HOW DOG SLEDDING WORKS
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How does dog sledding work?
Dog sledding teams really are an amazing thing. These
teams are formed by a number of dogs and a musher, or the sled’s driver, and
while they’re most known for traveling large areas of land and hauling supplies,
dog sleds are actually used for a number of things including military, racing
purposes, and they are even used as police dogs!
Dog sledding has been around for centuries and it’s
thought that the earliest dog sleds were apparent as early as 1000 B.C. During
this time they were mostly used as a means of transportation. However, in the
late 1800s these dogs started being used to police gold mines. These dog sleds,
and their mushers, would travel around the mines and ensure that everyone was
keeping order and that they were all safe as well. It was also during this time
that dog sleds were often used when explorers would go on expeditions to the
Arctic and the Antarctica because they were so well equipped to handle the icy
and freezing conditions.
During the 1920s other forms of transportation that
had been developed started gaining popularity and so the use of dog sleds to get
around was no longer quite as necessary as it had been. However, this did not
mean that dog sleds ceased to exist completely and in fact, they were still very
necessary. Because vehicles could not always cross the rough terrain, dog sleds
were often used and in 1925, it was dog sleds that were used to carry vital
diphtheria medication from Nenana to Nome in order to help stop an epidemic.
Of course when many of us think of dog sleds, we
think of the racing that takes place with these beautiful animals in the colder
parts of the world. This sport began in Alaska in 1908 with the All-Alaska
Sweepstakes, which was a 408 mile run. Alaska also holds an annual Iditarod
Trail Sled Dog Race, which is a race that’s meant to observe and honor that
famous diphtheria dog run of 1925. Canada entered its first dog sledding race in
1984 and this race was called the Yukon Quest. Dogs and their mushers traveled
from the Yukon Territory in Canada into Alaska. Quickly, other nations soon
caught on and today races can be watched all over the world including the United
States and the United Kingdom. These races not only constitute judging a dog’s
speed but also their endurance, and they also include sprint races, freight
races in which the dog’s will compete to see who can carry pull a weighted sled,
and weight races, to see which dogs can pull the most weight.
But what do sled dogs really have to endure to be
able to pull a sled and how are they trained? What type of stamina and strength
do they need and are there particular training techniques for racing rather than
just using the sleds for transportation? Although dog sleds are one of the
simplest forms of transportation that we still have and use today, there is much
that goes into a dog sled team as well as much that goes into becoming a sled
dog! Here we’ll take a look at how these dog sledding teams work and how they
are able to pull such a heavy load, usually more than their own body weight,
while enduring such harsh and extreme conditions.
A Sled Dog’s Strength
aren’t the only dogs that can be used to pull sleds, although they are the most
common as well as the first thought-of dogs when one refers to dog sledding. The
original dogs that were used to pull the sleds were actually huskies that were
crossbred with wolves. This was thought to give them the strength and bulk they
needed to be able to endure their long and tiring trips. However, the dogs that
are used to pull sleds today are still crossbreds although many of them no
longer have the wolf bloodline. No matter the type of dog that is used, if it’s
used for pulling a sled, sled dogs are generally referred to as Alaska Huskies
or Eskimo dogs.
Sled dogs are also all trained the same way. During training it is their speed,
endurance, and leadership qualities that are the main focus. Sled dogs are also
bred to be quite large. The usual weight of a sled dog is generally between
40-45 pounds however, it’s not uncommon to see dogs that weigh as much as 85
pounds pulling a sled! Because of the harsh conditions that they will be facing,
sled dogs are also bred to have a very thick fur so that they can keep warm.
They are also bred with wide, flat feet so that they can easily cross rough
terrain quickly and without injuring themselves. When sled dogs are sleeping
they cover their noses with their tail, also in order to keep themselves warm. A
sled dog’s gender is not considered when choosing which dogs to use as sled
dogs. All that really matters is that they are energetic, like to run,
easygoing, and that they have mental as well as physical stamina.
When you picture a sled dog team, you most likely
imagine a number of dogs attached to a sled that pulls the musher, as well as
any other cargo or supplies that are being pulled. However, the order that the
dogs are lined up in for pulling is very important. The dogs that are closest to
the sled are generally the biggest and the strongest; they are called wheel dogs
or wheelers. The dogs that are chosen to lead the sled are usually the smartest
as well as the fastest and they are appropriately called lead dogs. Behind the
lead dogs are the swing dogs, which help turn the sled and make smooth and fast
turns. The other dogs, while still very important for speed and strength, are
known as team dogs.
Although they are well equipped for the conditions
they will be facing, sled dogs still have many dangers in front of them. Not
only can their feet become injured while they’re trekking across ice and snow
but they can also fall through the ice, which can have disastrous results. Some
dogs become dehydrated and others simply become too exhausted and overexerted.
Because they are often running through wild areas, animal attacks can be common
from moose, wolves, and other less than friendly animals and occasionally, one
of the dogs in the pack will start a fight with another dog. All of this makes
us much more appreciative of what they do for us!
The best age for a dog to be used as a sled dog is
between the ages of 2 and 10 years old. Some owners choose to keep their dogs
once they have finished their life’s work however many are sent to kennels so
that a loving home can be found for them. There are also many shelters that are
dedicated to taking in retired sled dogs and finding them a companion for life!
Mushers and Training to be a Sled Dog
Dog sled kennels widely vary in the number of dogs
that they house. There can be as many as 20 to 150 dogs although usually they
hold around 20. Kennel owners usually train mushers and sell or lease their sled
dogs although many of the kennel owners are mushers themselves. The group Mush
with PRIDE (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog’s Environment) is
responsible for providing kennel owners with guidelines for owning and running a
dog sled kennel.
The actual training of the sled dogs will depend on
the individual musher that will be driving the sled. However, every musher will
train their sled dogs to run at great distances, sometimes two or three thousand
miles when the dogs are being trained for endurance. This training often happens
throughout the entire year so the dogs are sometimes trained on dry land and in
order to mimic pulling a load of supplies, the dogs also sometimes pull
Although sled dogs don’t generally become part of a team until they are at least
two years old, their training starts long before this, usually when they are
only a couple of months old. At this time they will be fitted with a collar and
harness so that they can become accustomed to wearing one. Once they get used to
this new gear, mushers will usually attach something with a bit of weight to the
harness so that the dogs can become accustomed to pulling weight around. Verbal
commands are also given and learned during this time. Once a pup is about 6 to 8
months old, they will usually become part of a team but will only travel short
distances and carry light loads. They will do this until their stamina builds up
and they can slowly take on more weight and distance.
Mushers are usually very loving and attentive when
it comes to the care of their dogs. The big joke amongst mushers is that their
dogs eat and live better than they do! However, even those that can’t see into
the great dog’s heart have reasons for the loving treatment. These mushers
figure that a dog that is not well cared for and loved will not be able to
perform their best. Dogs that are well loved and cared for by their owners
usually turn out to be very friendly and gentle dogs. Even though the dogs may,
from time to time, fight against each other, it’s very rare that they would lash
out at a person.
Races, especially huge races such as the Iditarod,
have veterinarians on hand that will ensure the dogs are not only being treated
humanely but also that each dog’s vaccinations are complete and that the dog has
been to all of their checkups. Microchips are also implanted into the dogs so
that they can be traced should they become lost. The Sled Dog Veterinary Medical
Association is one group that has dedicated themselves to ensuring that all sled
dogs are treated and cared for properly.
Dog sled races are one of the most popular events
that dog sleds are used for. During these races, dogs must eat approximately
10,000 calories a day so that they will have the energy and strength needed to
get through the race. For the Iditarod race, this equals about 2,000 pounds of
food to last one team the entire race. There are more than 24 checkpoints during
the Iditarod and this is a chance for the dogs to rest and eat before
continuing. The dogs are also given snacks every few hours during the course of
the race. Meat makes up most of a sled dog’s diet but they also eat other fats,
oils, dry dog food, and they also receive vitamin supplements. How many dogs
make up a team within a particular race greatly varies between races and mushers.
The Iditarod requires that there be 12-16 dogs per mushers and at least 6 of
those dogs must cross the finish line in order for the team to be eligible to
The sled dogs are all attached to the sled with a
collection of lines that’s called rigging. There are a total of three lines that
make up this rigging: the tow lines, tug lines, and neck lines. With each dog
wearing a collar and harness, the dogs are connected to the sled with the tow
line and the tug line attaches to the dog’s harness and then to the sled. The
neck line is the line that attaches the dog’s collar to the sled. There are no
lines for reins as mushers rely solely on their voices and commands to direct
the dogs. This is where a musher’s training becomes very important. If they do
not know the correct commands or how to control their dogs, the lines could
quickly become tangled and this could cause big problems.
The commands a musher uses are:
- “Hike, Let’s Go,” and “Alright” are all
commands used to get the dog sled team to begin.
- “Easy” means to slow down.
- “Gee” means to turn right.
- “Haw” means to turn left.
- “Come Gee” or “Come Haw” means to turn 180
degrees right or left.
- “Straight on” means go ahead.
- “Whoa” means stop.
Of course there are many different forms of
transportation today and those who live in cold and snowy conditions are no
longer reliant on a dog sled to get them from place to place. However, dog sleds
are still very prevalent and still a very important part of travel. While
snowmobiles can cover large areas of icy and snowy terrain, they are not as
reliable as sled dogs and they are also not as well equipped to handle the rough
conditions. Helicopters and airplanes are also sometimes used to cover harsh
conditions however sometimes the conditions are simply too bad for flying to be
possible. Add to this the fact that sled dogs are much better companions than
man-made machines and the fact that they are much cheaper and it’s not hard to
see why sled dogs still play such an important role in our world today.
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