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Dog Sledding A Beginners Guide

Dog Sledding For Beginners | The Ultimate Guide

Dog sledding can be lots of fun and great exercise for both you and your dog. It is an excellent way to build strong bonds with your dog and have a great time doing it.

There are two types of sledding to choose from, snow dog sledding or dry dog sledding.

Whether you are sledding for fun or to race, before you embark on your snow dog sledding experience, read on for our ultimate guide. Dog sledding for beginners, everything you will need to know to make this new sport a success.

Dog Sled Driver

A sled driver is called a musher. A musher and the lead dog have a special bond as it is basically the two of them that dictate the race and direct all the dogs.

Dog Sledding Types:

Snow Sledding 

Mushers use a sled and travel on the snow.  Their are a few types and have come a long way from the traditional ones used for hundreds of years.

Ski Jouring

Is when the musher is on skis and their dogs pull them along the trails or races. There is a picture below for example.

Types Of Sled Races

The three most common races are sprint, mid distance and long distance. If you live in the United States Michigan.org has a great post with a calender’s of their races and where you can experience dog sledding for yourself.


A sprint race is a short distance race that is typically 4 to 25 miles a day.

A short race allows the dogs to achieve high speeds of 15 miles/24 kms per hour due to the shorter distance not draining their energy. 

Mid Distance

A mid-distance race is between 100-300 miles or 161 – 482kms. These races are typically run in heats and timed but may run continuously. 

Long Distance

A long distance race is between 300 and 1000 miles. The race is broken up into check points that are 50 miles apart on average. 

Dog Sledding Season

Depending on where you go, the time frame for dog sledding in the snow is from mid November to early May.

For example, the best time for sledding in Finland, Norway or Sweden is December to January, whereas if you go to Alaska or Scotland, you can sled from November until March.

Sledding in the colder months also helps to prevent the dogs from overheating. 

Dog Sledding Breeds

The most popular breeds for sled dog racing are alaskan malamutes, alaskan huskies and siberian huskies.

Any dog with high energy levels and a desire to pull can be a sled dog, although not all are suited to racing.

Largest Sled Dog Breeds

The largest sled dog breed is the Alaskan Malamute. Typically, males weigh 85 to 100 pounds and stand 25-28 inches high at the shoulder.

Females weigh between 75 pounds and 83lbs and stand 23 to 26 inches at the shoulder. 

Sled Dog Age

Sled Dog Training Age

Sled dogs begin training as young as 9 months old. Their training consists of being in a harness and eventually attached to the rest of the team.

Young dogs learn alot from watching older dogs so it is beneficial to have them together so the younger ones know how to behave and what is expected of them.

Sled Dog Racing Age

Dogs can begin racing at 1.5 years old. It depends on their maturity as to when they begin, sometimes they need another season before they are ready to join the team.

Sled Dog Retirement Age

Sled dogs retire around age 10 due to slowing down and injuries. However, dogs as old as 12 have been known to race the Iditarod Trail, so it really depends on the individual dog. 

Woman Skijoring with her dog
A skijoring woman have fun in forest

What Makes A Great Sled Dog

 The most important qualities in a sled dog are tough feet, a love of running, a thick coat, a friendly disposition, intelligence, and a good appetite.

Tough Feet

Soft feet are a hindrance in a race as they will get sore and won’t be able to continue over long distances.

Booties or paw balm help to protect their pads, but over a short distance, booties slow a dog down. 

A Love Of Running

Sled dogs are bred to run. They enjoy the excitement or exercise being outdoors and working in a team.

Dogs naturally gravitate to others as they prefer to be in a pack than alone.

A good sled dog loves being part of the pack, working with the other dogs in a harness and of course just plain running. 

If a person has a husky as a domestic pet dog, they enjoy being tethered to their owner in a harness for their daily walks.

A Thick Coat

A thick coat keeps a dog warm, therefore conserving energy and calories that can be put into running at a faster speed. Their coats can have 3 different layers.

A Friendly Disposition

Mushers look for dogs that are naturally friendly. They need to be able to socialize with other dogs and people without being aggressive.

Because the dogs work as a pack, and tethered together, an anti-social dog will disrupt the whole team.


Intelligence is a key factor, especially in the lead dogs. The lead dogs communicate with the musher to travel in the right direction, take the right paths and maintain order with the other dogs.

A good lead dog will also be able to make its own decisions. If the dog disagrees with the musher’s command they need to have the confidence to say no and go their own way.

An example of this would be if they were heading into danger such as approaching a cliff that the musher can’t see from their position.

A Good Appetite

Dogs use an amazing amount of energy and burn a ton of calories.

A short race is 30 miles at top speed with no breaks. This type of endurance requires alot of fuel for the dogs so a healthy appetite is essential.

A picky eater wont be able to consume enough calories to stay healthy and may become sick from lack of food.

Therefore, a dog that loves their food and will consume a high amount of calories is best for racing.

How Many Dogs In A team

The amount of dogs in a team varies. If racing, a seasoned musher could have up to 20 depending on the race.

Typically a race consists of 4 dogs, 6 dogs, 8 dogs, or 12 dogs. There are some races that have an unlimited amount of dogs but generally, it is the above numbers.

Sled Dog Pooping

You might find this is an unusual question, but have you ever wondered how sled dogs poop during a race?

Because races cover so many miles in a relatively short amount of time, sled dogs poop on the move. 

Drawing showing sled dogs and what they do.

Dog Sled Lineup

A team consists of lead dog/s, swing dogs, team dogs and wheel dogs.

Dog Sled Lead Dog

A lead dog is the dog that goes first in the formation and leads the others. It must be both smart and fast to have this position.

All commands are given verbally so the lead dog must be able to comprehend what the musher is saying, hence the need for intelligence.

There can be two, side by side depending on the number of dogs for the race.

Lead dogs set the pace, and work with the musher using voice commands to steer the team in the right direction.

Swing Dogs

Swing dogs are next in line and make the turns left or right.

Team Dogs

Team dogs make up the rest of a team that is over 6 dogs

Wheel Dogs

take the full weight of the sled on take-off and when climbing uphill. They also help to steer the sled.

These dogs are the strongest in the pack and must have good control so as not to get distracted, or overtake the others and not be scared of the sled traveling close behind them.

Generally, an even-tempered dog is best suited as a wheel dog.

Dog Sled Commands

Sled dogs respond to voice commands from the musher. Other competitions such as sheepdog trials, use whistles with different pitches to command the dogs and occasionally voice commands.

  • Mush, Hike, Let’s go! commands that get the dogs started running
  • Gee right – Turn right 
  • Come Gee – Turn 180 degrees right
  • Haw- Turn left
  • Come Haw – Turn 180 degrees left
  • Trail – Lets other mushers there is another team approaching and to shift out of the way 
  • Line Out – The lead dog must begin the race by pulling straight out
  • Whoa – Stop

Dog Sledding Equipment

  • Sled
  • Dog food – Kibble and Fresh Meat
  • Food and Water Dishes
  • Harness
  • Dog Jacket
  • Dog Booties
  • Male Wrap
  • Belly Wrap
  • Leggings For Your dogs
  • Goggles
  • Warm clothing and Waterproof boots

Dog Sled Parts

Dog Sledding for beginners info-graphic

Dog Sled Gee Pole

A gee pole is located on the right side of the sled and used to steer a heavy load whilst the musher walks. It is unusual to see a gee pole used nowadays.

Sled Dog Lines

  • A – Neckline
  • B – Tugline
  • C – Neckline
  • D – Gangline
  • E – Tugline
  • F – Neckline
Photo courtesy of Jordon @ Instagram fan theyellowbucket.co

Dog Sled Gangline

The gangline is the main line that attaches both to the sled and tug lines.

Tug Line

Tuglines connect to the gangline. One end ties to the dogs harness and the other attaches to the gangline.

Neck Line

Necklines attach from the dogs collar to the gangline. Neck lines are used to keep the dogs in formation, not for pulling. 

Sled Dog Diet

  • Raw meat
  • Kibble
  • High-quality dry food
  • Treats
  • Snacks – Sled dogs are given snacks to keep up their strength. They can be pieces of frozen or dried meat or even a lump of fat rolled into a ball and then coated in kibble.
  • Plenty Of Water – Dogs need a lot of water, especially when doing such strenuous exercise. Becoming dehydrated can be fatal to a dog, so mushers often put a ladle of water into the kibble for extra hydration.

Sled Dog Nutrition

Whilst racing a sled dog will eat 3 – 5 pounds of raw meat per day. Some mushers also add fat and high quality kibble to their diet.

In the peak of racing or their intake may double, both to keep warm and retain their body weight during such strenuous exercise.

Sled Dog Calorie Intake Per Day

During the sledding season, dogs consume around 10,000 to 26,000 calories a day. A domestic dog burns around 1000 a day.

A sled dog’s diet consists of mainly raw meat and often fat or lard gets added to their food for extra energy. In the off season, a sled dog will consume approximately 800-1200 calories a day. 

Sled dogs need to eat every 2 and 1/2 or 3 hours, be it a meal or a snack to keep their energy up

Longest Dog Sled Race In The World

Iditarod Trail. This race is 1100 miles and takes on average between 8 – 15 days to complete.

It takes place entirely in Alaska and only the dog breeds Alaskan Malamutes, Alaskan huskies, and Siberian huskies are allowed to compete.

What is the toughest race in the world?

The Yukon quest is undoubtedly the hardest race in the world. It is 1000 miles of tough terrain and takes between 9 and 14 days to complete. This difficult race starts on time regardless of the weather.

Is Sled Dogging Cruel?

No. Sled dogs love to run. It is in their DNA and they are bred for pulling. You only need to see a dog’s smile after a race to know how much they enjoy it.

You can experience mushing yourself by joining a local club or alternatively, going on a tour. There are lots of tours all over the world with many amazing sights and destinations. If you live in warmer climates you can read our post on dryland mushing here.