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How Do I Train My Dog to Be a Sled Dog?

by Steffi Trott, 6/01/21

(click on photo for larger view)

Diggler Dog Scooters

When it’s cold and snowy, there’s nothing more fun than enjoying the outdoors with your best four-legged friend. Not all dogs have to just go on walks in the snow though - a large variety of pups can actually be taught to become a sled dog and pull you on a sleigh or skis. The training process is not that hard once you know what you need to do. Let’s look at how you can train your pup to become a sled dog!

Have the right dog for the job
You do not have to own a type of Husky to have your dog be a sled dog - but he does need to fulfill certain requirements. Your dog should be a healthy adult. Young puppies or elderly senior dogs should not be encouraged to pull their owners on a sled - they could get hurt or experience discomfort after the workout.

Your dog should also not be too little. Any pup under 35 lbs will not be strong enough to pull his adult owner. If you own a very slim dog (such as a Whippet), he should be even a bit heavier (around the 45 lbs range).
As long as he is big enough, strong and healthy - you can get started. Diggler Scooters

Choosing the right harness
It is crucial to pick a sled dog harness for training your dog to pull. You should never ask your dog to pull you on a flat collar or a regular harness. The weight distribution on these makes pulling very uncomfortable for your dog.

Special sled dog harnesses (you can find them online) will let the dog directly transfer the power of his shoulders and hips into pulling. They allow him to stay low to the ground, and do not put an uncomfortable strain on his neck or back.

Start slow
You can start the sled dog training by putting the harness on your dog and taking him for a regular walk in it. This serves the purpose of getting him used to the new equipment and showing him that it is comfortable and fun. Even if you are very tempted, do not let your dog pull you on that harness during your very first training session.
If he is happy going on a walk with his new harness, ask a helper to assist you in the next step. Now we will actually have your dog pull you a little bit:

First time pulling
Give a helper a handful of your dog’s favorite treats. Put the harness on your dog, attach a line to it and hold that line yourself. Now have the helper entice your dog with the treats and call him. As your dog wants to walk towards the helper to get his food, you pull back just a little bit on the line attached to his harness. It is important to make this a gentle and soft pull - do not yank on the line. We want the dog to learn that even if there is slight resistance, he can still reach his goal by pulling against the restraint.

If this worked well, repeat it a couple times. You can have the helper move further and further away from your dog, so that your dog has to pull you for an increasing distance. Keep the session short overall - just 5 or 10 minutes are plenty to start with.

Advancing pulling practice
Aim to practice with a helper like this about 2-3 times a week, with increasing distances and increasing resistance. You can now also switch to being on a sled yourself with the dog attached to it. Start to introduce a command such as “Go!” to the moment at which the dog starts pulling you.

By having the helper lure the dog to the left and to the right, you can also introduce directionals for your dog. Most professional sled dog handlers use “gee” for right turn and “haw” for left turn - but of course, you can use “left” and “right” as well.

Do not practice this every single day. Your dog has to build up the right muscles for the job, and he needs rest days to not get sore. Alternating a training day and a rest day is the safest (and fastest) way to build up your sled dog’s strength and endurance.

Diggler Scooters

Starting real sled dog outings
If you are happy with your dog’s performance in training and he responds well to the “Go!” command, you can now try out his new skill on an actual trail! Do not choose a long or difficult path for his first time. Instead, stick to a short, wide and flat path. You can always make it longer and more complicated later on. Put the harness on your pup, attach him to the sleigh and give him his go command - and enjoy the ride!

It is important to always quit while your dog still wants to go on. If you have your dog run until he is exhausted, he is less likely to want to go again the next time. You always have to keep your dog “wanting more”. By ending the ride while your pup is still rearing to go, you increase his desire to pull you even faster and further the next time.

Increasing difficulty and distance
As your pup’s endurance and confidence grows, you can make the trips longer and more difficult. Use trails that have turns and intersections so that you can practice your directionals. Once dogs are running regularly in front of the sled, their fitness increases very quickly and they can easily build up to 10 miles runs.

Caloric needs of a sled dog
Keep in mind that you are drastically increasing the amount of exercise your dog gets, and with this his caloric needs grow. The more often you take your dog out on a trail and the further he pulls you, the more food he will need. Some owners find they have to double or even triple their dog’s meals once they become serious about the sled dog training. Make sure to keep your dog well-nourished and provide the best nutrition for your canine athlete.

The bottom line
Sled dog training is not too difficult if you follow the right approach. Even though it’s usually recommended to start training your puppy after 6 months, do not start this process as they are not physically fit for the task. Sames goes for senior dogs. Only medium to large adult dogs should be trained as sled dogs.

Using the proper harness is very important. Invest into a well-fitting sled dog harness, this will let your dog pull comfortably and over long distances.

The training starts by having a helper lure the dog with a cookie as you are pulling back on his harness. Later on, directionals are added and finally the skill is transferred to the trails. Plan for the sled dog training to take about 3-6 weeks until you can have your dog pull you for a couple miles.

As your dog is building up endurance and pulling you over increasing distances, ensure that he receives large, nutritious meals to keep up with the energy needs of his body.

SpiritDog Training


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