Rob's Blog Archive

April 29, 2012

Understanding the Siberian Husky Mind










I had broken up with my first girlfriend and was wandering the streets, clearing my mind.  Walking past Lacy Park in San Marino, about a mile and a half from home, I spotted a black and white Siberian Husky.  She was stuck behind a fence on the north side of the park and seemed to be confused about how to get out.  I showed her a gap in the fence and she happily walked through.  Having done my good deed, I continued my walk.  The husky followed.  I sat down figuring she’d wander off.  She sat next to me.  After five minutes, I stood up and headed home.  By the time I got to the house in which I lived, Sapura led me to the door.  Sup was my companion until she passed away in 1989.

Some 35 years after Sapura and I met, I realize that her behavior that night qualified as bait and switch.  While Sapura was actually okay off leash, it was always on her own terms.  If she was in sight AND there was nothing terribly interesting, she’d come when I called her.  Either being out of sight or having something more interesting to attend to meant that if she responded to a recall at all, it was by running farther away. 

After Sapura passed away, I went dogless for almost nine years.  It wasn’t until the summer of 1998 that I started looking seriously at getting back into dogs.  As a part of my “research” I checked out the Siberian Husky Club of America’s website.  On it they describe the breed:  An escape artist (I don’t want to think about the number of times Sapura got away) who likes to dig (the first yard we had was half holes----the statistical limit as the dirt has to go somewhere), cannot be trusted unsupervised with food available (one time, my roommate left an egg, cheese, and tortilla out on a table. He was out of the kitchen for only seconds but when he came back, only the tortilla remained.  The house was a tiny two bedroom one bath. Steve and I were awake and around and neither heard a thing.) and should never be allowed off leash (see above).  It brought a tear to my eye.  In principle, I considered getting another breed.  But with the website description, my recollections of Sapura superceded any other considerations.  Most people settle on a breed and stick with it.  I found mine.

On All Hallows Eve of 1998, I brought home a pair of littermates, Dawn and Tenaya.  Tenaya didn’t even wait until we got home to make her first escape---she bolted past me while we were parked at a strip mall coming back from the breeder.  Thankfully, shopping in a Ross Department Store caught her attention and she let herself into the establishment.  In there, the manager and I were able to corral her. 

The most accurate description I’ve read or heard about Siberian Huskies is they are “one dog dogs.”  From Sapura to the girls, Dawn and Tenaya, to Tempest, I’ve watched my dogs do cost benefit analysis.  Rest assured, I wasn’t the beneficiary.

The addendum is that in the husky mind, disobedience is fundamentally beneficial.  There’s a great video of my sister, treat in hand, ordering Sapura to sit.  After ten or twenty attempts, she commands, “Say please, Sapura.”  At this point, Sup sits.  Eventually, Sup does “say please,” but only after she’s sure my sister is not going to relinquish the treat unless she obeys.  A rough life. 

Because of their appearance, Siberian Huskies are associated with wolves.  Genetically, they are closer to wolves than many other breeds----they are one of the “ancient breeds.”  The reality is that some of their behaviors are very wolf like and some are not. 

There is not a wit of territoriality in the breed.  Moreover, they don’t bark a lot and pretty much enjoy all human beings.  Pound for pound, these are the most worthless guard dogs bred. 

Conversely, they do like an established pecking order.  Sapura’s was quite simple:  People, Sapura, every other living thing on the planet. 

Through most of Sapura’s life, my parents and sister had a standard poodle, Gibor (Gee-bore with a hard g).  I brought Sup to my parents’ house shortly after I found her to meet my folks and Gib.  Gib lived to play and he was enamored with a new playmate.  Sapura had different ideas.  She collected all of Gib’s leather chew bones in a pile in front of her.   Chewing on one she said, “Go ahead poodle, make my day.”  Gib was happily oblivious.  If he had even the vaguest notion of what a pecking order was, it might have bothered him, but he had none.  A sibling relationship, much more akin to that in humans than in dogs, evolved and remained until Gib passed away. 

In my pack now, I’m the alpha.  I forbid fighting and discourage posturing.  That is generally acceptable to everybody.  The dogs, particularly the males, spend time marking over each other’s marks, a lot actually, but that seems to be the extent of it.  I will say that right before I had my hip replaced and huge bone spurs had me in continuous pain, fights broke out.  I do think that the dogs smelled the pain (actually, pheromones etc. that I gave off indicating that I was in pain) and weren’t sure how much longer I had to live.  Getting a step up on others in anticipation of my impending demise hit their little husky minds---at least the ones that had alpha aspirations.

Among their more distinctive traits, Siberian Huskies are not at all clingy.  When I first got the girls, Dawn made a habit of sleeping downstairs until the middle of the night.  At that time, she’d head into my bedroom.  I was required to scratch her exactly three times at which point she headed over to the window where she slept the rest of the night.  Most dogs would have hung with me until I stopped scratching and then tried for a bit more, but Dawnie just wanted me to acknowledge her presence.  In time, I was allowed to simply roll over and make eye contact with her rather than scratching her. 

Along with they’re not being clingy, they don’t get jealous of masters or mistresses meeting other dogs.  Once most dogs catch the scent of another dog on their owner’s clothing, they will give those clothes an inspection worthy of an elite crime investigation team.  By comparison, Sibes don’t care.  I sometimes think I see a little recognition in my dogs’ faces if they catch the scent of a dog they know, but that may just be my imagination.  There’s certainly nothing more than that. 

Still, Siberian Huskies are generally friendly and outgoing.  There are one or two in my yard that will hide under their platforms when a stranger enters, but everybody else is excited, talking and wagging their tails.  After all, each person is a potential food source. 

Happily, Siberian Huskies do love their job.   Excitement reigns when I hook up a team.  What they don’t do, in general, is push themselves to their limit like many Alaskan Huskies.  Earl Norris, a keystone of Siberian Husky racing, said they have a regulator.  Mike Ellis, one of the most successful purebred racers today, said they are always “saving some fuel in the tank.”  

I remember visiting JP Norris, one of Earl’s sons, and discussing this.  My contention was that the regulator and/or saving fuel in the tank makes perfect sense for a working dog.  A critical lesson in mountaineering courses is to always leave a reserve---it’s what gets your butt off of the mountain when all hell is breaking loose.  Working sled dogs in the arctic and sub-arctic can be caught in storms just as easily as mountain climbers on the peaks, and unlike races, there are no trail sweeps for the working dogs to make sure everybody is okay.   Siberian Huskies today are the progeny of the dogs who had the reserve and got home safely.

To my mind, their most charming behavior is how they vocalize.  Sibes can and do bark, but they are much more inclined to howl or talk with a howl like voice.  To a dog, every Siberian Husky I’ve owned is sure he or she is capable of conversation.   As for the howling, it is no different from our singing.  Transparently social, everybody joins in, heads raised and tails wagging. 

At this time, I live alone.  Dogs are not a substitute for human companionship, but for my taste, Siberian Huskies get as close as any other breed.  I’ve always enjoyed independent people as friends and had little attraction to those whose interests are dictated more by the current fad than anything substantial.  With Siberian Huskies, I have a bunch of well grounded independent thinkers.  The great Jewish scholar Hillel wrote:  If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, then when?  I wonder how many Sibes he owned.    

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