If you have a sled dog breed or if you just want to see if old Fido really could pull a sled there are several different options to consider when buying a harness and sled. In general sleds are designed without wheels, sleds with wheels are more commonly called wagons or scooters, depending on the style. Wagons tend to have four or more wheels and may be almost like a go-cart in design, while a scooter is exactly like a traditional non-motorized type kick scooter with thick, small durable types of tires.
Scooters and wagons are a good way to condition a sled dog all year round, even if there isn't any snow. True sleds can only be used on snow and ice since the friction would be simply too great to be an effective training or conditioning program in the warmer months of the year when there is no snow.
Generally there are two basic types of harnesses. Individual harnesses that are designed for one dog and team harnesses which are designed for more than one dog. There are several options for team harnesses but really only one basic design for an individual dog's harness. Within these two types there are four different styles, an H-back, Y-back or X-back and then a freight harness.
A single harness for a dog can be relatively simple to make on your own, but here are great commercially available options. The harness needs to have a wide breastplate with padding as well as a secure way to position the harness on the dog to avoid slipping but also to avoid creating pressure or pulling on the dog's body. This is developed by the type of "back" indicated in the name of the harness.
Most freight harnesses are very similar to a one dog harness. One dog harnesses are perfect if you want to hook up your dog to a sled or wheeled vehicle but you don't want to race or compete in any speed types of events. The freight harness is designed to be heavier and more durable, ideal for a dog that will be pulling a cart or sled that has some weight associated with the load. This may be a child, adult or even some supplies as you hike or jog.
The H-back harness is most common seen on freight types of harnesses since there are straps that go around the dog's body and, with the two side pieces running from the breastplate, they resemble a repetitive H shape or a ladder. This secures the harness to the dog's body, preventing slippage when the dog is trying to get a load moving from a dead stop. The H-harness may, however, be more restrictive for a dog that is running as would be expected in a racing or competitive type of event.
In the same way, an X-back harness has the straps crossing over the back of the dog, forming an X in the pattern of the harness. These harnesses tend to be less restrictive of the ribcage area of the dog and also more comfortable for the dog to wear when running. The design provides even pressure over the body, since these dogs don't have to pull heavy loads or start from a dead stop.
The Y-back harness is the same idea, with even fewer straps to cause any type of restriction of movement. In general the Y-back harness is often used with single dogs when pulling a handler on skis, a sport known as skijoring, or on a scooter or other type of smaller device. The position of the Y allows for the lead line to immediately angle upwards, preventing any pressure on the dog from this non-standard type of positioning.
Team harnesses can be any of the patterns or types mentioned above, but instead of each dog's harness being connected to the sled or wagon, they are connected to a line, known as a gangline, in pairs in most types of racing and freight harness rigs. This gangline is then connected to the sled, allowing the maximum pull of all the dogs on the sled. There is also the option to use a fan hitch, in which each dog is directly connected to the sled. The dogs are literally in a fan shape, which can make moving across woody or difficult terrain more of a challenge. The tandem harness allows the dogs to stay in the same path and also maximize their combined strength and effort.
In these larger teams, most commonly associated with competitive types of racing, slightly different harnesses may be used. The two dogs closest to the sled, known as the wheel dogs, are typically the strongest dogs, using their weight to "break out" the sled when needed. This means that these two dogs typically have a heavier harness to cushion their chest when pulling to free the sled runners from ice or deep snow.
Unlike a horse's harness, freight or racings harnesses for dogs don't have reins, so there is no need to worry about that. The dogs are controlled by voice commands as well as braking mechanisms on the sled, scooter or wagon. In some teams there may be as many as twenty dogs, but often a team will consist of 12 dogs or less. They are evenly spaced in pairs along the gangline with several feet between each pair.
Generally most of the modern harnesses used in competitive and recreational dog sledding, skijoring, scootering or driving are made of a very durable nylon material. It is much stronger than leather and is very fast drying, important in below freezing weather. These harnesses are also much lighter than traditional leather, taking additional weight off the dogs when they are trying to compete over eighty or more miles of traveling per day.
Newer models of harnesses are also developed for dog safety as well as. Testing to eliminate stress on the major muscle groups has developed more ergonomically balanced harnesses that prevent pressure points and sores from developing. Measuring your dog correctly and ensuring that the harness is a correct fit will be essential in keeping your dog healthy and happy in his or her new sport.