Sled Dog and Sled Dog Racing FAQ

This information is copyright 1995, 1996, by Margaret Bonham, Sky Warrior Racing Kennels. Used with permission.


General Beginner Questions
Equipment Questions
General Training Questions
General Maintenance
Diet and Nutrition

General Beginner Questions

1. I am a beginner with 1-2 dogs. I want to mush, but I don't think my dog(s) can pull a sled. How can I enjoy the sled dog sports with what I have?

Answer: Try skijouring or kicksleds. Skijouring is where a dog pulls you while you are on skis. A kicksled is a light, upright sled that can take 1-2 dogs. Both are rather inexpensive options for the novice. A full skijouring setup (sans skis) is under $75 and the kicksled runs under $200. Several outfitters listed under the suppliers FAQ carry this equipment. Secondly, don't discount a regular sled unless the cost is prohibitive. A dog weighing 40-50 lbs can pull a human on a stanchion (basket) sled on a level without difficulty.

2. I am a beginner and in great need of information. How do I start?

Answer: Start by reading the FAQs that a published every 1st and 15th of the month on this list. Mush! A beginner's guide to sled dog sports by Bella Levorsen and the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers is a good place to start. Training Lead Dogs by Lee Fishback is an excellent book too. There are two publications that you should belong to: _Mushing!_ and _Team and Trail_. Get involved in the clubs in your area. Talk to some of the outfitters -- most are willing to help you get the equipment you need.

3. I have a Poodle-Sharpei cross ;-) Can I mush?

Answer: If your dog is over 35 lbs and has enough leg, sure, why not? Mushers have raced Dalmatians, German Shorthaired Pointers, Golden Retrievers, Great Danes, Keeshonden, Aussie Shepherds, Border Collies, and GSDs.

4. How many dogs make a team?

Answer: In skijouring 1-3 dogs suffice. In sprint races, the smallest team is a 3 dog team -- but you can run 2 dogs in the 3 dog class. Other sprint classes are 4, 6, 8, 10, and unlimited number dog teams. Distance races vary between 6, 10, 12, 16 and unlimited.

5. What is the length of a race?

Answer: In sprints, usually 1 mile per dog in the team. Some sprint races are much longer, especially in Alaska. Mid-distance is somewhere between 25-250 miles and long distance is over 250 miles. This is general and there is some overlap between them.

6. What is an Alaskan Husky?

Answer: An Alaskan Husky is a mixed breed that came out of the original Indian village dogs in Alaska and Canada. Famous mushers such as George Attla, Gareth Wright, and a bunch of others established the "breed" by setting up their own breeding programs and paying strict attention to pedigrees. These dogs vary in body type, color, disposition, and size due to the needs of the musher. Often one will find an occasional Greyhound, Borzoi, GSP, or Labrador thrown in for good measure.

7. What makes a competative sled dog and at what age can you tell a dog will be competative?

Answer:Tough question. In racing sled dogs, most competative dogs are built with good angulation in both the shoulder and rear; have long backs; tight feet with tough pads; weigh somewhere between 40-60 lbs; and have a hard driving attitude. This is a condensed version of what competative teams strive for. The dog's build is very important because certain builds have been found to facilitate speed and endurance -- its no good if the dog is fighting his body all the time. Attitude is also very important -- you can have an exceptionally built dog but if he doesn't want to work, then he isn't a good sled dog.

The dog's bloodlines are considered important because these dogs have produced more of the kinds of dogs mushers consider desireable. Dogs out of Gareth Wright's "Aurora Huskies" are considered exceptionally fast with a really good attitude; Curtis Erhart's and George Attla's dogs are considered tough. There are a number of kennels that have good dogs and by buying dogs with these bloodlines, you have a better advantage over someone who buys an unknown. Yes, even the top kennels produce "duds" and yes, you may find the next Granite or Andy in the local pound, but the likelihood of either is pretty remote. More likely a "dud" out of Roxy Wright-Champaign is going to be better than most of anything you've got.

So, how do you determine what a dog should look like? There isn't really an empirical formula, but you might want to start with The Speed Mushing Manual, by Jim and Dogsteps by ???. George Attla's book, All I Know About Racing Sled Dogs, is out of print, but you might be able to find it in a library or have someone loan it to you. It has descriptions and pictures of what Attla considers to be a well built dog. (This is an old book, so it is somewhat outdated). _The Speed Mushing Manual_ is an excellent book which goes into great description of what makes a fast dog and has pictures of competatively built dogs. _Dogsteps_ gives you a background in what is considered faults in a dog's movement.

Discovering when a dog is going to be a future champ is a bit of a black art and takes a lot of experience. Puppies grow strangely and while an experienced eye can sometimes pick out a real winner at 8 weeks, most mushers wait until the pups are yearlings or older. Even at a year, the pup may not mature until two years or more. Sometimes, he's silly until three. Breeding pups are always a gamble and that is where the study of bloodlines comes in. The idea of breeding is to produce something as good as (or better than) the pup's ancestors. If you have mediocre dogs to start with, there is little chance you are going to come up with something that is worthwhile. If you are a beginner, it is probably better to buy the best possible dog you can buy first and worry about breeding later on -- when you *know* you can't buy the same or better. For a beginner to buy a competative sled dog, the best age is somewhere around 2 1/2 to 3. The dog is mature enough to be a good working dog, but is also at its peak physically. However, these dogs are usually pretty expensive, so don't discount the dog that is between 3-6 years. Sprint dogs start slowing down at 6; distance dogs are often run on competative teams well past 7. It is not unusual to see a 10 year old dog on a winning distance team.

How do you pick your bloodlines? Start doing some investigative work. There are books of dogs' pedigrees of dogs that have won the North American and Iditarod. Talk to *competative* mushers in your area and find out what bloodlines they run. Usually, they will have dog(s) for sale. Ask to see their pedigrees. Get the national ISDRA standings and the top 10 finishers of the North American, the Fur Rendezvous, the Iditarod, the Quest, (and any other major race) and pay attention to the top teams. Those are the teams you will want to buy from. Generally, if you are planning on sprint racing, buy from sprint teams; distance racing, buy from distance teams BUT a good dog is a good dog and many mushers have made the crossover successfully.

Don't experiment with crossing a Siberian with a Greyhound (or any cross, for that matter) -- its been done before countless of times and you haven't done anything new. The number of generations it takes to breed good blood back in is expensive enough and what will you do with all those pups that don't make you team? If you *do* want a dog with some sort of cross, there are plenty out there and you can benefit by someone else's hard work. Most good sled dogs have less than 1/4 outcross (Greyhound, Borzoi, Saluki, GSP, Border Collie).

The above focuses mainly on the Alaskan Husky, but the conformation standards can be applied to any breed. Some people are interested in running a particular breed such as purebred Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds, or Alaskan Malamutes. There are working lines for all these breeds. The Siberians, in particular, have some excellent lines that date back to competative racing lines. Seppala, Lombard, and lines that go back to very old racing stock are your best bet there.

Equipment Questions

1. What kind of harness should I use? Can I buy it at the local pet store?

Answer: It depends on what you are doing. If you are into recreational mushing, skijouring, or racing, you should probably go with an X-back harness. This harness is the most popular and most outfitters know how to get them right. Don't buy a "roading" harness or anything like that from your local pet store -- they are too constrictive and your dog can have trouble breathing. If you are into weightpulling, there is a special harness for that. It has a single-tree or spreader bar that keeps the straps off of the dog's legs and keeps the weight low. Most outfitters can help you with that.

2. Should I buy a ready-made harness or have one custom fitted?

Answer: Custom fitted is always best because there is no "standard" husky. An ill-fitting harness can cause injuries. Some outfitters offer custom made harnesses for no more than a "standard" harness.

3. What is the difference between a bolted and a tied sled?

Answer: Besides the cost ;-), a bolted sled is less flexible and more apt to break than a tied sled. If you are not sure you want to outlay the money for a tied sled and may not be into mushing in the future, then go with a bolted sled, but realize you get what you pay for. If you are sure you are going to continue in the sport, opt for the more expensive tied sled, it is well worth it.

4. Joe Musher gave me a bunch of his ganglines and harnesses cause he was getting out. Should I use them?

Answer: Not unless you want to lose your team. Old equipment is suspect and should not be used. Ganglines snap, harnesses come apart. Ask any veteran about the horror stories of having a team run off. Don't lose a $1000 team because you decided not to spend $20 for decent ganglines.

5. What kind of equipment do I need for Skijouring?

Answer: Yourself on skis (either X-country or downhill), skijouring belt or towbar (belt is better because your arms will get tired with the towbar. Be sure the belt has a quick release on it. You can also use poles if you wear a skijouring belt), tugline, shock cord, and dog with an X-back harness.

6. What kind of equipment do I need to mush?

Answer: Sled (basket or tobbogan), gangline, shock cord, snowhook and holder, dog bag or sled bag that can double for a dog bag (for carrying an injured dog), X-back harnesses and dogs.

7. What kind of booties should I use?

Answer: Use cordura or polar fleece booties that one of the FAQ outfitters supply. Don't mess with leather or rubber booties you get from pet suppliers -- they are expensive and will be nearly worthless. Novices make the mistake of buying booties too big. Get one that fit pretty close to the feet (like a glove or sock). You want the bootie tight enough to keep on, but not so tight to cut off circulation. You'll figure out where that point is through experience.

8. Should I buy a basket or toboggan sled?

Answer: Depends on what you want to do. Basket sleds (the "traditional" dogsled) are used for sprint, mid-distance, and recreational mushing. They are lighter (15-35 lbs) and usually more manueverable when empty. Toboggans are heavier (over 35 lbs) and made to handle longer hauls with more weight in them. Basket sleds do better on packed trails where as toboggans "float" over new snow better. Toboggans are better suited for long distance racing and long recreational trips.

9. What is a Kicksled? Can I use it for mushing?

Answer: Kicksleds or Sparks look like a chair with runners. They fold up and can be easily carried. They have attachments for wheels as well as runners. You may use one with one or two dogs or "human" powered. These were used in the last Olympic games. The downside of a Kicksled is has no brakes and is too light for a team bigger than one or two dogs.

10. What is a QCR system? Should I use that or conventional sled runners?

Answer: The QCR or Quick Change Runner system, developed by Tim White, is one of the better innovations to have come along in recent years. Very simply, the QCR is two aluminum pieces that are screwed into the runner bases where you can slide runner plastic on and off. This eliminates the need for gluing or bolting and unbolting sled runners when you need to change them -- many sprint mushers now put on new runner plastic before each race to give them an extra edge. QCR plastic is available in a number of sizes and densities and the system fits both basket and toboggan sleds.

General Training Questions

1. My dog doesn't pull or lead out -- how do I teach it to pull?

Answer: Analyze what you are doing first. Are you making the dog pull a heavy load, (like a tire)? Remember, the drag coefficient makes up for that weight. Drop the weight and train with a leash on the back loop rather than weight. Are you taking the dog on the same path every day? Dogs get bored too. Switch the path and vary the length of the training session. Always stay behind the dog -- never go in front. If he lags, bump into him and jockey him forward. Praise him every time he leads.

2. I have a 6 month old Siberian. When can I start training him?

Answer: Ideally, you should be training your puppy all along. Training starts from the moment the puppy comes out of Mom. Get him used to people and new things. Encourage him to explore. At two months to four months, get an adjustable puppy harness and get him used to putting harnesses on and taking it off. Pull on the loop and let him feel the tug of your finger. Get him used to you touching his paws and his mouth. Put him on a leash and praise him when he leads out (no real corrections here!) Get him used to car or dog box rides. At four months hook up a rope tied to a light drag. (Light as in a small tree branch or a log. Just something to provide a little drag -- if he is pulling, its too heavy!) Bring him to races and training runs. Praise him for leading out.

At eight months, put him in a slow team for less than 1/2 mile. This is just a part of his training, he'll be silly and goof up, but that short time in harness will make a (hopefully) positive impression. Let me re-emphasize: this should be a small and SLOW team and you should give almost no corrections, (except maybe line biting). Do not make the mistake of running him in a big or fast team where he might get dragged. Dragging a pup is the worst thing you can possibly do. Do a lot of stopping a praising here. Make this a positive experience and then don't run him again until he is over a year. His real team training will begin at a year (or so), but do not expect full performance until 2 years old.

General times to begin training in a team per breed:

Alaskan Husky -- 1 yr old

Alaskan Malamute -- 1 1/2 yrs old

Samoyed -- 1- 1 1/2 yrs old

Siberian Husky -- 1 yr old

3. It does not snow where I live -- how can I train my dogs?

Answer: There are 3 and 4 wheeled rigs and carts available from various outfitters. These carts are not like children's wagons or ox carts (where you sit down), but more like chariots where you stand up. A good car ot rig has a steering mechanism, a brake, and hopefully a place to put an injured dog (in front of you or beside you). People also have used 3 and 4 wheeler ATVs with success, but they are more expensive.

The SACCO cart is a relatively new cart that hooks two dogs together. It has a steering mechanism that helps enforce commands so a variety of mushers use these carts for lead dog training.

Training with bicycles, roller blades and roller skates have all been used by people, but they can be dangerous and not for the faint at heart. One or two dogs is about all one can handle on a bike and one dog is about all someone can handle with roller skates/blades. We do not recommend training with these.

4. Can I train on asphalt/concrete?

Answer: Asphalt/concrete is hard on the dog's legs and feet, making him more likely to have injures. Sometimes people don't have a choice, so if you must mush on concrete or asphalt, use polar fleece booties (for cushioning as well as protecting pads) and don't overwork your dogs. Try to get them to run on the grass or dirt, rather than the concrete. Dirt roads are best while not running on snow.

5. What are the commands I should teach my lead dog?


Hike! -- to go forward

Gee -- to go right

Haw -- to go left

Whoa! -- to stop

Straight ahead or On by! -- go straight and ignore turns

You may use your own commands for these more traditional commands. Some mushers have a tighten up or line-out command to get their leaders to keep the line tight while hooking up dogs.

General Maintenance

1. My dog's feet collects snowballs -- how do I stop it?

Answer: Trim all toe hair with a blunt-tip scissors. Before you go out for your run, spray the dogs' feet with Pam or another non-stick cooking spray.

Booties will work, but they must be sized right -- otherwise they will fly off. The above method works very well, so don't get too fancy with booties.

2. I ran my dogs through mud-city. How do I clean off my equipment?

Answer: Harnesses can be hand-washed or machine washed with a mild detergent in warm water. Hang them to dry (collar up in humid climates) away from a heat source to prevent shrinkage. (Machine drying will cause your harnesses to turn into puppy harnesses if you aren't careful). Hose off your ganglines -- being especially careful to wash the dirt from the snaps -- and hang to dry. Follow your manufacturer's recommendations for washing winter clothes. If you have questions, consult the manufacturer of your equipment for proper care.

3. My dog has bad feet (fissures, scrapes, etc). What can I do?

Answer: According to the vets involved in the sport, most bad feet are due to zinc deficiency. A large percentage of northern breeds absorb zinc poorly, so even if your dog gets enough zinc in his diet, he may not be using it. You should consider supplimenting the dog's diet with 50 mg zinc (either chelated zinc or zinc gluconate -- do *NOT* use zinc sulfate). There are different foot preparations you can use such as Tomilyn's Protecta-Pad, Happy Jack Pad Kote, Tuf-foot, and Copertox, but most are based on rubbing alcohol for drying and toughening the foot. (Only Protecta-Pad uses lotions) There is a foot pad creme you can make up in _Dog Driver_ by Miki and Julie Collins but be aware that the DMSO in the recipe will cause an infection to drive deeper in the tissues and will also carry chemicals into the dog's (and your) bloodstream. Booting the dog helps, especially if your dog is prone to pad problems.

Diet and Nutrition

1. My Malamute, Nanook of the North, is learning to pull. Do I need a special diet for him, or will Val-U-Rite Dog Chow be sufficient?

Answer: You will certainly want to re-evaluate his diet. Dog foods that are corn based can at times irritate the lining of a working dogs stomach and intestines. Look for a high quality food that doesn't list corn as the first ingredient. Many mushers also suppliment their dog's food with meat. Your best bet is to ask the local mushers about what dry foods are available.

2. Should I suppliment with meat?

Answer: A good premium high protein dog food is usually sufficient for the recreational team. If your dog(s) do more work than 2 x their normal activity level, then you should consider meat supplimentation. A good premium high activity level dog food has 30% protein 20% fat ratio. Competative sprint teams and distance racing dogs need extra suppliments. Be sure to add some steamed bone meal when supplimenting with meat to avoid a calcium/phosporous imbalance.

3. How do I go about developing a good race diet?

Answer: Tough question. The Speed Mushing Manual by Jim Welch lists the Charlie Champaigne diet which is a good start. Rick Swenson's Secrets of Long Distance Mushing also provides a diet. Talk to mushers in your area to find suppliers. If you are lucky to live in areas that sell the Champaigne diet, use that and follow the directions.

4. How do I know how much to feed?

Answer: First determine what shape your dog is in. You should be able to easily feel your dogs' ribs (including the floating rib), the dogs' pelvis bones and the dogs' spine. (I can hear your vet screaming now ;-) Alaskan Huskies should be thinner than Siberians, Malamutes, and Samoyeds. If you can't feel your dogs' ribs easily (huge layer of fat there), your dogs are overweight. Most normally active dogs of 40-50 lbs require about 2 cups of premium high performance kibble during off season. If your dog is getting too thin, increase the amount. Weighing a dog provides a good measure, but be aware that dogs gain and lose weight for a variety of reasons and that muscle weighs more than fat. A dog that may be very fit may weigh 60 lbs; while a similiar dog that is fat may weigh 55 lbs. Both methods are used together to determine the actual fitness of the dog.

Monitor your dogs' weight and actual fitness closely. Even 5 lbs too heavy can cause problems. Very rarely do you see beginner's dogs being too thin -- usually it is the other way around.

5. Should I feed wet or dry?

Answer: Studies show that soaked food leaves the stomach in under 30 minutes, whereas it may take hours for dry food to evacuate the stomach. This is important if you are planning on running races or going on long trips. Dry food, in comparison, takes a few hours. The quicker you can get that food processed out of the gut, the better your dog is going to run.

Dehydration is another reason why you should feed wet. Dehydration is one of the biggest problems for the working dog so whenever you can get water into them, so much the better. The nutritional loss is miniscule compared to dehydration.

6. Water freezes in the winter around here. How do you provide a good water source?

Answer: There are expensive heated bowls you can use. However, mushers water in one of two ways:

-- Baited water. Mix dog food and juice into the water and water the dogs twice a day. Too much water at one time is as bad as too little and can cause bloat and other nasty problems.

-- Fill water buckets in the morning and empty them at night. Problems that can arise is the dog may not drink as much as he needs.

7. Should I free-feed? (Leave the bowl with food out all day?)

Answer: No. You can't judge how much food your dog is really getting and you are teaching your dog to be a picky eatter. You want your dog to chow down the moment you put food in front of him. If your dog refuses to eat (assuming he is normally a good eatter) then you *know* there is something wrong with him.