When it comes to dogs pulling sleds, people automatically picture Huskies, but there are several other breeds which can actually be taught to pull a sled. Amongst these are the Alaskan Malamute, which are much larger than Huskies.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that these dogs have been bred to pull the heavy load of a sled, and their thick fur protects them from the cold snow temperatures.
If you’re looking to train a dog to pull a sled, one of the key things to remember is that you need to start the training as early as you can, as younger pups can learn a lot more quickly as their brains are still soaking up tons of information.
You’re probably also familiar with the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Although that’s not always true, it can be harder for an older dog to learn how to pull, and they might not be strong enough.
Also, teaching a puppy aged dog how to sled can be a strong foundation for training and socialization.
With that being said, a lot of dogs have the innate drive to pull – which you’ve probably witnessed if you’ve ever taken a dog for a walk on a leash. So, if you are looking to teach your dog how to pull a sled, be prepared for some hard work and discipline!
In this guide we’re going to help give you all the information you need to help train your dog to adopt a harness and start pulling away.
What Kind Of Dogs Can Pull A Sled?
As we mentioned previously, the most common sledding breed is Huskies, but in particular it is the Alaskan Husky that takes center stage. Alaskan Huskies are mixed-breed dogs that have been bred for racing and hauling.
There are several over hardy and cold-weather breeds that are traditional sled dog choices. These include:
- Siberian Huskies
- Canadian Eskimo Dogs
It’s worth noting that your dog doesn’t have to be a traditional sledding breed in order to mush. Most notably, a dog needs to be athletic and energetic in order to learn. You also need to make sure that your dog is – at the very least – medium sized, and weighs 30 pounds or more.
Dog Sledding Equipment
Before you get started, you need to make sure you have the right equipment. For a complete sledding rig you will need:
- A harness
- A tow line (a rope which connects your dog’s harness to what they are towing)
- A sled or cart
- A waist belt (this is optional if you plan on being the “sled” yourself
You need to make sure that the harness fits your dog, as it is important for their comfort and safety. Measure your dog’s neck, chest, girth, and length to get the right measurements. Take your time picking out the correct model, and ask to work with an experienced fitter if you can.
From around eight weeks old, prospective sled dog puppies can begin their sledding training, but you should only start with the basics. Some basic training techniques you can use include:
Handling them regularly on all parts of their body
Placing a collar around their neck and allowing them to drag around a lightweight leash for a couple of minutes per day
When training a sled dog, always use a buckle collar, as other training collars made from metal can be dangerous to a racing dog if they become caught.
Before you do start training your dog to pull a sled, you also need to get a vet’s approval. A vet will need to verify whether their bones or body is mature enough to start. Your pup will also need to have mastered some basic commands, as this will make them easier to control.
You will also need to be prepared to set aside a lot of time and be patient when training your dog to pull a sled. Stick to positive reinforcements, so make sure you have some treats on hand too.
Introducing The Harness
At around ten weeks, you should be able to introduce a sled dog to their harness and begin sledding obedience training.
Step 1: Start With A Leash
For this method, you’ll want to start by taking your puppy for a walk on a leash, and use some basic mushing commands to get them used to behaving correctly. Don’t forget to praise them when they have followed the command correctly – use treats so they know they’re doing a good job.
Step 2: Add The Harness
Make sure you put your dog in their harness correctly, and that it fits properly. A poorly fitted harness can cause injury. Get them used to wearing a harness by putting it on them for a couple of minutes per day.
Once they’re comfortable wearing it, you can put the harness on at mealtimes. Try tethering them to a solid object and placing their food bowl somewhere where they have to strain against the tether. This will help your dog become more comfortable with the harness being tight against their chest.
Getting Used To Pulling Something
At around four months old, your dog should be ready to pull a lightweight object which won’t bounce around on the ground. Some people like to use a track from a snowmobile. Other examples include lightweight logs, or milk jugs filled with water.
Find somewhere appropriate to train. It’s important you use a surface that will keep their feet and joints in good condition. We recommend training on grass, dirt, or even gravel.
Never train on concrete, pavement, or roadways as this can add unnecessary pressure to your dog’s joints.
Step 1: Attach A Drag Line
A drag line is a long leash which is usually about 15 to 20 feet in length. The line will be hooked to harness and tied to a stake.
Once the line is attached, encourage your dog to run whilst pulling the item attached to the line. Once they begin to understand the task, add in a cue word.
“Hike” is a commonly used cue word for go, but you can use whatever word you like – but you must be consistent with your word use.
Step 2: Practice
You don’t want to over-exercise your dog, so practice the dragging in small sections of about 50 feet. Use a stop word and put your foot on the drag line when you want your dog to stop. A lot of mushers will use the word “whoa” to get their dog to stop running.
When it comes to getting your dog to move forward, some will run off straight away, whereas others need some encouragement.
If your dog doesn’t naturally pull or move away from you when you use your “hike” cue word, try encouraging them to move forward using something like a toy. Similarly, using an excited tone of voice will encourage them to move.
You may also need to stand in front of your dog until they know what you want – it’s all part of the training.
Step 3: Repeat
Keep up with this pulling exercise until your dog seems comfortable pulling something behind them and keeping the line taught. Once they’re running with the weight behind them, you want them to start running ahead of you.
Dog Sled Commands
Before you begin the next steps of the training, you need to know which verbal cues you’re going to use for each action/behavior. Common commands used by mushers include:
- Hike: Start moving
- Gee: Right turn
- Haw: Left turn
- Come gee / come haw: make a 180 degree turn right (gee) or left (haw)
- Easy: Slow down
- Whoa: Stop moving
- On by: keep moving and don’t pay attention to distractions/leave it
- Line out: a command for the lead dog only, which tells them to move in a direction away from the sled – they will be in the “ready position” to move forward
Mushing Cue Training
Once your dog has mastered the basic harness training, you can begin training the behaviors they will need to be a working sled dog.
As noted, the most common cue words for turns are “gee” for right and “haw” for left.
Start training in a low-distraction area. You want to lure your dog around your body with a piece of food in both directions. Reward them for following your hand by giving them the treat each time.
Do the same luring motion with your hand, but don’t hold any food. Continue to reward them with a treat if they get it right.
Add the cue word as soon as your dog learns to follow your hand without treats. Reward them for getting it right.
When your dog is doing well, take them to a more distracting area. Gradually build up their reliability to follow the cue word.
Attach the harness with the pulling object or sled to your dog, and slowly work on them following the cue word.
On By / Keep Moving
Dogs can become easily distracted by their surroundings, so sledding dogs need to learn how to ignore distractions. As noted, the common cue word is “on by”, which is a similar command to “leave it.”
Present your dog with a tasty treat in your hand, and close your fist. Have more treats ready in your other hand behind your back.
Your dog will try and bump into your fist to get the treat, so when they move away from your hand, praise them and give them a treat from the other hand behind your back.
Once your dog gets used to the game, add in the cue word “on by” or “leave it”, and repeat the process.
Slowly work up to putting the food on the ground, and asking your dog to leave it.
Once your dog has begun to do this reliably, take them somewhere where there are more distractions. Build up the cue by using other objects they might want, such as toys.
Add in the harness and sled and continue to practice this behavior.
Before your dog comes to a full stop, you need to teach them to slow down. For this, most mushers use “easy” as the cue word.
Note: This cue is best taught when the dog is pulling a light object, and when there is another handler to assist.
Get another handler to stand out in front of the dog. As they run to them, pull back gently on the drag line. As the dog slows down, the other handler can walk to them to reward them with a treat.
Once the dog learns that tension on the line means they have to slow down, add in the cue word.
Repeat this practice using the cue word. Gradually vary when the other handler gives the dog a treat for slowing down, as you want to slowly phase it out.
Once your dog has mastered all the commands, you can start adding weight to the sled and increasing the distance they pull it for.
When your dog is ready to start running with a team, start by introducing only two other dogs at first, as too many can overwhelm your dog and cause fights to break out.
These are just some basic tips to help get your dog started on their sledding journey. If you’re looking to make your dog a professional sledder, you may want to seek out help from an experienced handler.