By: Staff  Date: 01/9/2012 Category: | Canine Issues |

Sled dogs have coexisted and cooperated in partnership with humans for many thousands of years in the northern regions of North America and Siberia. Archeological evidence puts the earliest date at more than 4000 years ago. Some anthropologists suggest that human habitation and survival in the Arctic would not have been possible without sled dogs.

In the southwest of what is now the United States, the first Spanish explorers encountered Indians who used dogs as draft animals pulling travois. They remarked that these dogs were an integral part of the Indians' culture. In fact, in many North American Indian cultures the relationship with dogs was central to their style of life and the introduction of horses occurred in parallel without replacing or diminishing the cultural importance of dogs as respected associates and partners.

Sled dog activities as recreation and friendly competition may have existed for almost as long as the relationship between dogs and humans in the 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. At the turn of the century the attention of the outside world was drawn to Alaska and the Yukon by the Gold Rush. The first major sled dog races were organized in Nome, Alaska, as the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. These races and the concurrent festivities were sometimes reported in the New York Times and other major newspapers.

By the 1920s returning gold miners had brought the sport of sled dog racing to New England where it prospered. In 1932 the Lake Placid Olympic Games included sled dog racing as a demonstration sport. The winner was a French Canadian from The Pas, Manitoba, second was a Norwegian by way of Alaska, and third was a Russian by way of Brooklyn and Manitoba. Despite the international character of the race in Lake Placid there was little activity outside North America except in Norway where the use of dogs for ambulance work had been transformed into a sport beginning at the time of the First World War.

The influence of Nansen and Amundsen who used sled dogs in the North and South Polar regions was also important in establishing a Scandinavian sled dog sport. In the 1952 Oslo Olympics, sled dogs were featured again as a demonstration sport, this time in the form of pulka races where the driver accompanies the dogs on skis behind a toboggan or pulka. Mushing in its many different forms has gradually spread around the world since that period.

In 1992 the International Federation of Sleddog Sports was incorporated as a way to focus the efforts of many national, local and international organizations on the goal of Olympic recognition and alignment of mushing with other mainstream sports through the General Association of International Sports Federations.

So what is a sled dog?*

In northern climes, sled dogs generally has a double coat for warmth, thick furry ears, and cold feet. In warmer areas, German Shorthaired Pointers and husky-hound crosses are often used. Most obvious about these dogs is that they are not bred for looks, but for stamina, speed, and acclimatization - the ability to do the job.

Sled dogs can have long coats or short, brown eyes or blue (or one of each), upright or down ears, as long as they are also built to run. Sled dogs must also be intelligent, trainable, and social. They must get along with teammates and competitors' teams and have good house and kennel manners. They must know not to bite snow or chew lines and how to stand to be harnessed and have protective boots put on their feet.

According to the ISRR website: "Sled dogs must learn to be quiet in the dog yard and when traveling in the truck. The exceptions may include feeding and when it's time to load them in the truck for training. It's OK to bark at a moose in the woods, but not at the cat on the back porch. They bark at strangers, but not at regular visitors ... who says sled dogs aren't smart?

"Life around the dog truck also requires a lot of know-how. Each dog runs to the truck to be loaded before training and back to its house when training is finished. The dogs stay quietly in the truck until training begins, whether driving around town, in parking lots, or at work. When taking a break while traveling to a race, all of the experienced dogs run free. They know to take care of business first and play later, and to 'stay close' at all times. With race pros, it is possible to 'drop' (and clean up after!) 30 dogs in about 15 minutes at any road-side pullout.

"In the team, each dog knows its place and the special requirements of that position. Wheel dogs lean into corners, swing dogs are wizards at lines. Even young sled dog pups soon learn to stay out of lines. Some of the best dogs literally dance out of tangles when the line goes slack and wraps around their legs."

Lead dogs must also know the commands 'gee' (right turn) and 'haw' (left turn), but other team members pick them up as well. All team dogs know 'easy,' 'go faster,' and 'going home.'

Races and eco-tours

Sled dog races are gaining in popularity as dog owners explore the traditions of the northern breeds and the Olympics Committee has held demonstrations of the sport at winter games. In addition, sled dog kennels are providing winter camping tours for hardy vacationers in the northern US and Canada. An Akita breeder in New York runs sled dog trips, as do tour companies in many parts of the world.

Races can be sprints or long distance. Sprint races can be run with one-to-five dogs; distance races generally use larger teams. Short races cover up to 25 miles per day; mid-distance races cover 100-300 miles over a continuous trail, and long distance races can be 1000 miles or longer.

Long-distance races use a sled with runners; the musher rides the runners, pushes the sled, or runs alongside the sled holding on to the handle. Sprint races use a light racing sled that may weigh no more than 15 pounds. Some races use skis instead of a sled or hitch the dogs to a small toboggan known as a pulka.

About The Author

Staff's photo
Staff -

All Authors Of This Article: | Patti Strand |
Like this article?
Don’t forget to share, like or follow us