There’s more to dog sled racing than just the famous Iditarod race in Alaska. Organized dogsled racing started in 1908.
There is winter sled dog racing, which is what we usually think of, where a driver stands on the runs of the sled while a team of dogs pulls the sled across the snow. But there is also fall dog sledding where a driver sits in a cart with a steering wheel and the dogs pull him on dirt instead of on the snow.
One of the more famous dogsled races is the American Dog Derby, held in Ashton, Idaho. The American Dog Derby started in 1917, had a period of time where interest in it had dissipated and then it has continued to grow again since 1993. Ashton was famous for its dog sled teams that carried people, mail, and supplies during winter. The American Dog Derby is the oldest surviving American dog sled race and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
The Yukon Quest is a 1,000 mile international sled dog race that started in 1984. It is run every February between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory. The fastest race took just 90 days, 23 hours, and 20 minutes (2009) to run the approximate 1,000 miles over frozen rivers and mountain rangers with temperatures as low as -60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sled dog races can be categorized into three types: sprint, mid-distance, and long-distance. Sprint races are only about four to twenty-five miles per day and are usually 2-3 days events. Mid-distance races are anywhere from 100-300 miles and can either be run in stages of up to 80 miles per day or the whole 100-300 miles continuously. Long-distance races are 300 to over 1,000 miles can be either continuous or staged where a difference course is run each day.
The dogs pulling the sled are harnessed individually and then snapped onto a tug line. Dogs are paired up and hooked together as a pair and then the pair is attached to a central line. Teams vary in number with the largest being 22 dogs hooked together.
Sled dogs aren’t always big Huskies like you would think. Some are smaller size breeds like retrievers. Although it looks hard, the dogs aren’t being forced to race, they absolutely love to run. They’re athletes! They get excited about the opportunity to run and they are happiest when they are running.
The dog leader is called the musher. Mushers are trained to actually act as the Alpha Dog of the pack and bond with the animals because the driver, together with the dogs, makes the team what it is. They eat together, sleep together, train together, and run together. It builds rapport and trust among the humans and the dogs.
When sled dogs are racing, they need up to 10,000 calories per day to keep them warm and give them enough energy to run. When sled dogs are off season, they only eat about 800 calories per day. Most of the dogs eat dry food, although some mushers will sometimes supplement dry food with ground fish or other meat to add protein to their diets.
Sled dogs start their training as puppies, first by getting used to being handled by humans and then by getting used to being around other dogs. Puppies start out with small harnesses pulling very small objects and then they are joined with a small team of older dogs and the younger dog learns from the more mature dogs.
ISDRA stands for the International Sled Dog Racing Association is an organization that posts articles, provides information about, hosts, and keeps a calendar of sled dog racing competitions.
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