Sled dog racing is one of the most exciting of winter sports. Its origins started in the Yukon gold rush days of the 1900's in the cold north of Alaska. 'Mail dog' teams as they were known were used to pull the mail and supplies into the gold rush towns and the mined gold back out. These were harsh times and many men and dogs perished. But of those that did thrive in the cold, the riches were plentyfull. Soon the prospectors found wealth, they had money or gold to spare and wanted to gamble with it. Sled dog races between villages were started and miners bet on who had the fastest dog teams. In 1914 Lenoard Seppala purchaed some native dogs from across the Bering sea and the Siberian Husky got its name. Many folks used 'village' dogs which were a mix of native arctic dogs and imported breeds from outside the state such as Setters, Hound breeds, Heavy coated dogs of all types and even Coyotes. These were the working dog of choice until Seppala started winning everything in sight with his hardy Siberians and soon more followed suit. As the sport developed, the mushers went back to the village dogs and mixed them with thier Siberians to get what is commonly know in mushing circles as the Alaskan Husky. A very carefuly bred dog of great pedigrees of leading winning dogs, but which strictly is not a reconised breed outside of the sport.
100 years later, the sport is still going strong after being saved from extinction during the 1950/60's with the invention of the snow machine by the father of The Iditarod race, Joe Redington Snr in 1973 when he founded the world famous 1000 mile Iditarod Trail race. The sport is now growing faster than ever before!
Getting started in sled dog racing is often seen by many new to the sport as fairly intimidating, elitest or even cliquey, that is actualy far from the truth and new comers are welcomed and encourged to get involved.The best way being to attend a near by race, talk to the mushers and get some tips and advice. Our athlete reps and development team will be more than willing to talk dogs with you and point you in the right direction as will many experience mushers.
The sport traditionaly in the UK has seen the Pure Bred sled dog breeds dominate the racing scene as they arrived into the UK in the late 1970's. Hence they are the most common dogs used by mushers. With the import rules and regulations relaxed and the Alaskan Husky and Scandianvian Hounds becoming more previlant in Europe and Scandinavia, they started to make in-roads into the UK scene in small numbers, but these are more of a specialised breed not ideal for the novice or beginner musher.
With the BSSF being affiliated to the IFSS, the 'Open' Style of racing, (where there is no specific breed requirement or restrictions as used in Europe, Scandinavia and North America) is developing in the UK under the guidance of many leading race organisors working closley with the BSSF to ensure it is done in such away as to protect the pure bred breeds as well as ensuring a safe way of introducing the open racing breeds into the UK.
Traditionaly dogs must be Kennel Club registered, this originated with the arrival of the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Greenland, Eskimo and Samoyed breeds. With this came the formation of the various Breed clubs set up to protect and promote the specific breeds. As the sport has developed in recent years with more open class dogs arriving, the BSSF formed to promote the sport as a whole and to follow the IFSS rules and regulations. Our Race Giving Organisations (RGO) host Open and Nordic classes so the pure bred dogs can continue to race against each other as they have in the past and also allow the open class dogs to compete in a seperate class. The BSSF does not require open class dogs to be registered on an open register although all dogs must be microchipped, be fit, healthy, well trained and have good trail etiquette. Agression by dogs on the trail is not tolerated.
When giving commands, be clear and purposeful but dont shout repeatedly, your dog can hear perfectly well. a simple 'GEE!' is often more effective than shouting it repeatedly at the top of your voice.
Constant talking or shouting to your dog will make it 'switch off' to your voice, so when we need it to respond, it just thinks your carrying on the conversation and ignores you.
Watch the leading mushers, often they will just utter a simple spoken command and the dog reacts! you may want to reinforce it with a slightly louder clearer command if your leaders does respond on the first command.
Training and more training on turns will pay off in the long run, try mixing it up and dont always run the same trail the same way in training if you can.
As the saying goes, the quieter the musher, the faster the dogs!
GEE - right
HAW - left
HIKE - go
EASY - slow down
ON BY -go straight on or ignore something on the trail
TRAIL - command to another musher that you wish to overtake
COME GEE/HAW- turn the team 180 degrees
WOAH - stop
Access to training areas is one of the hottest topics and often hardest thing to find out about when getting started.
As a rule, forest trails and softer surfaces are ideal, but can be hard to find. Concrete, tarmac, roads and pavements should be avoid for both legal and dog welfare reasons.
Many areas of the country have permits in place for dog teams to train, some areas have waiting lists others are more open. Bandit running, or running somewhere without a permit or where you have not sort permission to train can put races, exisiting permits and hard sorced training areas at risk. As a rule any Forestry Commission land requires you to have a permit to use it and insurance. Ask your local Forestry Commission office for details of the Sled dog permit co-ordinators contact details and how to go about obtaining a permit.
National Trust land is in most places off limits to training.
Local parks and play areas are also not suitable due to other users and risks to the public.
Also try local private land owners, many small woodlands are privately owned, country estates and farmers might be able to help with access of their land if you are polite and explain why and when you want to train and that your dogs are under control, kept on lead and are not a risk to wildlife and game.
Be prepared to travel to get to training areas, be courteous at all times to general public, Respect others permits and training areas, don't run somewhere without permission or insurance.
Choosing equipement for your dog is the next thing. Firstly harnesses, theres lots to choose from. X-Backs,
H-Backs, distance harnesses, weight pulling harnesses, each do a different job. The main thing is to make sure you buy a harness that fits your dog. Often buying off the peg from the internet is ok if you are sure of your dogs size and measurement but its quite often a better idea to either buy a harness made to measure for your dog or visit a race and try some harnesses on. Many mushing supply outfitters will be able to help you and will be willing for you to try harnesses on for fit. Failing that, finding a friendly musher who is experienced and has a range of harnesses fthat is willing to let you try some on for you to get an idea of what fits your dogs the best is another way to get the right harness first time. Dont just go for what the lastest fashion for harnesses is on the internet, each dog will need a harnesses best suited for its individual shape, size and needs.
Buying mushing gear from a reputable supplier with many years of experience competing in the sport of sled dog racing and of outfitting teams will help you get whats right for your needs the first time and avoids costly buying and selling of many different types of unsuitable or sub standard gear before you find what fits and suits you and your dogs best.
Lines are fairly straight forward, look for brass clips on the dogs end of the line, well made nylon braided rope that is sufficiently strong enough and constructed. The gangline is the main section joining the dog team together to the rig or sled. The tug lines branch off for each individual dog, necklines join the dogs front end via a suitable 'working' collar to the gang line and its running partner, last of all a single neck line is used to couple the front lead dogs together, this stops them splitting apart when running and ensures they work as a unit. A bungy line is then used to connect the gangline to the rig with a safety tug section included in case the bungy were to fail. It is then usual for the musher to have a 'Snubline' of sufficient length with a panic snap and ring included so that should you need to stop your team. you have a means of 'snubbing-up' your dog team to a suitable tree or post to hold then while you sort out any problems. This Snubline is a requirement for racing.
Rigs are another big purchase. Look around the many races and see what others are using, you will often find second hand rigs ready to go or needing a little work, for sale at races. Internet auction sites often turn up second hand rigs, but make sure you ask lots of questions and dont get stung for a heap of junk. In the UK we are lucky, we have several of the worlds leading manufactures right here on our doorstep who will make a standard rig for you or even a full on custom set up to your desires and bank balance! A good second hand rig will cost between £150 - £400 depending on condition, a new rig will range from £400+ upwards! If buying a second hand rig check the welds for cracks, the frame for worn out or damaged brush bows, break lugs and wheel drop outs. Check wheels for damaged bearings and excessive play, brakes for worn out cables and head tubes for loose bearing races and play in the forks. Many items will be easy to replace or repair from most good bikeshops. Cracked welds on frames are worth avoiding and looking for a rig in better condition unless you are handy with a welding gun! During the season you will go through many sets of brake blocks so look also at disk or drum brakes. Tyres can range from slicks to chunky tread and all have their positives an negatives. Slicks run faster in mud and soft trail, but reduce the stopping effectiveness of brakes. Chunky tyres have more drag in soft trail but grip better and braking is increased. Wheels will need maintance during the season with bearings cleaned and greesed to keep the muck out and them smooth rolling.
If running a team over 2 dogs you may need a rigbag to keep the muck off, store your snubline and in an emergancy carry an injured dog if needed.
Helmets, gloves, protective eye glasses and good running shoes or lightweight boots and plenty of warm and waterproof clothing are also recommended for your own safety.
It is often said that a leader is born not bred. However many dogs with the right training will lead a team, but only the very best will be natural leaders.
Leader training is essential when it comes to owning a dog team. You need a smart, confident dog that will listen and be willing to act on your command.
Every dog is different and like us learn in different ways.
The main thing is to be consitant, clear and reward correct behaviour with praise (not with food treats!).
Patiences is key. Some ideas to try include, when out walking and you wish to take a turn right on your usual walk, just before the turn, calmly get your dogs attention by calling its name and then as you get to the turn, call the command, if the dog looks or goes to take the correct turn, praise with a 'Good boy for 'GEE' in a happy tone of voice, if he doesnt go the correct way, stop, ask him again, if he looks or turns the correct way then give verbal praise as you walk forward.
Go different ways each time to keep him sharp on his turns and he'll soon understand. Keep him happy and encourage him, dont get aggressive or upset as it will confuse him.
Positive reinforcement works great!
Happy musher...Happy dog team!
The best way to get advice and to learn is from experienced mushers. Getting a permit for your local training area is also a great way to meet like minded folks, swop ideas, ask questions, learn and get help. Many teams train early mornings and late evening from autumn to spring to get the best temperatures for their dogs to run in and afterwards might hang around for coffee or breakfast. This is an ideal time to pick their brains and ask advice. Some sled dog clubs also arrange beginners teach-ins to help get newcomers started and give them lots of advice and help, let you try different rigs and set ups. Keep an eye out for our Mushing Excel clinics and courses.
Once you have your team trained and you've swopped that ford focus for a ford transit, you might like to have a go at racing your team against others, be warned, its addictive!
First find a near by race, look up the dates and details, fill in your entry form and get it off before the closing dates. Pack the van or car and head off on that early start. Arrive in plenty of time to find a parking spot, stake your dogs out for a rest after traveling. Give them a drink and a chance to pee. Then get your equipment checked, collect your race bib and attend the mushers meeting to get all the info you might need on the trail and see if you have been put down to help out somewhere (a really great way to get to know people is to volunteer to help marshal or start time or offer to handle for someone if they look like they have a big team to get to the startline). Leave plenty of time to get your dog harnessed and ready to go up with a few minutes to spare before your start time. Arriving too early and your dogs use up enegy in the excitment, too late and you risk being in a rush! Make sure you have your race number on, your rig ready with lines attached. You will get a 2 minute warning and will then enter the chute, get your dogs hitched up to the gangline and give them a encouraging fuss as the time counts down. Dont worry there will be a couple of folks holding your rig for you as you hitchup and the nerves will go as soon as they let go!
With 5 seconds to go you will be counted down and off you go! look out for the trail markers, RED on the left means take the next left, RED on the right, take the next right. A BLUE afterwards is confirmation you went the right way, two BLUES after a crossroads means go straight on through them, a YELLOW is caution! and NO R.O.W. means your nearly home and theres no right of way for overtaking teams. Once you cross the line, slow your team down but dont stop on the line, carry on past a short way then stop if you have too, get someone to lead you back to your parking spot and get the dogs onto your stake out line for a rest and a small drink a few minutes after they have finished. Unharness, check your dogs over and give them a big well done! you just finished your first race!
Check back after a while with the timers and get your finish time and position, you never know, you might have won a prize! its good etiquete to stay for the prize giving, often even last place gets something! Head home endlessly discussing the trail with a big grin and ideas on where you could improve your time and training... and we'll see you at the next race!
Most dogs will run naturally but pulling in a harness can make a dog a little nervous, keep first runs short, 100 meters is fine, and get someone the dog knows to go ahead and call the dog to them. Give encouragement and praise for a job well done!
Don't get too big too quick! Many new comers 'collect' dogs and find suddenly they have more than they can cope with or handle. Spend time learning with a small 2 dog team to start with and then build up slowly when your ready after a few seasons, running a 3 or 4 dog team is alot different to a smaller team. Many relationships have broken up over getting too many dogs too soon, the dogs suffer and you might find your dreams of running dogs dashed! Enjoy and learn from a small team and build on it.
What you put in you get out, train well, feed well and you'll get a team that performs well. Buy the best dog food you can afford.
Giving a small drink when the dogs have finished running helps them rehydrate, too much too soon can cause problems. Fresh water is fine but only give a 1/4 of a bowl. Leave no less than 4 hours if you plan to feed before a run later on and leave an hour or so after a run. Feeding too soon before or after a run can cause problems to the dog.
Dont be afraid to ask for advice from expereinced mushers, they wont bite and will often be willing to help, Beware the internet is full of instant experts who have little experience but are quick to offer poor advice. Ask our athletes reps for advice or help, thats what they are there for!
If you are being over taken you will hear the command TRAIL being called from behind, you may also get a ON THE RIGHT or LEFT if they intend to come by on a certain side. Do not stop your team, keep going and the team will cruise by you. Slow your team if you have to and leave enough gap, your dogs will chase and speed up, do not try and over take unless in the No ROW and your confident they will carry on running. Stopping will cause your team to turn and look around and could block the trail causing a two team tangle, instead, follow behind getting a nice tow into the finish, they are already two minutes faster than you so why not use their speed to help yours!