Sled dog training should begin early in the life of a canine athlete. A strong foundation of training and socialization will foster a dog's ability to pull a sled and create a confident adult sled dog.
Sled Dog Training Basics
Early Puppy Training
From the age of about eight weeks, prospective sled dog puppies should be handled regularly on all parts of their bodies. Place a collar around their necks and allow them to toddle about dragging a lightweight leash for a few minutes every day.
Introducing the Harness
By the age of ten weeks, begin putting them in a harness for a brief time daily and begin regular obedience training. Once your puppy is comfortable wearing his harness, put it on him at mealtime. You can tether him to a solid object and place his food bowl on the ground in a way that will cause him to strain against the tether. This will help him to become comfortable with the harness being tight across his chest and help him learn the "line-out" command.
Getting a Puppy Used to Pulling Something
When the puppy is about four months old, he is ready to pull a lightweight object that does not bounce around as it goes over the ground. Many mushers use a track from a snowmobile for this purpose. Some puppies take off with glee during this exercise; others may take some coaxing and patience. It is best to move slowly during this part of training. If the puppy is frightened while pulling he may be ruined as a sled dog prospect. Do this pulling exercise until the pup seems comfortable pulling something behind him and keeping the line taut.
Common Mushing Commands
Once the pup is listening to his basic obedience cues reliably, it is time to introduce the commands he will need to know as a working sled dog. The basic commands are:
- Whoa: Perhaps the most important word in the mushing language. It means stop.
- Hike: This is the command to move forward
- Gee: Make a right turn.
- Haw: Make a left turn.
- On by: This is to let the team know that they are not to chase the squirrel into the woods, but to keep going forward.
- Leave it: Similar to on by, this command means to stop investigating an item, animal or other temptation.
- Easy: This word is used to signal the team to slow down. This command is given as the musher lightly applies the brakes.
As for the command "Mush", the people involved with dog mushing believe that the only person who uses this command is Yukon Cornelius in the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer movie.
Creating a Sled Dog Team
All sled dog teams must have a lead dog. Some lead dogs are born, and some are made. Training a lead dog requires a good deal of time and training. Some people use the mother of the puppies as a lead dog. Others may acquire a cast off leader from another musher. The other option is to take a confident puppy and train him to become a lead dog.
Once a solid lead dog is established, begin running her with "green broke" dogs. Start the team small, and add dogs gradually. Daily training and patience will yield success. Some mushers train for distance and endurance, others train for pulling weight. Both methods have been successful.
More Training Information
Training a dog to pull a sled is not as simple as training for basic obedience. For more information about this dog sport, continue researching. Consider participation in a sled dog training program with an experienced musher. Some good resources for dog sledding are:
- Dogsled.com: A wealth of information can be found on this website. There are many video demonstrations to help the new musher get started.
- Working Dog Web: This site has an extensive listing of information from some of the top competitors in dog sledding.
- Dog Driver: The Guide for the Serious Musher: This book is written by Miki and Julie Collins. It is 392 pages of useful information for the beginner or professional musher. It's a great book for anyone interested in this sport.