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The Joys of Dog Sledding & Dry Mushing

If you're yet to discover the joys of mushing (and you get hooked), you can anticipate this will change your entire lifestyle. Yes, I know, you're only going to have a couple of dogs for fun... So don't blame us if a few years down the track you've moved three times for more space, have twenty dogs in your yard and you're trying to figure out how to quit working so you can devote more time to training dogs! You have been warned...

The History of Dog Sledding

Dog sledding started out from the Inuits and other native cultures who lived in areas where it snowed during winter months and was a means of travel. 


The heritage of the sled dog is a long and proud one, dating back to some 4,000 years ago. The people of the North were dependent on these animals for protection, companionship, hunting, trapping and most of all – transportation. Sled dogs enabled explorers such as Byrd, Peary and Amundsen to travel the frozen wastelands of both Poles and have played a vital role in bringing civilisation to the snowbound areas of the world.
Explorer Roald Amundsen during one of his polar expeditions
In January 1925 a case of diphtheria was discovered in Nome, Alaska but the supply of antitoxin in that city was inadequate to stave off an epidemic. A relay of 22 native and mail teams and their drivers forged through the rough interior of Alaska and across the Bering Sea ice to bring the serum from Anchorage to the grateful townspeople. A statue of Balto, who led one of the relay teams, stands in New York’s Central Park to commemorate this historical Nome Serum Run event.

The Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race was started in the 1970’s by Joe Redington Senior and other keen team drivers. This event is being held during March of each year in the memory of this Serum Run and it covers 1,049 miles across some of the worst terrain in the world. Every year this race attracts more and more worldwide interest as does the sport of sled dog racing as a whole.
Iditarod Trail Race - Start Line (March 2016)

What is Sled Dog Racing?

In today’s world, sled dog racing is a recreational sport where either one dog or a team pulls a sled (snow), or a rig or scooter on dry land. The person controlling the team is known as the musher. Sled dog racing is done from snow to dry-land and is practiced in various climates all around the world.  Michelle Rose from the NSW Siberian Express Sled Dog Club explains "we do this to bond, to get rid of excess energy; especially for those breeds that have high energy levels and most importantly to have fun with our beloved four legged companions".

Sled Dog Racing started in Australia over 25 years ago and has become a very popular sport where dogs and their musher must work together making their way around the forest on dirt trails. 

Nicole Robinson & Storm - Scooter Class (Esk 2015)
For the 1 & 2 dog class mushers use scooters, for the 3, 4, 6 & 8 class mushers use 3-wheeled rigs. The dogs are highly trained, skilled athletes who learn specific commands in order to take left and right turns and make their way safely around the track.

Teams navigate the tracks following coloured markers: red on the right - turn right; red on the left - turn left; blue to confirm a correct turn and yellow for hazards.


At the markers and based upon track circumstances, mushers will call commands to their dogs such as: 
"gee" turn right;  "haw" turn left; "easy" to slow; "trail" to other mushers before passing or "on by" to make a safe pass.

The distance raced depends on the number of dogs in the team. For example, six dogs will race between 7 and 15 kilometres. The more the dogs in a team, the further and faster they can travel. A six-dog team is capable of speeds up to over 40 kilometers per hour! The speed a dog team can maintain is very dependent on the weather conditions, with it ideally being low temperature and low humidity. 


Teams depart from a start chute at timed intervals, typically 30 seconds apart and are individually timed for the distance using a time trial format or heats. These times are then compared to determine the winner of the race after all heats.
Two new disciplines were recently added: Bikejoring, a recreation sport where a harnessed dog is attached to a towline to pull and run ahead of a cyclist and CaniCross for the mushers that like to run!
Bikejoring - Photo Source: Active Dog

CaniCross (CaniX) is the sport of cross-country running with dogs. It started in Europe and is also very popular in UK. All you need is a dog, a canicross belt, a bungee line and a harness. 


CaniCross race - Photo source: Active Dog
The races are usually over a course of a few kilometres.

People run with one dog: the runner wears a waist belt, and the dog is connected to the runner by a bungee line, which reduces shock both to the runner and the dog when the dog pulls. Canicross is not only a great way for the runner to keep fit but also great exercise for dogs. 


It encourages people and their dogs to take part in outdoor activity and meet other like-minded individuals.


Which breeds can practice dog sledding?
Of course, when it comes to sled dog racing the breeds that immediately come to mind are the Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies and other arctic breeds. However, any medium to large breed dog who is both of age and in good physical condition can practice this sport and be competitive.

Is this sport is an all-year-round sport?
 


Unfortunately no, dog sledding is a winter sport as the cooler climate is needed to run the dogs, to avoid the dangers of overheating and dehydration.


Hydratation Advice
Michal Kozar from Active Dog recommends to"give your dog water about an hour or two before a race or training run and immediately after the run. Mushers often add special powders that speed recovery from muscle exhaustion. If your dog is well hydrated and you are only running for half an hour, you might not need to carry water however you never know what can happen so it is advisable to always take some water with you anyway. 

Common sense and awareness are key to avoiding overheating. In warm weather, choose trails that run in the shade of trees. Keep a close watch on your dog's tongue: you will notice that it gets longer and longer as your dog needs to cool off more. If your dog is overheated, his tongue will begin to turn blue. Avoid that! Stop, rest, cool and water the dog before he reaches that stage!"

Who can mush? 


Anyone can become a musher: men and women, from children to adults and all are welcome. Clubs offer classes for all skill levels and ages: Pee wee class (younger kids 1-8); Pee wee unassisted (8-10);  Junior (kids 10-16); Open class (from 16 years of age). There are also a Novice class for beginners, touring for non-competitive dogs, Veteran for dogs 8 years and older.
Ebony Powell & Snow - Junior Scooter Class (Esk 2015)
When can I start training my dog?

The recommended age to start training for most dog sports (including other activities like agility, flyball and canine disc) is between twelve and eighteen months as your dog's bones (no matter the breed) need to be fully developed. 

When is the best time to train my dog? 


As soon as the climate cools: the best season to get started before the official running season is autumn and the best times to practice are dawn and dusk when the weather is at its coolest. You must keep an eye on temperature and humidity and not run in anything over 15 degrees, especially if humidity is high. Please make sure you never run your dog on hot pavement.

Other Health & Safety Tips

Foot and Nail Care
Michal Kozar from Active Dog explains that "mushers prefer to run their dogs on dirt as pads can wear out from running on pavement. When running on pavement we would slow our dogs to a trot. Some scooterers put booties on their dogs when running on crushed rock and pavement but those aren't used on warm days.

If your dogs' nails are too long, this will change the alignment of the toe when the foot lands and pushes off. Dogs get traction from their pads, not from their nails. You know that nails are too long if they click on the floor when the dog walks."


What equipment is needed?

A scooter or rig, a bike helmet, snowboard helmet or skating helmet, a gang line (the gang line attaches from the scooter/rig to the dog's harness). 
Your dog will need a strong collar and if you are running a 2-dog team you will need a neckline.
IMAGE: DRY LAND SLED DOG RACING RELIES ON SCOOTERS AND RIGS WITH BIKE WHEELS INSTEAD OF SKIS. ANN JONES

Also required is a well-fitted harness for your dog, a pair of side cutters in case of emergency, safety glasses, a good pair of running shoes and for night races you'll need a good head lamp. If using a rig you'll also need a snub line and locking brake. 

Australia now holds four snow races each year and to take part, you will need a snow sled and a strong snow hook or two.

The 2016 ASSA National Championships


The 2016 ASSA National Championships will be hosted by the Northern Exposure Gig Racing Club (NEGRC) over the week-end of 1st – 3rd July 2016 at Tenterfield Endurance Riders Club campsite, Girard State Forest, Northern NSW. The race site is located 44km east of Tenterfield (heading towards Casino) on the Bruxner Highway; or only 8km west of the town of Drake (heading from Casino). The site combines a great atmosphere with direct access to the thrills of the forest racetrack.

The week-end will offer entrants a range of options including 1 to 8 dog dryland sledding classes, a canicross running event and bikejoring. There will be entrants of all capabilities from novice to professional and ages from peewee to adult. 
Competitors from all over Australia will converge for the right to be the annual Australian National Champion in each class.

The general public are more than welcome to come by as spectators over the weekend. The sport is really a sight to behold and is an entertaining spectator sport for all ages.

Ryan Cooling and 4-dog team at NEGRC Northern Challenge 2015 - Photo: Stuart Smyth

Where can I learn more about Sledding?

Every state in Australia (except NT) now has a sledding club. All clubs will hold "come and try days" and presentations during Dogs Day Out around the country in the lead up to the official racing season.


During these "welcome to sledding" days, clubs will let you use all their equipment, scooters, harnesses, ganglines so all you need to bring is yourself, your dog(s) and a bike helmet so you can come along and it's completely free to attend so why not give dog sledding a go this winter?

Some clubs like NSW Siberian Express also offer beginners boot camps once a month during the winter months. 
Club members are passionate about their sport and are here to answer any questions you may have, so please come and find them. They want you to enjoy yourself on the tracks and more importantly, have fun with your dogs!
Pee Wee Class - Photo Credit: NSW Siberian Express Sled Dog Club
For details of Clubs in your State, please visit assa.asn.au

Already hooked and want to learn more? We recommend reading "Dog Scooter - The Sport for Dogs Who Love to Run" by Daphne B. Lewis, a great introduction to the sport of dog scootering.

We'd like to thank the NSW Siberian Express Sled Dog Club and Northern Exposure Gig Racing Club for their contribution to this article.


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