Beargrease Primer: winter is coming and you want a husky

Jan 24, 2020

Lassie. Rin Tin Tin.  101 Dalmations.  The Taco Bell Chihuahua.

Show an American a dog (especially on a screen) and bless their hearts, they want to adopt it.

Credit ©Lisa Johnson

Although dog breed fads are historically bad for dogs, it’s not out of the question that you might be captivated by a pair of two-colored eyes or a beseeching paw at the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon’s Meet the Mushers event, and wonder what it would be like to bring home a sled dog of your own.

The first step, before adopting any animal, is to do your research, and to save you some time, we got you started.

Credit Nancy Ensley

Nancy Ensley and her husband Bob live 20 miles northeast of Ely in a log cabin, with their nine dogs, all former racers.  Powder (now 15 yrs) and Axle (now 13) came from Ann and Al Stead’s Northome Kennels.  Lily, Banjo, Kazoo, and Piccolo (all now 11) as well as Kawasaki (7), Nova, (9), and Blue Lou, (10) were acquired from Jen and Blake Freking’s Manitou Crossing Kennels.

Current foster, Max, sporting his "adopt me" vest
Credit Chad Johnson/Adopt A Husky Minnesota

Chad Johnson is with Adopt A Husky Minnesota, a nonprofit husky rescue based headquartered in Blaine. They’re foster-based, which means all of their adoptable dogs are fostered in the homes of volunteer families.

You cannot have a dire wolf.  No.  You can’t.

“We’ve seen a large uptick in huskies at shelters with names that come from the TV series Game of Thrones,” says Chad.  “Sadly, this show has people thinking how cool it would be to own a dire wolf, and since they’re extinct people look for the next closest-looking dog, a husky.”

Canis Dirus, Pleistocene, North America

Yes, dire wolves were a real animal – 125,000 to 10,000 years ago. Canis dirus was probably a lot like today’s gray wolves, just bigger: weighing about 130 pounds and measuring about six feet long from nose to tail. Dire wolves were also stockier and had bigger heads, jaws and teeth, say paleontologists, probably because they took big prey like horses and bison.

And notwithstanding that Jon Snow absolutely should have patted Ghost in Season 8 after the Battle of Winterfell, many people looking for faux-dire wolves have had an unpleasant reality check, despite their protection from White Walkers.

#boredhusky
Credit Chad Johnson/Adopt A Husky Minnesota

“To their surprise and dismay, a husky is not exactly the easiest pet to have around,” says Chad Johnson. “Thehusky breed, as a general rule, needs a lot of exercise. They were bred to run miles upon miles in the snow. Keeping them cooped up in a house all day, and not giving them the exercise they want will more than likely lead to something in your house being destroyed. I have lost pillows, blankets, chair legs and even part of a wall to a bored husky before.”

Sadly, that’s where a number of AAHMN’s dogs are coming from these days. “Most of our foster dogs come from owner surrenders or shelters. Many of these dogs are surrendered because ‘they are too much dog,’ ‘...they ate my couch and ruined my house,’ or ‘I just do not have time for them.’   Many of the stories are the same: people saw how good-looking they are and decided they wanted a husky, but without knowing how much energy they have, the dog becomes too much for them to handle and they give up.”

Retired sled dogs

Dave Ensley and the team (that's Kawasaki looking back over his shoulder) in the Boundary Waters
Credit Nancy Ensley

The good news is that the mushing community in Minnesota is taking care of their racing dogs when they’re ready to retire.  Chad says, “It is very rare that we would get a retired racer. The mushing community, especially here in Minnesota, is a fairly tight knit group. From what I’ve been told, when one of the (canine) athletes is retiring from running in races, the musher will keep them, have them run shorter fun runs, turn them into more of a house dog, or move them to a different musher’s team where the dogs are running tours or something similar versus racing.”

And some dogs are carefully placed into adoptive families.  Nancy Ensley recounts, “We bought all of the dogs from their breeders except two that were given to us: Axle and Banjo. We were given Axle because he needed exercise but was too slow to race. And Banjo because he had been attacked by a group of dogs while free-running in a fenced yard and needed a smaller kennel.  There were expectations before we were allowed to have dogs from Ann and Jen: how they would be cared for, how they would be exercised, fed, etc..  I spent some time dogsledding with Ann and went to Mushing Boot Camp (highly recommended) beforehand as well.”

And although not many people would pick Siberians for a rookie dog owner, Nancy has never looked back. “These are the first dogs I ever had,” she says.  “My husband was raised with hunting dogs but these were my first dogs. But I did read a lot about them beforehand!”

Plus retired racers have some advantages – and disadvantages – that huskies who may have been raised in a home don’t have.

Huskies are smart and adapt to becoming inside dogs rather quickly. “At first they were frightened coming inside,” Nancy says. “Well, most of them. But after a couple of times inside they loved it!”

Credit Nancy Ensley

Surprisingly, housebreaking isn’t much of an issue. “Sled dogs are used to being told what to do and to try to please their people,” Nancy says. “It was very easy to housebreak them because of that. We walk them on leash about every three hours and praise them when they pee/poop outside. If they go inside we tell them “bad dog” and immediately take them outside on leash, sometimes putting them in the kennels for a while. They learn very quickly.”

Chad Johnson titled this photograph #bored husky.
Credit Chad Johnson/Adopt A Husky Minnesota

But the chewing.

“One chewed the corner of a rug, chewed a Hudson Bay blanket, chewed a down comforter,” laughs Nancy. “Chewing and swallowing stuff they shouldn’t can be a problem that is best dealt with by getting them plenty of exercise, having suitable chew toys, and by keeping stuff up where they cannot get to it. I recommend Nylabones for hard chewers!”

Huskies need a job

Like many dog breeds, huskies were bred to work and without something to occupy their busy minds, they can get into trouble.

“Their work is running, and they LOVE it!” says Chad. “If not part of a team, like those at the Beargrease, typically they need daily (if not twice daily) walks or outings to do something. Many of our alumni can been seen frequenting dog parks or spotted on hiking trails in and around the state. Also, lots of our alumni, even if they didn’t come from a sled dog team, become part of a team for a recreational musher (someone that doesn’t race often and not long races).”

Kawasaki
Credit Nancy Ensley

Nancy Ensley says the seven former racing dogs she and her husband purchased from the Frekings were acquired with recreational mushing in mind. “Most of these dogs were trained racing dogs and we got them when they were two to eight years of age. We were able to enter and finish some entry-level races for fun. All of the dogs required a lot of training, both in miles and instruction.”  And Chad Johnson and his dogs are currently learning to skijor.

“If your Siberian(s) are left inside without supervision, they will possibly tear your house apart,” cautions Nancy. “There are exceptions, especially older dogs. We put ours in their kennels when we are not home. The kennels are roofed to keep a dog from climbing out (yes, they DO climb) and to keep wolves and other animals out. But even a fenced yard is not safe without supervision because most of them climb well.

Walkies

“Siberians need to be on a leash or they are likely to run off and it takes just one time to lose your dog,” says Nancy.  “Alaskans (huskies) are more likely to not run away when off-leash.

Nancy Ensley's painting "Racing (Love Dogs). Her huskies are frequent subjects of her artwork
Credit Nancy Ensley

“They tend to pull harder than most dogs when on a leash but it decreases as they get older. Some of them figure out to pull hard in harness and not pull on a leash.  That being said, they never pull as hard on a leash as they do when in harness. The main time leash walking can be hard is if a grouse (or other animal) pops out of the woods right in front of you!”

“Huskies pull,” agrees Chad. “That’s what they are bred to do. With proper training, we have taught many of them when the right time to pull is vs when they should be walking on a leash. A "loose leash" walk is a relative term!  They are very smart and extremely stubborn! These dogs will get bored with the same thing over and over again. We alter the routes that we walk with them, bring them to new places, find new toys and use puzzle toys for mental stimulation with them.”

Talkies

Who hasn’t been charmed by the husky online saying “I love you” to his people?  But huskies have a lot to say and they’re not always worried about who hears them.

Credit ©Lisa Johnson

“They talk, howl, ‘yell,’ ‘scream’ and make sure you know they are there!” laughs Chad.  “All of them have a different personality, some talk more than others, some hardly talk and others seem to always be having a conversation with you. They are not always the best in an apartment... but I could likely make that statement for many breeds.”

But in Nancy Ensley’s case, it’s just a question of what people are used to.  “Asking the breeder about the dog’s howling and talking to your neighbors beforehand would be a good idea as well as reading about training your dog not to make noise,” she says. “But this has not been a problem for us as we live in the woods and most people are used to howling due to the wolves!”

Credit ©Siberianhusky.com

The famous double coat – and why they blow it

If you’re looking for a dog you don’t have to rush off to the groomer every few weeks, you’re in luck.  But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty of upkeep for you anyway. “Huskies need to be brushed -- A LOT,” says Chad.  “They have a double coat: an undercoat, the "fluff" that keeps them warm in the winter,  and then they have guard hairs on top of the undercoat that helps to keep them dry, It’s like a jacket with a fleece-lined part for warmth and a weather-resistant outer layer. Also, they "blow" their coats twice a year (sometimes more). Google a picture of this so that you can understand the amount of fur that comes out of them when this happens. This is when they 'switch' out their winter coat for a summer one. And on that note, you should never shave or cut their fur. It will ruin their fur and in fact, fur keeps them from overheating in the summer sun.”

Warning: huskies can be like potato chips

With all this conversation about chewing and yelling and stubbornness and coat-blowing, you might wonder why anyone would adopt a husky to begin with.

“We tended to get only one at a time so that made it simpler to show them our expectations for inside living,” says Nancy Ensley, answering my texted interview questions amidst her nine Siberians. “I would not recommend getting more than two at once if you are planning to have them as house pets, particularly if they are relatively young dogs.”

Credit Nancy Ensley

“There are a LOT of breeds of dog out there that 1) take up less floor space 2) don't blow coat 3) don't need as much exercise 4) aren't as loud,” I observed.  “What is it about these dogs that makes them like potato chips - no one can have just one???” 

“They don’t like being an only dog. They prefer dog and human company,” typed Nancy.

“That still gets you to … two,” I said with a snicker. “At what point did you look up and say ‘Hey, how many dogs do we actually HAVE???’”

“Well, when you have two and you putt along with a little sled … you learn about available dogs and one thing leads to another…!

“Yes,” she adds. “We have to count them to make sure they’re all in!”

I’ve never had a dog (or a husky) but I’m in love!

AAHMN alumni Peppa and Chad Johnson's son
Credit Chad Johnson/Adopt A Husky Minnesota

“If you go to Beargrease, or any dog sled race, and think you have fallen in love with the breed, do your research,” says Chad.  “Make sure you are a good fit for a husky. Then call me up and volunteer with us (only kind-of kidding here). We would love to have you join us and learn more about the breed, and maybe even foster before committing full time!”

Nancy’s advice is even more hands-on. “Read a lot about sled dogs and then contact a local musher to see if you can visit, help, and learn more about the dogs. I would wait until after the race to do so. Expect to be scooping poop -- actually OFFER to scoop poop, if you go.”

“A dog, any dog, should be seen as a member of your family, and is a long-term commitment,” Chad continues. “If you go to the Beargrease, and fall in love with sled dogs, be to stop and think about it.  Look at how much energy they have. Ask yourself if you’re ready to exercise them as much as they demand? Find a way to spend time with the breed before getting a husky of your own.  Volunteering is likely the best way to get this; call up your local rescue or see if a musher will let you help with something around their kennel.”

AAHMN alumna Nala (right)
Credit Chad Johnson/Adopt A Husky Minnesota

And while huskies might not be the best first dog for someone, Chad Johnson doesn’t rule it out. “Typically, I would tell someone that a husky is not the best fit for a first-time dog owner, however there are situations where they would be. If you are a very active person, doing things that you could do with a 40-70 pound dog, and are committed to altering your lifestyle around your dog’s needs, then you might be a great fit for a husky.”

Beargrease coverage on KUMD is made possible by:

Bearskin Lodge | Camp Chow | Energy Plus | Wolfsong Adventures in Mushing

and by Ampers and the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.