We all know of Balto, the famous Husky that fought through the freezing, unforgiving weather of the Alaskan tundra to get medicine to villages heavily affected by the spread of diphteria. Well, this modern British Balto is saving lives too, in his own unique way.
By Published on 22 Mar 2019
We met Balto and his owner Sandra a couple of weeks ago, while we were at Crufts. The first thing that drew us towards them was the stunning beauty of the dog. The second was intrigue: how is a Husky so calm and gentle? When we went to meet them, we realised Sandra was just as kind and friendly as her canine companion. She was happy to answer all of our questions, and has been kind enough to share her story with us. Here’s a peak into how a rescued Husky became one of Britain’s most beloved therapy dogs.
Wamiz UK: Could you introduce yourself and Balto?
Sandra: Hi, my name is Sandra and Balto is my third Siberian Husky, all have been rescues. Balto was a stray at approximately 8 months old. He was taken to a council run kennel which was sadly a PTS shelter. He served his time, no one came forward, so he was put on the list. With only 2 days to spare before he was PTS, SHWA (Siberian Husky Welfare Association) heard about him and found a foster home on the South coast.
I was part of the relay transport run to get him to safety. At the time I had Kira, a 14-year old Husky, and had no intention of having another, but during my time transporting him I saw how gentle and calm he was. The following day I applied to adopt him. He had no name tag when found so I chose [the name] Balto for him. He came to live with us on 25th November 2013. He's just turned 6 years old.
W: When did Balto start becoming a therapy dog?
S: Both of my previous Huskies had been therapy dogs, so I immediately saw that he had the ‘pawfect’ temperament to become one too. Within days of joining us, he did his first visit (unofficial - as the places Kira and I visited wanted to meet him. He took it all in his stride). He qualified as a Therapy Dog 5 years ago and has volunteered with Therapy Dogs Nationwide for 3 of them.
W: How did you train Balto to become a therapy dog? Did he need special training lessons?
S: Any dog breed can become a therapy dog, but not all dogs can make the grade. There is no formal training to qualify but they must pass a temperament test, (e.g. greet people without jumping up, take treats gently, not be phased by loud or sudden noises, no mouthing, along with other requirements). They also require basic obedience.
W: Who does Balto go visit?
S: Balto has a number of regular visits – a nursing home, a day centre for the elderly, and a primary school where the children read to him. We have also done many visits to a psychiatric ward too. We additionally do one-off visits to places; today was to a hall of residence at Nottingham University for student chill-time. (Umm, why did my Uni not do this?!)
W: How often does Balto go visit people?
S: Visits depend on how often we are requested. Some are weekly, others less frequent. We fit in with the establishments requirements.
W: What are the reactions he gets?
S: We usually get lots of attention on our visits. He gets cuddles and treats, which he loves. Lots of smiles when they see him and a great ice breaker for conversation.
W: Is Balto a full-time therapy dog?
S: No, he's not a full-time therapy dog. First and foremost, he is my constant companion and buddy.
W: If you had to pick one emotional time with Balto, what would it be?
S: Difficult to choose just one.
We were visiting a nursing home, the room of a lady who was 103 years old, it was our first visit to her. She was lying in a bed with sides up. When we went in she was unable to see Balto stood on the floor. He is not a dog who normally goes on furniture, but she asked if he would go on her bed so she could stroke him. Asked only once, he gently jumped onto her bed, carefully walked up to her and without being asked, lay down alongside her whilst she stroked him. Her smile said it all.
W: Is it common for Huskies to be therapy dogs?
S: I wouldn't say it’s common for Huskies to be therapy dogs. I know of approximately a dozen that have that role in the UK, as generally Huskies are rather too fun loving, cheeky and full of energy to take on the role. But there’s really no reason why, with the right temperament, they can't become one.
W: What advice would you give people who wish to adopt or buy a husky?
S: I always advise anyone wanting to buy or adopt a husky to do their homework first. They are wonderful dogs and now I wouldn't want any other breed but they are not an easy dog to own. They can be great escape artists, they can climb a 6-foot fence, but if they can't, they may dig under it. They are capable of opening doors and windows. They have a high prey drive, so not good living with small furry (other than dogs) or feathery creatures. They should not be allowed off-lead except in secure areas, because of their prey drive and lack of willingness to recall.
If bored a husky can become very destructive.
Husky hair becomes a part of your life, they moult almost all the time.
They have a strong will. Although they know what you want them to do, unless THEY want to do it, they won't.
They are no good as a guard dog, far too eager for cuddles.
A lot like to dig and will quite happily re-landscape your garden.
And numerous other bad points.... HOWEVER they are amazing dogs who never fail to make you smile.
NO they do not have to be walked miles each day. Like any dog they require physical exercise but also need mental stimulus. Doggy games, trick training, obedience, agility even therapy dog visits tire a dog.
They are generally a healthy breed, life span is usually 12 to 14 years.
If you do enjoy an active lifestyle, they also enjoy cani-cross, bikejoring, scootering and rig racing.
Please do your research though, as far too many going through rescues.
This precious duo is changing lives all over the UK, but as Sandra said herself, they are first and foremost, owner and companion. The love between Sandra and Balto was obvious just looking at them. No wonder he blossomed into such a responsible, well-behaved dog. We felt privileged to meet them, and wish them the best as they continue on their journey together.
Facebook: Balto the Pawsome therapy Dog