Dog Sledding

Siberian huskies are known for their strength and endurance on sled dog teams.

The History of Sled Dogs

The heritage of the sled dog is a long and proud one, stretching back thousands of years. The people of the North depended on these animals for protection, companionship, hunting, trapping, and, most of all, transportation. The Siberian Husky was used by the Chukchi people of Siberia for transportation during their hunting expeditions. These dogs could travel long distances and survive on little food. They were also integral parts of the family. Samoyeds, Alaskan Malamutes, and Greenland Huskies have very similar histories. These dogs are bigger, though, and were used for carrying heavier loads. Sled dogs enabled explorers such as Byrd, Peary, and Amundsen to explore the North and South Poles. As early as 1873, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were bringing government to northern frontiers with dog-team patrols. Throughout Alaska and Canada, mail teams delivered the news to outlying settlements.

Sled Dog Racing

Sled dog activities, as recreation and friendly competition, may have existed for almost as long as the relationship between dogs and humans in regions where snow was a seasonal probability. The first written account of a race was an informal challenge between travelers on the route from Winnipeg to St. Paul in the 1850s. In 1886, the first Saint Paul Winter Carnival featured sled dog races and ski competitions to glorify the attractions of winter in Minnesota. Sled dog races have been part of the Winter Carnival to the present day. The most memorable event was the 1917 race from Winnipeg to Saint Paul, on which a recent Walt Disney movie (Iron Will) was loosely based. In reality, the race that year was won by Albert Campbell, a Metis from The Pas, Manitoba, followed by his brother in second place. 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 German Short-Haired Pointers, Greyhounds, German Shepherds, and Golden Retreivers. Any dog that has the desire and willingness to pull can be a sled dog. The most popular and fastest dog in the sport today is the Alaskan Husky, essentially a mixture of Arctic dogs with some hound 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. Races are held all over the world—in North America, almost all European countries, Asia (including Russia and Japan), and the Southern Hemisphere in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, and South Africa.

Short distance speed races are 3 to 25 miles per day, depending on the maximum number of dogs allowed. Junior racers only go from 1 to 7 miles. Speed race teams have averaged just over 20 miles per hour on hard, flat, fast trails. Speed races are generally held on weekends and consist of 2 to 3 heats over the same course. Mid-distance races usually range from 100 to 300 miles over a continuous trail. Long-distance races range from 300 to 1,000+ miles. Distance sleds have to carry overnight camping gear and dog food. These sleds commonly weigh 50 to 100 pounds, and when fully loaded can weigh up to 300+ pounds. Speeds are, of course, much slower for distance racing teams, usually about 6 to 10 miles per hour. Many sled dog races are held without sleds. These are races where the musher, or person with the team, rides on skis instead of on a sled. Usually, only 1 to 3 dogs are allowed. During skijoring races, the musher is hooked directly to the dog or dogs. In ski-pulka races, the musher and the dog or dogs are hooked to a pulka (a small toboggan used to carry weights) which is in between them. The amount of weight on a pulka is determined by the number of dogs.

The Sled Dog Team

Teams can be as small as 1-dog or as large as 20-dogs. When there is no snow, dog teams can either pull a wheeled cart (looks like a horse-racing chariot) or a 4-wheeled ATV. But there are many types of contraptions used for sled dog sports. Some people have 1-2 dogs pull them on a mountain bike or a scooter. Mushers in Scotland and England use a 3-wheeled gig that looks like a large tricycle. Mushers are very inventive and use whatever works! Within the team, there are many roles. The musher acts as the coach and decision-maker. The lead dog listens to the musher's voice commands and will lead the team in the right direction. The dogs right in front of the sled are called wheel dogs. They help to move the sled smoothly around corners. The dogs in between the leaders and wheel dogs are called team dogs.

Sled Dog Racing and the Olympics

A demonstration race was held during the 3rd Olympic Winter Games at Lake Placid, New York in 1932. In 1952, sled dogs raced at the Oslo, Norway, Winter Games. Just prior to the 1988 and the 1992 Winter Games, regular sled dog races were held in the Games area, but immediately prior to the start of the Games. In 1994, sled dog racing and sled dog transportation were shown off during the Lillehammer, Norway, Olympics as an official part of the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee's Cultural Program.

Sledding Terms

Learn some of the commands to teach your dog and understand the different roles a dog can play on a larger sled team. Explore the different sledding sports avaialable for you and your dog.

Sledding Commands

Hike! Let's Go! All Right!

Three commands used to move the team forward.

Whoa!

The command to stop.

Gee

The command to turn right.

Haw

The command to turn left.

Straight Ahead

A command used when there are alternative trail crossings and the driver wants the team to go straight.

The Dog Team

Leaders

The dog or dogs at the front of the team who are trained to respond to the driver's commands. When two dogs are used, it is called "double lead."

Point Dogs

The pair of dogs directly behind the lead dog(s) who support the leaders in taking commands.

Swing Dogs / Team Dogs

All dogs in between the leaders and wheel dogs.

Wheel Dogs

The dogs directly in front of the sled who help the driver to pivot it around corners.

Different Sports

Canicross

The driver jogs with 1-2 dogs attached to him or her by a belt.

Bike-joring

The driver rides their bike with 1-2 dogs attached to the bike via a special piece of equipment that prevents the lead line from tangling in the wheel.

Dog Scootering

The driver handles a scooter with 1-2 dogs attached to the scooter.

Skijoring

Driver skis on cross-country skis with dogs attached to him or her by a belt. Usually with 3 dogs maximum.

Dryland Sled Racing

Similar to the traditional snow sled, except that the sled has wheels.

Sources

This information comes from a combination of personal knowledge from a TOTTSHR volunteer and articles on the following web sites:

The International Sled Dog Racing Association
The International Federation of Sleddog Sports