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Dog Sledding Full Guide
The experience of being on a sled pulled by multiple dogs is something you are unlikely ever to forget. The powdery white snow is whipped up as paws land repeatedly on the ground, and while some get in your face, you can’t feel it. Your thick winter clothes; coat, snow pants, hat, and gloves, are keeping you warm, and you barely notice how your eyelashes freeze and start sticking together.
All you can feel is the wind, the smell of nature, the formidable force that is pulling you forward and the adrenaline that comes with speeding up to 20mph in something other than a motor-driven vehicle. You feel invincible and vulnerable at the same time – humbled by being at the mercy of the animals transporting you, and you get to see a primitive side of the canine breed that most regular dog owners never get to experience.
History of Dog Sledding
The history of sledding with dogs is a lot more profound and relevant than what many of us realize, and the practice might have played a crucial part in the way humanity initially spread across the planet. While the snowmobile – a modern mean of transportation in snowy and icy areas – was first introduced during the 1960s, the dog sledding practice has been around for thousands of years. It is uncertain for how long humans have used dogs for transport, but it quickly gets interesting when you start digging into it.
Remains of dogs dating back over 8 000 years have been found in Siberia and based on how they were buried – often with treasures or even with humans – indicate that they played a crucial role in the society that inhabited Siberia all those years ago. These burials taught scientists that domestic dogs might have been around longer than they had previously thought, and while there was no evidence found that these dogs were used to pull- or for any type of sledding, it was an eye-opener for how dogs were treated back then in the far north.
At another Siberian Arctic archeological site, which dated back only a couple of thousand years, research and investigation showed signs of a completely different fate for canines; where the severed remains of over 100 dogs were found with signs of them having been used for food. This location is known as Ust’-Polui, and most of the remains belonged to young dogs that had possibly been kept for the sole reason of feeding the population. What intrigued investigators was that this place – Ust’-Polui – is also known as the location of the first real evidence of existing sled dogs, so how did the dog go from being a person’s dinner to becoming their mean of transportation?
One theory was that perhaps some dogs were used for transport, while others were used to feed the locals. Remains of sleds were discovered in the area, but no dog remains were found still attached to the sleds; making it difficult to prove that dogs had been the ones pulling them. Logic and common sense had archeologists believe that dog sledding could have existed already back then, due to how much easier it would have been for humans to transport themselves long-distance. If this were to be accurate, it could mean that sled dogs played a crucial role in human migration. The next step was to look at the canine remains and compare them to those of modern sled dogs versus regular house pets, to try and see if there were signs of wear and tear that could identify a dog that has been used for sledding.
The research is not yet complete, but scientists have discovered that modern sled dogs and their bones do show specific signs of having hauled sleds, and their bones are denser and more robust while also being slightly shorter. The remains found in Ust’-Polui indicate that the ancient dogs resembled the modern husky. This was found in the shape of the skull and overall body shape. Archeologists believe that it should be possible to find these sled dog signature signs on the bones, to prove that dog sledding existed over 2 000 years ago; and if so – it would change everything we know about the dog sledding practice, along with the sled dog’s participation in the expansion of the humanity.
Fast-forwarding a few thousand years, we end up somewhere around the 1700s, where dogs were used for transporting people, goods and necessities. Some believe that colonies way up north were able to survive thanks to sled-pulling dogs, as it allowed them to deliver messages to nearby villages and supplies that might have otherwise taken weeks to arrive. The earliest known and proven signs of dog sledding dates back to around 1 000 years A.D, and there are indications of the Inuit people in what is today known as the northern parts of Canada were the ones to invent dog sledding the way we have come to know it today.
In the early versions of modern dog sledding, only three dogs were used to transport goods on small handcrafted sleds, and they all ran together without any real structure and with no assigned lead dogs.
While established practices of dog sledding were discovered in areas in or around where Alaska is now located on the map – it was the Russians that became known for introducing a sledding technique and structure resembling the one still used in professional mushing. They started teaming the dogs up in pairs and placing them pair after pair on a straight line. They would then choose a leading dog to be placed at the head of the line; the leading dog would also be trained to obey a few basic commands to lead the pack and keep the other dogs focused.
Soon there was a demand for sled dogs, and dogs began to be bred to transport gold and other goods in areas that were perhaps only accessible by foot or by sled. The increasing demand led to a greater global spread of the practice, and this was the true beginning of mushing (dog sledding) the way it is used today in many Nordic areas and countries.
Between 1880 and 1920, sled dogs were responsible for delivering mail and supplies in many areas of Alaska where ice formations prevented ships from going to shore during the winter, and this went on until the practice was replaced at the end of the 1920s by small airplanes that would fly over the area instead.
Modern dog sledding is mostly used for leisure and mushing competitions, but while the purpose might have changed – sled dogs and dog sledding remain an essential part of many northern cultures.
The dog sledding community is a tight-knit group of dedicated individuals; where the outdoors is the preferred place to spend any free time. Many professional (and hobby) mushers can’t think of a better way to spend a day than out in the snow with their pack of wolf-like dogs. Almost all who dog sled regularly will use their own dogs, as it is generally beneficial to personally know the dogs you are racing with.
There lies a lot of trust in mushing; where the man/woman and the dogs need to be in perfect synchronization and harmony. If the dogs do not listen to their musher or if the musher would fail to listen to the dogs – things can go wrong in the high-risk sport that it could be considered as depending on the circumstances.
How many dogs are used to pull a sled depends on the activity, the location where the event takes place and personal preferences, so a professional musher might have anything from 2-3 dogs to a big pack of over 20.
This may seem extreme to those who did not grow up in- or around the mushing culture, but in areas where dog sledding is commonly practiced – it is not unusual to have a neighbor with dozens of barking dogs in an outside dog pen. For Skijoring, which is your dog pulling you on skis, you only need one dog. For the lightweight and upright Kicksled, you are usually fine with one or two dogs. In competitions you race with a team of four, six, eight or ten dogs (there is also a class allowing unlimited dog teams); and in long-distance runs you will either compete with six dogs, ten dogs, twelve, sixteen or in a class where you choose how many dogs you want to have on your team.
There are different positions for the dogs along the towline (also known as a gangline), and all the dogs stand in pairs with their harnesses carefully attached to it. It is always fun to know a few facts before you investigate the possibility of hopping on a sled and heading out into the wild with dogs; so here are the different positions in a properly set-up dog sledding team:
+ Lead dogs
The lead dogs are kept in the front, and they are the canines that will respond to the musher’s commands; “haw” for a left-turn and “gee” for a right turn is commonly used, but it is up to the musher to train the dog/dogs to respond to the words of his or her choice. This will keep the other dogs in line by showing both them and the musher where to go.
They follow the trail using senses like touch – where their sensitive paw pads can feel the actual path even when the snow has fallen on top of it – and scent, and it is up to them to make sure the team does not get lost.
Most sledding teams have either one or two lead dogs, and it is vital to choose a dog with the right skill set and personality for this type of responsibility. They need to be highly intelligent, responsive to training, fearless, and alert, and it is considered an honor for a dog to be picked to lead the team.
+ Swing dogs
Right after the lead dog or dogs, we have the swing dogs – the dogs that make sure the sled gets around corners and bends safely. The instinct of dogs following a leading dog might otherwise be to jump straight in the direction of the leading dog as he or she makes a turn. The swing dogs are there to prevent this; to instead take all the following dogs and sled in a wide arc – as this is what prevents the sled from tipping over.
+ Team dogs
These guys are the backbone of the sledding team and the dogs that pull most of the weight and maintains good speed.
As a team, sled dogs usually pull a total of about 300-500lbs; and this includes the musher, the sled, and all the brought-along supplies. While they all share the weight, the team dogs are the ones pulling the most, and they need to be strong and in excellent shape.
+ Wheel dogs
Last in the line but far from leash – the wheel dogs are the two furry runners that stand closest to the sled. Many mushers use the biggest dogs in the pack for these two positions, and this is because they are the ones that will have to take on the full weight of the sled when you first start and when during climbs. These dogs need to have a high tolerance for distraction, as they continuously have the sled pushing from behind, and they also must resist the temptation to get ahead of the team. An even-tempered dog is generally best suited for a wheel position.
In some teams, the musher might prefer to switch the dog’s around during a race or an outing and to let a leading dog take a rest at times. A team might also become smaller during a race if a dog needs a break, and internal fights or canine disagreements could also be a reason for moving one dog from a position to another.
Beginners don’t usually have to worry about too much when going sledding for the first time, as almost all first-time sledding experiences are done in the company of a professional musher. A musher is a person dedicated to dog sledding, and he or she will go over all the basics before you get started. If you are feeling a little nervous before your first attempt – have a look below for some tips and tricks that will help you get on the right track and make the best of the experience.
+ Proper clothing
There is a saying that is used in many Scandinavian countries (where mushing is a popular activity), and its message is that there is no such thing as bad weather – only poor choices of clothes. This makes perfect sense when you go dog sledding, and you need to make sure to dress for the occasion. Wear a hat to protect your ears from strong and cold winds (unless you want to come home with an ear infection), gloves to keep your hands warm, a windproof winter jacket that withstands the climate in the area of your planned dog sledding experience, functional boots and preferably a scarf.
+ Get to know the dogs
If you are nervous, it is always a good option to check with the musher or the owner of the dogs if you can go and meet them before. They can look a little intimidating due to all the excitement that comes with sledding, and it is not unusual for sled dogs to bark loud and uncontrollably both when in their outdoor pen and when standing with their harnesses hocked on to the sled. By meeting them previously to the sledding experience, you get a chance to get to know them without pressure.
Keep in mind, though, those sled dogs aren’t always like the house pets you might be used to, and they are often a lot more independent than the Golden Retriever you have at home; and they might come across as more primitive.
+ Loosen up
When you are on the sled, try not to be too stiff! Being stiff will prevent you from thoroughly enjoying the experience, so instead try to think of it as a bike ride, a ride on a motorcycle and a snowmobile – you want to follow the sled in its movements and let the weight of your body help guide it in the right direction.
Dog Breeds Used for Sledding
The dog breed most often associated with dog sledding is the wolf-like and gorgeous Siberian Husky.
The Huskies are trainable, strong-willed, stubborn, independent, loyal, incredibly intelligent and they have a thick fur that keeps them warm even in extremely low temperatures. They are also very pack oriented, love being outdoors, and they don’t shy away from a challenge!
A pack of Siberian Huskies working together is an impressive sight, and the way they fall in line and become one with the elements will remind you of how the domestic dog is a descendant of the wolf. There is a sense of beauty to their movements, and their natural sense of orientation keeps them on the trail even in adverse weather conditions and when it is dark.
Do you happen to own one of these gorgeous breeds? Lucky you! See our post on dog food for Huskies.
The slightly larger Alaskan Malamute is also a breed associated with mushing; and you recognize them by their somewhat smaller ears set wide apart, thicker and fluffier fur, their larger size and brown eyes (while Siberian Huskies will often have blue eyes or one blue and one brown eye).
The Alaskan Malamute is one of the oldest breeds to have been used for sledding, and they are the official mascot of the state of Alaska.
Another dog – which is not an officially recognized breed at this time – to be commonly seen pulling sleds is the Alaskan Husky. The Alaskan Husky is a mix between a Siberian Husky and an Alaskan Malamute, and many believe that this combines the agility and graciousness of the Siberian Husky with the additional force and size of the Alaskan Malamute.
Some mushers also choose to use other breeds that are not traditionally associated with dog sledding; many have proved that provided that the dog has long enough legs and is in good physical condition – any dog can learn to be a successful sled dog.
Places to Dog Sled
Where there is snow during a few months a year, there is often also dog sledding! The Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Iceland all have thriving dog sled communities up north, and you can find detailed information online for how to contact mushers and tour guides. For those living there, it is not unusual to be out walking or cross-country skiing in the woods and to suddenly have a full dog sledding team pass you on the tracks.
Places like Lappland in Sweden, and Tromso in Norway, are known for their breathtaking tours where you might even spot northern lights as you rush through the snow in your sled.
Other places ideal for dog sledding are – of course – Alaska and several locations up in northern Canada. The options are many, and it all depends on where you can travel to, and what is reasonable for you. Do your research online to find the ideal option for you and your family.
Ethics & Fair Treatment of Dogs
If you are unfamiliar with the mushing practice, perhaps you feel concerned about the dogs spending so much time outside and having to pull many times their own body weight? Don’t worry. For example, in Scandinavia, the dog keeping rules are stringent, and pets are generally treated with care, respect, love, and devotion – and this includes sled dogs.
Breeds like Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamute love spending time outside, and they need a lot more exercise than simple walks around the neighborhood. This means that most sled dogs are thrilled to get to do what they were initially bred for, and they live much more fulfilling lives than that of many city dogs and family pets.
This article provides general information regarding the history of dog sledding, the culture surrounding dog sledding (also known as mushing), the requirements for participating in what is now mostly seen as a sport; but the rules may change depending on the country and the area you are located. The ideal thing to do, if wanting to get into dog sledding or book ride on a dog sled, is to contact a local mushing club or organization.
If you plan to attempt mushing yourself, make sure you have the proper gear; such as a harness designed for pulling. Using a regular dog harness when mushing could critically injure your dog or you.
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