How to Train Sleddogs

Equipment for Dogsledding -- What Do You Need?

SLEDDOG DRIVING certainly is a sport that requires the right equipment. That said, it need not be terribly expensive as far as the hardware goes. (The real money goes into the dogs and their maintenance!) The tricky part is acquiring the right gear; there is a lot of rubbish sold to unsuspecting novices. There is a great temptation for the beginner in sleddogs to rush out and buy a shiny new dogsled complete with ganglines and harnesses, from the nearest place that stocks such exotic items! The temptation ought to be resisted, because almost never does the beginner acquire the right kind of gear that will serve him well, cause few problems, and withstand the stresses and strains of dog driving. Sad, but true. A dogsled can be an expensive item, so you want to make sure you don't make a purchase you'll regret.

DON'T BUY YOUR SLED from the nearest pet or sporting goods store that happens to have one! In fact, don't buy any equipment at all until you have visited several experienced dog drivers and asked them what you need and where you should go to get it. Unless you definitely intend to race a lot, you may be better off with a stout polyethylene-bottomed toboggan sled of the "Tim White" type instead of a beautiful, traditional, varnished ashwood racing sled. The wooden sled is more vulnerable to damage from collisions with trailside obstacles and requires a lot of maintenance -- regular varnishing and re-lashing -- just to preserve your investment. The poly-bottom toboggan will stand up to any amount of abuse and requires relatively little maintenance.
      Beware the sled that is price-engineered for sale to novices! This kind of sled can turn out to be too heavy, badly balanced, too narrow -- any number of things may be wrong in the design department without the novice realising the fact. (Once a novice who handled for a winter at Seppala Kennels acquired such a sled, bought for her by her partner -- against advice. The first few times she took teams out on it, she overturned quite hard on the first and second turns in our training trail, losing the team and acquiring a truly lurid collection of deep bruises. Her new sled was about four inches too narrow, with a high centre of gravity that invited upsets on turns. You DON'T want a sled like that one!)
      Sleds that swivel or that have unusual hinges or suspension systems should be avoided by the novice. They are needlessly complex and of little aid to the recreational driver -- they are meant for big, high-speed racing teams usually.

HARNESSES are critically important even for the novice driver. Please, for your dogs' sake, don't make the mistake of thinking you can make them yourself! The proper construction of dog harnesses so that they actually fit the dogs is an art that is attempted by many but mastered by very few.
      I think that the common X-back racing harness is NOT the best choice for recreational teams! Readily available, yes; easy to put on and take off, yes; best choice for small teams of hard-working dogs, no. X-back harnesses fit too loosely and are easy for the dogs to back out of. Often they are made of materials that are too lightweight; they may look nice when purchased, but after a bit of use, the lightweight webbing seems to lose its flexibility and get curly. Most of the time, the 'racing harnesses' that are so easily available locally, perhaps made by a local musher, will turn out to have weak or inferior stitching; in that case, after a year or so the harness is worthless because its sewn joints rip out under strain.
      For years we have used the H-back harnesses made by Windigo Outfitters in Iron River, Wisconsin. We have never had to throw one of Deb Serbousek's Windigo harnesses away due to wear; we still use every single harness we ever bought from her, except for one that a dog chewed beyond salvage. We think they are the best bargain available in harnesses. You might need a few extra H-back harnesses, because they are designed to fit tightly and the fit is critical. Thus if a dog gains or loses too much weight, or goes in or out of coat, he may need a different size harness. That is a small price to pay for a harness that is very comfortable for the dogs, efficient in pulling and that will last for years.

I've been asked by Windigo Outfitters to explain to novice readers of this section that H-back harnesses are for drivers who know what they are doing and have some experience. As mentioned, FIT is critical and they are not the easiest harnesses to get on and off the dog. So if you are just starting out, without prior experience, you may have an easier time with the X-back harness, which is more generally available, more forgiving as to fit, and easier to put on and take off your dog. The tight fit of the H-back means that you must know what you're doing when you take your dog's forelegs in and out of the harness; otherwise you can easily cause sprains or strains. (I'll never forget the supposedly "experienced" musher/handler visiting at Seppala Kennels who, when given an H-back and told to harness a dog, after a fifteen-minute effort somehow managed to get the harness on the dog -- UPSIDE DOWN!)

COLLARS, too, are important. They should be adjustable with a buckle, NEVER the semi-slip tabbed style. They should have a large welded O-ring 1 1/2 to 2 inches in diameter to snap the neckline or stakeout chain onto. Thin collars with chintzy bent-wire D-rings are no use at all! Collars should be made of the same thick webbing that the Windigo harnesses are made from. I shouldn't even need to say this, but NEVER USE A CHAIN CHOKE COLLAR on a working sleddog in the team; the practice serves no possible purpose and may result in the death of the dog in a tangle. Some mushers, anxious to cut corners on equipment costs, make up single-size collars from plastic rope. This is an expedient worthy of Ebenezer Scrooge! Sleddogs need to have their collars loosened and tightened as they grow a coat and blow it, or gain weight and lose it, or grow and mature. Plastic rope is abrasive, hard on the dog's coat and skin, and single size collars often result in a collar that is too tight much of the time, in extreme cases causing open sores on the neck. If you can't even afford adjustable collars, how can you possibly afford to keep sleddogs?

GANGLINES can be made up by the driver IF he can get exactly the right kind and grade of hollow, diamond-braid poly rope, and IF he has the necessary fids to facilitate the construction job, and IF he has a gangline plan with good, tried-and-tested dimensions, and IF he knows exactly what he is doing! IF you are a novice, don't attempt this exacting job -- you are better off to buy your ganglines from Windigo or another REPUTABLE outfitter. Watch it, though, because some highly-advertised firms sell ganglines to the unsuspecting, the dimensions of which will cause untold misery to the driver and his dogs. Don't get ganglines that have insufficient spacing between dogs, or necklines and tuglines that are too short. (Hard to believe, but gear of this kind intended for novices is often deliberately made much too short just to economise on materials, and often it's made out of twisted rope instead of diamond-braid. Buyer beware!) Tuglines should be about 56 inches for wheel dogs, 48 inches for team dogs, and 30 to 36 inches for the leaders. Don't buy sectional ganglines that rely on quick-links and steel O-rings to connect the sections -- this is unnecessary and can cause problems. The neckline and tugline snaps should be the ONLY metal hardware in a gangline! Sectional ganglines are okay, provided they just have looped ends which can be threaded one through the other; that way they can never come loose at a bad moment. (Is there ever a good moment for a gangline to come apart on its own?) Gangline spacing between team pairs can vary somewhat to suit your terrain, trails, and mushing style. In general, sleddogs move better and work more efficiently if they have room to run in -- this means eight or nine feet per pair. Back in the 1950s you used to see dog teams all scrunched up together, very closely spaced. Not any more. It may be more convenient for the driver, maybe it LOOKS more impressive as well, but it makes life too difficult for the dogs. (Maybe that's why teams of the 1950s were so much slower than today.) MAKE SURE YOUR GANGLINES HAVE BRASS SNAPS! Cheap steel snaps will freeze solid and you may not be able to thaw them with your hands out on the trail on a cold day. It's nice if the neckline snaps are small and the tugline snaps are bigger. Cable-filled ganglines are necessary only if your dogs chew the lines; you should train them not to do that.

A PICKET LINE is virtually a necessity. You need a place to tie your team close to where you hook them up; you can't take sleddogs straight out of your car or truck and into the ganglines. Make up your picket for a few more dogs than you think you'll usually hook at once. A twelve or fourteen place picket line is good. The line itself can be either of chain or of aircraft cable. It has to have heavy-duty quick links on the ends so that they can be wrapped around a tree or a post and fastened securely. The individual drop-lines on your picket line should ideally be made of light passing-link chain (not twisted-link), and should be about eighteen inches long. Space them out so that the dogs cannot possibly tangle with one another. If the whole thing seems hopelessly too long for your hookup area and you can't stretch it around a corner, then shorten the drops slightly, but the minimum is about fourteen inches. Your dogs need enough freedom to move around and relieve themselves before their run. If your picket is made of cable, chain sections at either end are a good idea, as they make it easier to fasten the picket line securely to trees, car bumpers, etc. QUICK-LINKS are a mushing necessity (these are like individual links of chain with a hex-nut section on one side that screws open or shut); so are BRASS snaps.

A BIG STRONG MOUNTAINEER'S CARABINER is needed. What on earth for? You use this ESSENTIAL item to fasten the gangline to the sled bridle; it will also be the fastening-point for your snub rope (to hold the sled tied to a post or to your truck at hookup), the six-foot rope to your snow hook, and your shock absorber. Get the oval shaped carabiner with a gate protected by a locking sleeve that screws down over it, and make sure it's a heavy-duty model; never use a lightweight carabiner or one with an unprotected gate -- you risk losing your entire team if it should snag and open up. Don't try to make do without a good carabiner, because with bridle, gangline, snub rope and snow hook, there are too many items to connect safely in one place by any other method. By the way, NEVER do what I saw one klutzy person do, which was to lead the gangline OVER the top side of the sled's brush bow to attach it to the bridle -- I caught it in time, fortunately -- it's something you won't do more than once!

A STRONG, WELL-DESIGNED SNOW HOOK or anchor is a wonderful thing to have. Ask a very experienced musher to show you a good one. Some snow hooks look just fine, but are actually almost useless, and most of those on the market are inferior. The differences are subtle and hard to understand. A good snow hook digs in deeper as the dogs pull against it; a poor one pulls out. The best snow hook you can find is only just good enough much of the time. Get experienced help to find the best in your area, or order a good one from Windigo. (I keep mentioning them because these folks are long-time dog drivers, KNOW good gear, have a reputation to protect, and just will not sell junk; that can be said of few suppliers, unfortunately.)

A SNUB ROPE with a horse-trainer's 'panic snap' or quick-release is helpful, to get you away cleanly once all your dogs are hooked up and rarin' to go. Don't just try to tie the rope to a post, because chances are you'll have a real struggle loosing the knot with the entire team pulling hard against it; if it comes loose suddenly, you may be left standing in the hookup area while your team streaks away down the trail without you. NEVER tie your snub rope to a stanchion of your sled; that's just asking to break something. It's the dogs that you want to restrain, not the sled, so at the opposite end from the panic snap your snub-rope should have a spliced-in loop, which goes into the carabiner that also joins the sled bridle, the near end of the gangline, and the rope on your snow hook. It's essential to get all this right! A dog team is very powerful; a snub rope tied to any part of your sled will probably result in a broken sled and a loose team.

A SMALL SAFETY ROPE from the driver's waist to the driving bow of the sled is worn by many drivers, including Jeffrey. Some mushers will argue about this one. Yes, it could get you dragged, if you are driving a big team that you can't control. Yes, mushers have occasionally been injured in this way (usually with teams that were too big for them to control in the first place). But I think for the recreational driver with a team that doesn't exceed eight dogs, it's going to give you some peace of mind. You will bless that safety rope the first time you upset on a bad turn and lose your grip on the driving bow. You might drag a few yards in the snow, but your dogs will know something's wrong and will slow or even stop, particularly if it has happened before. A safety rope gives you a way not to lose your team. Even if you can't stop entirely, if you are tied on with a short rope, you can get hold of the sled, get a knee on a footboard, then get back on your feet. Everybody loses his team sooner or later; but it's always a traumatic experience and it can result in injury or even death among the dogs. Avoid it by using a safety rope. I've seen some folks dragging a long rope behind the sled as a so-called "last-chance line"! What a joke! A trailing rope is virtually useless and even dangerous if it should snag on something at speed; anyway, you'll never be able to grab it in time if you fall off. The safety rope has to be attached to your mid-body, either to a stout wide belt (a skijorer's belt, a lineman's belt, even a weight-lifter's belt will do) or else in a loop that will not collapse or draw tight (if you know how to tie a bowline, that works well, but never tie a loop around your body with a knot that can slip, collapse or draw tight).

A DOG BOX OR DOG TRAILER may be needed to transport your team if you can't hook up in your back yard and train on trails that start right there, and few beginning dog drivers can. (Later, you'll probably move to the boonies, once dog-driving has you hooked!) MAKE SURE that the doors of individual boxes on a dog truck, trailer, or truck box have LARGE windows securely meshed with very heavy-duty welded steel mesh or expanded metal, attached in such a way that the dogs cannot possibly remove it from within. Little cutesy-pie cutouts in the doors are dangerous. Dogs have suffocated in dog boxes, time and again. Your dog is not going to freeze because the window's too large; it should be big enough that a dog can't cover the whole window if he leans against it with his back or side. It doesn't sound possible that dogs could suffocate like that. It is, though. Many a sled dog has died that way.
      Your dog box or truck should have adequate tie-down points -- ring-bolts, preferably -- so that it is an easy matter to secure two or three sleds to the top of it using rubber tie-downs. Better too many tie-down points than too few.
      However, if you are just starting out with a team of three to six dogs, you can quite easily transport that many Seppalas in the back bay of an SUV or a mini-van. We have successfully transported up to eleven Seppalas on three- to four-hour drives in the roomy back bay of a Toyota Land Cruiser wagon. This is a big advantage of Seppalas' ability to get along easily with one another -- don't try this if you have quarrelsome dogs. But don't just walk off and leave a big mob in the back of your vehicle unattended for a long while; that could be asking too much. You can, however, transport your three-dog or five-dog team in this way as a temporary expedient until you have a proper dog box, provided your dogs all know how to get along with one another.

WATER PANS and buckets or cubes. Your dogs will need and appreciate a drink immediately after their training runs. This is ESSENTIAL, not optional. Don't worry, sleddogs are not like horses; it isn't dangerous to water them when they are hot, there's no way it can hurt them. If they drink too much, they'll just bring it back up and no harm done. They need the water to cool down and rehydrate. Watering your sleddogs should be the FIRST THING YOU DO after a run, while they are still standing in the ganglines. Don't forget those water pans and a 5-gallon water carrier if there's no clean water source handy to your hookup area.

Did I mention a WHIP? No, I didn't! That's because you don't need one. I have never come across a situation driving Seppalas that would be made the least bit better by the use of a whip, whether of the three-foot "signal" size or the ten-foot variety. Seppalas don't respond well to being whipped or beaten on, nor do they run any better if you make sudden loud noises. Save your money, don't buy a dog whip. I know -- just about every novice dog driver buys one the instant he decides to "get serious" about training. And it's a total waste of money. Nevertheless, if you already have one, hang it on the wall for atmosphere if you must, but leave it at home when you train! Physical abuse, force-training, making loud noises or fear training are all unnecessary and counter-productive with Seppala Siberian Sleddogs.

WHEELED RIGS are necessary for training before the snow flies. There's a wide variety of these around, but relatively few are much good. There are some very expensive models available that are pretty useless. We are great believers in using a mountain bike (or, alternatively, a kids' BMX bike) for training sleddogs one or two at a time. But the bike won't help you condition an entire team; you should never hook more than two dogs to a bicycle. We have three-wheeled training rigs at Seppala Kennels, built up from a dirt bike (i.e. motorcycle) front end; these have drum brakes on all three wheels and a foot pedal that applies the brakes to the back wheels. You stand on a platform that's situated low to the ground ahead of the rear axle point. They are stable and highly manoeuvrable; we love this design.
      Many mushers use ATVs -- I don't recommend this for recreational or beginning drivers. ATVs are not very stable and usually so heavy that with a small team the use of the engine is necessary; that will usually cause lots of problems. Dogs quickly learn to rely on the engine to help them! Plenty of fools insist on training always in twelve and sixteen-dog hookups with a big ATV, even when they are trying to break pups or yearlings to harness! It might work all right most of the time with experienced dogs, but I've heard plenty of tales about "the run from hell" in which the driver's insistence on hooking large teams of green dogs resulted in absolute chaos, tuglines and ganglines chewed apart, loose dogs, loose teams, dragged dogs, you name it! Often the driver tries to make it sound like it was a big joke -- but that is how stupid drivers ruin sleddogs! YOU DON'T WANT TO HOOK BIG TEAMS FOR FALL TRAINING, AND YOU DON'T WANT TO GO FAST! Sleddogs need time in the fall to muscle up; early season speed runs are only a source of injuries. Some folks use a stripped-down small auto chassis, such as the Austin Mini or even a Volkswagen. It may be difficult to find a chassis that is small and light enough, but it is a safe, secure way to wheel-train even a big team. Unlike an ATV, it can't upset. It's good and heavy so the team has to work hard and can't go very fast. You can set the emergency brake and get off to fix tangles. And there's no temptation to use the motor to rip and tear around, because you already had to remove it to lighten the beast. Yep, a chassis rig beats an ATV for sane, safe training on wheels. A golf cart is a possibility, if you can get one. In general, though, it's better if your wheel rig is smaller and lighter, so that you can train in smaller teams of four to six. That way you keep control, you maintain a good watch on every dog so nobody gets away with anything he shouldn't, and everything stays cool. Trying to run too many dogs at once is a high-pressure experience nobody really needs; if things go wrong, it can kill a dog -- or a driver. The guy who said, "If you're not scared s---less, you aren't hooking enough dogs!" is an ass. Dog sport should be safe for the dogs and for you.

Siberia import dog Shakal iz Solovyev from the Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project in Canada's Yukon Territory demonstrates wheel-rig sled dog training at Seppala Kennels.
Shakal the Russian demonstrates wheel-rig technique with two of his progeny
as Isa Boucher drives the tricycle training rig
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