Sunday, Oct 01 2023
All Cities
Choose Your City
'Lake Baikal is truly astonishing. One of the most ancient geographical features on Earth, it is estimated to be 30 million years old'
Marc Di Duca

How I trained my fox called Anna to be like a household pet dog

By The Siberian Times reporter
27 November 2012

These remarkable pictures show how young Siberian scientist Irina Mukhamedshina, 22, has trained a fox to be as obedient as a dog.

Playful: Nyuta the fox enjoys her training with Irina Mukhamedshina. Picture: The Siberian Times 

The experiment was on her own initiative, though she used foxes from a special Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics farm, where research into taming the animals have provided remarkable insights into how - over many thousands of years - man domesticated wild animals into pets. 

'I had seen these foxes daily, wiggling their tails and jumping to get a tiniest bit of human attention, and got really curious about the possibility of working with them the same way as I used to do with dogs', said Irina.

Through her teens she had trained dogs and for several years has been doing so professionally. 

'I asked my tutors if I could try, got permission and went to choose myself a couple of baby foxes. 

'I needed them to be young, because then I could use food motivation to train some basic commands. 

'Later on, the constant hunger stops prevailing over other instincts, and you have to work with game motivation, which is also possible, but slightly more difficult. I took two foxes, and started working with them at the farm. 

tamed foxes, Siberia

I-i-its ticklish! Irina Mukhamedshina, PhD student of Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics pictured with the fox she trained. Picture: The Siberian Times 

'My first task was to make them forget about digging the soil and running around, but instead to encourage them to consciously come close to me. 

'It was quite easy and we got to this stage within several work sessions. 

'Then I moved on to the classic commands, such as 'stand up', 'lie down', 'sit down'. It took me about three weeks of daily 15 minutes sessions to teach them do these commands.'

The foxes recognised their own names. In fact, Irina called Anna by the fond Russian version of the name, Nyuta, who has been since sold to America, as a pet. The other fox she trained was called Elma.  

'Both foxes worked very well.

'At one point, I had a Japanese film crew coming to film my work with foxes  - they were truly amazed at how this was possible.'

tamed foxes, Siberia

tamed foxes, Siberia

tamed foxes, Siberia

tamed foxes, Siberia

Time to work now, foxy! Irina gets Nyuta the fox to work on basic commands like 'come here' and 'lie down'. Pictures: The Siberian Times 

Irina, too, was surprised at how much she could achieve and how quickly. 

'Then I made a mistake. When you are working with animals, you must see further then them and understand their potential. 

'If they are good at something and bad at something else, you can only get so far, according to each animals limits, without breaking the trust. I performed a very complicated trick, which was too difficult for them to comprehend. 

'In brief, I broke the 'command-execution-reward' chain and tried to make it more difficult. But the foxes were by then so used to the 'if I've done this so I will get my food', that the disrupted ritual has also broke their trust in me. Both animals refused to keep working.'

Irina set to work writing her essay on an experience that has left her intrigued about the possibilities of working with foxes, and, indeed, of foxes becoming pets.

'Psychologically I understand them better now. Tamed foxes are not quite like dogs, they are more in between dogs and cats in how they respond to humans. Going back to it, I would understand much better how to go about it, and how far to go.'

tamed foxes, Siberia

Silver fox is begging for Irina Mukhamedshina's attention.  Picture: The Siberian Times 

Irina's experiment was only possible thanks to  remarkable research that began deep in the Cold War in Akademgorodok, the academic town in Siberia's largest city, Novosibirsk. 

Here are several hundred tamed (but not necessarily trained) foxes, believed to be the only such population in the world. 

They were not caught in the forest and somehow befriended: these animals were deliberately bred for domestication. 

How and why? More than half a century ago, a leading Soviet biologist Dmitry Belyaev worked with researchers from the Institute of Cytology and Genetics to gather 130 foxes from nearby fur farms. 

He began breeding the foxes, using only the friendliest and least aggressive from each generation. In this way, he compressed into a short time span something that had taken many thousands of years in evolution, recreating the way wild wolves became domesticated dogs.

tamed foxes, Siberia

As safe as that: Irina says that domesticated foxes starve for humans' attention. Picture: The Siberian Times 

The the mid-1960s, foxes made the leap from being afraid of humans to courting their attention and seeking to bond with them.  But his aim was not to produce foxes as pets, it had a more serious scientific purpose. 

The experiment allowed scientists to test a theory examined by Charles Darwin - that domesticated animals of many types are altered from their original form through contact with humans: they under a molecular change, for example, being smaller, with floppy ears and curlier tails.

Sometimes the foxes get white patches on the forehead - just like children's favourite horse Black Beauty.  

It has been called the domestication phenotype; in essence they become more appealing to man. 

tamed foxes, Siberia

Hello, world! Nyuta the fox gets inquisitive about the camera. Picture: The Siberian Times 

As Irina noted, for example, the foxes wag their tails as she praises them, behaviour said to be unknown in wild foxes. They lick the researchers to get attention. 

There are many other changes: wild vixens are receptive to sex only once a year, but some of the tamed females become receptive more often.

Belyaev carried on his work in Soviet times under difficult circumstances, hiding from the authorities what he was really doing amid official disapproval of genetic research. After his death, the pioneering study was taken over by his former student Dr Lyudmila Trut, who is Irina's scientific mentor. 

In an article in The American Scientist, Trut described the foxes as 'good-tempered creatures, as devoted as dogs, but as independent as cats'. 

tamed foxes, Siberia

Irina Mukhamedshina, 22, PhD student of Novosibirsk Institute of Cytology and Genetics with Nyuta the fox. Picture: The Siberian Times 

Today the breeding programme has reached more than 50 generations and continues despite having come through a tough period after the collapse of the USSR. Their were real fears the project would have to be closed at one point as researchers worried about feeding the foxes.

Some foxes were sold to Scandinavian fur breeders 'who were pressured by animal-rights groups to develop animals that do not suffer stress in captivity', while some like Anna have been sold as pets. 

'We have compressed into a few decades an ancient process that originally unfolded over thousands of years,' Dr Trut has said. 

'Before our eyes, the 'Beast' has turned into 'Beauty,' as the aggressive behaviour of our herd's wild progenitors entirely disappeared'.

Comments (29)

im thinking about getting a pet fox, but i do not know what type to get. im thinking marble but also silver or arctic are good choices because i lie in alaska. i am moving out in a few years and i need a way to convince my parents that we should get a pet... my parents rescued a golden retriever named serena and she died last year from old age. she was 19 years old. i am thinking we should get another pet but all they want is another golden retriever. what are some facts about foxes that you think will peek their interest in getting one? and what breed do you think we should get? i have 3 little brothers ages 8, 11, and 13. also we have a 5 bedroom house (idk how many square ft... id say its average size tho) and an fairly small backyard/front yard (but its not like, a tiny space either.) and we trained 4 foster puppies two years ago and the people who adopted them where very impressed by their skills. (we only had two weeks)
FoxyWolf, alaska
15/11/2021 11:50
I got a artic fox a week ago...she is 6 weeks old an bonding with us very well. She is also getting use to all the dogs. I have started clicker training her an she is responding well. Can't wait to see how much she is willing to learn.
Mary Jo, Birch Run, USA
30/06/2018 07:02
I would enjoy raising a fox after i raise my children. Foxes are interesting animals. And the fact that the scientist sold some foxes to furriers is a bit sad but it seems that they when to humane furriers. People need to understand that humans are going to kill animals for food for clothing and for population control so that they dont come into populated areas and so they dont over run and kill off the vegetation. Im not saying animal abuse is good because i love all types of animals but im also realistic that we can't let them run wild in our areas of the world.we also cannot live in the wild like they do because we are not animals (through the evolutionist want you to think that) if we werd animals we would have no care it animals died in crule ways or not. But any way i went on a tangent. But i enjoyed learning about someone's experience in raising foxes. I do wish that their was a bit more information on how they were raised and trained.
Naomie, Montana
19/01/2018 22:33
Hi, I'm Diane C. Brown. Your experience is awesome. Some foxes were sold to Scandinavian fur breeders 'who were pressured by animal-rights groups to develop animals that do not suffer stress in captivity', while some like Anna have been sold as pets. In an article in The American Scientist, Truth described the foxes as 'good-tempered creatures, as devoted as dogs, but as independent as cats'.
Diane C. Brown, usa
06/09/2017 01:27
As far as red foxes go I'm seeing double. And no I don't mean 'HintOFMint's double-mint post. (You see what I did there? To this guy's... 4 year old post)
Foxy Facade, Victoria B.C. CANADA
01/09/2017 15:24
Hi, I'm Diane C. Brown. Your experience is awesome. Even today I wonder if using animal fur wouldn't be more environmentally friendly than all the artificial things made from oil. Maybe the drilling, manufacture and other things associated with making artificial clothing result in the death of more animals than would be the case if we farmed them. I well remember passing by a fox farm as a child.
Diane C. Brown, usa
11/07/2017 00:23
OMG there soo cute i love foxes fav animal
07/05/2017 12:21
A couple years ago there were 6 foxes living under our shed with their mother. I would walk down there and whistle, they would peep out from under the shed. After a few days they came out and sniffed me. I picked one up and pet and cuddled it. Each day that one came to me and one night I took it in the house and it slept all night in my lap in my recliner. It weighed about 5 pounds. He never tried to bite, but would make cat like sounds and get excited to see me. My dog and it were friends. Finally they all left. I think the tame one still lives nearby. I saw a fox yesterday and whistled to it from my car. It ran up to me and stopped 3 feet away, then walked off. It's full grown and beautiful. I could likely coax it back into my lap if it's the same one. I think it remembered me.
Jerry, Usa
04/02/2017 05:53
I got a little gray fox, that is coming to my deck/back door. I have been feeding him peanuts, hamburger (cooked), and hamburger uncooked. He eats so much, he can hardly wobble back to the woods. Beautiful animals, and very curious.
Danny, north carolina
07/05/2016 13:21
i have a 10 month old silver fox which i got at 4 1/2 weeks old named "tokalla" (dakota indian word for fox). she is extremely intelligent. ive lived on a farm my whole life and had muliple types of pets: horses, raccoons, dogs, cats, birds, etc. i wanted to take a crack at raising a fox after one summer watching wild ones here on the farm. she is now completely house broke and learning to be a part of the family. the one drawback is she is completely stubborn and hard headed. some days i can teach her a new trick in 10 min other things may be 10 days or more. still shes the best decision ive ever made for a pet, NEVER a dull moment. i cant wait to see where shes at a yr from now.
cody janssen, otterbein, IN usa
06/03/2016 04:26

suzy, Torrington Ct.
24/09/2015 12:16
I would like to be her fox.
07/07/2015 10:11
(For Mary in Alabama) They cannot eat pedigree or beneful type of dog foods, but the blue buffalo dog food brands give them the nutrients they need. After bonding with owners, most will actually sleep in bed with you. Some states allow them. Most don't. Most states allowing them require permits and have certain yard requirements.
Laura Payne, savannah ga
28/01/2015 07:37
Please come and train a fox for me
Skye, Australia
12/09/2014 11:18
I really wish I had a pet like that! Maybe I could call her to tame my fox who eats my chooks.
Wolfycub, Mildura
12/09/2014 11:16

Add your comment

We welcome a healthy debate, but do not accept offensive or abusive comments. Please also read 'Siberian Times' Privacy Policy



Add your comments

The views expressed in the comments above are those of our readers. 'Siberian Times' reserves the right to pre-moderate some comments.

Control code*

Type the code

* obligatory



The Bank of Russia official exchange rates of foreign currencies