The Post-Journal

Sporting Secrets Behind Sled Dog Racing

Most Americans are undoubtedly unfamiliar with dog sledding as a team sport. In fact, some sports fans might say this sport is not a team sport because the teams are not nicknamed Bills, Giants, Steelers, Mets, Yankees, Pirates, Lakers or Celtics.

Local dog sledders are governed by an organization that administers the sport on the U.S. East Coast and parts of Canada - the Canadian-American Sledders Inc. The group's president, Dave Shaw, lives in Lakewood.

A recent visit to the Dave Shaw Kennel provided an opportunity to see kennel life and what is done to care for sled dogs.

Before one can understand this sport, some questions need answering:

    What is involved in breeding and raising a kennel of dogs for dog sledding?
    What kind of training is needed to condition sled dogs for races?
    What kind of care do dogs in these kennels receive?
    Can someone make money in the sled dog sport?

The driver of a team is called "the musher." Now, this may conjure up the image of a whip and shouts, but nothing is further from the truth.

Shaw said that there is no need to urge the team of dogs to start. However, he said, "Once the sled is released the team will go, but "hike" is used by most mushers to start or urge the team on. Steering and control is entirely by voice command: 'gee' for a right turn, 'haw' for a left turn and 'whoa' for stopping."

It takes a lot of work to bring a dog to the point where it's ready to run on a team.

Shaw explained that in order to start a kennel of sled dogs, one has to have the athletes for performance. He said there are five breeds of dogs commonly used for teams - the Samoyed, the Alaskan Malamute, the Siberian Husky, the Husky-Dingo mix and the Alaskan Husky.

Shaw said these breeds of dogs are known as Northern breed dogs. Although Shaw has had all five breeds in his kennel, he believes the Alaskan Husky is the best breed for racing sled dogs.

"A Husky is bred to run. They can run all day, but at a different pace. Inherently, they are ready to go," Shaw says of his favorite breed of sled dogs.

Shaw summarized the breeding process: "Sled dogs are athletes, so mushers breed for performance. Planned breeding has culled out many weaker traits common in many pet dogs. Physical traits and intelligence are genetically controlled as well as less obvious traits and traits that show a tendency toward disease."

However, when a pup is born, Shaw says that it is important to let it have a childhood, just as any human baby needs. However, even the puppies in these breeds have the desire to run, Shaw said.

"The dog is full-grown at the age of 2. Most mushers don't run these dogs in top teams," Shaw said, "until they are a little older."

Shaw says that some mushers will let a dog as young as one year old start pulling something, but even then it is too young.

He says that when a dog is two years old it will start training with dogs that are 12 and 13 years old. The purpose is, he says, because older dogs have gone through sled dog racing and can teach the young dogs what to do. He says that the younger dog will miss the rope on the team's harness or jump over the harness.

Shaw says that the older dogs will work with these younger dogs on timing and stamina in order to get them ready for competitive racing.

Shaw said, "This allows the young dogs to get a lot of miles and to become trail-wise and conditioned."

Shaw said that if a young dog is put in with top dogs before he is ready, "it might blow its mind." He explained that the young dog may feel pushed too soon to compete with dogs performing at their best. Ultimately it could affect the dog.

Building a sled dog team does not end with breeding and the dog's early training. The real task is the everyday care of every dog in the kennel.

The care of the dog entails the daily upkeep of diet, health, exercise, and probably most important, personal attention.

The most obvious sign of personal care of the dogs is individual doghouses. Shaw has separate houses for each of his dogs - a number in its teens. Each house also has a platform built so the dogs can get on them and see outside the kennel. Shaw has built concrete and wooden bases so the dogs will not get dirty, especially when it rains nor snows. Subsequently, each dog has a chain to its house.

"As with most mushers, I do not allow my dogs to run loose, except in the fenced in yard at exercise periods," Shaw said.

Another aspect of personal dog care is each dog's diet. An Alaskan Husky training for sled dog races does not receive the diet of a house pet. Shaw feeds his dogs a commercial dog food along with a meat supplement. The meat supplement can be beef, turkey or any other meat. The meat supplement helps provide the energy needed to enhance their training.

Shaw said that in addition to his personal care, the dogs also see a veterinarian regularly. He said the dogs must have regular checkups for rabies, worms or other diseases. Also, most of Shaw's dogs are spayed or neutered to eliminate many health problems.

Shaw does a physical inspection of each dog once a day. He said he runs his hand down the sides of the dog to assure nothing is abnormal, and noted that maximum performance is maintained through dogs that are healthy.

"One of the most important aspects of sled dog care is the personal touch provided each dog," Shaw said. "Most dogs need a good relationship with humans. They rely on their keeper for their upkeep and security. They need to play. They need individual attention, love and praise. But most of all, a musher must be able to communicate with the dogs and they with him. Trust must be mutual."

That was obvious on the visit to the Shaw kennel.

When Shaw enters the yard, each dog's attention moves to him. He talks to the dogs and they respond.

The kennel visit also destroys a myth that sled dogs are vicious, lunging dogs.

Shaw said, "Dogs that react badly to the noisy excitement of a race or to other dogs are the exception on teams. Temperament is given great consideration in breeding programs."

After the basic care and love Shaw gives his dogs, the real work comes at training time. Shaw said the teams are trained year around. He said the most ideal weather to train sled dogs is a temperature 50 degrees or colder. That is why people may see him training his team in the mornings during the summer. Also, Shaw said some mushers train in the evening.

When there is no snow on the ground, Shaw uses a cart with wheels for the teams to pull. When the dogs are training for races, one aspect of dog care is seen - the health of the animals' feet.

"Much attention is directed toward a sled dog's feet. A dog is only as good as its feet, so it is critical to avoid foot problems such clipping the claws," Shaw said. "The sanitary condition within the kennel also helps the maintenance of the dogs' feet."

During competition, teams can run as fast as 35 to 40 mph at the start, and most teams can maintain a 20 mph pace. Shaw said the musher gets bruised more than the dogs, noting he has never had a dog injured in a race. One time, however, he was thrown from the sled and his leg was cut on some trees.

Shaw said the dogs on his teams have different roles. "Some dogs are just born to lead. They work hard and love to run."

"Mushers have to know their dogs and how they are performing to make changes in the middle of the race," he said.

When it comes to races, Shaw said that no one in the Canadian-American Sledders Inc. competes in the Alaskan Iditarod. He said that the group organizes races at Allegany National Park and Darien Lake. The Allegany races are January 18-19 and 25-26. The Darien Lake race is February 2.

"You have to love it to do it," Shaw said. The only prizes he has won in his 13 years of racing sled dogs are the trophies displayed in his sled shed.

"You need a sponsor in order to make money and sometimes even that does not guarantee it," he said.

"When my dogs are happy, I am happy. To keep the dogs productive and happy, one must understand each dog as an individual. And that is the real key to successful dog sled racing," Shaw said.

The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.