Answers to a few of the commonly asked questions about sled dogs

Many different variations of the Alaskan Husky. (Source)

What is a sled dog?

Sled dogs come in many different colors, shapes, and sizes, ranging from the northern breeds of Alaskan Husky, Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Samoyeds, Eskimo Dogs, Greenland Dogs and many, many more, to breeds which are not generally thought of as sled dogs but who posses the qualities sought after by racers, such as speed and endurance.

What is the history of sled dogs?

For centuries sled dogs have been important for transportation in the northern and polar lands, hauling supplies and equipment to areas which were difficult to reach by other methods of travel. Explorations to both the north and south poles utilized sled dogs, and the pioneers and prospectors of the Alaska and Yukon gold rushes depended upon them for winter travel. Survey parties, scientific explorers, mail carriers, freighters, doctors, lawmen, and many others relied on sled dog teams crossing frozen lakes and rivers, climbing often treacherous mountain passes, and padding relentlessly through endless boreal forests toward their destinations. It has been said the history of the north was written by the twin tracks of incalculable dogteams. In 1925 the town of Nome, Alaska faced a deadly diphtheria epidemic, but fierce blizzards forbade air travel. A relay of sled dog teams covered hundreds of miles to bring the life-saving serum to the town, and today a life-sized bronze tribute to the sled dogs stands in New York’s Central Park. Today, sled dog teams are still used in rural communities across Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland and elsewhere. Around the world they are appreciated for recreational mushing, touring, and sprint, mid-distance, and long-distance international sled dog races such as the Iditarod, the Finnmarkslopet, and the Yukon Quest.

What is “mushing”?

Traveling by dog sled is often called mushing, and a person who travels by dog sled is called a musher or a dog driver. Mushing can be for recreational purposes such as camping or touring, for business purposes such as hauling freight or making deliveries, or for racing. There are three common types of sled dog races: sprint, mid-distance, and long-distance, and these can be broken down into sub-types.

What are the positions in a dog team called?

The dog or two dogs in front, who lead the team, are called the leaders. Right behind them are the swing dogs, who help turn the team. Closest to the sled are the wheel dogs, who are generally the largest dogs. The team dogs comprise all the dogs in between the swing and wheel dogs, and provide the team’s momentum and speed.

What kinds of sleds and equipment are used in mushing?

The design and functionality of dogsleds is a complex topic, but the basic equipment involves the sled, harnesses for the dogs, and a gangline, which is the long line running lengthwise between the two rows of dogs and attaching their harnesses to the sled by means of short necklines and tuglines. The sled has a brake and a “parking brake” known as a snowhook. There is much more equipment, especially for long distance mushers, but those are the basics.

What commands are used with a dog team

Different mushers have different ways of communicating with their dogs, but there are generally-recognized terms, such as the names of the positions within the team. Here are a few other common mushing definitions:

“Mush” or “Hike” – Let’s go.
“Gee” – Turn right.
“Haw” – Turn left.
“On by” – Go past the distraction.
“Easy” – Slow down.
“Whoa” – Stop.

Distance racing sled. (Albert Marquez)

An assortment of sleds; sprint, mid, and distance. (Victoria Tenney)

Why do sled dogs wear coats and booties?

Racing sled dogs often wear booties on their feet to protect them from injury on sharp ice, hard roads, or other potentially harmful conditions. The often colorful coats are used to help regulate the dogs’ body temperature.

Colorful gangline (Dew Claw Kennel)

Sled dogs in red coats (Shannon Miller)

A musher putting booties on a sled dog (Albert Marquez)

How can I learn more about sled dogs?

An excellent way to learn more is by attending a local mushing club meeting or sled dog race, checking out the books listed in our bibliography, or some of the films – both are in our Resources section.

Sled dogs enjoying the summer time. (Ari Sigglin)

Sled dogs enjoying the summer time. (Ari Sigglin)

Hero image by Ari Sigglin