CITY SLED DOGS
When I started training and running sled dogs in St. Louis County, MO I dubbed them "City Sled Dogs". They learned to run on sidewalks rather then trails. I started with a book from the local Library and had a German Shepherd Dog on the end of a leash. For the first several months it was just me and the dog(s) and anything I could get my hands on to read. We did not have a computer with Internet as there is today.
I was just me and the dogs for months and my neighbors thought I was training my dog(s) to become seeing eye dogs. Things went well with their training and soon I had them pulling carts, wagons and even received a rig one year for Christmas that I hooked them up to.
One day a wonderful thing happened. My X heard on the radio that the Gateway Sled Dog Club was having an event downtown St. Louis, MO. GATEWAY SLED DOG CLUB!!!!????? I have to meet these folks and join this club!!
When I joined I began weight pulling. Truth was that most of the members only had one or two dogs and at the beginning, they did not have equipment for the dogs to pull. So we all got together and weight pulled, both practice and competition.
I began running my dogs with a rig (think chariot) and not too much time longer a sled for the little bit of snow we had in St. Louis, MO.
In 1996 I went to WI for the first time with friends as a racing sled dog team handler, for their team of Siberian Huskies. The following year I raced my dogs in that same race on the same trails. The photo on this page of the Labrador Retriever Sled Dog Team in pink is of me racing the first year. I started traveling to "snow country" and racing each year. Many sled dog racers still remember the Black Lab team in Pink. The team raced well and even won a few races.
I served on many committees with the Gateway Sled Dog Club and was a member for years. Deron and I even met through the club. He too lived in the county. He had bought a Malamute for Christmas one year and took it to a PetCo that coincidentally a friend of mine worked at and told him about the club.
The first time that Deron came to a GSD club meeting it had snowed and group of us were going to run dogs after the meeting. He came along, took a ride and was hooked on the sport. Before long Deron had moved to the country (still in MO) and had a sled dog kennel. He started with Alaskan Huskies and soon decided that Seppala line AKC Siberian Huskies were more his "cup of tea". Deron is a dare devil and soon, and I mean right away, was driving large teams of dogs mid-distances.
Deron and I moved to WI near the first place we ever raced (those trails were within Deron's 1/2 day training trails) in 1999. Now there is a sled dog race every week end (during the season) within a 2 hour drive from our home in N WI.
MY POINT IS THAT ANY BREED OF DOG, LARGE OR SMALL, CAN BE, WITH CORRECT TRAINING, A SLED DOG AND YOU DO NOT HAVE TO HAVE SNOW TO RUN A TEAM OF SLED DOGS ONCE THEY ARE TRAINED. YOU CAN OWN ONE TRAINED DOG AND AN ADULT SIZED SCOOTER AND HAVE A WHOLE LOT OF SLED DOG FUN! AND, YOU CAN LIVE ANYWHERE AND ENJOY THIS SPORT!
TRAINING YOUR DOG TO PULL
First let me say that I am not a professional dog trainer/instructor. I have taught many dogs to pull for their first time and what I am writing has what worked for me. I do not know you, your dog or the type of trainer that you are. I am therefore not responsible for any accidents or injuries that may occur with your dog training.
Always start any dog training with the proper equipment. An x-back, or a recreational type harness can be used for pulling a dog sled, dog rig, a scooter, or someone on skis or skates. It is not the type harness you would use to work a dog in shafts....like a wagon or cart, for that you need a proper fitting cart and or a multipurpose harness. You would also not use an X-back or Recreational Harness for weight pulling with your dog.
A word about collars. Do not use a choke collar to teach you dog to pull. Use a flat nylon webbing or leather collar with a good sturdy metal buckle or a sled dog type collar. There is a very popular collar out that has a plastic side release buckle. These are not for sled dog training, they can and have broken at the buckle. To be safe with your dog....you do not want that buckle to break and have your dog running scared with 'something chasing him', use proper equipment when working your dog. (Personally I don't like the side release buckle collars for any dog)
You have purchased a new sled dog harness, but, you have never put one on a dog before, now what?
Take the tug, the loop at the back of the harness and hold the harness in the air. Is everything straight? Is the fleece padding to the inside of the harness?
Now look at the harness, the fleeced 'X' is the top of the harness. This will go up on the shoulder area of the dog. You will notice a fleeced 'breast plate' that is longer then the 'X' on the opposite side of the "head hole", that part goes along the dogs breast bone area.
Call the dog to you and if possible have the dog "sit" in front of you. Take the tug in you right hand, now run you left hand into the harness in the opposite direction that the dog will wear it. Everything but the breast plate that is padded will be over the dog's back. Now grab (gently) the dogs muzzle and pull the harness back over the neck of the dog. Stop, pull all of the dog's collars, leashes, tags and anything else you have on your dog forward past the harness. If you do not do this, your dog will be pulling with whatever you left under the harness digging into him.
Now lift the dog's right leg up toward the dog, do not pull the leg out as your arm would go out from you side, but up towards the dog's body. Put the dog's leg through the leg whole, then repeat on the left side. Now take hold of the tug and pull it back towards the dogs tail... isn't that pretty!!! You have now successfully harnessed your "new sled dog".
When you take the harness off the dog do it slowly and unharness one leg gently at a time, and again pulling the legs up not out. Pull the harness off so that it does not turn itself inside out. When the harness is off the dog, hold the harness again by the tug and make sure it is straight so that the next time you get it out, it is ready when the dog arrives to be harnessed. I recommend that you hang the harness by the tug between uses.
Let's say that your dog has never had a harness on before and you would like for him to start pulling a load for you. Once the dog has the harness on for the first time, just do something fun...something your dog really enjoys doing, like eating, fetching, or going for a short walk. Make a fuss over the dog wearing the harness and give the dog extra hugs and treats. Take the harness off. Never leave a dog unattended with a harness on, it may chew up the harness and your fun is over... until you get it repaired.
Now the work starts for you. You need a rope about 6' long or an old leash. You need a small log or a small tire for the dog to pull. If you choose a log, drill a whole in the end of it and insert a screw in type eye bolt, this is what you will hook to the leash then to the dogs harness. If you choose a small tire, that too will get a whole drilled into the tread with a bolt type eyebolt thru that. Now gather all this gear together, put the harness on the dog as well as a leash and take a walk around your yard with YOU pulling the log or tire in your other hand. The dog needs time to get used to the sound of the item you are pulling as well as getting used to seeing something 'following' the two of you. If the dog is afraid or nervous about the item just reassure it and keep walking. Do not baby the dog, or he will never pull for you. That's all the lesson that you should do for the day but repeat the same lesson for next couple of days. Remember, you did not learn to speed skate in a day.
Now after the above training put the harness on the dog and make a big fuss over the dog...put the dog on a leash and take it outdoors, you may want to take the dog for a walk before you start pulling just to take the edge off your dog.
Here's the big moment...You have your dog in harness, your pulling item is attached to the leash you are pulling it with, you have treats for the dog when it is doing a good job and you are calm and ready. Let me tell you here!! Never let the pulling item hit the dog in the rear!! Hook the dog to the leash in your hand first, now hook the pulling item to your dogs harness, start walking telling the dog "Pull, Good Dog", if the dog is afraid hold your confidence and keep walking holding a treat in front of the dog so that it moves toward your hand as your tell the dog, "Pull, Good Dog". Just pull long enough (time wise) for the dog to get praise for the right behavior, maybe 10 - 15 minutes. Now some dogs, just 'get it', other's however you will have to work with like this for a week or two.
Now your dog is pulling the item with confidence. Start telling your dog the sled dog commands as you walk the when the dog is pulling and when you are just walking for fun. When you stop, say "Whoa" this is the most important command. Give the dog a "Let's Go" command each time you want him to move forward in harness. When going to the right day "Gee" (rhymes with see), and for left, "Haw". When the dog stops to sniff say "On By" as you pull the dog forward, always be sure to praise the dog for right behavior. Have treats with you and make a huge fuss over the dog. Try to get the dog out in front of you rather then walking at your side. When your dog is 'getting it' it is time to get out your scooter or a pair of skates (if you are quite brave) and a helmet and enlist a little help from another human.
Get a long leash for the dog and have a friend hold the leash with your dog attached to it. Get your scooter or whatever you have chosen to pull ready with a six foot line attached. Have your helper move forward and you tell the dog the "Let's Go" command that you will be using. Remember, pay attention to what you are doing and do not ride up and hit your dog in the rear. Be sure to tell your helper that they will be running with the dog. I would use a spotter (the other human helping you until you really feel really ready to "GO"!.
Always make sure that you have the right equipment and that is proper fitting when training or working your dog. Check it often to make sure that it is in good repair and keep it clean for long life. Most webbing harnesses are machine washable but not machine dryable, hang the harness that is clean and wet by the tug loop for 24 hours (they look new again after a good washing).
Other easier ways to have your dog learn to pull are....after the dog is used to having the harness on and is used to pulling the log or tire, have someone ride a bike or ATV in front of your dog while the dog pulls you. Start this on level ground.
If you are really lucky to have a friend that is running their dog in harness, have your dog follow them out......dogs learn from other dogs, keep in mind that's also good and bad behavior, choose the dogs your dog learns from wisely.
If your friend is really quite nice and your dog is well behaved and started well in harness pulling the log or tire maybe your friend will let you hook your dog into their team for a spin. Do not ask to drive the team. If offered, make sure you can handle the team before stepping on or into the driving stand or seat.
Your local library or the Internet has 'loads' of information on sled dogs. Our local Library, when we were in Antigo, WI, even subscribes to "Mushing" magazine. There are also several sled dog elist to join at the Yahoo Site. Good Luck and have a good time.
TRAINING YOUR DOG TRAIL MANNERS
IF YOUR DOG DOES NOT KNOW TRAIL MANNERS, DO NOT ENTER A RACE, YOU AND YOUR DOG(S) ARE NOT READY. It is not fair to the other racers for you to be out on the racing trail with dogs that do not know the racing commands and that might ruin their race because of it.
There is nothing more annoying, when racing, to have spent the time and money to get to the race only to have an untrained team get tangled into your team and ruin your run. Dogs MUST know the "On By" command and know it well.
If your dogs are aggressive and like to pick fights, they are not racing dogs. I am sure I do not have to say more on this....but I might. <grin> Fighting dogs, and this might happen any time dogs get together, are a threat to both their own person, other people around them as well as dogs within their own teams and other teams. These are Dangerous Dogs and have no business out on trails with other dogs or other people.
I have not seen many fights even with all the races and events I have been to. I did have a dog on my team for a while that my other dogs hated. She was excitable, not mean or aggressive, just excitable and that just bugged my other dogs bad. I had a couple of fights within my own team. I did not race the excitable dog more than once.
There is much going on at a sled dog race, lots of dogs and food and people and noise and excitement. Don't bring dogs that you know may cause problems. It is not fair to your own other dogs, dogs on other teams, other mushers and people working at the race or even yourself. Reaching into a dog fight is never a good idea.
Do a lot of practise and fun runs with other teams long before you load to go to an Organized Sled Dog Race. Know how your dog is going to act. Make sure your dog(s) are trustworthy before you take them around others....dogs or people.
WHERE YOU CAN RUN YOUR DOG IN HARNESS
There are no "In The Woods". In other words, someone owns all the land. If it is not a State or Local Park, it is owned privately and you need permission to be on it.
Check parks around where you live, many have trails wide and smooth enough to run a small team of dogs. Rails to Trails are another great place to run your dogs.
Maybe someone you know lives out of town and has property that you can run your dogs on. Better, that person also has sled dogs and you can run together.
YOU ONLY HAVE ONE DOG OR TWO - TRAINING YOUR DOG(S) TO PULL A SCOOTER
Having your dog pull you on a scooter is a blast, not just for the rider but also for the dog. I would not recommend a razor scooter , however, I have seen people use them with their dogs. I would highly recommend a helmet, knee and elbow pads and hiking boots. I wear long pants and usually a long sleeved shirt.
You can use a child's scooter that may already be out in your garage or down at the thrift shop or garage sale just waiting for you. Bike shops and Toy Stores also often have scooters for sale. You can purchase an adult sized scooter with large or small wheels. You can spend as little as a few dollars or you can spend over a thousand dollars on your scooter. Just make sure that the scooter is in good repair with working brakes and both the tires are good before you take it out on the road or trail. I also highly recommend that you learn to ride the scooter well and/or any new scooter well you may get before hooking it to the dog.
I own a couple scooters, my favorite adult sized scooter was homemade, call it Handcrafted, from a mountain bike I bought from a garage sale back in 1997. We cut the middle out of the bike, we bent metal conduit for the area to stand on, we had it welded it all together and added a nice sturdy kick board. I was, at the time, running and racing my dogs with a child's sized scooter. One day I went into a bike shop and saw a brochure with German made adult sized scooters in it that I could not afford. Then I got the big idea and we made mine.
Other equipment you will need will be a sled dog type harness with good padding that properly fits your dog, about a six foot gangline or rope to hook the dog to, helmet, pads and your good humor. Hiking boots are also a good idea so that your ankles are not getting scraped up on the kick board of your scooter as you peddle.
When tying your gangline, or the rope that will connect the dog to your scooter, tie to the fork of the scooter rather then the handle bars. On my scooter I actually have a metal U shape piece that is screwed in with the wheel base it has an eye bolt in the center for the gangline to hook into. This keeps the gangline from getting tangled into the wheel as easily as it does when hooked to the frame of the scooter. Always keep your gangline tight.
One of the best ways to teach your dog to pull a scooter, now I am assuming that you have already taught the dog to pull in harness....is to hook your dog up to the scooter, after of course, your helmet is securely on. Have someone on a bike or ATV ride in front of you encouraging your dog to follow them as the dog pulls you along. Usually after a couple of times of this, the dog will go without the rider in front of it.
One dog will give a smaller adult plenty of power for a mile or two. However, I do know of people that hook up as many as four dogs to a scooter, they are braver then I am. I usually take two dogs when I go out with the scooter.
There are also other ways to teach you dog to pull you on a scooter. Do you take your dog for a walk frequently on the same trail? If you do and can get your dog out a head of you, you can hook up and start down that same trail. Your dog should remember the route and you will go along just fine.
However, I would recommend that your dog knows the sled dog commands before you ever hook and go for a spin. "Whoa" is your most important command, it means stop. "Gee" (rhymes with see g as in gentle) is right and "Haw" is left. "On By" means not to stop or turn, or chase that squirrel. You also need a start word like "Hike" or "Mush" or "Let's Go". The best way to teach these command is at one end of a leash with the dog at the other so that you can show the dog what it is that you are asking of it.
Do you have a friend that already has a dog pulling a scooter or a sled? See if you can follow them or if your friend will hook your dog in with their already trained team of sled dogs. If you are hooking your dog into the gangline with someone else's dog, please make sure that all the dogs get along with one another before the hook up.
When running your dog in harness dirt trails are always best, well, that and snow. Keep pavement pulling to a minimum and run your dog in the grass next to the sidewalk whenever possible. Start you dog out slowly adding miles as he gains the muscle tone for them. Always watch your dog for stress and stop before you think the dog is tired, this will keep him wanting more.
All kinds of breeds of dogs and mixed breeds are pulling scooters!! You do not have to own an Alaskan Malamute or a or a Siberian Husky to participate!! Even a dog the size of a Cocker Spaniel can safety pull a small sized adult, and two Cocker Spaniel sized dogs could pull a small adult for quite some ways.
The more time you spend with your dog the more time your dog will want to spend with you. You will have a tighter bond between the two of you. You may also notice that your dog is barking less, digging your yard up less and a lot happier. Dogs love to work and they love to run!
If you find yourself running your dog more and more frequently in harness you may want to feed him just a bit more as he will be burning more calories. Make sure he has fresh water at all times. When you get back from running your dog, give it a small amount of water. Wait for a few minutes for the dog to cool down, then offer more fresh water to the dog. You do not want it to come in hot and drink a full bowl of water, that could make the dog sick.
Above all else think safety, not only for you but also the dog. You may want to carry a dog bootie in your pocket just in case your dog would hurt it s paw while out on the trail. Always take water and a bowl for your dog when going out on the trail. I carry dog treats with me so that if we take a break after the dog cools down a moment he can have a little something, I do mean little though. Feeding to much during a break could be harmful.
The above is how I trained several of my dogs to pull a scooter. It may or may not work for you. I can not be held responsible for accidents or injuries. It is up to you to train your dog in a safe and humane way, using equipment that you have checked for safety prior to your runs with your dog.
CROSS TRAINING TO WIN
If you want to win Racing Sled Dogs, then you need to get serious and cross train your dogs. You will also need to be in great shape cause, "the musher is the hardest working dog on the team" and boy, that is true.
There are so many ways to keep your dogs in shape and have fun doing it...backpacking, swimming, weight pulling, obedience training, agility, jogging, tricks. Anything to keep the dogs working and thinking...keeping sharp.
You and your dog need to keep in shape all year long. Working out together, reminding the dog the Sled Dog Commands, Backpacking with both you and your dogs in packs, all of this might give you a nice edge on your lazier competition when you race the following year.
HOW EXPENSIVE IS THIS HOBBY?
I wrote this several years ago. People were often asking me about the cost of this sport. This was actually published in three different dog magazines.
People ask me frequently "How much is ...(fill in the blank)" a harness-a rig-a sacco cart, dog-box, ect.? People buying their first harness often ask if the is an "expensive" hobby. Well ~ it can be. Let's see...
You own one dog and you buy it a recreational harness ~ $15-$20, not bad. You can have a lot of fun with one dog and one harness. Then you get, say, a scooter from a garage sale ~ $10-$15. Lots of fun. Now you want another dog ~ $5-$500. More food, more vet bills, MORE FUN!! Again, a recreational harness for the new dog ~ $15-$20.
Now you're thinking about a rig - light weight beginners rig ~ $200-$700. Gangline and neckline ~ $15-$25. A spare set of Ganglines in case the dogs chew the first ~ $12 (you won't need the snaps on your extra ganglines) But you will need some spare snaps to replace broken ones as time goes on ~ $2-$10. Sled bag, for carrying your gear ~ $5-$30. Dog bag to carry any dogs on the trail that might hurt it's foot or something ~ $35-$300.
Now what you have been waiting for A REAL ALASKAN SLED!!! $300-$1500 (or more). OK, and you're going to haul this how? New vehicle-$________(fill in the blank according to your personal preference). And then maybe a trailer ~ $500 or more. Then you want another dog -it needs food, vet care, harness, and now you need a four-dog gangline.. Might as well get another dog too! By now you start to think you would like to have a "dog box". Build or buy ~ $200 and up.
Dogsledding equipment seems to accumulate. Deron and I now own (that's today, and it could change tomorrow) seven sleds, five rigs, a sacco cart, several dog shaft converted child's wagons, a pony cart, three scooters set up for dogs to pull, an adult size tricycle great for training and conditioning lead dogs, several of the following, dog backpacks, dog bags, sled bags, etc. etc.
Then there's all the winter gear for the musher ~ clothes, hats, boots, socks, sock liners, gloves, glove liners, mittens, over mittens, long underwear, etc. And then all that KOOOOL racing gear ~ headlamps, compass, small saws, snowhooks, heavy duty dog bags for mid-distance races, more dogs, more food, more vet bills!! Then you start looking for land of your own ~ no less than 40 acres will do of course. This is followed by building a home, kennels, and getting more dogs.
Somewhere along the line you ordered subscriptions to Mushing, Dog Fancy, Team & Trail, and Dog World Magaines. You've bought books on your breed and on the sport.
Some will notice (some won't notice, but still have it all) a change in your lifestyle. You're now wearing clothes with dogs, dog team, wolves and dog club names and logos printed on them. You ask for things like Steger Mukluks for Christmas and tie out chains for your birthday! You find yourself talking about (and thinking about) dog food, dog care, dog breeding, dog sleds, dog rigs, even dog poop more and more as cold weather approaches.
People are starting to recognize you in stores and other places as "the dog lady" or "the guy with the dogs" . Now you're getting it. Yes, you can have fun with one dog and a harness, but once you've trained and driven you own three dog team, YOU'RE HOOKED!!!
How expensive is this hobby? How much do you want to spend on pure fun?
AND THEN YOU WANT TO MOVE TO THE COUNTRY
I will once again warn you from the get go, George Attala once said "Running and Racing Sled Dogs is more addictive then Heroine, and costs more too."
Once you ride behind a couple of good sled dogs you have trained the words that come out of your mouth are these "I need more dogs" and "I need faster dogs". Even my youngest son after his first one mile run with two dogs came back bragging on the dogs and he said "I need more dogs." He had just turned 10 years old.
It is true, once you have had a good fun run you will want more dogs and most people have to move to the country to have that.
I would like to invite you to join us on a Yahoo Group that I host called Working Big Dogs.