Fast, exciting, well trained working sled dog teams are the result of careful behind the scenes planning and hard work. Successful mushers are knowledgeable in such diverse areas as kennel management, canine behaviour, nutrition, veterinary care, psychology, physical conditioning, housing and transportation. Wise mushers soon learn that success or failure in any of these areas affects performance dramatically. Considering this fact it is obvious that the welfare of the dogs is of paramount importance.
Team and driver develop a close, trusting relationship because of the amount of time they spend together. To betray that trust by not meeting all of the dog’s needs runs counter to the goal of having a happy, healthy, highly motivated team. What you see at a race is the result of long hours of work and planning to ensure that the team is prepared to test its abilities against the trail and the competition.
WHAT MAKES SLED DOGS RUN?
Sled dogs run because they love to run, they are born and raised to it. How they run is a product of how they are trained. If they are well trained they will run in perfect harmony. If they don’t it is the failure of the musher, not the dogs. One of the great mushers of all time summed it all up when he said “the dogs never make a mistake”.
Sled dogs, like all athletes, spend more time training than competing. By the time you see a dog running a race, the dog will have logged hundreds or more miles of training.
THE TRAINING CYCLE
Training begins when sled dogs are puppies. Puppy training must be fun. The puppy must be given tasks he/she can accomplish with ease. The first training occurs at birth when the puppies are handled and socialised so they become comfortable with their human companions. When the puppies are old enough to mix with other dogs, they learn to be comfortable with other dogs and to come when they are called.
Puppies do not perform like adults, but they learn to associate the harness and the team with fun. Mushers will often put a puppy in a harness to pull a small object. At six or more months, the puppy joins a small team of older dogs. It is critical that this first effort at running be a positive experience. The musher’s goal is to let the dog enjoy its instinctive behaviour in a safe environment.
Training begins in earnest when the dogs are yearlings. Most mushers start training as soon as it is cool enough for the dogs to run comfortably.
Dogs must build up their aerobic condition and muscle strength and learn to run as a team. Young dogs learn how to ignore distractions, respond to commands, and handle different trail conditions.
As the dogs build strength and stamina they can run farther. The dogs rest between and within workouts to ensure fitness.
As the training progresses and the months turn cooler, the dog become tougher and able to run further and faster. The experienced driver shuffles dogs around in different positions on the team seeking to find the position that best matches the dog’s unique abilities. Sometimes dogs are paired with partners whom they will run beside for their entire careers, bonding to that dog as much as to the driver.
The driver studies his team, learning each dogs individual traits and habits. Most importantly, the driver builds each dog’s confidence in their athletic ability until the whole team of canine competitors is convinced there is not another dog team in the world that can run as fast or as far as they can!