Dog sledding is the stuff of legends — and indeed, of many movies and books. Balto is a household name for his role in transporting medicine to the village of Nome. Disney movies like Eight Below have further popularized (and romanticized) dog sledding teams. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about dog sledding — or even wondered if your dog has what it takes to participate — we’ve got you covered.
Here’s your ultimate guide to dog sledding. What is the fascinating history of this long standing type of transportation? How has it become a modern sport? And might it be a good fit for you and your four-legged companion to try out together?
At its simplest, dog sledding is just what it sounds like. A dog (or sled dog team) pulls a sled that can either contain a person, supplies, or both.
Someone who travels by dog sled can be called a musher, and dog sledding itself is often known as “mushing” in its various forms (including when dogs pull things other than sleds, like bikes or scooters).
Sled dog teams are connected by a gang line that runs between them to distribute their pulling effort and help keep everyone in line. It’s also possible to mush with a smaller group of dogs (and therefore a smaller sled, too, often a simple kicksled). Some dog owners enjoy dog sledding with just one or two personal dogs at a time.
There was a time where Arctic communities relied on sled dogs as their main mode of transportation. Arctic weather conditions made life difficult — northern breeds like the ancestors of today's Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes could be used to haul supplies in areas that were inaccessible by other methods.
Alaskan Malamutes were originally developed by the indigenous Mahlemiut people. They’re large, capable sled dogs who can pull heavy weight over long distances. They’re particularly suited for endurance efforts.
Siberian Huskies were originally developed by the Chukchi people in Siberia. They’re similar in overall appearance to Malamutes but are smaller and faster. While they’re often used for dog sledding, huskies have even been recorded herding reindeer!
The Alaskan Husky is a medium-sized working sled dog specifically developed for the purpose of pulling loads through the snow. They aren’t recognized as a purebred breed by the American Kennel Club — Alaskan Huskies are usually made up of a mix of Siberian Husky, German Shorthair Pointer, and other genes.
Some rural communities still use sled dogs for transportation today. This is most common in northern states and countries like Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Greenland. Other modern dog sledding pursuits include recreational and competitive events — these have become popular for a range of factors like working breed fulfillment, racing success, and the irresistible adventure factor of moving at high-speeds through varying trail conditions.
Recreational dog sledding can take many forms. The most important thing is to let your dog take the lead and make sure you’re both having fun! When approached with the right mindset and some careful physical consideration, dog sledding can be a great way to encourage your pet’s natural athleticism and fulfill their canine instincts. (You can read more about exercise and fulfillment in this article.)
Professional dog sledding can be controversial in the animal welfare world, especially the largest organized races like the Iditarod. (Race conditions can be particularly brutal with temperatures dropping to extreme levels and dogs being pushed to their physical limits.)
There are many different opinions out there on how the animals are treated and whether or not covering so much ground is safe — but the general consensus is that smaller scale, casual races can be a great way for dog-owner teams to have some fun and socialize with fellow sport enthusiasts!
While dog-owner teams of all shapes and sizes can come to enjoy this adventurous sport, some find it more natural than others.
In general, medium to large dogs have the greatest success pulling their owners on a sled. While smaller canines can do related sports like skijoring (as long as their humans are willing to provide more additional power) it’s not recommended to ask them to actually pull any sort of inanimate apparatus like a kick sled or larger cart.
Dogs in the working and sporting groups tend to enjoy running and pulling more than others (northern breeds and pointers are often particularly adept and have a natural spirit for the sport). That said, each dog is an individual. It’s less about what breed your dog is and more about whether they’d really enjoy the activity!
If you have a puppy, you should wait until their bones and joints are fully grown before encouraging them to do any intense exercise. This can mitigate the risk of hip dysplasia and other injuries down the line!
“Full grown” can vary a bit from breed to breed (your veterinarian will be able to help you make the right decision). In general, it’s safe to give your dog more rigorous exercise around 1.5-2 years of age.
To successfully pull a dog sled, your dog needs to be agile enough to run through snow and strong enough to pull both you and a cart or sled while they do it. Here’s how to see if they’re up to the task:
Dog sledding might sound a little overwhelming at first. With the right equipment and preparation, though, you and your dog can be running through the snow together in no time!
Let’s take a look at the gear required to start sledding with your dog. It’s particularly important to invest in a harness specifically designed for pulling. An everyday walking harness will not be safe for your dog to pull into for long periods of time!
Most flat terrain is a good option for dog sledding, provided there’s enough snow cover — but many cross-country skiing and designated winter recreation spots (both official tracks and nature loops) either don’t allow dogs entirely or restrict them to certain times. Chances are you’ll have the best luck with multi-use, dog-friendly trails or fields.
Can’t find any public parks well-suited to your new hobby? You might be able to find a Sniffspot that’s perfect for dog sledding practice. Some of our hosts provide private areas that are plenty big enough to give it a go.
New things can be a little uncomfortable — especially to our dogs. We can’t explain to them what dog sledding is all about verbally, so it’s only fair we take things slow to make sure they’re ready to hit the snow with us!
If your dog is already comfortable wearing a harness, they might adjust to a dog sledding setup more quickly — but it’s still important not to push them too far. Here’s what to do:
Here are some tips to see how your dog feels about your sled and other equipment:
Dog sledding is a blast — but it can also be dangerous. The sport’s high-speed nature demands clear communication between you and your dog!
Your best friend should know how to:
Even if they don’t specialize in dog sledding, a good force free trainer will be able to help you teach your dog some key sport skills. A private lesson program might be the perfect fit — each session will be tailored to your individual dog and goals.
If you don’t have access to an in-person trainer in your area, you might consider ways to get involved virtually by following online dog sledding communities or finding a pet professional who offers video lessons.
If you don’t have access to frozen terrain but love the idea of dog sledding or related sports like skijoring, don’t worry — you can still experience the thrill!
Consider similar activities like canicross (your dog pulls you while you run) or bikejoring (they pull you on your bike). These are great fun on their own and make great sledding practice in the off season. If you ever do find yourself in the ideal winter environment, you and your best friend will have some foundational skills to pull from!
Some similar equipment and health needs apply to canicross and bikejoring. You won’t need a sled, but you will still need a harness that’s safe for your dog to pull into — and if you opt for the bike route, you’ll want to make sure your setup is secure.
As always, it’s important both you and your dog are feeling physically and mentally ready to tackle a new adventure.
If dog sledding sounds exciting for you and your dog, you should try it out. With the right knowledge, attitude, and just a few pieces of equipment, anyone can give it a go!
Remember these top tips for a successful dog sledding experience with your furry best friend:
Did we mention to have fun?
There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Founder - K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer - Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies
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