(History)  (Spectator Tips)  (More about the dogs) Getting Started
What do you need to get into sled dog sports?  Obviously you need a dog.  But what kind, how big and how old are all questions that newcomers to the sport ask.
Egil Ellis, formerly of Sweden, now of Willow, Alaska with Mike, a pointer-husky cross.  Egil has been dominant on the sprint trails for several seasons with these dogs.
photo credit: Helen Lundberg

The answers may surprise you.  First of all, any dog of medium or larger size, say 35 pounds, or more can be considered a potential sled dog if they have a desire to pull and please.  Many different breeds and mixed breed dogs are sled dogs in addition to the common Siberian Husky, Samoyed and Alaskan Malamute.

On many of the top competitive teams you will find carefully bred hybrids of various kinds.  These days, German shorthair and English pointers crossed with traditional Alaskan Huskies are tearing up the sprint race tracks and setting new records.

How old?  It is best to wait until young dog matures somewhat before trying him (or her) in harness, but there are no hard and fast rules.  As long as it is fun for the dog and the trainer, you'll be laying a good foundation for a long working relationship.  Having fun with you dog is the most important thing you can do.  If it stops being fun, then it's time to stop for the day.  Don't try to do too much at once and always end on a positive note.  Very young dogs, 3-4 months can even be taught to pull a little weight behind them with a proper fitting harness.  It gets the dog used to being in harness and associating the harness with a good time.

Tug Hill Challenge, PSDC, 2001
photo by Monica

Don't try to use the harnesses frequently found in pet supply stores - they are for walking dogs and are not made right for pulling.  There are many sled dog equipment outfitters who will gladly help you fit your dog for a proper harness.  Check our links for some contacts.

Any dog must be in good health and be feed according to his needs.  A working dog has special needs and should be feed according to the level of work they are doing.  If you have any questions, consult your veterinarian for basic nutritional advice as well as advice on housing for your location and, of course, health maintenance.

If you are just working with one dog, you will probably be thinking about 'skijoring', which is a rapidly growing sport enjoyed by athletic skiers, mostly using cross-country or Nordic ski equipment.  Again, there are numerous outfitters dealing in skijoring equipment and they can be helpful sources of information.

Sleds. 'Sledding' with dogs will require more than one dog, two is pretty much the minimum and then only for smaller individuals, let say no more than 90-100 lbs.  You would also be looking for somewhat larger dogs if possible, probably in the 45 - 55 lb. range.  You could go larger, but that is up to you.  Again, the dog's desire to work for you is more important than their physical size.  Some pretty famous dogs haven't fit the standards for size, but made up for it with tremendous desire and athletic ability.

If you want to jump into the sport with both feet, the best approach is to apprentice yourself to an experienced dog driver.  Very often, racing kennels can use some extra help with the chores and the training.  In return, you'll have the opportunity to watch and learn how things are done.  Driving a team of dogs masterfully is not a skill learned overnight and many of the best dog drivers of today are second and third generation (or more) dog drivers.  It can be life style not just a hobby and there is much to be learned.  However, the experiences you will have along the way will give you a lifetime of memories and teach you many lessons which will serve you well in other activities.

Much of the equipment required will vary according to what activities you pursue.  Running 'sprint races' requires different equipment than 'distance racing' and camping or winter expeditions via dog team have another set of requirements.  Running dogs with wheeled rigs or 'gigs' is popular where snow is in short supply and gigs come in all sizes and weights.  For small teams, you naturally want a small light weight cart, for larger teams, heavy carts or even small cars (for really big teams) are in order.  Whatever the size, the most important feature are brakes - you must have brakes capable of controlling your speed, stopping and keeping your team stopped. 

Additional Resources

Coppinger, L. The World of Sled Dogs: From Siberia to Sport Racing. Howell Book House: New York, 1979.

Mushing Magazine, P.O. Box 149, Ester, AK, 99725-0149 USA http://www.mushing.com 

Mush with Pride, P.O. Box 84915, Fairbanks, AK 99708-4915 USA. http://www.mushwithpride.org

International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA). P.O. Box 543, Sylvania, OH 43560 USA http://www.isdvma.org 

Remember, control of your team is always 100% your responsibility, not the dogs!

There always distractions; from moose and deer in remote or rural areas to dogs, cats, horses, cows, squirrels, humans, bicyclists, etc. etc. etc. in more urban areas.  Being in control of your team regardless of the circumstances is the responsibility you assume each and every time you harness a dog.  Naturally, your dogs also are a factor.  Some dogs just seem to be born with a better sense of responsibility towards their humans and listen no matter what is going on around them.  But in most cases, it's your job to teach them what is right and and wrong while maintaining their enthusiasm for the sport.

With time and effort, you and your dogs will be a well-tuned team and nothing beats the experience!
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last modified - 1/1/2007 12:04:28 PM