Mushing with Your Dog: The Basics

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If you live in an area where there is plenty of snow and space to run — and hopefully someplace to go — and you have at least two big, energetic dogs and a sled, there is an outdoor activity made just for you: mushing!

We’re not talking “mush” like the stuff you eat for breakfast. This “mush” is based on the French word for marche. Or to put it simply, “Go!”

Mushing can be for practical purposes, like getting from here to there (and back again), in which case you need only a team of dogs big enough to haul the loads they are pulling. If you are interested in mushing for sport, well, that’s a whole ‘nother ballgame, and you’re going to need a bigger team for that. And then you have the choice between going pro and joining a competitive racing association, or just staying casual and racing around with your dogs alone, or against your friends and neighbors. Either way, it’s a great way to stay healthy and have fun all winter long.

If you live in a location that is not snowy all year long, you can even continue to mush in the warm season with a rig. In fact, mushing is not confined to sledding; it can also include skijoring, weight pulling, sled racing, and almost anything that involves harnessing a dog to a vehicle for the purpose of pulling it.

Meet the Dog Sled Team

Dog sledding requires a sled, a team of dogs, and a musher — the person driving the sled. Almost any breed of dog can be used on a sled team, so long as it is a medium to large sized dog (between 45-90 pounds is best). The most common breeds are the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Canadian Eskimo and Samoyed, but other breeds and mixed breeds are also used. Pulling breeds like American Bulldogs, mastiffs, American bull terriers and Staffordshire terriers can also benefit from this sport. In cold environments, it does help tremendously if the dogs are heavy coated, but the main components for a successful mushing dog is speed, strength and stamina to spare.

The dogs are set up in groups of two, running side by side — think of how Santa’s reindeer sled team is organized. The team is positioned based on the dogs’ abilities to perform certain roles. The Lead dogs set the pace and steer the rest of the team. They are usually chosen based on their intelligence, since they have to be smart and able to find trails even under tough conditions. The Swing dogs follow the lead dogs and help guide the dogs behind them through the tough turns. The Team dogs are usually found on larger teams. They provide the main power in the team and are positioned based on their strength. The Wheel dogs are the dogs closest to the sled. They are positioned based on their ability to stay calm under pressure, especially with a moving vehicle right behind them. And because they are directly hitched to the sled, they have to be the strongest; making turns and maneuvers smoothly enough that the sled will not be overturned and pulling the sled out of ruts. Finally, the Musher rides right behind the sled, giving commands and steering the sled team. The Musher often will participate by running along with the dogs to help speed the team along.

  • Anita Andreassen
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