Updated: Feb 1, 2021
Sled Dog Racing or also known as “mushing” is an extremely popular sport usually held in the arctic regions of the continents of Europe and North America. It is typically a winter sport that is held across terrains such as ice or compacted snow, so colder climates are a necessity. This sport involves a group effort of dogs that will pull a sled across a certain distance with their musher on the back of the sled, in the shortest time possible.
The team who crosses the course successfully in the shortest time is named the winner. The team of sled dogs usually consists of 10 to 16 dogs at any given time. They are sorted into four different sections in 2 rows of the team according to their behavior and training. There are the wheels which are usually 2 dogs right in front of the sled which are usually the strongest pullers. Team dogs are the 6 in the middle of the pack who do the brunt of the work in pulling the sled. The swing dogs are vital in following the pack leaders, they set the pace and turn the sled around corners. The lead dogs are either 1 or 2 at the very front of the pack, they must listen to the musher, find and follow the trail and set the pace for the team to follow.
All the dogs wear a harness which is then connected to the neckline which keeps them at a set distance away from the gang line, which is the main line that connects to the sled. They also have another line connected to the back of the dog which is called the tug line, this is what pulls the sled and is also connected to the gang line.
The course distances range greatly from sprint races that are anywhere from 4 to 100 miles, mid races are 100 to 300 miles, long distance races are from 300 to 1000 miles. The best known long distance race is called the Iditarod which coarsely accumulates to 1000 miles from Anchorage to Nome. This is one of the toughest races in the world as the dogs and musher cross over some of the harshest terrain known in the sled dog racing community.
There are numerous benefits for all the dogs as well as you, the owner and trainer. All your dogs may not agree at the same time but they will learn to work together and when to give each other space. Your dogs will bond and you will grow closer to them as well. Sledding can be a tough sport so vocal and physical encouragement will help to make your dog’s work harder for you.
SUITABLE BREEDS FOR SLED DOG RACING
If you have seen sled dog racing before, there is a very high chance that you have seen Huskies or Malamutes involved. There are 2 main breeds of dogs that were specifically bred for this sport and have been used for sledding for over 1000 years. The Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute are the two breeds widely used for mushing due to their pulling power, speed, endurance, strength and their thick fur coats that make them able to withstand the severe cold.
There is another breed, the Alaskan Husky, which is a mix of the Siberian Husky, and the Alaskan Malamute. It is also becoming very popular. These three breeds are very devoted and have a never give up attitude and will keep pulling after hours on end battling exhaustion.
Pulling sleds is natural for these dogs and they naturally know what to do, making training very easy. They have been doing so for hundreds of years and are often used for survival and exploration in rural settings.
The indigenous Inuit’s have often used Huskies to pull sleds for them over the ages and still to this day do. Where cars and trucks cannot go, sled dogs can. Having these dogs in perfect condition is vital and their owners will often put the dogs first on their priorities list. Having these dogs in good condition could mean the difference between life and death as they often use them for supply runs and emergency situations.
Some of the equipment that is used for mushing is often used in Canicross during warmer months where snow may not stay around all year. There are a few things that are needed in order to properly attempt dog sledding. An appropriate snow sled is needed with lines that can be attached to your dog’s harnesses. Your dog’s harnesses must be specific in order to maximize their pulling potential. They wear what is known as a x-back harness that will make the most of their pulling power and fully utilize their capabilities. The x-back harness is in the shape of an x on their back and should fit them comfortably.
Remember it is the same as Canicross, if you can fit two fingers between your dog’s back, chest or neck and the harness it’s a good fit. If you can’t fit your fingers in you’re asphyxiating your dog, if it is too loose you will not have full control over your dogs and they will be extremely uncomfortable.
Once again like most dog sports that you will find care should always be taken during training, and you should not begin full rigorous physical training until they are at least 1 year old, due to their growing and developing stages.
A nice way of starting would be learning from others who have been sledding for a while, often they will be looking for helpers for general duties and you can use this time to talk and find ways for effective training methods that work. There are also classes that you might be able to join you just have to keep a lookout for things that would help in any way.
You can also go to races and events that are being held and work your way into the community of sledders that are there. This is a great way to experience it because you will see races as well as get tips and information from others who are racing. From here you can meet many potential opportunities, you can ask them if they need help on their farm with maintaining and looking after the dogs.
Building and developing your sledding team will take longer than most other sports as it is a lot more complicated and has a lot more involved. First you need to pick your team carefully, and learn from their behaviors, no dog is the same. You will also need equipment. If you have been helping a musher they might have given you tips about certain types of equipment that works and what doesn’t, experience and knowledge is vital in having success at mushing.
Start out small and work your way up, even with your dogs, don’t give them heavy loads to pull on their first time, instead give them an easy weight and slowly increase it. Much the same as weight pulling encouragement is key and your dog will learn to enjoy pulling these weights and eventually running with them.
Bonding with your team is also an important part of successful mushing. If your dog doesn’t particularly like you, he won’t want to please you. Make sure you are always positive to your dogs as they will enjoy your company more. Once you have an excellent bond with your team you can work more on the complex things in mushing such as commands and deciding what positions your dogs will be in. The most powerful dogs are the wheels, while the most stubborn and loyal dogs should be the pack leaders.
Practice will need to be an extremely common occurrence and it will help in the long run, once your dogs begin to work together and get into the pace of things you will start to see improvements. Remember if there are hard points such as a hill or tough terrain reassure them that they need to work together to overcome that obstacle. This will help them work together and learn from each other.