Exercising the Siberian Husky Safely: Harness Training

New Siberian Husky owners soon begin to grasp the challenge of providing a safe way to exercise their dogs. As the Siberian Husky is extremely independent and the breed has a well-developed hunting instinct, exercising a Husky off leash in an unfenced area can be extremely risky. Many Huskies have become lost or met untimely deaths from chasing game, pursuing livestock, or simply dashing across a busy road to check out a dog on the other side. They should therefore always be kept on a sturdy leash when outside of a well-fenced property.

husky
Huskies should always be kept on a sturdy leash when outside of a well-fenced property.

However, the sled dog instincts of the Siberian Husky are also very strong. Even though they can be educated to walk on a leash without dragging the owner, their natural inclination is to run and to pull. They are happiest when given the opportunity to do so, and will be calmer and healthier if they can be exercised in harness.

Puppy Harness Training

Teaching the Siberian Husky puppy to work in harness is done in several stages. The first one can begin when the puppy is about four months old, using a well-fitting and comfortable harness of any type and a nylon cord attached with a snap to the harness as a “tugline”. The harness should be adjusted correctly so that the pressure is on the shoulders and not the back, and the harness does not choke the puppy in any way. The puppy is not required to pull a load at this age as this can adversely affect the development of his bone and tendon structure. To get the puppy used to the harness, it can be put on just before feeding or play. The pup should be gently but firmly discouraged from chewing on the harness and distracted if necessary until he has accepted the feel of it. This will not take long and soon the puppy can be taken for walks while wearing his harness.

A word of caution: ANY exercise or training should take place in cool temperatures (preferably well below 60° F/ 15° C) as otherwise the dog could seriously overheat, and water should be kept on hand to provide if needed and after exercising the dog.

Training sessions must be fun, though the puppy must also be encouraged to be serious in harness. First, the puppy should be walked with collar and leash and allowed to relieve himself and relax. Then the harness can be put on and the tugline attached to the harness. Care should be taken to ensure that the puppy does not back out of his harness, as this could become a dangerous habit, and a small cord can be run from harness to collar just in case the pup does slip the harness. The trainer should then encourage the puppy to walk or trot in front of him, keep the leash taught, and not stop to sniff at the side of the trail or play with the tugline, for example. This should remain a pleasant activity for the puppy so the trainer will need to be patient and positive.

husky
Training sessions must be fun, though the puppy must also be encouraged to be serious in harness.

Taking turns

When the puppy has learned to move forward correctly and without stopping to sniff along the way, he can then be taught to turn right or left on command. Reins are not used to drive sled dogs, and the Husky must learn to change directions on voice commands only. “Gee” for “right” and “Haw” for “left” are the traditional turn commands, but any command the trainer wishes to use will suffice as long as it is used consistently. Directions can be taught in several ways while training the puppy on foot. It is best to do this on a trail or road that has clearly defined intersections. A light cord can be attached to the puppy’s collar and gentle tugs in the direction the trainer wants to turn can be associated with the command. Another technique is for the trainer to walk into the turn, repeating the command, until the puppy goes in the right direction and stays in front. Praise and petting should be lavish when the pup executes the order, even if at first it might take several repetitions. It is recommended to begin with only one direction, for example, “right”, and when the puppy has mastered that command, he can be taught to turn in the other direction. After that, it will be necessary to practice both directions alternatively until the puppy has mastered the difference. If the training is kept fun, the puppy will learn quickly. From there other commands can be taught, one at a time, such as “turn around” or commands to run faster or slow down, etc.

One thing the trainer should remember is that the less said, the better the dog will listen. Chattering, and a fortiori shouting, at a dog for the entire training session is counter-productive as he will soon no longer be able to distinguish a command from other vocalizations. Moreover, shouting at the dog or dog team is considered extremely poor trail etiquette and is disrespectful not only to the dog team but to other trail users and disturbing to the wildlife living in the area.

Pulling a load

When the puppy is about six months of age, it is possible to teach him to pull a light “load.” Pulling a bicycle or light motorcycle tire is a good way to start. The tire can be attached to the harness with a cord, and the trainer will also keep the tugline on the harness to control the puppy. Again, positive reinforcement and much praise will soon make the puppy a willing worker.

husky
Once the pup has reached his adult size, it is wise to invest in a good quality harness.

As the puppy grows, the harness will have to be changed or adjusted to fit. Once the pup has reached his adult size, it is wise to invest in a good quality harness. There are several types of harnesses but the main point is that the one used should fit the dog properly. It should be snug but not too tight with the thickness of the dog’s coat taken into account when fitting. The harness should be well adjusted and comfortable around the shoulders, with protective padding, and not cut off the dog’s breathing when he pulls. It should also be the proper length and not place undue pressure on the dog’s ribs, spine or hips. Good harnesses are now made of nylon webbing and are easy to care for and machine washable. If the dog has been taught not to bite or chew the harness and it is cared for properly, it can last well beyond the dog’s entire working career. There are many good sled dog harness makers online, and sled dog sports clubs can be contacted for advice and assistance in obtaining the right harness for the dog.

Exercising with your Husky

Once the dog is working correctly and seriously in his harness, he can be exercised safely on foot with the owner jogging behind. This activity is often called “cani-cross”. Exercise can also be provided using a bicycle (“bikejoring”) or on cross-country skis (“skijoring”). The owner will certainly enjoy this activity as much as the Husky does, and may even wish to move on to the competitive sled dog sports level. At any rate, the fun and complicity derived from training and working with the Husky will develop a very close bond between owner and dog. However, this often has another effect … and that is… the owner and dog may be having so much fun that in no time at all other dogs will be added to make up a complete team!

You can find out more about training your Siberian Husky in our article "Siberain Husky Training Basics"

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