by Jill Wilson
Linda von Hanneken-Martin and her
two dog team at the start of a race
Imagine gliding on the snow with several of your Samoyed companions, together eagerly sprinting down the trail to see what may lie around the next bend. In doing so, cherishing the long honored tradition of this ancient breed.
Dog sledding is a team sport where the team is composed of the “driver” or musher and his/her dogs. The number of dogs on a race team varies widely from as few as 2 to an unlimited number in an event called unlimited class sprint racing. The most popular races are still the limited class sprint races in which the team size approximately equals the number of miles run (e.g. a team in 4 dog class runs 4 miles). Increasing in popularity are both mid distance and stage races. Mid distance races may range anywhere from 20 miles to a over a hundred miles in length. Stage races are run in segments, often 30 to 60 miles in length. Of course, the best known sled dog races are the ultra distance events such as the Iditarod, or Yukon Quest. At this time Samoyeds are most commonly seen in limited class sprint races, and occasionally in mid distance races.
Jill Wilson's six dog team at
the end of a race
Several organizations sponsor or sanction races depending on location. These organizations create regulations for how races will be run that they sponsor and they sponsor annual awards. One of the largest in North American organzations is International Sled Dog Racing Association (ISDRA) which sponsors both limited class and mid distance races. The International Federation of Sleddog Sports (IFSS) is an international sanctioning body. OWS recognizes events held under ISDRA or ISDRA-like rules.
There are some regions of the US where races are sanctioned by smaller organizations with rules very similar to those used by ISDRA, such as the Alaska Dog Mushers Association (ADMA). In Europe and other parts of the world there are still other organizations such as the European Sled Dog Racing Association (ESDRA).
Samoyeds as Sled Dogs
Donna Dannen training a 6 dog
team in Colorado
Samoyeds are not the fastest dogs found racing in any of the venues just described, which are dominated by teams of Alaskan Huskies or Eurohounds, however people can enjoy the sport of sled dog racing with their Samoyeds by focusing on the goal of doing the best that they can. OWS awards, both top team and achievement awards can provide goals for Samoyed drivers. I race not specifically to be top team (though I’d love to get there some day) but to meet personal goals that I have set for my team. Still Samoyed teams can perform well in any of these venues provided that they are conditioned, and trained to do so. Many of our top Samoyed sprint teams have posted blistering speeds of 15 mph and greater, on average.
Putting Together a Team
Nisse Uppström (Sweden) at the 2001
World Championship in Austria
So what does it take to put together a racing team of Samoyeds? First one needs Samoyeds that enjoy working and are responsive in harness. If you don’t have any dogs you might start by investigating lines whose breeders have placed an emphasis on sledding or other working activities. Ask the breeders about the parents, and about their working program. Still a dog can be VERY successful in sledding and not come from an obvious working background (one just hedges their bets a bit that way). In fact, there have been a number of notable working Samoyeds who have come from a rescue background or from kennels with no recent working background. So don’t give up just because the parents of your dog or dogs don’t have 5 working titles behind their name.
Geoff Abbott's 4 dog team
Next one needs some knowledge about training techniques. Connecting with knowledgeable mushers, joining your Local Sled Dog Club, handling for other mushers at races can all be very educational. Going to clinics can also be helpful, these are often put on by mushing clubs or in some cases private individuals, such as with Mushing Boot Camp. If there is a local mushing club or musher, try to see if you can go and train with them. The experience of training with other dogs will be invaluable. If you are not located where there is a club, check out books, the web, and ask questions.
Specific training protocols vary some depending on the type of event one is looking to compete in. There are a number of excellent books that describe some of these, including Jim Welch’s Speed Mushing Manual and Joe Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushing. You might want to get started with Mush; a Beginner's Manual of Sled Dog Training by Bella Levorsen, Dog Driver; a Guide for the Serious Musher by Miki & Julie Collins or Training Lead Dogs by Lee Fishback
Abby, an Alaskan Husky, shows off a
well fitting harness
A sturdy sled is good for getting started
Next you will need some equipment, harnesses, lines, and some sort of vehicle to travel on snow or dirt. Many outfitters make well made harnesses, both custom and sized. Many are listed on the Sleddog Central website. I have had good luck with a couple different brands and prefer harnesses with extended padding. At right see a well fitting harness on Abby, an Alaskan Husky. Note how the collar fits around her neck, and the “tail” end of the harness just reaches the base of her tail. It is easy to see how a harness fits on a short haired dog such as this but it is not so easy to see on a Samoyed because of the longer coat. Remember that the harness should fit the body and NOT the hair. The first time you’ll want to ask for a fitting.
You will need a vehicle for both snow and dirt if you live in most places. Sleds come in different types and a range of prices from a couple hundred to over a thousand dollars. Your first training sled is likely to take a bit of a beating, so better to go with a more moderately priced sled or a used one. Start with a sturdy sled and as your skills improve invest in a lightweight very flexible sled. The sled at right is a bolted sled and very sturdy.
As you can see, running dogs is not a cheap hobby, there are harnesses to purchase, good quality food to buy, a sled, a vehicle to use when there is no snow (such as an atv or cart) plus a vehicle to carry your dogs, commonly called a “dog truck”. Of course when starting out a van or SU with crates works great!
Who Needs Snow?
Judy Carrick and her 6 dog
team shown at a "gig" race
People use a variety of vehicles on dirt depending on their means, team size etc. For two dogs a scooter or mountain bike can work but please, wear safety gear with these vehicles! For larger teams an atv or cart works. We used an atv until we found a cart that had a “dirt brake”. Since then we’ve switched back to a cart. Both vehicles used correctly in training can be used to develop a well conditioned team.
A big advantage of an atv is that it is easier to train a sprint team to run up hills by giving enough gas that the the tugline is tight, and the dogs are working. The atv is also one of the safest vehicles on dirt.
A cart allows the driver to “feel” the dogs working. A cart with a dirt brake allows the driver to stop safely and check the team if needed. Carts without dirt brakes must be used with caution as the team may be capable of dragging the cart some distance without you.
Scooters are another option. See this Scooter comparison article
Don Duncan's 12 dog mid-distance team
Once you have the pieces its time to get going. A training strategy that promotes a strong and positive attitude is key. You will learn a lot from your dogs. Try to think the way your dogs might think, what motivates them? What relaxes them?
Always remember that your team is your creation, the fulfillment of their work and yours. As you work with your team remember that dogs don’t run to win awards, they run because they love to. The rewards of working with your own team are endless however.
Hope to see you on the trail!