By Sandy Robins
Dog sledding is considered the ultimate adventure sport in the dog world. Made internationally famous by the Iditarod course that runs 1000 miles across Alaska’s grueling frozen terrain, this extreme sport is also known as dog mushing, and fast gaining popularity with clubs around the country as well as internationally.
The image of a team of dogs pulling a sled instantly conjures up a picture of barking, excited Huskies dashing through the snow. Indeed, the Alaskan and Siberian Husky are the most common breeds found in this sport. They are both medium-sized dogs with the Siberian Husky smaller in stature but weighing more than the Alaskan Husky. However, this sport is also popular with other dog breeds such as Samoyeds, Malamutes and Canadian Eskimo dogs.
How It All Began
Historians claim that this sport dates back millennia to Mongolia where dogs were used to pull sleds to transport heavy loads. Later, Native American tribes in the frozen regions of north America were known to use dogs too. As the history of America evolved, and the French arrived, they also relied on dogs for transport and the term mushing came about based on the French word marche meaning “to go” or “to run”. However, it was a Norwegian explorer named Roald Amundsen, who in 1911, devised the first race to the South Pole.
Fast forward to this millennium and with the sport now popular across North America, Northern Europe, Russia and even in countries such as Australia and South Africa, associations such as the International Federation of Sleddog Sports and the International Sled Dog Racing Association are making plans to take dog sledding to the Olympics. It was a demonstration sport at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, the Winter Olympics in Oslo, and at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, but has not as yet been recognized as an official Olympic sport.
Putting Together a Dog Team
A sled dog team can vary in size, with a maximum of 16 dogs. They are divided into various places and positions in front of the sled with one person at the helm known as the musher.
Lead Dogs: They steer the rest of the team, and set the pace. Currently, it is more common to have two leads instead of a single dog.
Swing Dogs: These are directly behind the leader(s). They are called swing dogs because they swing the rest of the team behind them on turns or curves while on the trail.
Wheel Dogs: These are nearest to the sled and the musher. These dogs need to be very calm in nature. Strength and perseverance are also fought-after characteristics in these dogs.
Team Dogs: These dogs are located in between the wheel and swing dogs, and they add power and strength to the team. If a team is smaller, they may not have any team dogs. And sometimes, this term is lightly used to describe any dog on the team.
Interestingly, the dogs are not driven with reins, but by spoken commands resulting in a very special bond between these sporting dogs and their musher. Thus, the canine leader of the team must understand what has become known as the mushing vocabulary in order to guide the rest of the dog team.
The Musher to Dog Vocabulary
Come Gee! Come Haw! Commands for 180 degree turns in either direction.
Gee: (Pronounced, jee) Command for right turn.
Haw: Command for left turn.
Hike! Means ‘go”.
Line Out! Command to lead dog to pull the team out straight from the sled. Used mostly while hooking dogs into team or unhooking them.
On by: Means go past something.
Mush! Hike! All Right! Let’s Go! Commands to start the team.
Whoa! Command used to halt the team, accompanied by heavy pressure on the brake
According to the Iditarod website, teams travel at an average of 10 miles per hour; some can go as fast as 15 miles per hour!
Note: Although training dog sledding teams require specialized training, you can get your start in basic obedience training in schools such as Animal Behavior College.
Technological Advances in This Sport
Technology and new materials have greatly impacted and improved this sport too. Modern sleds made from composite materials, are lightweight and flexible. There are two sled types, a toboggan style or a stanchion-supported basket style. Both rest on two runners made from plastic, wood, or metal and have a foot brake that digs into the snow with claws to slow the team. It also has a pronged metal claw, called a snow hook, to temporarily keep a team stationary. Similarly, the dogs’ harnesses were originally made from leather or cotton webbing, but have been replaced with lightweight nylon webbing. The harnesses are usually padded around the neck and sometimes the sides with artificial fleece or other material. Dogs may wear booties (rectangular socks made from fleece, cordura, or other durable, lightweight material) that slip over a dog’s paw and are secured with a length of Velcro to protect their feet from adverse trail conditions.
Racing Kennels treat their competitive sports dogs as VIPs. All the dogs have names and team members along with the mushers know everything there is to know about each one; their personalities, strengths and weaknesses, their life history, lineage and family relations. They can recognize them by the sound of their barks too. Naturally their diet is of the utmost importance and they are fed a combination of raw meat and high-performance dry dog food.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
This annual long-distance sled dog race is run in early March from Anchorage to Nome, entirely within the US state of Alaska. Mushers and a team of 14 dogs, of which at least 5 must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 8–15 days or more. The first race occurred in 1973 and currently attracts around 100 teams.
According to James Kari, who was an assistant professor at the University of Alaska Native Language Center when the race started, “the name Iditarod came from an Ingalik and Holikachuk word hidedhod for the Iditarod River. This name means distant or distant place.”
The Klondike Dog Derby
Attending the Lake Minnetonka Klondike Dog Derby in Excelsior, MN is the perfect way to re-live a little piece of local history. Dating back to the 1930s, this historic town has held events with various winter activities from skating parties to dog sled races. This race draws a large crowd every February.
American Dog Derby
The American Dog Derby is the oldest dogsled race and first took place in 1917. In the early part of the last century, it was heavily promoted by Union Pacific Railroad and gained popularity on par with the Kentucky Derby and the Indianapolis 500 in terms of interest and press coverage. It’s held in Ashton, Idaho every February.
The Pedigree Stage Stop Race
This annual January event takes place in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Idaho. It starts in Jackson, Wyoming and is held in stages, making stops in the following Wyoming cities: Alpine, Pinedale, Lander, Big Piney/Marbleton, Kemmerer, and Uinta, and Driggs, Idaho, totaling 302 miles. It’s deemed the second largest sled dog race in the country.
There are lots of regular events held by local clubs around the country too.
Dog Mushing — Alaska’s Official Sport: How You Can Join in the Fun
Tourists to Alaska can suit up in warm layers and board a sled for a truly unique and fun winter experience. There are many tours offered and some include a visit to a kennels and an opportunity to get close and personal with these canine sport dog stars. https://www.anchorage.net. Tours are offered throughout the year.
In particular, around the famous Iditarod race, there are lots of fun events for tourists. There’s the Musher’s Banquet always held the Thursday before the start at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage. Mushers draw their starting order at this gala, which features a plated dinner and plenty of time to meet the mushers. You can chase the race on a special flightseeing tours or snowmobile trips that follows the course of the race. And, possibly the most fun of all, volunteers can help with the dogs on start day and along the course. https://iditarod.com/volunteers/
A new App called QPaws is a tool for owners of active dogs to track their health. It is designed for use by a single dog owners or someone running an entire kennel. One bonus feature of the app is the ability to follow global dog competitions via a live function. During winter 2022, users can follow some of the world’s toughest dog sled races, including the Femund race (Norway in February) and the legendary Iditarod in Alaska in March. QPaws-The Dog Activity App is free and from the Apple AppStore and Google Play. Although the app already is geared to a wide spectrum of dog owners, it will be updated in the coming months with a lot of new features tailored for different types of dog owners and their activities (such as hunting dogs, agility training, service dogs and more).