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Sunday, June 20, 2010

WEEK 3

Homey husky learns to live a dog's life


Staff writer

Chaine, a friendly husky living in Tokyo, was 5 years old when her owners, Motoko Shiraishi and Yasushi Ishikawa, took her to see a sled-dog race in Gunma Prefecture in the winter of 2003.

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Kitted out: Once a househound who wouldn't step in puddles, Chaine the husky is seen here wearing a raincoat during her transition to "outdoors dog." MOTOKO SHIRAISHI PHOTO

Although Chaine's ancestors were from the harsh wilds of Siberia, where the breed has long been used to haul loaded sleds long distances over snow and ice, Chaine grew up indoors, didn't like "walkies" in the rain and refused to step in puddles.

So when they reached the site of the sled race, Shiraishi said that Chaine was clearly culture-shocked at the sight of all the big strong canines there.

"Hey, look at the delicate girl," one of them seemed to tease Chaine, Shiraishi reported in a posting on the Web site of the outdoors magazine Be-pal. "You smell of shampoo," another dog seemed to say after a few quick sniffs. "Call yourself a Siberian husky — you are a house dog!"

Meeting her big butch cousins may have been a sobering experience for Chaine, but it was just one of several challenges aimed at turning her into an "outdoor dog" in a program embarked on by Shiraishi and Ishikawa in April 2002.

That program had its roots in a series of articles in Be-pal titled "Autodoa ken yosei koza" ("Lessons for pooches to become outdoor dogs") written by people who enjoy sharing outdoor activities with their dogs.

"I hoped to contribute a story on Chaine to the series," said Shiraishi, a freelance writer. "But the editor told me that only dogs trained from puppyhood by outdoorsmen can appear. Nonetheless, I thought it might be interesting to write stories about training a dud pooch to become an outdoors dog."

Shiraishi proposed the idea and the editor agreed to take a series from her titled "Ura autodoa ken yosei koza" ("Alternative version: lessons for turning pooches into outdoors dogs") for the magazine's Web site.

But because Shiraishi was also unfamiliar with the great outdoors, she and her dog faced many hurdles in their drive to pursue open-air activities.

To begin with, Shiraishi got Chaine to pull her husband, Ishikawa, along roads and paths as he sat on his bicycle — mimicking those sled-hauling huskies. It wasn't long before Shiraishi got the first of many surprises when it became obvious that Chaine had an inbred liking for the task and would happily pull her bike-mounted husband at up to 40 kph.

In fact, Shiraishi said that, when she got into her stride, Chaine was too excited to slow down for a full hour. But then, on the way home, she found Chaine's paws were bleeding.

"I took her to a vet and he said, 'The skin on Chaine's paws is softer than on normal dogs,' " Shiraishi said. That was because her dog had only rarely been outdoors before. But the vet also said that because asphalt roads are so hard, and can be so hot in summer, it was reasonable for dogs to have footwear.

So Shiraishi bought shoes for Chaine, and had her wear them during long hours spent on walks. Then, after several months, her paws toughened up as the skin on them got harder, and the shoes became redundant.

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Ruff-ruffing it: Chaine surveys the wonders of nature from her own bed in her keepers' tent during one of the training expeditions she was taken on to help her connect with her inner canine. MOTOKO SHIRAISHI PHOTO

Chaine and her owner also tried to overcome their shared dislike of walkies in the rain. Not only did they both seem to be depressed in the gloom, but on a practical level once Chaine's 5-cm-thick fur gets wet it takes ages to dry and she is likely to catch cold. To avoid that risk, Shiraishi would blow the fur with a hairdrier — which the dog hated.

To solve the problem, Shiraishi consulted the vet and bought a canine raincoat. "Chaine didn't comment on how she liked the coat, but she didn't protest," Shiraishi reported.

So, suitably attired, Shiraishi and Chaine have been taking walks in their neighborhood every day since the start of the story series — whatever the weather. But then Shiraishi decided to be more ambitious and head for the hills, and she and her husband took Chaine to Mount Myogisan in Gunma Prefecture. Unfortunately, though, their trek took them at one point to a flight of metal steps on which the height between each step was too high for Chaine to go up. There was nothing else for it, so Ishikawa just had to do his duty and carry 18-kg Chaine to the top. "Chaine was shuddering with fear because of the height, but she was patient," Shiraishi recalled.

Another small crisis developed when the intrepid trio ran out of water and were suddenly parched with thirst. "From that experience, I learned I should call the local authorities beforehand to check that there are no metal steps on our intended route — and also make sure to have enough water," Shiraishi said.

Despite the rigors of that experience a few years back, however, treks have not traumatized Chaine. In fact, she now loves seeking out easy paths in the mountains and often leads Shiraishi on their walks, she said.

Shiraishi found, however, that some outdoor activities didn't suit her husky's nature. For instance, when the three of them went to the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture in midsummer, the idea was to get Chaine to swim in the ocean. But although she was equipped with a life jacket, Chaine turned out to be afraid of water and wrapped her front legs tightly round Shiraishi's neck. Then, when Shiraishi released Chaine into the sea, it was obvious — as she was swallowed up by a big wave — that she couldn't do a doggy paddle. Yelping, Chaine thrashed her way back to the shore and never went into the sea again.

"When we were back at the inn where we stayed, Chaine looked angry and seemed to feel sick," Shiraishi said. That night, indeed, Chaine threw up. So the couple took her to a vet next day. According to him, Chaine couldn't adjust to the change in temperature between the heat of the day and the sea. And after her thick fur got wet and didn't dry properly, she caught a cold.

Later Shiraishi did some research and learned that huskies are generally not good at swimming. "That made me feel sorry for Chaine because I made her try such a difficult thing as swimming, regardless of her ability," she said.

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Home and dry: Chaine and her new housemate Attere with their keepers Motoko Shiraishi and Yasushi Ishikawa. ERIKO ARITA PHOTO

Despite such trials — and errors — Chaine and her keepers had come a long way learning to enjoy outdoor activities since the dog's housebound days. But as a right of passage, Chaine was presented with a final hurdle — a "cycle-dog race" in which dogs pull their owners on bicycles.

The event, held in Gunma Prefecture in October 2004, was all about speed, and Chaine crossed the finishing line a creditable eighth out of the 11 dogs in the beginners' category.

"Chaine looked as if she was proclaiming, 'I've done it!' " Shiraishi said after watching the race.

Since then, Chaine has competed in cycle-dog races every year, and she appears to rise to the occasions, Shiraishi said — echoing the race topic of the last of her 30 articles on the Be-pal Web site.

But time passes, and — five years on — Chaine is 12 years old. Nonetheless, she still has fun on mountain walks with her owners and her new, younger friend named Attere, who now lives with them.

Shiraishi said that outdoor activities with her dog changed her life. "Since we started going out with Chaine, we have expanded our horizons and learned how to have fun in nature," she said, adding that dogs are happy if their owners enjoy outdoor activities together with them.

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Despite sporting a life jacket, Chaine digs in her heels against getting wet in the sea. MOTOKO SHIRAISHI PHOTO

But what does Chaine think?

Well, Ishikawa, speaking for his dog, declared: "Chaine smiles when she is in the mountains or at a campsite."

Meanwhile, Shiraishi believes that dogs and their keepers should take on outdoor activities at their own pace. "It's important for owners and their dogs to start gently. So, in the mountains for example, they can begin on low hills or take a ropeway to the top," she said — also noting that dogs are banned from some areas, so it's always best to check with local authorities.

Sadly, however, Chaine is among a minority in Japan, where 73 percent of the nation's 12 million pet dogs are kept indoors, according to the Japan Pet Food Association. And although it may seem that those pampered pooches in air- conditioned rooms are living in the lap of canine luxury, their lives would surely be more exciting and, well, "natural," if more of their owners took them and themselves away from Japan's concrete jungles to savor the joys of the great outdoors together.



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