The dog everyone remembers from AWC is Simon the South African husky. When imagining a husky doing agility, one doesn’t picture it being fast and fluent. But that’s the magic of Simon. He surprised everyone! He was well trained and motivated. How?
Choice of breed
Leanne Williams has three huskies, Simon, 3 years old, being the youngest. She actually wanted a parson jack russell terrier and also considered a border collie, australian shepherd and malinois, but the husky breeder was the one who first returned Leanne’s call. Meeting the cute, crazy pack of huskies lead to the decision. “Huskies are goofy and clumsy but at the same time so elegant and majestic.”
Leanne is very active with her dogs and does canicross, bikejoring, dog yoga, swimming, physiotherapist-prescribed gym sessions, hiking and agility: “We could never do agility on this level if we didn’t do canine yoga and gym. Huskies just aren’t built that way and need to be kept fit and conditioned to thrive.”
Leanne started agility with her two older huskies when they were already 3 and 4 years old. ”I didn’t know how to train them. We really had no goals except to have fun and if I were more competitive, I would never have chosen another husky. But I do agility because I have dogs, I don’t have dogs because of agility. When I got Simon, I wanted to compete but I never thought that we could compete at this level.”
To qualify for the South African team, dogs and handlers must compete in an annual national championship, the AWC Trial, with 5 runs over one weekend. Handlers from around the country have to travel to the AWC Trial to compete. “We were very lucky to qualify. He’s not the fastest dog, and is still very young, so I think if more border collies had entered the AWC Trial, we would not have made it.”
The chicken incident and visit to a German jail
According to Leanne, you need a good sense of humour with huskies. And sometimes some savings. Her older husky, Keidis, caused some commotion in 2016 with “the chicken incident”. “We were in a national competition with many handlers watching, and started our run. Jump, jump, tunnel, and off he went. He ran into the stables, killed a chicken and ran around shaking the poor thing. I stopped doing agility with Keidis for a couple of years.”
Simon has also had his husky moments: “On our way home from AWC, just a few hours before our flight from Germany to South Africa, we went for a walk in a German forest. My team members let their dogs run off leash to stretch their legs before the long flight. Simon is usually reliable off-leash and I was feeling guilty about the long flight to come, so I let Simon run too. And off he went to hunt deer!” Leanne’s hands were shaking but the other team members appeared calm and helped her search for him in the huge forest. They did not catch Simon in time for his flight but got a phone call that he had been found and taken to the police station. Leanne and her team had to fly home but her team leader managed to arrange a place for Simon to stay overnight and a new flight for the next day.
“I don’t like him very much right now. I know it was my mistake to let him off leash, but his little stunt cost me about 3 month’s salary. With the cost of his extra flight we could have gone to Estonia next year! I need to take the team leader to a hairdresser because of all the grey hairs Simon caused”, Leanne laughs. “I have tried to train him well but sometimes genetics override training.”
How to train a dog that’s not naturally willing to please?
Huskies may not be as willing to please their owners as border collies, shelties or some other common agility breeds. So how did Leanne build Simon’s motivation and a good relationship with him?
1. Build a strong relationship
Leanne spends a lot of time building a relationship with her dogs: “We play brain games, go hiking, train obedience and do canine yoga, to teach them to focus on and value me. It helps reduce prey drive and running off.”
2. Use a reward that the dog appreciates
“I wanted to get Simon to play so that he could be rewarded with a toy. But he just isn’t toy motivated. He works very hard for food, and I can throw it like a toy in training..” Leanne says that Simon doesn’t get breakfast on training days. “This way he’s more motivated to work for food. He eats raw, so I hide frozen sardines and pieces of chicken in my clothes. Sardines work best for Simon, but the smell keeps my friends away! Simon never knows whether or not I have food. But sometimes I worry that he only sees me as a walking Treat and Train machine.”
3. Never ever get angry
“With huskies it is very important to never ever get angry with them because it will break the bond which is difficult to rebuild”. Leanne had once reprimanded one of her older huskies who got into a fight with Simon over some food. “I got angry and shouted at Keidis and in the next few training sessions Keidis would not work with me at all.”
4. Keep training sessions short
“I have to travel 40-90 minutes to our agility training facility, but only train for 10-20 minutes, which sometimes feels like a waste of fuel. Because I reward with food, sessions must be very short so that Simon doesn’t get too full to exercise and so that his drive stays optimal. A hungry husky is a co-operative husky!” It is a challenge to train everything necessary to improve: “All our sessions are well planned. I have many coaches who each help me with different skills, and our training list is very long to cover in short sessions.”
Leanne takes care not to overtrain Simon: “Sometimes I need to remind our coaches that we cannot do any more repetitions because Simon is not hungry enough anymore and is getting tired. I would like to train much longer but have to be disciplined to stop before Simon starts to lose drive and speed.”
5. Back chain and return to foundations - train smart, not hard
“With a husky, you cannot do as many repetitions as with some other breeds. For this reason, during training, if I notice that there’s a sequence we cannot yet do, I always ask my coaches how to back chain it. I cannot just try the sequence and see how it goes, fail and start training after that. We need to go directly to back chaining to conserve Simon’s energy and drive. I also retrain foundations every week to maintain and improve skills without overworking him.”
6. Be mindful of weather and other conditions that might affect drive
Leanne trains her huskies only when it’s not too hot. That means that they sometimes need to train at 5 am. “If we have no choice but to train or compete in the heat, I take precautions with cooling jackets and also reward good work by allowing them to cool off with a swim.”
7. Accept the limitations of your dog
“Huskies are not ideally built for all the physical demands of agility, such as several repetitions of very tight turns. We need to accept their limitations and not ask them to do things they are physically unable to do. You can achieve a lot, but within the limitations of the dog’s genetics. It’s important to accept this and work with your dog’s strengths.”
8. Don’t listen to discouraging comments
When asked what Leanne’s advice is to all people with non-traditional agility breeds wanting to make it in agility, she highlights that you should not listen to discouraging comments: “Keep it up, have a good sense of humour, remember that this is supposed to be a fun bonding activity with your dog, don’t let other people get you down. I was told that this cannot be done and that comment has been the best driver for me. I was determined to prove them wrong, and soon started winning!”
Train smart - Use AgiNotes to support you in better planned training
Planning your training sessions with care serves all dogs: Some need very short sessions to keep the optimal drive and motivation, but it also saves highly motivated dogs from too much physical strain since there’s so much we need to teach them. And it saves time for us busy people. Use AgiNotes’ training list to plan your training well. It’s suitable from puppies up to high level competition dogs!