How Many Dogs Are On A Sled Team? [Answered]

Dogsledding is both a pastime and a viable means of transportation across the frozen expanse of the Alaskan wilderness. It’s also a beloved sport which is practiced across the far Northern hemisphere. 

So as you might expect, how many dogs you will find on a sled team varies depending on the length of the race or duration of the expedition being undertaken. Individuals wishing to keep the culture of dogsledding alive can have as few as 2 dogs on a team, but expeditions and long-duration races can utilize up to 24 dogs per team.  

The iconic Iditarod race for example requires teams of up to 16 dogs to carry human athletes between aid stations for around 10 days and nights – sleeping in the snow whenever a chance presents itself. 

Whereas up to 24 dogs are used to haul the bulky equipment and materials needed for a fully self-sufficient setup that provides for tourists or explorers. 

Do all sled dog teams have the same number of dogs?

Knowing that a lone dog has enough power to pull a light sled for a short duration helps provide a context around the different size of sled dog teams. 

There is no universal standard for the number of dogs that are required to form a sled team. Race organizers can and do set a limit on the minimum and maximum number of dogs, however these range from 2 – 18 across different categories of the competition. 

Outside of the racing scene, recreational teams or teams operated for tourism purposes also 

The number of dogs used to form a sled team is directly related to various factors including:

  • How much weight the dogs are being asked to pull. 
  • The distance planned to be covered by the sled team. 
  • The terrain over which the route will take. Deep snow is energy sapping to run through.
  • The weather forecast. Too warm and the dogs will tire quickly.
  • The breed of the dog being used to pull. The balance of power and endurance is crucial when forming your team. Some sled dog breeds are more powerful than others.

Roles in a dog sled team  

Dog sledding teams, regardless of their size, have specific roles for every dog. Here are the different positions on a tow line, as well as the characteristics that a dog in that position should have:

  • Lead dog – Sometimes called “leader,” this dog runs in front of the other dogs. It must be fast, smart, instinctive, and obedient. The lead dog is responsible for carrying out verbal commands given by the musher. The other dogs must respect the lead dog.
  • Double lead – Occasionally, two dogs will run side by side and both act as lead dog. The dogs obviously must work together well and have all the characteristics of a single lead dog.
  • Swing dogs – This pair of dogs is placed directly behind the lead dog. They are called “left swing” and “right swing” individually. They must also be intelligent, as they listen to the commands and help the lead dogs set the pace. One of their unique functions is assisting the rest of the team when going around turns, aka “swinging” the team.
  • Wheelers or wheel dogs – Wheelers are larger dogs that are positioned the back of the team, right in front of the sled. Strong and determined, these dogs must be able to pull the sled out of tight spots and around obstacles, helping the musher to keep the sled balanced.
  • Team dogs – The rest of the dogs on the tow line are simply called team dogs. They must possess power and endurance and have a good disposition for following the lead of the leaders and swing dogs.

Frequently asked questions

What sled dog race requires the largest teams? 

Sledding almost died out in the 1960s after the invention of the snowmobile. In late 60s, the Iditarod was founded to preserve the culture of sled dog racing, and the tradition has been going strong ever since.

Many people wonder about the types of dogs that compete in the Iditarod. 

Alaskan Husky is the predominant breed used in sledding, although it is not a recognized breed.

There is currently no breed restriction, although Huskies are naturally suited to sledding conditions. Siberian Huskies, Eskimo dogs, Samoyeds and Malamutes are also commonly used as sled dogs.

Dogs don’t necessarily have to carry any breed characteristics to compete. To protect the dogs, several physical conditions must be satisfied, including adequate body type to withstand extreme weather, sufficient muscle mass, and proof of vaccinations.

Teams can be made up of a single breed or several different breeds of dogs. More important than breed is the health of the animals and their personality traits, which we’ll explain in the next section.

How do you drive a sled team?

You may think that a dog sled is driven like a team of mules or a horse drawn carriage, but that actually isn’t how mushers command their dogs.

Although the dogs wear harnesses and are attached to the center tow line by individual tug lines, they are not driven by reins.

The musher does have a pedal that controls a snow hook. This simple device acts as a brake for the sled. It is only meant to slow the sled or hold it still for a short time. Otherwise, the dogs are in control of the sled.

The musher communicates with the dogs verbally, using commands such as:

  • Whoa – Stop
  • Mush or hike – Let’s go
  • Gee – Right
  • Haw – Left
  • Come gee – 180° right turn
  • Come haw – 180° left turn
  • On by – Ignore a distraction or pass another sled team

This is why the lead dog or dogs must be not only intelligent, but also obedient.

Disobedient dogs are usually not a problem out on the trail, though. The dogs are thoroughly trained and love racing as much as — if not more than — their humans do!

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