Do you live in a snowy climate and want to commute by dog-driven sled this winter? Or maybe your pooch loves to pull, and you want to put that muscle and endurance to good work. Whether you have a born sled dog like a husky or malamute, or a willful mutt who needs a job to do, dog sledding might be for you!
Recreational sledding is a fun way to hitch a ride while your dog burns off energy. Read on to learn how to train your dog to pull a sled (or a scooter, bicycle, skateboard, etc.)
What Kind of Dogs Can Mush?
The Alaskan husky is the most popular sledding breed by far. As explained in National Geographic magazine, Alaskan huskies are mixed-breed dogs with “hodge-podge heritage that’s custom-made for the rigors of racing and hauling.”
A few other hardy, cold-weather breeds are traditionally sled dogs:
- Siberian husky
- Canadian Eskimo Dog
Your dog doesn’t have to be a traditional sledding breed to learn how to mush. In fact, any athletic, energetic dog can learn to pull a sled. Sled dogs should be at least medium-sized, 30 pounds and up (source).
Isn’t Dog Sledding Dangerous?
Professional dog sledding is controversial in the animal welfare world. Competitive sled dogs are housed in group kennels, sometimes chained to posts at night, and pushed to their physical and mental limits during a race. However, training your dog to pull a sled as a hobby is quite different!
Recreational dog sledding is as safe as any other dog sport. The important thing is to let your pup take the lead, and celebrate and encourage her athleticism in a safe and positive way. If she doesn’t enjoy sledding, don’t force her, and don’t push her too hard. But if your haul-happy hound takes to sledding, it’s a great way to bond with her and nurture her abilities.
Dog Sledding Equipment
The first thing for a sled dog to learn is how to wear a harness. This model from Ruffwear isn’t quite what the pros wear, but it’s a good all-purpose towing harness suited to lightweight backyard sledding or skiijoring (being hauled on skis). If you’re interested in a more serious sled, hit up your local dog sledding club to have your dog fit for a professional x-back harness.
Harness fit is very important for your dog’s comfort and safety, so measure your dog’s neck, chest, girth, and length, take your time selecting the correct model, and work with an experienced fitter to make the right pick.
To complete a sledding rig, you’ll also need:
- A tow line (the rope that connects your dog’s harness to whatever it is she’s towing).
- A waist belt for you if you plan to “be the sled” yourself (as in skiijoring or bike towing)
- A sled or cart. You can also turn a wagon into a dog card by using a wagon shaft.
A full dog sledding rig can cost hundreds of dollars. Before making the investment, contact your local dog sledding club. You may be able to borrow or rent equipment, and they’ll be full of good advice!
How to Train Your Dog to Pull
Chances are, if you’re investigating sledding, your dog already pulls. Your task is to get her to do it on cue.
To start, have your dog “tow” an inanimate object, such as a small tire or piece of wood. Attach the object to your dog’s harness via tow line or cord, leash her, and walk/run beside her as you encourage her to pull (source). She may be startled at first, but continue to show her how much fun it is to tow! Give her lots of praise and treats.
As your dog becomes comfortable pulling an object behind her, gradually add weight or pressure (this can take a day or several weeks, depending on the dog). You’ll also need to decide what command you want to use to cue her to move forward! “Hike” and “mush” are popular.
Once your dog reliable tows an object, you can transition to having her pull a sled or cart. But you may want to increase her dog sledding vocabulary first.
Dog Sledding Commands
In addition to a “go” cue like “hike” or “mush,” there are other commands specific to dog sledding. Over time, you can teach your dog to obey these cues while pulling a sled, making for a smooth ride.
Here’s a brief dog sledding glossary via the Cascades Sled Dog Club:
- Line out: your dog stands at the end of the towrope, connected to her harness, and pulls it taut by leaning. This puts her in the “ready position” to move forward.
- Hike: start moving forward
- On By: Similar to “leave it,” this command tells your dog to keep moving past a distraction.
- Gee: turn right
- Haw: Turn left
- Easy: Slow down a bit
- Whoa: Stop!
As with any dog training routine, teaching your dog to pull a sled takes time, patience, consistency, and a positive attitude.
Once you start sledding with your dog, you may become obsessed! A casual, at-home approach to dog sledding will suit most people. But if you want to get serious, search for dog sledding, mushing, skiijoring, or “urban mushing” club in your area. Happy sledding!