How do dogsleds work?

This traditional form of transport can tackle even the snowiest terrain

Over 9,000 years ago, people in northeastern Siberia started selectively breeding dogs for size, strength and stamina that were able to pull sleds over long distances. These teams of dogs were used for transport and became a vital link between dispersed communities.

Today, sledding is still practised around the world from Canada to Lapland, and it has even become a competitive sport. Modern sled dogs are all about speed and endurance, and a variety of breeds are used for sport, including Alaskan huskies, Samoyeds and Canadian Eskimo dogs. These tough canines have an efficient gait and webbed paws and can pull a sled and its driver at speeds of over 30 kilometres per hour.

To train a dog to sled, the musher has to teach them directional cues. These are taught by first asking the dog to sit behind the trainer, then using a treat to guide the dog forward between the trainer’s legs. The trainer moves the treat to one side and calls out the appropriate command word – usually ‘gee’ to go right or ‘haw’ to go left. As the dog turns, it’s rewarded with the treat.

The next stages of training involve teaching the dog to pull the sled, which is done by running with them until they start naturally taking the lead. Once the harnesses are attached to the dog and the sled, the musher will use a helper to walk or run with the dogs while they call out the commands they learnt previously. The helper will then reward the dog with a treat.

Your dog at home might not be made for sledding, but you can still use these methods to teach them to respond to directional commands when you’re going out for a walk.

Denmark’s Sirius Sled Patrol 

Denmark owns a truly unique military unit – the world’s only military dogsled team. Called the Sirius Patrol, the unit patrols Danish-owned land in the wilderness of Greenland. The unit consists of six dogsled teams, each of which are led by two people and up to about 14 dogs. The teams carry up to 500 kilograms of supplies, including rifles, a radio, sleeping bags and a lot of dog food.

The Sirius Patrol battles blizzards, extreme temperatures (the lowest recorded temperature is –55 degrees Celsius) and isolation as they travel across the frozen Arctic, covering up to 64 kilometres of Danish territory in a day. It’s not easy work – in winter the Sun disappears for two months, and the area is plunged into darkness – but the teams work diligently to police the area and support visiting researchers and tourists.

The dogsled team

Each dog has a specific duty to keep the canine convoy moving across the snow

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 119, written by Charlie Evans 

For more science and technology articles, pick up the latest copy of How It Works from all good retailers or from our website now. If you have a tablet or smartphone, you can also download the digital version onto your iOS or Android device. To make sure you never miss an issue of How It Works magazine, subscribe today!