Siberian Husky Training Secrets

I grew up in a Siberian Husky world. There were Siberians in our house, and outside 10 Siberians roamed a series of extensive kennel runs. To my delight, I spent many hours with these dogs, observing their unique habits. I saw them in their refined state, when my parents showed them in the ring. I saw them in their more natural state on the trail, when we went sledding. One evening, when I was 8 years old, I accidentally learned crucial lessons about Siberians. Playing outside, I lifted the latch on the kennel gate. Before I could respond, several Siberians burst out across the yard, into the woods. Hopelessly, I called for them to come back. I ran inside and reported this to my parents. We jumped into our van and headed down the street.
  • Siberian Huskies
  • training
Siberian Husky Training Secrets, BowTie Press in April 2010

Feeling guilty, I observed as we drove slowly, stopping whenever one of the dogs came into view. Without anger, my parents called out playfully, sliding open the van door. Instead of running away, the Siberian turned and ran towards the van, then jumped in, as if that was suddenly more exciting than running. Each time, the dog received a liver treat.

For 35 years, images of the Siberians running, and my parents successfully recovering them, have been indelible parts of my view of these dogs.

From this story, an obvious lesson for puppy owners is that Siberians love to run. Also, they are curious, adventurous, with a mischievous streak. There are other, more subtle lessons here. In frustrating situations, Siberians respond to playfulness and games. A base of trust with the Siberian's owner can resolve any challenge happily.

Independent, Attached

Siberian Huskies are perhaps more independent than other breeds. And yet, they are also very attached. "They will stand next to you and let you pet them for a while, then they'll run off," explained Lori Merritt, who has trained Siberians since 1973, in a recent interview recounting her years of training, showing, and breeding Siberians.

Merritt explains it this way: "Some dogs have an attitude like, 'Tell me what to do next!' Siberians have an attitude like, 'That sounds interesting. Let me see how it fits into my agenda.'"

It seems contradictory to say that Siberians are attached and independent. But this makes sense when you consider their breeding as sled dogs. On a sledding team, Siberians must be finely attached to their leader for a general purpose and direction. But if the team is heading towards a big hole in the ground that the musher cannot see, the Siberians are expected to make decisions.

Karen Ramstead has run her team of Siberians in the Iditarod (the most grueling dog race in Alaska). She describes a situation that sums up the connected independence: "We were racing in a blizzard, and I couldn't find the trail. Total white-out conditions. But my Siberians knew where to go, and I just trusted them to stay on the track."

This balance of independence between you and your Siberian has relevance beyond racing, in everyday training. As Ramstead explains, "Let them know you have specific ways to work. If you insist on something, they must follow. Other times, you can say, 'It's your call.' The goal is for the dogs to know which decision is appropriate. It's all very subtle."

Training your Siberian puppy is all about that subtle balance.

Destructive, or an Inquiring Mind?

One of the strongest traits of Siberian Huskies is their mischievous nature. Davies describes it this way: "They're always looking to see what they can get away with. You have to be able to love this and laugh at it. They're very cat like and get into things."

Owners often remark that Siberians are destructive when left alone in the house. But it is not that they are destructive. Without their leader, their independent streak and inquisitive mind takes over and leads them to search for something interesting to explore. Once they make a discovery, they get engrossed in the game.

"They might start digging at a sofa and see some fuzz," Davies explains. "It's not that they want to destroy your furniture. It's just that it's such great fun to pull a little fuzz out...then a little more...until it's all over the floor."

The longer a Siberian is left alone, the more likely it is she will locate something fascinating to chew, open, or dig into. And a companion will not help. "Getting a second Siberian to keep the other one company makes it even worse," Davies cautions. "They just put their minds together and find things to get into."

If you come home to a ripped sofa, yelling at your puppy is counterproductive. It just causes distrust, harming training without ceasing the behavior.

Rather than getting angry, structure your dog's environment to take his exploratory nature into account. Do not leave your Siberian in the house all day while you are at work. Instead, set up an outdoor run. Hire a professional installer to make sure the fencing is securely in place, set all the way to the ground. Otherwise, your curious Siberian may find a spot to dig under, and get out of your yard, presenting even more difficulties.

Short Training Sessions

Some people say Siberians have short attention spans. Others disagree, saying Siberians are simply curious about what else there is to do. Ramstead, like other sledders, reports that after completing a five-mile run, if she brings a team back to the start of that same trail her dogs do not want to run it again. Instead, they will sit down or start playing in the snow. It is as if the team says, "We just did that! Let's do something else."

As Merritt describes, "With Siberians, an activity can suddenly become boring and tedious. When you're training, you have to know that and not get angry."

Whether it is short attention span or hunger for something new, work in short sessions in the first six months.

"When the puppies are a couple months old, I'll put a collar on them and have them walk next to me for three minutes," Davies explains. "That's enough. I give them treats. In a few weeks, they're trotting around after me."

Spend five to ten minutes on each session, three times a day. "Beyond that, they'll act like they don't want to do it," Merritt says. "That can create a bad cycle: frustrated owners and dogs bored with the idea of training."

How do you know when you have taken a session as long as it can go? Your puppy may just stop listening, refusing to follow commands she had done several times. Or she may walk away and get involved in something else.

"They might start running around in circles and refuse to come back," Merritt says. "That definitely means they're done! Don't try forcing them to come back."

"If that starts to happen," Davies advises, "don't push the dog. Just take note of how long you went, and call it an end. Do another session later, or the next day."

Every dog is unique. Watch your dog's signs, and structure sessions just right for her individual focus. Her endurance will gradually increase. By about five months, you should be up to 10-minute sessions. By six months, your Siberian should work with you 20 minutes at a time.

No matter how long a session goes, end on a positive note, with food and lots of praise.

Food: Siberian Currency

Merritt emphasized another lesson I gained from that childhood memory: "Siberians are very food oriented."

"They're always thinking, 'OK, where is my next meal coming from?'" Merritt says. "If you learn how to train them with food, it's a major investment in the bank of your relationship."

This can play out at crucial times, when your Siberian's playful, but independent, nature surfaces. Let's say you are at the dog park, and it is time to go home. Your Siberian is too interested in chasing that other dog to come to you. If you have a food that you know she likes, and let her know you have it, she will likely listen to you.

It is not difficult to discover a food that your Siberian is interested in – dried liver works great, for example. But the trick is to link the food with a desirable behavior. "Even doing basic obedience, like 'sit' and 'come,' should always be associated with food rewards and strong praise," Davies explains. "Get really excited when they do something you want. Give food and praise every time the dog does what you want."

At the same time, do not devalue food by letting it become a commodity that appears without meaning. "Free-feeding Siberians is not a good idea," Merritt cautions. "Make sure they know food comes from you. If you just put food down and walk away, you miss a chance for the Siberian to see your importance. They already see food as important, now they need to know how necessary you are in obtaining it."

Turn feedings into a ritual. Make sure your Siberian watches you fill the food bowl, and speak to your dog while doing this. Keep your dog's attention as you slowly place the bowl down, and do not let her eat until the food is on the floor. Praise your dog for waiting patiently.

Treats can be used the same way – another opportunity to establish a connection through a valuable commodity. Merritt suggests having a "hierarchy of treats, with high-value and low-value treats. That makes it much more likely your dog will listen to you in challenging situations."

For example, when asking your dog to follow simple commands like "sit" or "stay," use carrots – which Siberians like just fine but don't crave. When you are outside and your dog is at a distance from you doing something too exciting to break away from, use liver – a very desirable treat – to get her to come back.

Recognized as the keeper of the food, you can form a solid building block for training and trust, which comes into play recreationally, and at more urgent moments. When you are walking downtown and your Siberian is getting into a fight with another dog – a situation requiring strong disincentives – liver treats will entice him back to your side.

Whether training your Siberian for those simple or challenging situations, regardless of the treat, be consistent. Always give food rewards when she does the desired behavior. Offer excited praise when she listens. Never yell at the dog for not doing something. But do not give the treat until she does what you ask.

Bonding Through Games

With ancestors who sledded over thousands of miles of icy terrain, Siberians have a natural tendency to pull. Tapping into this can be a great way to train and connect with your Siberian.

"Get into this early," Davies suggests. "When they are just four months old, put them on a lead, hooked up to a tire. Let them pull it across the yard. They'll love this. By a year, you can hook them up to a sled to pull a child through snow. Most Siberians will do this. Even if you don't plan to compete in sledding, it's great for them."

If you live in warmer climates, let your Siberian pull you on roller skates or a wheeled cart.

"There's something I call the 'tug game,'" Merritt says. "With most breeds, you might not want to encourage tugging, but with Siberians it can be rewarding. You just need to establish rules."

Tie a knot at the end of a length of thick rope. Pull it along the ground, as you would when playing with a cat. This brings out a Siberian's prey drive.

"Let the puppy grab it and pull," Merritt explains. "You tug also, going back and forth. Make excited, happy sounds while playing. But if the puppy bites your hand, make a distressed sound and let her know it hurts. That's the end of the game."

This builds on a Siberian's strong desire for play (the same tendency that could lead them to rip open your sofa). Once the Siberian understands that the game is only played under certain rules, she will want to play by those rules.

"You establish when the game begins and when it ends," Merritt says. "When the game is over, reach down, put your hands on either side of the dog's mouth, and remove the rope. Always make sure that in the end you have the rope in your hands."

Without using dominance, this game establishes you as the leader. It is a mutual game, with dog and person both engaged, and yet you have control of the situation.

It can have resonance far into the future. "Play this early, even at three months," Merritt says. "Like food, it will make you important. The dog can't play the game without you!"

New Environments

One of the best ways to make sure your Siberian understands a command is to use it in different environments. "Have the dog sit next to you in the kitchen," Merritt says. "Then do it in another room, then outside the house. After that, get them to sit 10 feet away. This teaches them to generalize the skill."

Following this same pattern of environments with all commands helps your puppy see the general training concept, that it is not just something you do in one place. Such understanding can be crucial in moments when you need your dog to listen in never-seen-before scenarios.

"This also teaches the puppy to focus more," Merritt adds. "No matter where you are, they're listening to you. Always follow up with praise and treats."

Keep Your Cool

Siberians love turning everything into a game, which can be great fun. At the same time, be aware that an excited voice – whether it is happy or angry – may bring out playfulness in a Siberian.

What does this mean for training? If your Siberian is doing something you like, be upbeat to encourage her. If she does something you do not like, yelling and chasing will not help.

"If you try to run after a Siberian who's getting away from you," Davies says, "they will start running around dodging you. You won't catch them, because they can outrun you."

This is where all the training with food and play comes in. Instead of yelling, you can change direction by using something your puppy likes. "If you train your Siberian to love going for rides," Davies explains, "if they run away, you just open the car door and they'll decide that's more interesting."

Always stay calm, even after your Siberian does what you want. If he has been running circles around you for 10 minutes, then comes for a liver treat, do not yell because it took so long. "This is true of all breeds," Davies explains, "but doubly true with Siberians. If you yell, you teach them they shouldn't listen next time."

No matter how frustrated you might be, praise your dog for listening.

Putting it All Together

After years training her dogs for racing challenges, Ramstead has an intimate sense of how to work with them: "Convince them they have to listen to you, but let them feel free to express their opinions. They need to have their creativity. Don't stifle that! Then you'll be able to connect, and do so much with them."