Most people get started in mushing using small teams in the sprint races. You can start training right away for the 1 and 2 dog junior events if you have a pet dog who likes to run and is strong enough to pull you.
You will need to learn how to teach your dog. One of the best teachers for a dog is another dog. A good way to start is to get an experienced sled dog. It is always fun to have a cute puppy, but if you are serious about mushing, it is easier to start with a dog who knows about the sport and can help teach you.
You can find trained sled dogs by going to races and talking with mushers, by joining a sled dog club, and by reading sled dog publications. You will find that mushers love to talk about their dogs. Most mushers remember when they were starting out in the sport and will offer to help.
If you join a club, you can meet many helpful people. Some clubs have Junior Musher divisions to help children begin. In some areas, groups like the 4H have Junior Musher clubs.
Once you have decided to buy an experienced dog, you should think about the kind of dog you would like. You don't need the world's fastest dog, not yet.
Sled dogs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. While almost any dog can be taught to pull a sled, the breeds shown below are the more popular and better suited breeds used today. First is the Alaskan Husky, probably the most popular dog used for racing today. They will weigh between 35 and 65 pounds depending on the breeder's line. Although the Alaskan Husky is not a recognized purebred by the AKC or other registries, their lineage is as traceable as the purebreds. Next is the Siberian Husky which will weigh between 35 and 60 pounds. The third breed is the Samoyed which will weigh between 50 and 75 pounds. The fourth breed is the Alaskan Malamute. While not as popular for racing, these 85 to 130 pound giants are well suited for freight work and recreational mushing. Another breed is the German Shorthaired Pointer. These dogs are popular with the skijoring and pulk racers of Europe and are becoming more common for sled work in this country and Europe. The last breed shown is the Greenland Husky. This is another breed of dog which is bred primarily for working as opposed to racing. These dogs are well known for their hard working ability and their ability to withstand very harsh conditions.
A smart and obedient dog who is patient with new mushers is the dog for you. A dog who has been a successful leader but now is a little too old or slow for a senior musher's team might be just right to help you train a pet dog to make your two-dog team. If you can promise to give the dog a good home, you may not have to pay much money.
Write a list of questions to ask the dog's owner because you will need to know a lot about your new dog. Some of these questions might sound like these:
What sled dog and other command words does the dog understand and obey? What type and size of harness is best for him? Is the dog used to walking on a leash? What kind of food does the dog eat? Can you give me a record of his vaccinations? Has the dog been spayed or neutered? What are the dog's best point? What are his bad habits? Can I call or write to you if I have questions?
To begin training, you will need some equipment. You can often save money and buy equipment from sled dog club members. You can advertise in the club newsletter that you want certain items. When you need new items, you can purchase them from the many outfitters and supply companies which specialize in sled dog gear. Think about everything you will need and decide how much money you can spend. Here is a list of some of the things:
Of course you will need at least one food and water dish for each dog. You need to have a water container to bring along when training or racing because dogs will need water at the end of their run. Leashes, and a brush or comb and some dog toys should be on your list too.
After you have worked with your dogs on lead, you will want to go for a ride. You can begin to train your dog using a specially made hookup for your bicycle. Look for ads in sled dog club newsletters for a used sled or rig. Consider what size it is compared with your height and the size of your team. A full adult sized freight sled is not what you want.
Modern sleds are usually made from White Ash or sometimes Birch or Oak wood. Sled sizes range from ultralight sprint racing sleds that weigh about 20 pounds to freight sleds that can weigh over a hundred pounds. These sleds are all built along the same lines, all have the same parts, but the larger sleds will usually have heavier and more parts to support the loads they must carry. Besides the parts shown in the picture, sleds will carry a snow hook, sled bag and bridle. The snow hook is used to hold the team while the driver is off the sled. It is a double or triple pronged hook which is tied to the sled bridle and can be "kicked" into the snow to keep the dogs from running away. The sled bag can be used to carry picnic supplies or a tired dog. The bridle is the rope and bungee system that connects the sled to the dog team gangline. The drive bow is like the steering wheel of a car. It is used to steer the sled. Sleds are usually built with drive bow at the correct height for the driver. Some drivers like the drive bow lower while others like their's real high. The brake is shaped like a claw or hawk's talon. It is used to slow or stop your team when you push it into the ice or snow with your foot. Older style brakes had two or three small claws close together. The newer style brakes are known as bar brakes and have two bars spaced far apart and close to the runners. These newer bar brakes work better. The footboards are the places where the sled driver puts his feet. These are usually made from a material which will provide traction when covered with snow. People have used artificial turf, pieces of bicycle tire, specially grooved plastic and carpet protectors. Whatever material is used, it is usually slightly wider than the runner to provide extra surface. The sled basket is used to carry things. It can be used to carry a tired dog in a sled bag on a sprint sled, or to carry hundreds of pounds of goods on a freight sled. The basket is usually made of narrow slats with a space between each to reduce weight and allow snow to fall through. The baskets on lightweight sprint sleds aren't very strong. They will certainly carry a 60 pound dog with ease but many won't stand much abuse beyond that. The runners are narrow strips of wood that the sled rides on. They are usually 1 1/4 to 2 inches wide and are curved upward at the forward end. This curve allows the sled to ride over bumps and potholes in the trail. Modern sled runners are covered with removable plastic runner shoes which can be changed for different conditions ,or when worn. Runner length varies from 7 to 8 feet on a sprint sled to over 10 feet on some freight sleds. Some high tech dogsleds now use aluminum or composite carbon fiber and wood runners. The brushbow is like the bumper on a car. It protects the sled from crashing into trees and other obstacles on the trail. A brushbow is required on a sled at all ISDRA sanctioned races.
There are many styles of collars. Most mushers use heavy nylon circle style collars that slip over the dog's head and then tighten to fit around the neck. You should never use metal choke type collars for sled dog work. Always have your dog's identification tags secured on his collar. Usually the license or rabies tag must be on the collar. Put a tag with your telephone number too.
There are several types of sled dog harnesses used for racing. The most important thing is that the harness must fit your dog properly. Ask about buying a harness when you buy your experienced sled dog. Perhaps you can also get the proper size harness for your family's pet dog sled too.
If you plan to enter the weight pull events, you will need a special type of harness which is different from racing harnesses.
The dogs wear the harnesses and you ride the sled or rig. The lines attach you together. Even with just two dogs, you may want to get a four dog hookup. You can decide whether your dogs run best side by side-in double lead-or in single file with one leader and one wheel dog. Usually lines are made of rope, but they can be made from metal cable.
One snap hooks on the loop at the back of the harness, the other attaches to the collar. Double leaders' collars are connected by short necklines to keep them running close together.
You will find that your dogs are excited about being hooked up to run. A snub rope holds your sled to a heavy object (a tree or truck, for example). When you are ready to start you release the snub rope and take off. The snub rope can be attached by a quick release knot or a piece of hardware called a panic snap which can be opened with one hand. Many mushers attach the snub line to their sled or rig in case they need to stop and tie up the team during a run.
A snow hook is a metal claw attached to the sled by a rope and secured where the musher can easily reach it. If you need your team to stay stopped, you put the snow hook on the ground by your sled's runner and step on it to press it into the snow. Snow hooks are heavy and sharp. It is important that the hook does not get loose and hurt a dog or musher.
A sled bag is a bag that attaches to the basket of the sled and can be zipped open enough to put a dog inside. If one of your dogs becomes too tired to finish a run, you can put him in the bag and give him a ride home. It is a good idea to have a spare neckline or short leash in the bag to use to attach the dog to a loop or the bag or directly to the sled. Some dogs do not like to ride and will try to get out on their own.
Your dogs can live in the house, if the other human residents agree. Most sled dogs like living outside. Each dog should have its own house and area.
You should never allow your dogs to run anywhere they please at any hour of the day or night. You have no control over what they are doing and you will not know if they are in trouble. If you think you can just open the door and let them run loose, you will find that very soon you don't have any dogs.
If you plan to keep your dogs in a fenced kennel, check the style of fencing. Sled dogs are very good at digging and jumping. You may need to bury part of the fence underground or put concrete around the edge of the run to keep the dogs from digging out. The fence should be 6 feet tall to keep them from jumping over it.
Many mushers use a chain arrangement. You can get an old truck axle at a junk yard. In a hardware store or from a dog supply source, you can get a large heavy metal O ring, S hooks, chain and a swivel snap. To put it together, you need to connect the O ring to the chain with the S hook and hammer the S hook ends closed. Attach the swivel snap the same way at the other end. Put the axle through the O ring and pound it into the ground. The chain should be about 8 feet long and the dog must be able to reach his dog house. Dogs are sometimes staked close enough to play but not get their chains tangled. Many mushers say that the dogs learn not to tangle their sled lines easier if they are used to being chained up.
In some places, there may be laws about how to use chains or what size fences are allowed. You can call the Town or City Clerk to find out more information.
Plan where to put the dog house. You will want to be able to see your dogs from the house. Think about which direction the cold winds and rain will come from and face the open side of the house away from that direction. Summer breezes and shade are good.
The ground should be flat. Do not pick an area that is often wet. It is best to have varied type of ground surface. You may want to put down a small concrete area, but too much concrete can make the dogs too hot in the summer. Some mushers put down gravel, but some dogs will eat gravel causing internal problems.
Any grassy surface will quickly wear down to dirt as the dogs trot around their area. Dogs like to dig cool places in the summer, so locate their houses where you can allow them to make a few holes.
There are many types of dog houses: square, round, even log houses! Each dog's house should be large enough for the dog to climb in and turn around, but not much bigger. The purpose of the house is to lie down. In winter a smaller house is easily heated by the dog's body heat.
Many mushers use a large plastic barrel for each dog. Look in the phone book yellow pages for food processing factories and ask if spare barrels are available. Do not use a barrel if you think that dangerous chemicals were stored in it.
It is good to attach the barrel to a wooden pallet to lift it off the ground. If the pallet is big enough, the dog also has a place to lie down up off the ground. This is especially good when the ground is muddy.
Whatever type of house you pick - square or round, wood or plastic - the dog should have some bedding in the house. In winter many mushers use straw. Put a thick layer on the bottom and heap it up along the sides. Some dogs like a little extra in front to keep the wind out of their houses.
In summer, some mushers use cedar chips instead of straw. Most insects do not like cedar but the dogs do. When cedar chips get wet, they do not dry quickly and are uncomfortable for the dogs, so do not use them in winter.
All dogs need fresh water and good food. Sled dogs need some special treatment and you will find that every musher has his own secret recipe to feed his team. Some use chopped up meat, others use dry food mixed with water.
Your dogs should learn to eat the type of food you choose for them. They will depend on you to feed them every day at the same time.
Many good quality dry foods are available in 20 and 40 pound size bags. Read the instructions on the bag and measure the food for each dog. You may need to weigh your dogs to figure out the right amount to feed them.
You should not feed them table scraps or chocolate candy or other human treats, but it is ok to give them a few dog treats. Many mushers give their dogs biscuits after running and that is fun. Some times you will hear a musher coming to the finish line of a race telling his dogs: "Cookies in the truck!" or "Home for biscuits!" They run a bit faster knowing there is a snack waiting at the truck.
For sled dogs, water is just as important as food. Dogs and people run better when they are not thirsty, so most mushers give their dogs "baited" water about two hours before running. The bait can be some meat juice or other tasty liquid. This makes the dogs drink all of the water. After running, dogs need more water.
After you feed your dogs, you know what will happen. Be prepared with a scoop or shovel and always keep your dogs' area clean. This means scooping at least once a day. When you travel with your dogs, bring the scooper. Many mushers scoop the droppings into empty food bags. It is very important to wash your hands after scooping.
Only a few sled dogs are also show dogs and need special bathing and clipping. All sled dogs need to be kept clean. That means bathing them occasionally and taking burdocks out of their tails or wiping mud off their feet when they come into the house. And of course it means brushing them when they shed. Sled dogs can shed a lot of fur. You can put the fur out for the birds to use in their nests. Dog hair can be spun into yarn and knitted if it is long enough.