In the early days of the Alaskan goldrush, dog teams were a crucial element to settling the frozen frontier. The idea of using dogs to pull a sled was borrowed by Alaskan settlers and gold miners from the Eskimos who had been mushing (driving) dog teams for thousands of years. Today, modern transportation and communication methods have replaced the dogs, but the sport of dog sledding lives on in professional and amateur sporting events.
Although most sled dogs are owned by recreational mushers, there are many sled pulling competitions throughout the United States every year. Some, such as the Dog Chow/Keystone Classic in Colorado, have a competition where seven-dog teams must pull sleds for 9.4 miles over frozen lakes and snow-packed trails. Other Keystone Classic events include a five-dog team race that covers 7.4 miles and a three-dog team race that covers 3.1 miles. On the second day, the races are repeated and the results of both days are combined to name the winning teams. There is also a weight-pulling contest, where a dog will try to pull a 350 pound sled for twenty feet in less than 9 seconds. Weights are added to the sled until a winning dog can be determined.
Other competitions include sprints that cover up to 30 miles, mid-distance races that cover about 300 miles and long-distance races that can cover more than 1,000 miles. The grand daddy of all North American sled races is the 1,100 mile Iditarod Trail Leonhard Seppala Memorial Race in Alaska. The race was organized to honor the musher who used his dog team to carry diphtheria serum to Nome, ending the epidemic of 1925.
The Iditarod begins in early March and takes from 11 to 16 days for all the teams to complete the race. There are regular veterinary checks along the course and a musher must leave any dogs that are sick, injured or too tired to continue. The mushers carry few supplies on their sleds -- a sleeping bag, an ax, snowshoes, dog booties, a headlamp for night running, and a race promotion packet to commemorate the days when mail delivery by dog sled was the chief form of communication. Dog and human food is flown in to rest stops by bush pilots. Race regulations require at least two mandatory layovers, one for eight hours, the other for 24 hours.
Once the dogs are on the trail, they settle into a steady trot. The lead dog is chosen for his leadership ability among the other dogs, his willingness and intelligence. The musher stands on the end of the sled and commands the lead dog to move forward and to turn. The lead dog turns right when the musher calls out "gee" and left when the musher says "haw". The rest of the dogs follow the leader in pairs, with some teams consisting of up to 20 dogs.
The swing dogs are directly behind the lead dog. These dogs are responsible for turning the other dogs, and hence the sled, in the direction of the lead dog. The team dogs are positioned between the swing dogs and the wheel dogs. These dogs are responsible for keeping the entire team moving at a steady pace. The wheel dogs are closest to the sled. These dogs are usually the heaviest, most powerfully built dogs on the team since they must pull the most weight.
For many years, dog sledding was considered to be too dangerous of a sport for women. That idea ended in 1985 when Libby Riddles defied a blizzard and took her team 229 miles from Nome to the finish line. The following year Susan Butcher won the race and continued to do so for a total of four straight years. The media attention drawn to Riddles and Butcher also drew the attention of animal rights activists who condemned the race as being inhumane. The negative publicity caused race sponsors and sports reporters to drop their support.
Despite the fact that the Iditarod race organization had built-in safety rules to protect the dogs, it added a Humane Society representative to their committee in an effort to convince the public of their concern and regard for the welfare of the dogs. The HSUS representative tightened the rules even further. Unfortunately for the race, several dogs died in 1993 and 1994 -- some as the result of a virus and others from eating airdropped food that had become contaminated during storage. Susan Butcher lost part of her dog team, ABC's Wide World of Sports dropped coverage and the remaining sponsors declined to renew contracts.
Supporters of dog sled racing defend the Iditarod race as being the ultimate team challenge for a human and their dog. Mushers and their dogs have an intimate relationship that has been described by many as being magical. The dogs must be in perfect condition, coats must be good and thick, muscles and bones made strong through specialized training programs. Not all sled dogs are of the husky variety -- a few cross breeds are seen in teams. The huskies, however, have the advantage of thousands of years of selective breeding that has made them physically powerful, highly intuitive and eager to mush.
Competitive sled dogs are trained every other day. Puppies are run in a harness for 2 to 10 miles, adolescents run 10 to 90 miles, and adult team dogs run 10 to 90 miles. Because of their high metabolisms and activity level, sled dogs must be fed four to five times a day. Their meals must be very high-quality and high-fat in order to supply the dog with the needed calories and nutrients. Sled dogs also need to drink a lot of liquids, since their high activity level can cause dehydration.
As with any sport, there are always some bad examples that will have a negative effect on the good. Despite the fact that dog sled racing has received negative publicity, the races will continue. Dog mushers and their dogs race for the joy and excitement of the trail -- not for the media recognition. The unique bond between mushers and their sled dogs has existed for thousands of years and continues today.