If you want to try dog sledding but live in a warmer climate, never fear, dryland mushing is a great option also known as dryland dog sledding.
There are 3 options for sledding without snow, bikejoring, with a scooter or on a rig.
We were lucky enough to spend the morning with the Wassa dog sledding club (Western Australian sleddog sports association) in Perth for some first-hand knowledge into how dryland mushing works and the equipment you will need to pursue this fun and competitive sport.
What Is The Correct Term For Dryland Dog Sledding?
The correct term is dryland mushing and the driver is called a musher.
Can Anyone Become A Musher
Anyone can become a musher, regardless of age or sex. All you need is a good dog and be willing to learn new skills.
There are many different classes in dog sled racing, for example there is a junior class for children under 15 years old that is more centered around having fun than the fastest time.
Types of Dog Sledding
There are two types of dog sledding, on dry land or over snow. Each uses different transportation but the same set up of lines and dog formation.
Types Of Dryland Sleds
- Scooter/2 Wheeled Kick Sled
- Push Bike
Scootering is the same principle as bikejoring, only the musher uses a dog scooter, also called a kicksled. The musher can assist the dogs by pushing with one foot when necessary.
Bikejoring is a popular choice as you can go anywhere, not just competitions. A dog or dogs are attached to a bungee rope via their harness and the rope is attached to the bike.
The musher is pulled by the dogs but can also pedal to help the dogs on rough terrain or up steep hills.
Dryland Mushing Cart
Dryland mushing rigs also known as carts, are triangular shaped devices with handle bars, foot rests and attach to the dogs at the front.
Only experienced competitors can use a rig in a race. I got to have a turn on one and believe me, they are not for the faint hearted. They travel very quickly but are loads of fun.
Although Canicross is not technically dog sledding, it is a great way to keep sled dogs fit and stimulate their minds between races.
The musher and dog are attached to a bungee leash (to lessen jolting) and they run on foot together. The musher wears a specially designed canicross belt around their waist, and the dog wears a canicross harness.
Gina H, next to her rig and her dog in a x back harness
Dog Sledding In The Snow
As well as dryland mushing, if you live in a snowy region, you can try dog sledding on snow. There are 2 types of snow sledding, skijoring or in a dog sled.
Both types have the dogs in a formation.
Types Of Sleds Used In Dog Mushing
Mushers use either the basket sled or Toboggan sled depending on the terrain and snow depth.
The basket sleds are ideal where the area has had plenty of snow recently and is still very soft.
The base of the basket sled effortlessly glides over the surface preventing it from sinking into the snow and slowing the progress of the team.
For rougher conditions where there are sticks and rocks throughout the course track, the older style toboggan sleds offer a slight advantage.
The tracks ( or runner) cut a path easier through the debris.
This is where musher is on skis and pulled by the dogs (in a skijoring harness) via a bungee line to absorb the shocks of the dog/s pulling.
Skijoring is a great way to see if you and your dog would like to run around the snow before the extra expense of a sled.
How Many Dogs Are In A Dryland Mushing Team
For bikejoring or dog scootering there are usually 1 to 2 dogs. If using a rig, there are 2 or more sled dogs.
There can be up to 6 dogs in a team in Western Australia.
What Age Does Training Begin For Dryland Dog Sledding
Puppies are a fairly common sight at the races. Training begins as young as 6 months old.
The pups are in a harness for 100m just to get them used to the harness and not be afraid of it and to get them used to the environment.
Full runs begin at 1 year old. If you begin before that it is too hard on the dogs joints and growth plates.
In saying that, it all depends on the individual owner. Some like to wait until the dogs are older than that to begin training and it also depends on when the dog is mature enough to begin.
What Is The Best Age For Racing
The best age is generally between 18 months and 4 years old, but the age to begin depends entirely on the owner and dog.
Owners love their dogs and treat them well, so only they can know when their pup is ready to move on from training into actual racing.
Maturity and physicality are important factors to consider.
Sled Dog Retirement Age
There is a veteran class, 7 years and older, with a touring track which is 2 – 2.5 km.
Dogs are usually 8 or 9 when they begin to retire and not run anymore.
But most dogs love the sport and even the senior dogs love being part of the team to go for shorter runs.
What Makes A Great Sled Dog
The dogs are usually a larger breed and have a willingness to run.
Teacup chihuahua’s don’t yet have a racing class. There are many characteristics that make a great sled dog, but the 3 main ones are:
Drive is the main factor. Sled dogs are bred to run, they love it and most are good at it.
However, you can’t force a dog to run if they don’t want to. You can train a dog to use a harness and you can train a dog to leave things alone, but if they don’t want to run, they don’t want to run.
Having a dog that wants to pull is the most important quality in a sled dog.
Sled dogs run on rough terrain, so having soft feet is a hindrance due to injuries.
Honky nuts or other pointy debris is extremely bad for a dog to stand on.
They are painful and hard, so some mushers put boots on their dogs to save any injuries from occurring.
A Good Appetite
These dogs burn a lot of calories, so a good appetite is a must. Picky eaters won’t do too well in a larger racing team.
Are There Different Breed Requirements For Different Races
No. Any breed of dog can run in any class and in any race. Mostly you won’t find a field spaniel in a 6 dog team (although they do have one that is new this year).
Any breed can participate, but usually it is the bigger dogs in the teams, huskies, malamutes, German shepherds and Gsps (German Shorthaired Pointers).
Race line huskies built are a lot different than the other huskies, they are taller, have longer legs and are slender.
Malamutes are for weight pulling, huskies are sprint racers, shepherds are a highly trainable and intelligent working dog and Gsps are intelligent and fast.
All sled dogs regardless of breed love to work.
Dryland Dog Sledding Equipment
- A bike or scooter
- A gangline
- A helmet
- A dog sledding harness
A person needs to have a couple of years of experience before racing in a rig or cart, but you can begin straight away if you use a bike or a scooter.
They can be a bit of a challenge to stay on them over rough terrain. Plus if you fall off not all dogs stop, dragging the rig for kilometers.
Once you know this sport is for you, there are additional items such as:
- Safety Glasses
- A snood (it can get pretty cold in the mornings)
- An antenna (so the line doesn’t drop on your front wheel and become tangled with the dogs harnesses).
These items are handy to have but not necessary to get started.
Dryland Dog Sledding Equipment For Racing
The X Back is the most popular harness. It comes in both a long and a short version.
Half harnesses provide a lot more control than a long one, as the dog can easily slip out of it. Huskies in particular are escape artists so most people use the half.
Dogs come in all shapes and sizes. Some mushers find having harnesses custom made for their sled dogs is the best option.
Not all harnesses fit all dogs, so a custom one will provide the ultimate support.
A gangline is is the main line that attaches to both the transport and the lines (tugline and necklines).
The tugline attatches to the sled dogs harness at one end and the gangline at the other
The neckline attaches one end to the dog’s collar and the other to the gangline.
All lines are used to keep the dogs in formation.
Safety is paramount and accidents do happen so a helmet is a must. All people are required to wear a helmet.
In a race you need a cutter, so you can quickly cut a line if it gets tangled to get your dog free.
One of the rules is no open blades, so seat belt cutters are a popular alternative and available at most hardware stores.
Straw is used for the dogs to sleep on to keep them warm and comfortable. It is used whether the dogs sleep outside or in a dog trailer.
A headlamp is used for early mornings to prepare the dogs and also for night races.
What Does A Sled Dog Eat
Sled dogs are athletes and like any athlete, they need a need High quality diet.
Some people raw feed, which shows as the dog/s are in optimal condition although not everyone is in the position to be able to do it.
Although every owner is different, the musher we spoke with feeds a high quality, high performance kibble. The dogs are fed 3 cups a day per dog broken up into 2 meals.
It might not sound like a lot of food, but a domestic dog is very different to a competing dog.
It is amazing how little food a dog needs, (we are all guilty of overfeeding our pets at some time in their lives) but for a performance dog it is a matter of safety.
They need to be lean in order to run, it is very difficult for a chubby dog to sprint these distances and can be dangerous for their health.
Breakfast is 2 hours after their run, to allow time for their bodies to cool down. If they are going to do a night run, dinner is 2 hours after their run.
Training A Dryland Sled Dog
It is important the dogs remain fit between races and in the off season. Most training is done on weekends due to work commitments and consists of hiking and going to the beach in summer.
Running on the sand maintains muscle tone and the water keeps them cool.
These dogs easily overheat.
Does Pulling Come Naturally To Most Sled Dogs
Most dogs yes. For example, a musher named Sarrah Zonneveld hooked up her dog Peach and she took off and loved it.
Most dogs naturally pull but because they have been taught not to pull on the lead they won’t do it.
Even though it is time consuming, this problem can be solved with extra training.
They really want to run but as soon as they feel the weight of the transport, they think they are doing wrong and heel instead.
Dogs that are bred for racing already have the inbuilt need to pull, which makes it easier to get them started than a domestic dog learning to be a sled dog.
Getting The dogs To Race
Sled dogs know when it is their turn to run and get so excited a person has to grab their harness and point them the right way.
They just want to run, so if they aren’t in the right direction, they will run around willy nilly or in circles.
Huskies are pretty easy dogs to use so long as you train them right, treat them right and let them do what they love.
How Far Can A Sled Dog Run
Wassa’s longest race is 6 ks (3.7 miles).
A dog can trot for 20 kilometers (12.4miles) no problem. Once they settle into a pace they can run for hours.
Sprinting is different because they are pulling at the same time. It is a lot harder for a dog to sprint and pull so the max would be 10 km (6.2 miles). They will start to slow down around 6 ks.
Sled dogs can run for hours but Aussie dogs aren’t equipped for that (the heat) so 6 ks is the average.
How Fast Can A Sled Dog Run
Between 9 Mph (15 Kmh) and 12 Mph (20 Kmh), although a husky named Peach, has achieved 24 Mph (38 Kmh) downhill on a push bike.
Some highly fit dogs can run 15 Mph (25 Kmh) consistently.
Dog Sled Racing Rules
Right of way (how you pass people on the track)
Aggressive dogs and how to deal with it, (some dogs don’t like other dogs)
The equipment you can use
The type of equipment you can use, ie no carabiner on the end of your dog, because if they break they can become a sharp object and harm the dog.
The Longest Dog Sled Race In The World
The longest race in the world is the Yukon Quest (1000miles/1800kilometeres) followed closely by the Iditarod (938 miles/1509 kilometres)
The Longest Race In Australia
The longest race in Australia is Dinner Plain. It is also the hardest and is run on snow.
Dryland mushing is a fun and competitive sport and a great way to bond with your dog.
Another great thing about dog sledding is it is a community and the people are really nice.
Most clubs have members that will lend you the equipment needed to get started, a harness, lines etc so a person can see if dog sledding is for them before investing in the required equipment.
Even though I was on the pee wee track, (the one used for children) I had loads of fun and was amazed at the speeds these dogs travel.
Now you know the basics of dry land dog sledding, why not head down to your local club to observe a training day or race? You might just love it and soon become a musher too.