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Sasha the Husky goes to school

November 7, 2008 |  5:44 pm

Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch continues his chronicle of Sasha, a husky he encountered on a street in downtown Los Angeles. Hirsch brought Sasha home, only to discover that she liked to wander -- and that healthcare for animals who like to roam is expensive. Look for periodic updates on Sasha in the weeks to come on L.A. Unleashed.

Sasha_the_husky_6Sasha the stray — the Siberian husky I rescued from Spring Street in front of the L.A. Times office — needs training. For the most part, Sasha is sweet and friendly, but she considers basic commands such as "sit," "stay" and "come" options to be followed depending on factors that are well understood by canines but not us.

Much of her behavior remains a mystery. We think we understand why the snow-white dog with blue eyes suffers from anxiety attacks and engages in constant resource guarding. Her weeks or months on the street left Sasha with a strong drive to protect anything that can remotely be considered food and even water. We once watched her hover for 10 minutes over a French fry she had no immediate interest in eating to make sure our Labrador retriever wouldn’t snatch it. We eventually tossed it in the trash.

Jennifer enrolled Sasha in the Level One Dog Training class at the SPCLA facility in Long Beach. Kathleen McElderry, one of the animal behavior and training specialists, is one of the instructors. We remember Katie as a Los Alamitos High School student as she watched her younger brother play with our son Jacob in the local sports leagues.

Since high school, Katie has worked as an animal handler and trainer at Universal Studios Hollywood, as the assistant curator at Rainforest Café and as the falconer with Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament in Buena Park. We figure if anybody can help us turn the once-nearly-feral Sasha into a civilized dog, it’s Katie.

Jennifer arrived to the group lesson early to allow Sasha to get comfortable with the surroundings and other dogs. She wanted to find Sasha a spot in the semicircle away from the Chihuahua and dachshund — other husky owners have warned us that the breed sometimes considers tiny dogs lunch, and Sasha hadn’t eaten dinner yet.

Sasha played it cool — very cool — ignoring all of the usual barking and leash-pulling going on. Sasha is a diva, and it’s only reinforced by the reaction she gets from humans. This was no different. Everyone admired her beauty and asked to pet her, the usual drill.

Jennifer fit the gentle leader harness on Sasha. It’s designed to teach dogs not to pull. Sasha tried to take it off, but, with incentives of cheese (her favorite treat), settled down. As directed, Sasha and Jennifer practiced her praise phrase “good girl” with a cheese reward.

Then they practiced sits without saying sit (hold treat above dog’s nose, dog’s butt goes down, now the dog is sitting.) So far it was going well. But that’s because Jennifer and I had already taught Sasha to sit.

Then they started in on “get ready” –- which roughly translated to Jennifer walking in circles until Sasha was next to her left side. Sasha was clearly losing interest, and even though she hadn’t had dinner, the treats were starting to lose their efficacy as coveted rewards.

The trainers picked Sasha to lead the walking lesson. The task: Count how many times you have to stop when the dog pulls. Sasha walked beautifully on Jennifer’s left side — not a single pull. Had she done this before?

They made it around the circle back to their spot and Sasha lay down facing the wall; she was done. She wouldn't take a treat or even look at Jennifer. When we see this behavior at home we call her "Ice Queen."

As they left, Katie told Jennifer she was sorry the first class "didn’t work out as you expected.”

No worries, Jennifer replied. "With this dog, all we expect is the unexpected!"

Can't get enough of Sasha?  Read earlier installments of her story.

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