For some folks, as the weather takes a turn for the chilly, they curl up in a ball on the couch with a roaring fire and a hot cup of cocoa, but for sled dog teams it's go time!
In many areas of the world, cooler temperatures mean the strong possibility that snow is right around the corner, a time of year when you want to stay inside and hibernate until the bluebird of spring comes calling. But for sled dogs and those who work with them, their busy season (and the fun!) is just beginning.
The image of dogs sledding on the snow conjures up picturesque scenes with tall, flocked evergreen trees and glistening open fields, but make no mistake: these powerful dogs are hard at work, and they love what they do!
After all, these pups are following their instincts to run long distances and pull heavy loads. They start their training as puppies, and by the time they're youngsters, they run with the big dogs to develop their social skills and learn commands from their musher, says PetMD.
And just what is a musher and what does he or she do? The word "mush" is derived from the French word marche, meaning "march." The musher, then, is the person who controls the dog sled team. Sometimes, mushers run alongside their dogs at certain points during a race, although there must be another musher on hand to command the sled.
According to National Geographic, the most popular sled dog breed is not the Siberian husky or Alaskan malamute, two common breeds associated with sledding. The most popular sled dog breed is the Alaskan husky, a "mutt" breed especially known for its strength and stamina. Typically, sled dogs weigh between thirty-five to sixty pounds, and they can pull twice their body weight or more.
What Makes a Great Sled Dog?
Mushers choose sled dogs based on their stature as well as their weight, fur, and ability to work well with others, among other criteria. Dogs on sled teams are superb athletes, lean, and muscular with healthy eating habits. There is no limit to how many dogs can pull a sled, so depending on his or her task, a musher may have anywhere from two to three dogs for a smaller job, such as transporting supplies, up to twelve or sixteen pups.
For protection in cold climates, a sled dog relies on his thick undercoat for warmth and wears booties to protect his sensitive paws. Prior to running races (such as the famous long-distance Iditarod, which takes place in Alaska every year, or the Yukon Quest) and performing non-racing duties, each dog undergoes a thorough medical examination to ensure he can safely work.
Members of the Team
Each dog assumes an important role in the team, identified by his position in the row. Typically, the dogs are harnessed together in two parallel rows with the lead dog in front setting the pace for the entire team. With a keen sense of smell and superior intelligence, he leads the trail. The swing dogs are next. They carry the team through turns and guide the team dogs, the dogs that make up the largest part of the pack. Team dogs are positioned in the center based on their power and strength. Directly in front of the musher and attached to the sled are the heel dogs. These dogs are the strongest of the pack as well as the most calm in stressful situations. Heel dogs are the smoothest runners so as not to tip over the sled on tight turns.
The pups play an important role outside of racing, too. At Denali National Park & Reserve in Alaska, a kennel of approximately 35 dogs help protect and manage the park's two million acres of wilderness. These amazing dogs carry staffers into remote areas of the land that aren't accessible by motorized vehicle to deliver supplies, among other tasks. The sled dogs are well-cared for in a state-of-the-art kennel that allows visitors. So, if you make it all the way north to Alaska, you can see for yourself how majestic, strong, and beautiful they are!
History of the Sled Dog
Sled dogs played an important role in the settling of the Alaskan frontier as they were able to withstand the cold temperatures required to make the long trek across the open wilderness. The US Bureau of Land Management cites that settlers used vehicles similar to kayaks fitted with ski-like runners on the bottom to be pulled by these amazing work dogs to help transport goods and people across the land. Back then, the dogs were of larger size than their more sleek and sinewy counterparts of today that are bred more for racing than hauling. They are an important part of the history of Alaska's and Yukon Territory's settlement. While they don't perform quite the same actions that their ancestors did, today's sled dogs are a magnificent display of power, beauty and agility performing the job that they love to do.
Because of the trust and patience that goes into building a partnership, a very special relationship develops between a musher and his or her dog sled team, one that's built on mutual trust, love, understanding, and respect. If you're ever fortunate enough to experience these dogs at work, don't miss it; you'll be so happy you did.
Christine O'Brien is a writer, mom, former English professor, and long-time pet parent whose two Russian Blue cats rule the house. Her work also appears in Fit Pregnancy, What to Expect Word of Mom, and Care.com, where she writes about pets and family life. Find and follow her on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien