What is Dog Sledding and How to Do It

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Dog sledding is the stuff of legends — and indeed, of many movies and books. Balto is a household name for his role in transporting medicine to the village of Nome. Disney movies like Eight Below have further popularized (and romanticized) dog sledding teams. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about dog sledding — or even wondered if your dog has what it takes to participate — we’ve got you covered.

Here’s your ultimate guide to dog sledding. What is the fascinating history of this long standing type of transportation? How has it become a modern sport? And might it be a good fit for you and your four-legged companion to try out together?

What is dog sledding?

At its simplest, dog sledding is just what it sounds like. A dog (or sled dog team) pulls a sled that can either contain a person, supplies, or both.

Someone who travels by dog sled can be called a musher, and dog sledding itself is often known as “mushing” in its various forms (including when dogs pull things other than sleds, like bikes or scooters).

Sled dog teams are connected by a gang line that runs between them to distribute their pulling effort and help keep everyone in line. It’s also possible to mush with a smaller group of dogs (and therefore a smaller sled, too, often a simple kicksled). Some dog owners enjoy dog sledding with just one or two personal dogs at a time.

The history of dog sledding

There was a time where Arctic communities relied on sled dogs as their main mode of transportation. Arctic weather conditions made life difficult — northern breeds like the ancestors of today's Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes could be used to haul supplies in areas that were inaccessible by other methods.

  • The oldest archeological evidence of dog sledding has been dated around 1,000 AD.
  • Dog sledding rapidly spread throughout northern America after it was first developed by the native people of what’s now known as Canada.
  • Initially, most dog sleds were just a single dog pulling a small amount of cargo.
  • Over time communities became interested in the increased power of having a multiple-dog sled team, which developed into the dog sledding setups most of us think of today. (Ironically, most modern recreational dog sledding involves only one or two dogs pulling something small like a kicksled, heading back to the activity's initial roots.)
  • European settlers quickly incorporated sled dogs into their lives after colonists recognized how valuable they could be.
  • The first formal dog sled race occured in the lates 1800s. In 1908, the famous route to Nome, Alaska was first raced in a formal sled dog competition. This is the parth Balto the Siberian Husky earned his fame. (You can find his memorial statue in New York's Central Park, thanks to the Central Park Conservancy.)
  • The 1,150-mile Iditarod Sled Dog Race — the most well-known sled dog race in the United States — started to be developed around 1967. In the following years more sled dog races took place around the world.
  • As semi truck trailers, airplanes, and other modes of transportation have become more common, sled dogs are used less often to haul important supplies. They’re still an integral part of many cultures, though! They can be visited at Denali National Park in Alaska as well as other popular destinations. Some park systems and governments use them as backcountry rangers or to patrol park boundaries

Sled dog breeds

Alaskan Malamute

Alaskan Malamutes were originally developed by the indigenous Mahlemiut people. They’re large, capable sled dogs who can pull heavy weight over long distances. They’re particularly suited for endurance efforts.

Siberian Husky

Siberian Huskies were originally developed by the Chukchi people in Siberia. They’re similar in overall appearance to Malamutes but are smaller and faster. While they’re often used for dog sledding, huskies have even been recorded herding reindeer!

Alaskan Husky

The Alaskan Husky is a medium-sized working sled dog specifically developed for the purpose of pulling loads through the snow. They aren’t recognized as a purebred breed by the American Kennel Club — Alaskan Huskies are usually made up of a mix of Siberian Husky, German Shorthair Pointer, and other genes.

What modern dog sledding looks like today

Some rural communities still use sled dogs for transportation today. This is most common in northern states and countries like Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Greenland. Other modern dog sledding pursuits include recreational and competitive events — these have become popular for a range of factors like working breed fulfillment, racing success, and the irresistible adventure factor of moving at high-speeds through varying trail conditions.

Recreational dog sledding

Recreational dog sledding can take many forms. The most important thing is to let your dog take the lead and make sure you’re both having fun! When approached with the right mindset and some careful physical consideration, dog sledding can be a great way to encourage your pet’s natural athleticism and fulfill their canine instincts. (You can read more about exercise and fulfillment in this article.)

Dog sledding races and competitions

Professional dog sledding can be controversial in the animal welfare world, especially the largest organized races like the Iditarod. (Race conditions can be particularly brutal with temperatures dropping to extreme levels and dogs being pushed to their physical limits.)

There are many different opinions out there on how the animals are treated and whether or not covering so much ground is safe — but the general consensus is that smaller scale, casual races can be a great way for dog-owner teams to have some fun and socialize with fellow sport enthusiasts!

Two huskies pull their owner on skis in a form of dog sledding

What kind of dogs enjoy dog sledding?

While dog-owner teams of all shapes and sizes can come to enjoy this adventurous sport, some find it more natural than others.

Almost any dog breed can try out dog sledding

In general, medium to large dogs have the greatest success pulling their owners on a sled. While smaller canines can do related sports like skijoring (as long as their humans are willing to provide more additional power) it’s not recommended to ask them to actually pull any sort of inanimate apparatus like a kick sled or larger cart.

Dogs in the working and sporting groups tend to enjoy running and pulling more than others (northern breeds and pointers are often particularly adept and have a natural spirit for the sport). That said, each dog is an individual. It’s less about what breed your dog is and more about whether they’d really enjoy the activity!

Your dog’s bones should be fully developed before they pull you

If you have a puppy, you should wait until their bones and joints are fully grown before encouraging them to do any intense exercise. This can mitigate the risk of hip dysplasia and other injuries down the line!

“Full grown” can vary a bit from breed to breed (your veterinarian will be able to help you make the right decision). In general, it’s safe to give your dog more rigorous exercise around 1.5-2 years of age.

Make sure your dog is in good physical shape

To successfully pull a dog sled, your dog needs to be agile enough to run through snow and strong enough to pull both you and a cart or sled while they do it. Here’s how to see if they’re up to the task:

  • Pay attention to your dog’s gait. Never ask them to pull weight if you see any signs of pain or unevenness.
  • Receive regular vet care. We recommend taking your best friend in for a physical exam before starting any dog sledding work — let your vet team know your plans and follow their recommendations to make sure you’re ready!
  • Encourage muscle growth. Consider increasing your dog’s calorie intake on particularly active days.

How can you get started sledding with your dog?

Dog sledding might sound a little overwhelming at first. With the right equipment and preparation, though, you and your dog can be running through the snow together in no time!

Get some basic dog sledding gear

Let’s take a look at the gear required to start sledding with your dog. It’s particularly important to invest in a harness specifically designed for pulling. An everyday walking harness will not be safe for your dog to pull into for long periods of time!

Dog sledding equipment for you

  • Warm, weather appropriate clothes. It’s best to dress in layers.
  • A dog sled. There are different types of sleds to choose from. A custom-designed sled isn't necessary for recreational pursuits — you’ll just want it to be lightweight but strong.

Dog sledding equipment for your dog

  • Dog sledding harness. It’s important to get a harness specifically designed for pulling! Wearing the wrong equipment can increase your dog’s chance of muscle soreness, injury, and even long-term gait problems. Some pet stores sell pulling harnesses in person, and many online manufacturers specialize in those for sports like dog sledding and skijoring. Your dog’s harness shouldn’t be too tight around their neck — you’ll have to get their head through the opening without any struggle — but also shouldn’t be so big that it moves around a lot when he runs.
  • A tow lie. This connects your dog’s harness to the sled itself. It can vary in length, but is often around six to ten feet. Make sure it’s very secure.

Find a safe place to practice your dog sledding skills

Most flat terrain is a good option for dog sledding, provided there’s enough snow cover — but many cross-country skiing and designated winter recreation spots (both official tracks and nature loops) either don’t allow dogs entirely or restrict them to certain times. Chances are you’ll have the best luck with multi-use, dog-friendly trails or fields.

Can’t find any public parks well-suited to your new hobby? You might be able to find a Sniffspot that’s perfect for dog sledding practice. Some of our hosts provide private areas that are plenty big enough to give it a go.

You can search for Sniffspots near you on our listings page!

Make sure your dog is comfortable with your dog sledding equipment

New things can be a little uncomfortable — especially to our dogs. We can’t explain to them what dog sledding is all about verbally, so it’s only fair we take things slow to make sure they’re ready to hit the snow with us!

Slowly acclimate your dog to his or her dog sledding harness

If your dog is already comfortable wearing a harness, they might adjust to a dog sledding setup more quickly — but it’s still important not to push them too far. Here’s what to do:

  • Never force the harness on your dog. Instead, associate its presence with good things (like a favorite treat or toy).
  • Once your dog is comfortable around the harness, you can lure their head through the opening. Reward them often and keep sessions short!
  • Slowly work your way up to putting the harness on and adjusting the straps.
  • When the harness is on, make things fun! Playing games like tug and fetch can be a great way to help them feel comfortable moving in their new gear.
  • If your dog seems unsure at any point, take a few steps back. Consider reaching out to a professional force free trainer for guidance!

Expose your dog to your other dog sledding equipment, too

Here are some tips to see how your dog feels about your sled and other equipment:

  • Set your gear on the floor and let your dog investigate at his or her own pace. Don’t move on to the next step until they seem completely unbothered by the equipment’s presence!
  • See if your dog is comfortable walking next to you while you drag or push the sled.
  • Try the same walking exercise with them in their harness.
  • If possible, have your dog off leash (a Sniffspot would be a great place for this!) or on a long line the first time you move the sled around them. This way they can easily make space if they feel uncomfortable.
  • When in doubt, take things slow!

Start teaching your dog some sledding skills

Dog sledding is a blast — but it can also be dangerous. The sport’s high-speed nature demands clear communication between you and your dog!

Your best friend should know how to:

  • Pull into their harness. We spend a lot of time working on our dogs’ loose-leash skills, but we want them to lean into the resistance while pulling a dog sled.
  • Follow basic directional cues while moving. At minimum, your dog should be able to start, stop, and turn left and right on cue before you embark on any intense runs. Racing mushers often say “hike” to start running, “whoa” to stop, “on by” to run past another dog sledding team or distraction, “gee” for right, and “haw” for left — but if you’re not planning to compete, you can use any words you want (as long as you’re clear with your dog about what they mean).
  • Wait while you set up your dog sledding gear. No one wants a tangled line because your pup can’t sit still while you get everything in order… or worse, a dog who takes off before you’re ready to go yourself. A strong stay cue will keep everyone safe!
  • Stay focused even around other dogs or prey animals. Impulse control is a valuable skill for our pets to have in daily life (like when we need them to leave all those tantalizing chicken bones on our city sidewalks) and it’s absolutely vital for successful dog sledding! Your puller needs to be able to run by interesting smells, squirrels, and more without veering off course. This can be especially dangerous when you’re in the sled and unable to offer much control of your own (unlike some other pulling sports like skijoring or canicross where you retain some agency of your own movements).

A humane trainer can help you train dog sledding behaviors

Even if they don’t specialize in dog sledding, a good force free trainer will be able to help you teach your dog some key sport skills. A private lesson program might be the perfect fit — each session will be tailored to your individual dog and goals.

If you don’t have access to an in-person trainer in your area, you might consider ways to get involved virtually by following online dog sledding communities or finding a pet professional who offers video lessons.

A dog skijors, pulling its dog owner on skis, in a type of modern dog sledding through the snow

But what if there isn’t any snow where I live?

If you don’t have access to frozen terrain but love the idea of dog sledding or related sports like skijoring, don’t worry — you can still experience the thrill!

Consider similar activities like canicross (your dog pulls you while you run) or bikejoring (they pull you on your bike). These are great fun on their own and make great sledding practice in the off season. If you ever do find yourself in the ideal winter environment, you and your best friend will have some foundational skills to pull from!

Some similar equipment and health needs apply to canicross and bikejoring. You won’t need a sled, but you will still need a harness that’s safe for your dog to pull into — and if you opt for the bike route, you’ll want to make sure your setup is secure.

As always, it’s important both you and your dog are feeling physically and mentally ready to tackle a new adventure.

Get out there and have fun!

If dog sledding sounds exciting for you and your dog, you should try it out. With the right knowledge, attitude, and just a few pieces of equipment, anyone can give it a go!

Remember these top tips for a successful dog sledding experience with your furry best friend:

  • Focus on enjoying each other first!
  • Don’t be afraid to take things slow (for you and your dog).
  • The right equipment can make a world of difference.
  • You can never be too prepared — but remember to keep training sessions short.
  • Regularly check how your dog feels (and don’t forget about your own wellbeing, too).

Did we mention to have fun?

Trainer Review of this Article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Lindy Langum
Founder - K9 Fun Club
Staff Trainer - Summit Assistance Dogs
Certified in Canine Studies (CSS), NW School of Canine Studies