their day pressure-free...out playing with their friends, in a big safe yard, with lots of mental enrichment and people-love. (Strict rules may apply when they are "on the clock", on MY time and expected to be working...but they also enjoy frequent breaks and vacations just like anybody else!) Your dog is still your Family. Seek out opportunities to praise. Go places, do enjoyable things together. Remember the rule of being a good manager--have a few nice things to say, to balance out every criticism. Corrections are sometimes necessary, but they should be only a small part of your relationship. You don't like someone who criticizes you constantly but never has anything nice to say...and neither does your dog.
A word on tools.
Could you stop his pulling with a prong? Or a no-pull harness? Sure. Just be careful that either is fitted correctly, so he doesn't break free of them. Nobody likes a loose husky! What about an e-collar? That's not my forte, but I'm sure an experienced e-collar user will be able to tailor it appropriately to primitive dogs. (A newbie e-collar enthusiast would do better to set it aside and work from the ground up, with this kind of dog, in my experience.) The right tool for the job can give you leverage, especially if the dog has poor focus or can physically overpower the handler. However, I have not focused on tools in this article because I am more interested in the psychology of these intelligent, independent, high rank drive, prey-driven, natural-acting dogs, and how that applies to their training.
Remember that primitive dogs will usually cut you less slack, than a dog who's been selectively bred to focus on and appease humans. They are less tractable--which means more effort and consistency on your part--and less tolerant of human error, so bring your best game! :-)
*TLDR, for the people in a hurry, who want to know if this article's payoff is worth their time: Convincing leadership, indirect access exercises, impulse control, consistent enforcement, two-way communication, focus, motivation, optimizing the rewards, dog-specific "social martial arts", setting them up to succeed, controlling the environment, waiting it out (!), teaching Yes and No, and building that bond, are my keys to winning a primitive dog's cooperation. Also recommended are some related exercises and programs, such as No Free Lunch, Crate Games, and Sit on the Dog.