While challenging and hugely exciting, starting up your own dog team is a major commitment. To avoid headache and heartache, consider carefully whether such an endeavor will work for you.Answer a few questions before you take the plunge. Do you really want the responsibility of caring year-round for a dog team? Do you have the time, energy, and money required? And can you meet your legal obligations? Are you ready?Some of us are hooked after that first sled run and will make any sacrifice to have a team. If you’re not so sure, take your time. Find a mentor or work as a handler for a respected musher. Lease or borrow a team to see if you are ready to keep dogs. Alternatively, if you have a year or more of solid experience you might be able to train a young team for a big kennel, taking full responsibility for them without actually taking ownership. Look at your personal life to be sure sled dogs are compatible with your lifestyle and your family. How many dogs do you need to fulfill your desires? Starting small is usually best. Determine whether you have time to not just run the dogs, but to feed, water and clean up every day of the year; to spend time socializing each dog, to invest extra work in re-training problem dogs, and to meet unexpected veterinary appointments. Will your kids be involved? Or will they be off at the mall while you are off with your team?CostsCheck your budget before making a commitment. Buying good sled dogs gets expensive. Good feed is even more expensive, and veterinary bills can equal feeding costs. Add on sledding equipment, housing, and fuel costs (especially if you must truck some distance to races or trailheads) and other expenses (entry fees, truck repair, a good divorce lawyer…). If you plan to keep intact females, you must invest in sturdy pens for population control. A shed or barn for storing feed and equipment, and for keeping dogs out of foul weather, is certainly nice but not mandatory if you can use a garage or mud room instead. If money constrains your spending, you can have a great time with just three or four dogs while keeping costs to a minimum. For light skijoring or a small recreational team, your hairy couch potatoes might fill the bill. Older dogs aging out of faster dog teams might be available for free or low cost, and their experience makes them ideal for beginners. Making your own equipment can cut expenses, but if you lack the skill, it’s best to start out buying well-built gear. Check out classifieds, swaps and flea markets for second-hand equipment.Check Local RegulationsFinally, can you meet legal requirements? We first got dogs while wintering in Fairbanks for school, and the local zoning laws limited us to three dogs. At first we split the team with a neighbor. Later we realized that because we lived on two lots, we could keep six dogs. Check your local government to ensure that you meet all requirements, from licensing to required vaccinations and proper confinement.Getting readyOur next story will cover finding good dogs for beginners, but before you acquire any dogs you need to prepare a home for them. Have a safe way to transport the team. If you plan to truck dogs frequently, the sooner you invest in a good dog hauler the better. If you don’t have a truck, you might tow the box on a trailer. A limited number of dogs can be transported in airline-type kennels in a car or van, or even secured in the passenger seats of your vehicle. We’ve hauled up to ten dogs under a camper shell in the back of our pickup truck.If you only have a few dogs and they are house-trained, there’s no reason to ban them to a dog yard; even a pampered pet can make a good sled dog if it has the right temperament. Otherwise have the yard set up before bringing dogs home. Hopefully it will be nearby so you can glance out at the dogs frequently to spot tangles or health problems (plus, it’s fun and educational to watch the dogs). The ideal yard has a perimeter fence, yard lights, shade trees, good drainage and easy access for vehicles and dog teams. At a minimum the dogs must be safe, secure and comfortable. Many mushers keep their dogs on 5’ to 8’ chains, except where chaining is banned. Rigged chains can be purchased from supply stores. If you make your own, 2/0 straight link chain is a good choice, and be sure each chain has at least a swivel snap. An additional swivel or two is even better to ensure the dog doesn’t twist the chain, perhaps even to the point of choking. The chain can be anchored to a stout post, car axle or 2” steel pipe set three feet into the ground and projecting 5 feet above ground. While a simple loop of chain over the post will suffice, it works better to have a swivel system that holds the anchor end of the chain off the ground. Dogs should not be picketed closely enough to tangle, fight or breed, although some, especially youngsters, do enjoy playing with each other—just be sure they get along and can’t actually tangle.Keeping dogs in chain-link kennels is another option. If you plan to have puppies or keep intact females, consider a dog-proof pen mandatory. Pens keep dogs safer than chains, but make it harder for you to access them for care and socializing. Two or more in one pen can lead to fights or one dog being harassed because they can’t get away from each other. Our dogs much prefer being on chains than to being in our nice (expensive) chain link kennel. Kennels require extra maintenance in deep-snow country, and are harder to move to fresh ground than chains. Each dog needs his own house, not just for protection from weather and insects, but also for security. You can build a good basic house with plywood and 2×4 lumber. Some people use old barrels or build houses from scrap lumber or logs. In cold climates, short-haired dogs such as pointer crosses need insulated houses in addition to the straw that every dog deserves. Two feet tall, two feet wide and three feet long is a suitable size for most average sled dogs. Some dogs won’t use a house that is too small or has a small, low door, while an excessively large house loses too much heat in severe cold. (In hot climates, a large house helps to dissipate heat, and also provides more shade.) You’ll also need a sled and lines, harnesses, collars (always keep an extra one), food and water dishes, and buckets for hauling food and water to the yard. Before you get dogs, know how much to feed each one and how to tell if a dog is fat or thin. (A neutered quiet ten-year-old dog might get fat on less than half the feed needed to keep an intact, high-energy similar-sized yearling in decent weight.)Find a reliable source of informationIn addition to having your yard ready, try to find a mentor who can answer your numerous questions. (What if my new dogs don’t behave? Who’s the best local sled-dog veterinarian? How do you fit a shock link into the gangline? Where can I find new trails to run?) If you’ve already spent time as a handler or volunteered at local races, you probably know that most mushers enjoy sharing their expertise. Go to symposiums, hang out at local gathering places such as popular trailheads or races tracks, or join a local club. If you look for answers online, and are good starting places.The best beginner’s book that we recommend is MUSH! A Beginner’s Manual of Sled Dog Training, edited by Charlene G. LaBelle for the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers, Inc., available from Barkleigh Productions. Our recently-revised book, Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher, published by Alpine Publications, assumes a basic working knowledge of mushing but does cover many topics useful to beginners such as diet, health, sled-dog psychology and trail conditions. Although out of print, Noël Flanders’ The Joy of Running Sled Dogs is another beginner’s book. The Best of MUSHING: Sled Dog Basics is a compilation of articles from Mushing Magazine geared for those starting out. Mush With PRIDE’s books Sled Dog Care Guidelines and Equipment Safety Guidelines should be required reading for all beginners, and include details on setting up a good, safe dog yard.Whatever your information source, remember that all dogs and all people are different. If the offered advice doesn’t work for you or doesn’t fit in with your philosophy, look somewhere else.The Big DayWhen you bring home your first sled dogs, spend some time with them. Sit with them, pet them, and briefly handle their feet so they get to know and trust you. See if they respond to their names and to basic commands such as up (onto a dog house) or sit. They may not have been taught these commands, and even if they obeyed their old owner, they might not respond to another person at first. Try not to overwhelm more sensitive dogs with attention, especially if they’re getting mobbed by thrilled kids. Don’t be in a big hurry to hit the trails. Most dogs do much better given a couple quiet days to develop a rapport with you first. Be understanding if the dogs cry anxiously for the first few days. If they weren’t noisy at their old home, they should quiet down as they settle in. Offer juicy knucklebones or rawhide to help them pass the time enjoyably. An energetic, wired-up dog might do best if he did have a short run right away. This helps him blow off steam, and returning to his new home at the end of each run helps him understand that this is the place he comes back to. Do some research on local trails so you can have a good plan before your first few runs. Making a good impression on your new team builds their confidence in you and establishes you as the Leader, the one who knows where you’re all going and how to get there (and back) safely.Try to feed the same food as the former owner for the first week or so, and make any changes slowly. Make sure to keep a good supply on hand, and don’t wait til the last bag is empty before buying more.At last, you have your very own dog team! In addition to the pleasure of running them, you are equipped to care for the dogs responsibly. Miki and Julie Collins run an 80-mile trapline by dog team in Bush Alaska, and are authors of Dog and Driver: A Guide For The Serious Musher.


More Posts