In Australia, when we think of dog sleds we usually think of snow, however many of us are surprised to discover that sled dogs exist in many parts of the world including here, and are used for a variety of purposes. They have been around for generations, and it’s thought that in the world’s artic regions sled dogs were used tens of thousands of years ago, and that the Eskimos bred them with various breeds of dogs and wolves. Consequently, their offspring were conditioned to the snow and freezing temperatures. It is unknown when they started to be used to pull sleds, but it is thought to be several thousand years ago. Today, dog sleds are used for transportation and for racing.

Dog breeds used for sledding

Many breeds of dogs are used to pulls sleds, and traditionally they were Huskies, Samoyeds, and Malamutes. There is also a number of mixed breed dogs used, and many would have bloodlines that originate from wolves. Breeds are chosen for their strength, endurance, and speed. Leadership qualities are also important with sled dogs. In cold climates their big thick coats are important in helping to protect them from the cold, and wide flat feet help them to gain traction when traversing it. In the snow you’ll see them sleep curled up with their tails covering their noses to keep them warm, but in Australia’s hot climate they’re more likely to be spread out to help control their temperature.

Size of dogs suitable for sledding

The size of sled dogs varies and generally a weight of around 20 kgs is considered ideal, however some very large dogs may be closer to 60 kgs. This puts into perspective the power a team of dogs can generate, when you consider that an average adult man weighs around 80kgs.  Team sizes also vary, and the number of dogs required to pull a sled will depend on a variety of factors including the purpose of the sled and the “musher” - or driver - of the sled. In traditional snow racing, between 12 and 16 dogs must start, and there must be at least six dogs that finish.

These days dog sled racing is a competitive sport which is found in many countries around the world. The tradition of pulling a sled has been adapted to other vehicles for climates such as Australia’s, where there is little or no snow. Vehicles with wheels such as purpose-built rigs and scooters are commonly used. The musher stands at the back of the sled or rig, or on the scooter.

Where in Australia does dog sled racing occur?

In Australia, dog sled racing is held in most states and enthusiasts regularly travel interstate to meetings. Forest trails are used for races as well as personal properties, and the temperature of the destination is an important consideration. Due to Australia’s hot climate, the racing season is between May and August when temperatures and humidity levels are the lowest.

Some racing may occur in the warmer months, but these are usually set aside for training and fitness activities. Owners use this time to attend seminars and other events related to the sport such as obedience training, and walks.

Is racing limited to specific breeds?

In Australia, any dog that is capable and interested, can be involved in sled racing. Wearing a harness and pulling a “sled” are of course, things that dogs must be comfortable with. In addition to the dog’s willingness, its fitness is of utmost importance, and this is something on which your vet can provide advice.

Equipment required

The harness worn by the dog is attached to a gang-line, which is a rope that attaches to the rig. It is similar to bungee rope and therefore provides some shock absorption. Scooters are used for up to two dogs whereas a rig is used for a team comprising more than two, with a team size limit of six dogs being the maximum number in Australian racing.

As with any competitive sport safety equipment is essential, and in order to compete mushers must wear helmets, carry first aid kits for the dogs, and booties to protect the dogs’ feet in case they sustain an injury. Night racing requires head lamps.

Who can be a musher?

Mushers can be any age, and the Australian Sled Dog Sports Association holds dedicated classes for under 15’s. A musher’s weight, size, and fitness, should be considerations especially when matching them with a sled dog.

Dog sledding in Australia offers various options, and there are even some races where the mushers run alongside their dog rather than behind. Also, the breeds traditionally used in the snow, won’t necessarily be the most appropriate for sledding in Australia, as they can suffer more from the heat. Australian dog sled racing therefore involves a broad range of dogs, and mushers. Not only will dog sledding not suit all dogs, but it won’t suit all people either. Can you image attending an event with hundreds of excited dogs? Heaven for some, but not for others…

Is dog sled racing safe?

Key to the success of any sport involving animals, is their responsible and ethical treatment, and the Australian Association has strict rules. If this is a sport in which you have an interest for your dog, we would strongly recommend your discussing it with one of our vets first. Willing, and suitably fit dogs, can find it very enjoyable, as can their owners but it’s important that owners are well versed on the risks, and specific health care requirement of participating dogs. Any of our hospitals can provide advice.