Musher's Language

Like any sport, mushing has its own unique language. Some of the terms are interesting, and some are downright colorful. If you attend your first sled dog race or training session, you will surely hear some of these words and phrases.

Mush: This term comes from the corruption of the French word "marche". Dog mushers (and yes, we are called mushers) heard the French Canadian trappers using the word marche to make their dogs run, since the word means "to go". They thought it sounded like mush and the word was born. Modern dog drivers don't use this word though; they might use the word "Hike" or more likely just "All Right" to make their dogs run or go faster.

Husky: This is the term most dog drivers apply to all northern breeds.

Alaskan Malamute: Probably the oldest breed of sled dog, now used mostly for freighting and weight pulling than for racing, because of its size and weight which can reach 100 or more pounds.

Siberian Husky: The "classic" sled dog. These are smaller than Malamutes, weighing 40 to 70 pounds. They were brought to Alaska from Siberia at the turn of the century.

Alaskan Husky: A term that applies to racing dogs of mixed breed. These dogs usually share ancestry with the Siberian Husky and some type of hound. Greyhounds, black and tans, and coon hounds have all been used to produce some of the fastest racing sled dogs of today.

Gangline: The main line from the sled to which all the dogs are attached.

Gee: The command given to the dogs to make a right turn. This is an old mule skinner's term.

Haw: The command used to make a left turn.

Come Gee or Come Haw: The command used to make the dogs make a 180 degree turn to the right or left. Very exciting with a lot of dogs.

Whoa: The command to stop. Only the mushers know this command, the dogs never seem to learn it very well.

On By: This phrase is short for "go on by" when you want your team to pass another team from behind or to go by a distraction along the side of the trail.

Handler: There are two meanings to this term. One is the owner and trainer of weight pull dog(s). The term is also used to describe the person or persons helping a musher get his/her team to the starting line.

Pedaling: When the musher keeps one foot on the runner of the sled while pushing with the other foot to help speed the team along.

Trail!: Request from one musher to another for the right of way when one team wishes to pass another.

Drop the Dogs: More than any other term, this causes the most problems. When mushers announce "I'm going to drop the dogs", it conjures up visions of mushers dropping their dogs, maybe on their heads. What it really means is, the musher is going to lift the dogs out of the dog truck so they may get a little exercise, be fed or watered or go to the bathroom. When finished, he will lift the dogs back into the dog truck. The complete process is called a "Dog Drop".

Tying Knots

General information on the rope and knots used in mushing.

There are two types of hollow, diamond braided, rope used to make the lines used in mushing. The first and most popular is polyethylene and the other is polypropylene. Polyethylene is more flexible at lower temperatures but polypropylene is said to be more abrasion resistant. Both are available in either 8 or 16 braid (that's the number of bundled strands) and come in a variety of colors. How can you tell if it polyethylene or polypropylene? Easy, put a sharp crease in the rope. Polyethylene will tend to hold the crease while polypropylene won't. That makes polypropylene harder to make tight knots. Why use diamond braided poly instead of something else? It's property to give a little under load, inherent stiffness and the ease of making loops make this the preferred material.

When making loops, it is a good practice to slightly melt the freshly cut end of the rope as it will make it easier to construct the knots and it won't fray as much. To make the loops, you will need a 'fid' to fit the size rope you are working with. This a short piece of hollow plastic or aluminum with a point on one end, shaped much like the forward barrel of a ball point pen. It is slipped over the end of the rope and allows you to thread the rope through itself to make the knots.

The following loops are used in making parts of the gangline and other items you will find useful. When making the loops, allow enough material to make the loop, plus the knot itself, plus another 4 to 6 inches to hide the extra tail inside the main line. The trick is to always make the knot a locking type knot. That is, the tail is usually threaded through itself to keep from pulling the knot open.

Knot 1:  First insert the tail of the rope inside the middle of the main line and come back out about 5 or 6 braids down. Then insert the tail straight through the main line and tail inside of it, about 1 or 2 braid above the last exit point. This locks the knot. Finally, insert the remainder of the tail inside the main line, a braid or two below the first exit point and pull tight.

Knot 2:   This is a simpler version of Knot 1 but not quite as strong because the lock only goes through one side of the main line. First insert the tail of the rope through main line. Second, go back into the main line just above the first exit point and down through the tail and the middle of the main line. Finally, pull the knot tight.

Knot 3:  This is another variation of Knot 2 except it is a stronger knot because the lock goes through both the main line and the tail before the tail is hidden. First insert the tail of the rope through main line. Second, go back through both the main line and the tail above the exit point. Finally, insert the remaining tail back into the main line below the first exit point and pull the knot tight. This knot is perferred over knot 2.

Knot 4:  This knot is great for the end of a leash. The problem is, you can only use it in one end of the line. First weave the tail back and forth through the main line three times. Second pull the loops snug and then thread the main line through the tail just below the last exit point. This locks the knot. Finally thread the tail inside the middle of the main line to hide it.

How do you get the tail all inside the main line? As you thread the tail inside the main line for the last time, bunch the main line up like a chinese finger lock and bring the fid and tail out through the side of the main line as far down as you can. After removing the fid, hold the bottom of the tail as you pull the main line tight. This will draw the tail snugly inside the main line. Now, what if you have too much tail sticking out!! Simple, just cut it off. As long as the knot is locked, the tail won't pull out of the main line.

Making Dog Booties

What are booties? They're little sacks made of a variety of material that are used to protect a dog's feet. The dog might need protection from harsh trail conditions such as granular or icy snow, a sharp gravel trail or he may have an injury that you need to put medication on and use the bootie to keep him from licking the salve off. Booties can be made from polar fleece, nylon pack cloth or even old blue jeans. Polar fleece works best in snow while the other materials work better on dirt and gravel. Some people even make their booties out of polar fleece with a covering of pack cloth on the sole for added wear.

To make a bootie for your dog, you will need; a piece of polar fleece or other material about 4 inches wide by 12 inches long. This piece of material will make a bootie to fit an average Siberian Husky, but you can make it larger or smaller as you need it. You will also need a piece of elastic webbing 1 inch wide by 6 inches long and a piece of hook and pile velcro 1/2 inch wide by 2 inches long. Use a strong thread and sew the hook velcro piece to one end of the elastic webbing. Turn the webbing over and sew the other end of the webbing with the pile velcro on top to the material. The piece of webbing and velcro should be centered on the short edge of the material about 1/2 inch from the top. This will be the outside of the bootie when finished. Next, roll up the elastic webbing and fold the material in half so that the webbing is now inside. Sew a seam 1/4 inch from the edge starting at the top. When you approach the bottom, sew a semi circle around the bottom and finish with a 1/4 seam back to the top. Be sure that you don't catch the free end of the elastic webbing in the seam. When finished sewing, you can cut off the excess material at the bottom and turn the bootie inside out. Just put the bootie on the dog and wrap the elastic webbing around the leg and stick the velcro together. Make sure the bootie fits the dog before you make a bunch of them! The bootie should just fit without being too big or too tight.

Some people just sew up a bootie without using the elastic and velcro. They hold the bootie on the dog with black electrical tape. However you hold the bootie on the dog, it should be tight enough so that it doesn't come off, but should not be so tight or stay on the dog so long that the circulation is cut off to the foot. Happy sewing.

If you don't want to make your own booties, they can be purchased in different sizes and weights of material from sled dog outfitters.

Making a Musher's Belt

First of all, what is a Musher's Belt? It doesn't hold your pants up, but it could. It's a repair kit for a dog musher. Anyone who has had any part of a gangline break while on the trail, could certainly make use of the musher's belt. First you will need a piece of 1/4" poly line long enough to make a tug line for your gangline. Make one end with a loop large enough for a 1/2" brass snap. The other end must have a loop large enough to fit over your hand. When you make this loop, and just before locking the final end, place a 1" ring into the final loop. (See instructions on making knots here.) You now have a tug line that can be looped into your gangline as a repair for a broken one. It will also double as a leash.

Next, you make a neckline to whatever length you like, usually around 12", with 3/8" brass snaps. Attach that to the 1" ring and add a 1/2" double ended snap. Your musher's belt is now complete. Of course the neck line can be used as a spare or it can be used to replace the tug loop on a harness if it breaks. The double ended snap can be used to replace any broken snap on your gangline. Remember, these repairs are only temporary, all broken items should be replaced as soon as possible. Now that your musher's belt is complete, the next time you run your dogs, just loop your belt around your waist and snap it tight and you'll be ready for any emergency on the trail.