How Sled Dogs Work

Becoming a Sled Dog

Iditarod musher Robert Sorlie examines the paw of one of his sled dogs.
Veterinarians keep an eye on dogs during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to make sure the furry athletes are healthy. The race can be hard on the dogs, who have to cross dangerous, icy terrain at high speed.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

The number of sled dogs at a typical kennel is around 75, though some might house as few as 20 or as many as 150. Many kennel owners are avid mushers and compete in dog sled races. They also train other mushers and sell and lease dogs.

The organization Mush With PRIDE (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog’s Environment) was formed to address how sled dogs are cared for. Guidelines developed by the group give advice on breeding and maintaining a kennel.


The training for each team of racing dogs varies by musher (or whomever is preparing the dogs to race). Conditioning the dogs to run long distances is vital, and teams may cover 2,000 to 3,000 miles (3,219 to 4,828 km) in the course of training leading up to an endurance race. Since training may take place year-round, the dogs sometimes run on dry land, and sometimes pull all-terrain vehicles.

Dog owners start grooming their dogs to pull sleds at a very young age. When they are a couple of months old, they may be fitted with a harness and collar, just so they get used to wearing them. As they get older, a small object may be attached to the harness to practice pulling weight. Mushers also start teaching the dogs verbal commands. When dogs are ready to train alongside a team, at around 6 to 8 months old, they start by pulling light loads for short distances. Over time, they build up their strength and stamina and are able to go farther and pull more.

Sled dogs that are well cared for and loved by their owners are quite friendly and gentle. While they may fight with other dogs, it is rare that a sled dog would be aggressive toward people. Mushers have been quoted as saying that they take better care of their dogs than themselves, and that the dogs eat better than they do. Relationships between dog and musher vary, but most mushers consider their dogs family. Mushers generally follow the reasoning that a dog that’s not properly cared for will not perform, so it wouldn’t make sense to mistreat dogs.

For races such as the Iditarod, veterinarians are on hand to examine dogs, and race rules require proof of certain vaccines and check-ups. Dogs are implanted with microchips to help keep track of them. The International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association is a group of veterinarians who are dedicated to the welfare of sled dogs.

In the next section, we’ll look at how sled dogs prepare for a race.­