One of the most ancient working dogs are those used for pulling the sled and its “driver”, the musher, through frozen lands. As we mentioned in our article Sled Dogs, Pulling Human History Through Time, the significance of this type of canids and the job they perform dates back to 2,000 BC, playing a major role in the survival and development of civilizations in the hostile, cold winter grounds of northern Europe, Greenland, and America.
The function of sled dogs has changed according to human needs and has evolved throughout history. In the past, these dogs were instrumental for transport and communication, while also taking part in exploration and discovery teams. Today, they are considered to be elite canine athletes, who participate in high performance competitions.
Nowadays, because of the replacement of dog sleds by modern motorized ways of transportation, “mushing” is practiced mainly as a sport and is a passion for numerous mushers and followers from around the globe, even from the most tropical countries in the world.
The word mushing is used to describe any sort of sport or transportation using the power of dogs. The dogs and the musher are the dog sled team. They are considered a team, since they need to work together to move down the trail, complete the course and sometimes survive extreme conditions. Many times, during snowstorms, it is crucial to be able to find the path when visibility is reduced to almost nil, so much so that sometimes the musher is unable to see the dogs. In those circumstances, when the trail no longer exists and the main goal is to survive, only the instincts and ability of the leading dogs make all the difference.
Mushing is a team sport when musher and dogs are team members with an assigned specific role:
They are placed at the front of the sled, and can be one or a pair of dogs. They must be fast, experienced and intelligent to follow the musher’s commands. They must also have the ability to act for themselves, and even disobey the musher, when their instincts tell them that the latter is guiding them towards a dangerous frozen zone or a precipice. They are extremely intuitive, which makes them instrumental to following, exploring and finding the trail, and have the leadership skills to set and maintain the pace of the team.
When pulling a sled, the dogs are connected to each other and to the sled by a gangline attached by a hook to the rear of each of the dog’s harness. They usually run in pairs and have different jobs according to the their position in the gangline.
They are the two at the back, placed immediately in front of the sled. They must be strong to balance the sled during abrupt turns and pull the sled out of the snow.
Pulling the sled and maintaining the speed is their task who provide the strength to the team. They are located between the wheel dogs and the swing dogs.
Swing dogs, also called point dogs, they are located behind the leader and are in charge of helping swing the sled during the normal course, around the curves of the trail and when going uphill.
Whether it is for recreational or racing purposes, a team is carefully selected according to the ability of the dog to perform its assigned function, which is determined by its position in the gangline.