A Brief Guide for Beginners
Racing harness or Freight harness - which to choose?
The racing/recreational harness, whether an x-back style or h-back style, is designed for the efficiency and comfort of a dog pulling a light load at anything from a walk/trot to a gallop. This may be either as an individual or working in a team. This harness is not well suited to heavy weight pulling.
The freight harness is designed to allow the dog to use his strength more effectively and without strain to pull a fairly heavy load. This work is usually done at a slow pace. It may be just pulling a heavy weight a few feet, as in competitive weight pulling, or an extended trot as in a freighting team. The freight harness is also popular for such useful work as hauling firewood. The design allows the dog to pull with his chest and shoulders comfortably even when the load and hook-up are close to ground level.
Harnesses should be properly fitted. Refer to the Resha guide to proper harness fit. Most Northern breed dogs as well as many others can be fitted with standard size x-back, h-backs, or adjustable freight harnesses according to their weight. To weight your dog, pick him up and stand on a bathroom scale, then subtract your own weight. Most people think the dog weighs more than he actually does. The best fit for non-Northern type breeds (sporting, collies, smaller breeds, etc.) can be obtained by fitting the dog with an adjustable "measuring" harness and having a custom harness made.
Do not use a full choke or chain collar. The most useful and efficient collar is the adjustable semi-choke or circle collar with no buckles to cause problems.
The gangline is the means of attaching the dog(s) by harness to the sled, other vehicle, or weight to be pulled.
For one dog: use a one dog line, 6 ft. long.
For two dogs: use a two dog line which consists of a short (2 ft.) center line with a loop to attach to the vehicle. Two tug lines (4 ft.) attach to the center line by loops and to the dogs harnesses with snaps. A double neckline is used between the dogs' collars.
For up to four dogs: use a two dog add-on in addition to a two dog line. We call this a 1-4 dog line. It is the best choice for beginners as it can be looped together or taken apart to run any combination of from one to four dogs. When running one dog alone in any position, simply snap two tug lines to the single harness loop. Note that when running two dogs in the lead position, there is no center line between them but they are attached at the collars by the double neck line. Additional two dog add-ons can be used as team size increases.
A shock cord section should be used in conjunction with the gangline to lesson jolts.
Ski-jor or bicycle pulling lines: should be at least an additional 3 feet long and include a shock cord section.
What to pull - The sled or toboggan of course is the ideal "vehicle" , however, most mushers train and condition their dogs and or teams prior to snowfall for several months using training carts. These can be three wheeled "rigs", Sacco carts, or in the case of large teams - ATVs.
Sled dogs can also be trained to pull a person on a bicycle, roller-blades, or skis. Many mushers living in no snow areas train year round on wheels.
A large clip used by mountain climbers and adapted by mushers as a convenient way to attach lines to the sled or other objects to be pulled. Lines attached to the carabiner would be the gangline and shock line as well as quick release line and snowhook line. The carabiner is attached to the bridle of the sled. The bridle is a harness made of poly rope that attaches to several points on a sled so the pull of the dogs will not place undue stress on any one point of the sled.
This is a piece of locking hardware. Attached to a rope inserted into the carabiner, it allows the musher to tie off the sled or rig so the dogs won't take off until the snap is released. The quick release locks onto another rope fastened around a post or truck bumper. If you plan to stop and tie off on the trail it is best to use the QR snap with a long line which trails behind the sled after being released. When you are safely under way you can gather up the long line and put it in a gear bag for later use as a tie-off line.
While a snowhook is a very important piece of equipment it must be remembered that they are also potentially dangerous. Most beginners starting out with two dogs are probably better off relying on their own strength to hold the dogs if necessary. After some experience is gained in handling the sled, paying attention to the dogs and lines, etc. then it would be soon enough to add a snowhook. The hook is used to hold the team when stopped on the trail. However, experienced mushers never trust the look to hold. Much of the usefulness of the hook depends on the snow into which it is set. When the dogs are jumping and pulling, they can often "pop" the hook loose. Because a loose hook can be dangerous it is wise to keep an eye on the hook and walk on the opposite side of the sled.
Sled bags are extremely useful to have. They are required equipment for racing, as they can be used to carry a dog on the sled if the dog should become injured and unable to run. They can also be used to carry extra gear: lines, harnesses, water and dishes for dogs as well as first aid supplies, extra clothing, camping gear and/or picnic supplies and photo equipment.
*This guide is not intended to be anything more than a very brief and basic introduction to sled dog equipment.