How a Husky Taught Me Acceptance

By Crissi McDonald, October 2018
husky and horse

For most of the year, my husband, Mark Rashid, and I travel from one side of the United States to the other, hauling three horses and teaching equines and their humans how to get along. We are a lot like mail carriers, or marriage vows: we teach rain or shine, in sickness and in health. Our three dogs— Ring, 10, and Kate, 5, female Border Collies, and Jasper, 4, a male Husky mix—are part of this mobile entourage.

The nature of our work means that we spend a lot of time in unfamiliar places where there are not only other horses but also, dogs, barn cats, chickens, llamas, pigs, goats and any number of other animals, all of which we ask our horses and dogs to politely ignore. In particular, it’s important that our dogs avoid startling the horses and people with whom we’re working.

When we’re on a client’s property, the dogs—all of whom are microchipped—are required to remain within sight or stay with us when they’re outside. This is easy for the Border Collies, no doubt satisfying their deep need to keep everyone together. Ring and Kate seem to revel in performing whatever command we give them, and they do it with alacrity and zeal. For Jasper, however, the temptations of the trail less traveled have a stronger pull.

It’s been a natural outgrowth of our work with horses to transfer it to the way we work and live with our dogs. When it comes to helping people build better relationships with their horses, Mark and I are guided by the principles of softness. These include consistency; looking at things from different perspectives; having clear boundaries; and, most of all, finding ways to communicate without fighting. These principles also guide us in working with Ring, Kate and Jasper, and—in conjunction with positive reinforcement—we’ve used them in training the dogs to “leave it” and to come when called, both of which are critically important for their safety and the safety of others, particularly when we’re in new surroundings.

When it comes to the first, all three dogs are reliable. The second is a little more, shall we say, fluid for Jasper. Calling Ring and Kate by name brings them immediately to our side. Jasper, on the other hand, needs to hear a specific “Jasper, here!”—often more than once. We’ve been working on his recall since he was 12 weeks old and it may always be work in progress. (Or, as we sometimes say, he has great recall if we’re prepared to wait a few minutes.)

Part of the dogs’ daily interactions involves maintaining their routine. Ring and Kate have the same duties whether we’re in California or New Hampshire: they walk us to the horse pen, they walk us back to the trailer, they wait while we prepare for our day. Then it’s breakfast for the dogs and after that, mingling with people who are watching us teach.

Jasper’s role is a little looser. He’s friendly, especially with children. He only barks when he senses something near our trailer, and he gets along well with other dogs. He doesn’t chase livestock (although he’s still unclear on whether barn cats qualify as livestock).

In true Border Collie fashion, no matter what else they’re doing, the girls keep an eye on Mark and me. Jasper, however, will follow a scent without regard for where he is, or where we are. Over the years, I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time looking for my wandering pooch, becoming frustrated and, occasionally, angry.

A few months ago, after a 15minute search punctuated with visions of Jasper having been picked up by a stranger or hit by a car, it occurred to me that his behavior wasn’t a reflection of my failure as a trainer or some deep and immutable canine flaw. He was doing what he’s wired to do: exercising his independent nature and exploring his environment. The thing I needed to do was to switch my expectations: that because we trained him the same way we trained Ring and Kate, he would behave like them—that because he should know how to do something, he would do it.

In our work with horses, my husband and I talk a lot about the need to change mindsets. It’s common for people to fixate on problems and ways to correct them instead of identifying what’s good and ways to build on that. It finally occurred to me that with Jasper, I was doing the very thing we cautioned against: I was chasing what I perceived to be his problem—his less-than-immediate recall—instead of looking at who he is and working with it. I needed to help him blend into his environment rather than fret about him being the disruption in it.

These days, if our work venue is full of distractions, near a busy road or doesn’t have fences, we put Jasper on a line, have him on-leash or leave him inside. While I’d done this for his safety when he was young, I’d discontinued it as he got older and seemed to be less attracted by the wilds of the world (and had learned not to get too close to horses). I now supervise him more closely on our morning walks and give him treats at random times, which has also been helpful in motivating him to stay close. These are far more realistic solutions than expecting him to be something he’s not: a Border Collie.

By their nature, Ring and Kate are rewarded by a job well done, so finding the good in their behavior is easy. Jasper has given us, as we are fond of saying, opportunities for self-improvement. Ring, Kate and Jasper, with their distinct personalities, have made it crystal clear that working with them as who they are brings a lot more peace of mind than fighting with our dearly held notions of who we wish they would be.

Crissi McDonald, a horse trainer, certified Masterson Method practitioner and occasional blogger, lives in Estes Park, Colo., and is the owner of Heartline Horse.

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