(back to Getting Started) The Dogs  
  Spectators attending their first sled dog race are often astonished by the variety of dogs used in racing teams. Most newcomers expect to see only Arctic breeds (Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and Samoyeds) pulling sleds. In reality, many types of dogs can be sled dogs including  Irish Setters, Dalmatians, and American Coon and Fox Hounds.

The most popular and one of the fastest dogs in the sport today is the Alaskan Husky, essentially a mixture of Arctic dogs with some cross-breeding. The Alaskan Husky is not an AKC breed. This animal was originally bred in the remote villages of Alaska for speed and stamina -- two important attributes of a sled dog.

Other special crossbreeds have been developed for racing purposes. Among them are the Scandinavian Hound (German short hair and English pointers crossed with Alaskan Huskies), the Targhee hound (a cross between a Staghound and Irish Setter), and the Quebec hounds (a cross between hounds and dogs native to Quebec).

While sled dogs vary considerably in appearance, they share certain characteristics. Be it hound or husky, the top performers on today's racing teams will have a strong, slightly arched back, well-angled shoulders, and a deep chest denoting good lung capacity. Compact, tough feet and a protective coat of hair aid team dogs in performing their tasks. Size is an important factor and contemporary racing dogs are relatively small, weighing less than 50 pounds and averaging 24 inches at the shoulder

The sled dog's lean appearance may cause some concern to the uninitiated spectator, but it should be remembered that these are the long-distance athletes of the dog world. An overweight dog, like an overweight person, cannot run marathon distances at a competitive pace. Dog drivers carefully monitor the weight of each dog on their teams and feed measured portions of food to keep each animal at its ideal racing weight.

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The popular view of sled dogs as snarling, lunging, vicious beasts could not be further from the truth. Drivers prefer and breed for a dog that is even-tempered, gentle, and able to stand the pressures of a vigorous training and racing schedule. Dogs that react badly to the noisy excitement of a race or to other dogs are not found on today's teams. No driver can waste valuable time breaking up a dog fight or untangling a dog who is frightened by a crowd of cheering spectators; so temperament is given great consideration in breeding programs.

Racing sled dogs are among the best-cared-for animals in the world- Because the sport is based on athletic performance, the driver must be constantly alert for anything that might adversely affect one of his team members. Parasite control is rigid, and drivers, working with veterinarians, are constantly searching for ways to improve sled dog nutrition. An infestation of intestinal parasites or a long bout with disease may mean missing an entire racing season. Thus, drivers are careful to keep their dogs in the best possible condition.

The training of sled dogs begins at an early age, while they are receptive to new experiences and eager to learn. In addition to being persuaded to run and pull in the right direction, pups are also taught the manners of a well-behaved sled dog: no line-chewing, no growling, no fighting.

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During this period, each dog's abilities are carefully assessed by the driver. The fast, intelligent dog may be a potential leader, while other members of the group may make excellent support dogs in the team. In training, it is the driver's task to instill teamwork, create a desire for work, and foster the dog's natural instinct to run -- all necessary ingredients for a winning team.

Dog drivers realize that love, patience, and understanding will form the strongest bonds between driver and team. Use of a whip, except as a signaling device, is prohibited at ISDRA sanctioned sled dog races.

The welfare of team animals is of primary concern to all those involved in the sport. The dogs themselves well trained, physically fit, and eager to run -- are positive indicators that this sport is as much fun and challenge for the canine members of the team as it is for the human ones.


last modified - 1/1/2007 12:04:40 PM