Mushers around the world are preparing their sled dogs for the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile-long trek through Alaska that commences Saturday, March 7.
Although there are many different breeds of dog, there are a select few that are better adapted for these long-distance winter races. According to Jennifer Raffaeli, sled dog kennels manager for Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaskan Huskies are the most frequently used "breed" of dog that mushers are using today.
"Alaskan Huskies are not a breed recognized by the American Kennel Club, but genetically speaking they are their own breed separate from any other," Raffaeli said.
They are bred with a variety of other dog breeds, such as greyhounds, in order to get highly desired qualities of a sled dog, according to Charlotte Mooney, owner and operator of Klondike Dreams racing sled dog kennel.
"We don't breed on appearance necessarily; we breed them based on performance," Mooney said.
Other breeds that are frequently used in sled races are Malamutes, Siberian huskies and even certain hounds.
"There are actually restrictions on breeds that can participate in distance races in order to protect dogs that simply do not have appropriate coats, build, etc., to compete in a 1,000-mile race," Raffaeli said.
Many mushers are starting to stray away from other commonly used breeds because, according to Mooney, they are being bred more for appearance rather than for their abilities.
Perhaps the most obvious quality of good racing dogs is that they are fast enough to win races. According to Mooney, speed is the biggest reason that people usually decide to use Alaskans in their races.
"You are looking to win races and other dogs are slower; you won't win too many races with them, at least not against an Alaskan," she said.
According to Raffaeli, Alaskan Huskies have long legs that allow them to gain distance faster than other breeds and that are well suited for running through deep snow.
However, there are many other dog breeds, such as Greenland Huskies and Inuit sled dogs, that are also very fast. The beauty of Alaskan Huskies, according to Mooney, is that they can be bred with these other fast dogs to create a unique combination of advantageous traits.
"Many sprint and distance racers are mixing in other breeds with Alaskan Huskies in the search for more speed on the trail," Raffaeli saId.
Independent and Friendly Personality
There is some disagreement among the sled dog racing community as to what type of personality makes for the best winter racing dogs. Some argue that dogs should be independent and headstrong so that they are able to make smart decisions on their own, while others think that dogs should be more passive in order to take direction well.
However, a combination of both is required in a truly great sled dog, according to Raffaeli.
"Great lead dogs are very special and it is invaluable for a musher to work closely with a dog who knows when to take charge and lead using their own instincts and knowledge, and when to listen and work with their human team member," she said.
According to Mooney, Alaskan Huskies are more headstrong than some of the other dog breeds commonly used in racing, which can make them harder to train.
"Some of the more arctic breeds tend to be a little more independent and mischievous and their main concern is not whether you are happy, it is whether they are happy," Mooney said.
Mushers may have to be more strong-willed with arctic breeds than if they were working with hounds that are typically very eager to please and concerned with the happiness of the musher. That is one reason that Alaskan Huskies are commonly bred with certain types of hounds.
"We tend to breed our best lead dogs who have the confidence, skill, speed and judgment to lead our winter teams over thousands of miles across river ice, tundra, deep snow, gravel bars and every other condition imaginable."
Tours of sled dog kennels and training facilities attract many tourists throughout the year, so it is also important that dogs are sociable, attention-loving and non-aggressive.
Another important characteristic for good sled dogs to have are tough feet that can withstand the severe conditions that races like the Iditarod often demand.
Some dogs, like Siberian Huskies, naturally have tough feet that can handle outdoor racing, according to Mooney. Other times, dogs cannot handle the ice balls and sharp ice crystals that form on a winter track. In those cases, mushers have the option to put booties on their dogs in order to help protect their feet.
However, booties also have their drawbacks such as slowing the dogs down and not providing traction over icy spots.
Therefore, using a dog breed with naturally tough feet that can withstand the tough, icy trails is ideal for mushers.
"We do try to breed dogs that are good eaters as it makes life much easier on the trail if you can trust that your dog team is consuming the calories and water they need to do their job well," Raffaeli said.
Winter racing poses unique challenges that mushers have to overcome in order to make sure that dogs remain healthy. For example, regular water would freeze in Alaska during the winter in any environment that was not temperature controlled. So instead of regular water, mushers often give their dogs a brothy kibble meal or frozen cubes of fat and kibble as snacks on the trail.
"Sled dogs metabolize fats the way humans use carbohydrates," Raffaeli said. "Fats are their quick source of energy and we want to make sure their energy reserves stay high while they are working hard on the trail."
Some dogs are very picky eaters, which would not work in races like the Iditarod where dogs need to be able to eat whatever the mushers can give them to stay healthy and strong under severe weather conditions.