Homestead Dog Sledding

In Alaska and parts of the continental U.S., dog sledding might just be the best mode of transportation for snowbound ruralites.

| November/December 1979

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    The two most popular sledges for dog sledding are the standard lightweight model on the left and the eight-foot freighter on the right. The hefty freighter can haul 500 Pounds of cargo and a musher, but requires the pulling power of at least five strong sled dogs. Both snowriders are equipped with front bumpers (called "brush bows" by sled drivers).
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    A properly trained team is essential for effective dog sledding. Blanchie—Alfred Agree's lead dog—keeps her towline stretched out tight even when shes "on hold" waiting for the musher's next command.
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    The fishback sled harness is the best all-around dog "strapper" for both freighting and distance running.
  • 060-dog-sledding-04-morning-run2.jpg
    A musher's view of a run in South Central Alaska's Talkeetna Range on a beautiful cloudless morning. Alfred's sled team can pull him as far as 60 miles in a single day!

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  • 060-dog-sledding-01-team-waiting2.jpg
  • 060-dog-sledding-03-harnessed dog.jpg
  • 060-dog-sledding-04-morning-run2.jpg

Here in Alaska, folks who need to travel in winter often end up "going to the dogs"... and loving it. After all, canine-powered snow-going is an enjoyable mode of transportation (dogs are a lot friendlier than are jeeps or snowmobiles), and dog sledding can be downright practical, besides. I often make 60 miles a day with my five-member team, for example, and also use dog sleds to haul lumber, groceries, firewood, and more out to my rural homestead.

If you live in an area that's snowbound during part of the year, you can take advantage of dog power, too. You'll have to secure good gear and beasts, and take the time to properly train your pullers, but you'll find that the rewards of sleddin' will be well worth the effort. 

Choosing Your Work Dogs

Most people think that all sled dogs have to to be either Alaskan malamutes or Siberian huskies, but the fact is that Labrador retrivers, setters, Airedales, spaniels, and most other non-aggressive breeds make excellent pullers and are actually be suited to work in the milder climates of the lower 48 states than are their northern brothers. As a matter of fact, just about any Canis familiaris can be trained to pull and to pull well. I even know a fellow whose efficient running team consists of standard poodles!

Regardless of its breed, however, a good sled dog must have an obedient temperament. Many fine teams have been formed around a family pet whose devotion to its owner sets a fine example for the others. Another character trait to look for in a potential puller is an ability to get along with its peers. Infighting simply cannot be tolerated in a dog sled team.

When you set out to form a group of "tundra trekkers," you'll obviously have to decide how many dogs to get. I've seen impressive teams consisting of as many as 20 canines, but I'd suggest you start out with just three. Many novice mushers (we Alaskans call such amateurs cheechakos) quickly find that trying to handle and train more than three dogs can be a most confusing and at times frustrating task.

After you gain some experience, you'll likely want to add one or two more tail waggers to the team. Just be sure that any untrained beasts undergo a five-day "getting acquainted" period with the other dogs before you train them for harness. And remember: Never tolerate the slightest show of aggressive behavior from those new critters or, for that matter, from any of your dogs. You will pay dearly if you let them get away with such methods of "showing their enthusiasm": As we say in Alaska, vet bills are the medals of the cheechako!


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