They participate in exciting adventures — from racing in the Iditarod to transporting explorers in the Arctic — so sled dogs hold a special place in our hearts and imaginations. It isn’t every dog breed that can run for miles across the tundra, surviving bitter-cold conditions, blizzards, and the rigors of long-distance racing, while also working together as a team.
Today, sled dogs continue to race competitively, haul equipment, and work alongside humans in the jobs they were bred to perform.
What dog breeds make the best sled dogs?
When we think about sled dogs, purebred sled dog breeds, such as the Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, Chinook, and Samoyed, come to mind. While these breeds are certainly well suited for mushing, most modern sled dogs are actually Alaskan huskies, a type of dog with mixed genetic heritage that is well adapted to the rigors of the trail. Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies make up a large percentage of the Alaskan husky’s genetics, but breeders also add Border Collie, hound breeds, pointer breeds, and even Greyhounds to their bloodlines to create hardy, fast, and enthusiastic sled dogs.
These dogs might look scrappy, but generations of breeding for racing and hauling have created a dog with legendary endurance, speed, and hardiness. Alaskan huskies come in a wide variety of sizes. Some are as small as 35 pounds, while others mature at 70 pounds or more. Most racing huskies average between 40 and 60 pounds, and mushers select dogs that best suit their racing needs.
What makes a good sled dog?
A musher looks for several qualities in a sled dog, according to National Geographic. One of the most important qualities possessed by successful sled dogs is good feet. Long-distance races are tough on a dog’s body, and the feet bear the brunt of the work. Dogs with tender feet may not do well on the trail, even with booties, and professionals point out that booties slow dogs down in shorter races.
A healthy appetite and a thick coat are also important. Picky eaters might not take in the necessary calories on the trail, which reduces their performance ability. A healthy coat with a thick undercoat helps keep them warm and protected from the elements and preserves those essential calories.
Physical fitness can be trained, but a desire to run and work in harness is equally crucial for a team’s success. Mushers look for dogs that love to work in a team with other dogs and with the musher. Antisocial or aggressive dogs have no place in harness, and many sled dogs interact with fans and tourists year-round. These dogs need to be friendly toward people and confident in new situations.
Sled dogs might love to work, but perhaps their most important job today is education. “These dogs, even though they don’t speak, manage to communicate to our visitors about the importance of wild spaces,” says Jennifer Raffaeli, the manager of Denali National Park kennels. Our modern lifestyles separate many of us from the outdoors, and sled dogs are a way for us to reconnect with the natural world.
How can I get involved with sled dogs?
If you want to get more involved with sled dogs or sled dog breeds, look for a local sled dog racing club in your area. You might be surprised to find out just how many are out there, even in warmer climates. You can also get in touch with racing kennels and breed enthusiasts for more information about sled dogs and racing for beginners.