The heritage of the sled dog is a long and proud one, stretching back some 4000 years. The people of the north were dependant on these animals for protection, companionship, hunting, trapping and most of all - transportation. Sled dogs have enabled explorers such as Byrd, Peary and Amundsen to explore the frozen wastelands of two continents and have played a vital role in bringing civilisation to the snowbound areas of the world.
They have helped men in two World Wars and of course, the Canadian Mountie owes much of his fame to his team of dogs. One of the proudest chapters in sled dog history was written in 1925. In January of that year, a case of diptheria was discovered in Nome, Alaska but the supply of antitoxin in that city was inadaquate to stave off an epidemic. A relay of 22 native and mail teams and their drivers forged the rough interior of Alaska and across The Bering Sea ice to bring the serum from Anchorage to the greatful townspeople. A statue of Balto, who led one of the relay teams stands in New York's Central Park to commemorate this Nome Serum Run. The IDITAROD TRAIL RACE started in the 1970's by Joe Reddington Senior and other keen team drivers and is held during March of each year in the memory of this Serum Run, which covers 1049 miles across some of the worst terrain in the world. A number of Brits have competed and completed this event. Every year this race attracts more and more worldwide interest, as does the sport of sled dog racing as a whole.
The first sled race probably occurred when two trappers challenged each other's teams and dashed their dog over the frozen North. The records of formal racing date back to 1908 with the first running of the ALL ALASKA SWEEPSTAKES. This race was inspired by two children quarrelling over their dogs prowess... their father, Scotty Allan, a Scot heralding from the Spey Valley, decided that a race would settle the matters, this spiralled into a 408 mile race from Nome to Candle and back.
In 1908 the winning driver, John Hegness, completed the race in a time of 119hours, 15mins and 12 seconds. By 1910, entries had increased considerably as had the speed of the teams. The winners of that race were John (Iron Man) Johnson and second Fox Maule Ramsay - another Scot and second son of the Earl of Dalhousie. Both were driving teams of Siberian Huskies. John Johnson's time of 74hours, 14minutes and 37seconds remained unbroken until 2008.
Enthusiasm for sled dog racing spread rapidly throughout North America, with only brief interuptions during the periods of the two World Wars, when dogs and drivers were taken into the service of their countries.
These days few of the inhabitants of the far north are dependent upon dogs for basic survival, however, the same intimate relationship between man and dog still exists and is evidenced through our sport, which is now emerging into a major worldwide interest with teams working throughout North America, Europe and even as far as Australia and New Zealand.
Racing sled dogs are among the best cared for animals in the world. The sport is based on athletic performance, therefore diet and physical fitness are always of the upmost importance.
Sled dog racing can provide your family with a unique and exciting entertainment, whether as competitors or spectators. As more and more people become interested, the rallies are growing often with entries of over 120 teams. This is a sport where men and women can compete as true equals, even "The Last Great Race" (The Iditarod) has been won by women mushers.
Training of dogs starts at an early age over short distances. With age and experience distances increase until the puppy reaches one year old when he is allowed to compete in races. Training has to be undertaken very carefully, at all times the welfare and more particularly, the enjoyment of the dog is of primary importance. A bored team member is not only an unhappy dog, but affects the performance of the whole team. Regular training, sometimes four times a week in the winter season is required for competitive teams.
Until recently racing sleds have changed very little from those used in the early days of racing and although each musher has had his personal preferences, the average sled has been about eight feet long and has weighed less than forty pounds. It has been constructed of white ash, hickory or birch with more often than not specially hard-wearing plastic runners. Longer distance mushers still prefer the traditional types, some shorter distance mushers are opting for newer designs made from more modern materials but still designed to flex and manouver well.
Wheeled rigs which are used more often in Britain have changed dramatically, around the late 1970's a rig for a four dog team could weigh around 100lbs, that weight had reduced to around 30/35lbs by the late 1980's.
There are a number of racing organizations in the UK each with slightly different rules but which all stress the importance of safety to both team and driver. Each dog in the team wears an individually fitted harness of lightweight nylon webbing, padded around the neck and shoulders to prevent chafing, there are a number of different designs and choice comes down to individual preference. The dogs are hitched to the rig or sled by means of a central rope known as the "gang line" being attached to this by means of a tug line at the rear of his harness and a neck line from his collar. Brass clips are used to prevent rusting or freezing, so allowing freedom of action on the trail. Other equipment includes the snub line, used to secure teams and a dog bag, which is used to enclose an injured dog or one which has become tired (some race organizations are no longer insisting on the use of a dog bag).
British Sled Dog Races are generally held on a looped course over forest or similar trails with each team being timed by electronic computer at timed intervals. In races of more than one heat, total elapsed time is taken to determine the winner. Teams are divided into classes based on the number of dogs in the team, from 1 dog in Scooter, Bikejor or Cani-X up to 6 Dogs in B Class, occasionally larger teams are run but not in general.
Many thanks to Kari Coyne for allowing us to reproduce text from her original article and to Penny Evans for her help