An Introduction to Sled Dog Sports

from the Team and Trail Magazine

Whether this is your first introduction to sled dogs, or you have visited a sled dog kennel or attended a sled dog sporting event, you may be interested in some of the facts about sled dogs that mushers (dog team trainers and racers) don't seem to have the time to explain because of their preoccupation with their dogs. This is especially true at sled dog races where the driver's entire attention is on his dogs . . . prior to, during and following the race. They come first, last and always.

Although many sled dogs make good pets, they are not exactly like other domesticated breeds. They come from a long tradition of running in harness. Being a part of a team fulfills their "pack" instinct, and to the sled dog's way of thinking, this is the most important, most exhilarating part of his life.

Other sled dogs are a sled dog's "best friends," and he enjoys nothing better than running with his friends. He and his teammates naturally accept the leadership of the dog which has proven its capability at the front of the team. Unlike old tales that would have you believe that lead dogs fight for their superior position . . . they don't. They earn it in training runs by exhibiting their enthusiasm and intelligence.

The "ultimate" leader of the dog team is the human being on the runners of the sled . . . the one who cares for the dogs, protects them, houses them, feeds them and best of all, takes them out as a team for training and racing runs. A team of dogs is much stronger than any single person can control physically, but by being fair, consistent and considerate, the driver earns the respect of his dogs which willingly respond to his every command.

In order to earn a dog team's trust, the driver must truly love and appreciate dogs and share in their joy as "partners" on a running sled dog team. Otherwise, the responsibility of maintaining and training a team of dogs can be pure drudgery. Even for the most conscientious dog driver and kennel owner, there are no guarantees of glory and awards awaiting him at the end of the trail.

There are sled dog teams all over the world, some composed of as little as one dog. Others number in the teens and twenties, and whether it is a one-dog team or a twenty-dog team, each animal demands individual attention and care. Only the person who admires and respects dogs can provide the time and dedication it takes to make a dog team.

Everything that the driver does for his dogs will determine what they will do for him on the trails. If he does not earn their trust as their leader, the dogs will elect "their own" leader . . one of their own kind. When that happens, the dogs become a "pack" instead of a "team," so it is the wise trainer who does all that he can to maintain a healthy kennel of happy dogs that can place their confidence in him.

Competitive sled dogs are among the best housed, trained, fed and conditioned canine athletes in the world. They receive veterinary care that compares with the medical care offered to Olympic athletes. Each dog on the team plays an important, individual role, so every effort is made to keep each one in top physical and mental condition in order to keep the team together.

All rules governing sled dog competition -- whether it is team racing, skijoring, weight pulling or cross-country trekking -- are designed to maintain the well-being of the dogs as a top priority and secondly, to provide a fair contest. All competitors belong to one sled dog organization or another, and all of them were created to promote humane contests where "the best team wins," but actually, none of them are losers.

As you look at all the sled dogs in kennels and sports arenas, you are looking at some of the best, most cared-for athletes in the world. And unlike many other dogs who don't have a choice, they can do what they like to do most under the safe supervision of a "good master."

 

Jim Tofflemire's team, the founder of the Mail Run during the 1977 Iditarod race

 

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For the best links to the Iditarod Trail Race Sites, the Sled Dog Sport sites, and All Other Dog Sports, we recommend:

The Working Dog Web