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The life of a sled dog

Updated 11 mars 2021

As you can imagine, the life of a sled dog is not limited to the winter season. At what age can he start pulling a sled? What does he do in the summer or what happens when he gets too old? This is what we asked Paméla Turcotte-Boutin, a specialist and musher from Kinadapt.

At What Age Do Dogs Start to Run in a Dog Sled?

A dog starts pulling between 6 months and 2 years old. I start pulling my dogs when they are 1 year old, but I have done a lot of mental and physical preparation before. My older dogs give them confidence in all kinds of situations. We build their stamina and musculature slowly, not quickly. Progression is the most important step: the intensity must be adapted to the age and genetics of the dog. The dog must be fully grown before starting any heavy or long traction. For sled dogs, this is between 18 and 24 months.

Also read >> Understanding the sled and the life of a musher

What Do They Need to Eat to Pull a Sled?

Sled dog nutrition is a big topic and varies greatly between kennels. Basically, dogs can eat raw meat, kibble or a mixture of both. Their hydration is super important: it is done in the form of soup that tastes good. Like us, they also like to have tasty water.

What Do Dogs Do in the Summer?

You may have heard that dogs work so hard during the winter that they take a break during the summer. This is not true (it should not be true). Dogs should be treated like athletes.  During the summer, there is a decrease in activity, just as there is with an athlete: it is a period of recovery and maintenance, but that doesn't mean that the dog stays tied up and doing nothing in a pen.

Many activities can be done with the dogs during the winter season. You can do free-range training, chase games, swimming or cooling your paws in water, play ball, canicross, cani-scooter, cani-kart, bikejoering and so on. However, the physical activity must be reduced, because Nordic dogs are less adapted to hot temperatures.

Cani-kart and dog training in summer / Kinadapt

What Happens to the Dogs When They Retire?

It all depends on the values, reality and means of the dogsledding company. The more dogs we have, the more expensive it is to care for and train them. Some places will keep their dogs for life, while other places will place their dogs with families. The 2nd option is a way to keep a pack successful and profitable. When an older dog is sledding, we need to adapt the activity to his physical capacity. This means taking into account the time needed for his warm-up, making shorter trips and giving him more rest time.

At a certain point, an old dog will reach the limit where he won't be able to keep up with the pulling of the other dogs in the team. This is when his final retirement begins. It is often the human who will impose retirement on the dog, who would like to continue pulling with the rest of his community. Of course, retired dogs can be harnessed together to satisfy their need and desire to pull a sled in a group, but the speed of this harness will be very slow and the route will be adapted to the group of dogs harnessed. So it's not an age that necessarily determines when a dog will retire, it's the observation that you make of the dog in question. I had a dog named Bolt and he ran in front of a dog sled team until he was 14 years old, at his own speed, of course, while my beautiful Moushka retired at the age of 8.

A good sled dog retirement, in my opinion, will be adapted to the dog in question. For some dogs it will be living in the house with their owner. For others, it will be to live outside with the rest of the members of his canine family (pack).

For my part, my old retired dogs live in the house with me (about 15 dogs) and they are free on my territory where they can circulate through their community and educate the younger dogs. I have 2 goals for my retired dogs. For the dog to complete his beautiful life as a dog until a major health problem affects his quality of life too much, basically I try to have him free as often as possible until he shows signs of discomfort. Usually they leave us naturally, but if they show signs of suffering, we call our vet.

Dog sledding and dog love / Kinadapt (c) JF Girard

Can My Dog Sled?

I am often asked: "I want to sled, and I have a Nordic dog, I would like him to do it too." Ah, the famous question!

There are some companies that offer to introduce your dog to a team. However, be aware that there are several steps to creating a human-dog team that works synergistically.  If you are interested, click here.

Paméla Turcotte-Boutin,

Biologist, professional musher, designer of harness sports equipment and co-owner of Kinadapt