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Understanding dog sledding and the musher's life

Updated 8 février 2021

Texte et photos Kinadapt (c) JFGirard

There are sometimes huge misunderstandings surrounding the activity of dog sledding and the well-being of dogs. To help you to see more clearly and to better understand the practice of the activity, we asked Paméla Turcotte-Boutin, a specialist, to speak to us about dogsledding and what the life of a musher at Kinadapt consists of.

Dog Sledding, a Passion

My passion for sled dogs started when I was ten years old. I got my first two Siberian Huskies, Sky and Moushka, when I was living in Montreal. I started by learning how to take care of my bitches properly, to give them what they needed. I also had to understand the characteristics of this breed.

  • A very high energy
  • an intolerance to loneliness
  • an incomparable endurance
  • a curiosity
  • a gigantic desire to explore

These dogs allowed me to live my first experiences behind a sled. It was the birth of a passion. Since then, I have been working in the tourist sled dog business for 14 years and we get asked many questions about this exciting way of life that is dog sledding.

It is always amazing to me to see so few people informed about dog sledding. Without dogs, the history of Quebec would have been very different! It is an essential part of our culture and heritage.  So I would like to answer the questions that are on the minds of many. Here is a quick overview of my life as a musher...

Musher et traineauy à chiens dans Lanaudière (c) Kinadapt / JFGirard

The question that kills : Why Are The Dogs Tied Up?

Basically, dogs are tied up for :

  • their safety and that of the wildlife
  • the guests' safety;
  • to gain the motor skills needed to disentangle themselves from the tethering lines;
  • to have contact with other dogs in the vicinity, so they can socialize;
  • so that they have their private space: they can lie down without being disturbed;
  • and above all (essential from my point of view) so that the owner, the handler, the guide or the musher can follow the health condition of each dog quickly and efficiently. For example, if the dog has abnormal feces or more coloured urine, these are indications of the state of its health. This allows us to act quickly in case of a problem.

Then comes the respect of the law; every dog owner must confine his animal in a safe and reliable way. That being said, it is mandatory by law to keep the dog tied up, in a pen or in a well-ventilated building as long as the dog is not under supervision. It is also against the law to allow a dog to run at large on property that does not belong to the dog owner. I spend a lot of time with my dogs, but it would be impossible for me to be around them all the time to watch them.

Weighing the pros and cons between the different ways of confining the dogs (pen, building, tethered), I chose to have my dogs mostly tethered on chains at least 6 feet long. Many other sled dog kennels will keep their dogs in a pen, this is a choice that has advantages and disadvantages. It's just a matter of understanding the reasoning behind each choice.

Sled dog at rest (c) Kinadapt / JFGirard

Do Dogs Hurt When Pulling a Sled?

It can happen if you do it all wrong. Just like a child can get hurt playing field hockey or you can get blisters while hiking. To prevent a dog from hurting while pulling a sled, there are many variables that need to be considered.

The Harness

His harness should be designed for the specific activity of pulling, for his body type and for his size. The harness straps must fit over the dog and avoid sensitive areas. Choosing the right harness is like choosing a pair of running shoes: it's really the basics. The harness should be padded for the dog's comfort. It should have soft straps that mold to the dog's body and not rub the skin. Watch the video to learn how to check the fit of the harness on a dog.

TrainingCani-rando and sled dog training in summer / Kinadapt

 

The dog must be physically and mentally prepared to sled. Like any good athlete, it must train. This training must be filled with play and fun.

In an ideal world, the dog has learned at a young age to run in all kinds of conditions, free and with other dogs. He will then develop the skills necessary for a healthy and beautiful life. I call it free training, but in more specific terms, it's neuromotor training that allows the dog's physical development. It trains the nervous system, the joints and prepares the muscles for all kinds of trail and speed conditions.

When the dog grows up, we start with a soft traction like canicross or can rando. When the dog is enthusiastic about running faster, it can be harnessed to a machine (scooter, can kart, bike). Note that the dog must have seen the machine and be desensitized to it beforehand so as not to be frightened. This will prepare the dog to pull a sled before there is snow, both mentally and physically.

The Equipment

Sleds can be equipped with bungee cords to cushion the impact of turns on the sled. The haul line can be made of rope or cable. The rope should be inspected frequently to make sure that the metal covering is smooth and free of snags that could injure the dogs. There are many other accessories that are used depending on the conditions (dog boots, coats, slow-moving mats, etc.)

The beauty of dog sledding, as you can see, is the number of factors involved, and that's why training my dogs is always fascinating!

What Can Cause a Dog to Be Injured While Sledding?

Like any sport we play, the faster it goes, the greater the risk. And any athlete can suffer an injury, it's called life...(!)

So what do we do? First, we identify the risks:

  • The number of dogs involved: the more dogs there are, the higher the risk. The added strength of all the dogs is greater, so if the dog is poorly positioned or less comfortable, he could be injured more easily in a large team (8 dogs and more).
  • Working in a team implies that there can be disagreements, even among the dogs! Good management of altercations between dogs is essential to reduce the risk of injury.
  • The quality of the trail is very important to plan for in order to prevent injuries. A hard, well-compacted trail is easier than one on which dogs can stall in the snow while running.
  • Driving the sled should be done smoothly and with control. The sled driver must develop driving skills to reduce the risk of injuring the dogs. They must also learn not to fall, so that they do not injure themselves. That's why you don't just drive a sled overnight! Sledding is a team sport, and the human is part of it. He must therefore train as well.

The key is to manage these risks, which is why Aventure Écotourisme Québec is vigilant. There is prevention to reduce the risk. And when you have done everything to avoid an accident and it happens, you must know and apply the necessary care to counter the long-term effects of an injury. Having risk management and contingency plans for all activities is therefore essential, and these plans must be put in place by the dog owner.

In short, if the risk is not managed, the question is whether the activity should take place at all.

Do The Dogs Have To Pull?

I think it's important to clarify that dogs pull hitches because they want to, but not because they have to. First, we sled with our dogs for their well-being. It is an activity that channels their energy and fills a need. These needs are induced by their instinct to hunt, move, chase and discover.

Some dogs do not like to pull, so it's impossible to force them to do so. This sport makes a dog pull in front of us. If the dog stops because he is tired, or doesn't feel like it anymore, well... he stops! We can't drag him, he is in front of us. It would be very counterproductive. It's like trying to push a soft rope forward...

Some dogs don't want to run with a sled, and we have to respect that. It may be a preference, or the dog may have had a bad time and associates the sled with that unpleasant experience. Often these dogs will not be kept by a dog sledding company and they will find a home more suited to their needs. In my home, these dogs are part of the welcoming committee. They live in the house, and welcome guests. They are still part of the pack, but with a different role.

Why Do The Dogs Sleep Outside?

The reason is simple: to support the cold of winter.  They have to do 2 things :

  • Build their coat: in the fall, when the temperature drops, their hair thickens. In spring, they lose this hair to allow them to support the warm temperatures. If they are in a heated area during the fall, their body will not be stimulated enough to produce as much hair.
  • Acclimate their bodies to new temperatures: if dogs lived indoors, they would do what we do, they would get cold after a while and need to warm up. Remember in the fall, the first frosty mornings. You wonder how you're going to handle the -15 in January... when you're outside a lot, rendered on January the -15 doesn't seem as cold.

It's all a question of adaptation. Nature is beautiful, isn't it?

After, yes, they sleep outside, but they are not "naked." They have a well-sealed house, with an insulating layer (straw for example) that makes them a cozy nest for the night.

In spite of their comfortable hut, sometimes the dogs choose to sleep outside in the snow. In my opinion, this is a sign that they are comfortable outside. It even happens with my dogs who live in the house when they find it too hot and ask for the door to go outside to sleep.

Finally, dogs are adapted to the cold. The best sledding trips are around -20, not when it is -1! Especially at the end of the season, dogs will get warm quickly, as their coats are thickened.

Dogs like to sleep outside in winter / Kinadapt (c) JFGirard

Can Sled Dogs Get Cold?

Yes of course, in some contexts, they can get cold. Northern breed dogs that can produce enough warmth and coat to keep warm are much better suited to living outside in winter.

A dog with a thinner coat might have an insulated shed, or live in a heated building. So it depends on the type of dog.

We must also consider the acclimatization of the dog to the cold. A dog with a lot of hair, but used to living in the house, will find the temperature difference outside more difficult to bear.

A dog that is tired, hungry or sick is more likely to get cold. That is why it is important that there is always a heated area available near the kennel.

Even more important, the musher must be able to recognize the signs of a cold dog. On the trails, insulating coats and hot soup are also used to help the dogs recover and produce energy to stay warm.

Are Dogs Dangerous?

This is a serious, legitimate and very important topic. Any dog on the planet can be potentially dangerous. We humans have our work cut out for us when it comes to understanding dogs and their language.

When you join a dog sledding company, you should learn how to approach and deal with their dogs. Every dog owner needs to know his dogs, their behaviors and personalities. Most importantly, they must make sure that no human acts inappropriately towards them. I sometimes see people approaching dogs in a very inappropriate way, which can lead to a catastrophe... It's really a matter of learning the dog language. They don't speak the same language as us, and as we see between different cultures, a lack of communication can really create conflicts!

This is why a visit that allows contact with dogs in a kennel is always done under supervision.

Dog sledding companies that offer tourist activities must have sociable dogs that love humans and other dogs, otherwise it is not very beneficial. Constantly dealing with conflict is clearly not pleasant or effective. A genetic selection of dogs is made to avoid having dogs with behavioral problems. And a good breeding of puppies is essential to have balanced dogs.

Despite the fact that Nordic dogs (Siberian Husky, Malamute, etc.) sometimes have physical appearances similar to the wolf, they are not wild like their cousin, they are domesticated. They are socialized, educated, trained and cared for by us. They love the human who takes care of them.

As I said above, we need to know our dogs well. This allows us to make wise choices for them. For example, a dog that is less tolerant of others and has a big bubble, we provide a larger space and a quiet place. For a shy dog, you don't put him in a situation where he has no choice but to be petted.

I strongly believe that dogs should be seen as animals (not toys!) that have instincts, histories and needs that shape their reactions.

A dog, in a certain situation, might feel the need to protect a member of the pack. He might then want to keep other dogs away by showing his teeth, for example. The musher must take great care to inform and educate the guests on the behaviors to be avoided to reduce the risk of such a situation.

As a dog gets older, it becomes less tolerant of other members of its species or if young children are around. When in contact with children, increased supervision is essential given their sometimes unpredictable movements with animals.

Paméla Turcotte-Boutin,

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