Whether you are a highly competitive musher or if you just love getting outdoors with your dog on a quite country road or trail with your scooter, skis, toboggan or sled it is important to keep your dog in shape all year round. Pulling, especially combined with long periods of physical exertion is very physically demanding on a dog and so working slowly up into condition and staying there is really the healthiest and safest option.
There are two different types of sled dog events and conditioning for either one is slightly different. Weight pulling types of events require the dog to make tremendous bursts of energy expenditure, pulling incredible weights short distances across a finish line. Racing events or the traditional dog sledding events require a different kind of conditioning. These dogs have to be able to run up to 80 miles or more a day across all types of conditions from sub zero weather through to snow and ice storms.
Most people that use their dogs for non-competitive types of harness events such as pulling scooters, bikes, smaller wagons or even kid's sleds aren't going to require their dogs to face either of the two very challenging conditions mentioned above. However, just like people, dogs need to slowly get into shape to avoid muscle and skeletal damage that can be significant and debilitating if they are incorrectly conditioned and trained.
Always start your dog off at a very simple level. This applies even for the most in shape and athletic dogs that are already used to several hours of exercise and running per day. The additional physical stress of actually pulling weight will increase the workout for the dog, even if you are on a scooter, bike, wagon or sled.
Although some dogs are capable of starting a load, which means actually getting it moving from a dead stop, this is often a very difficult task. This is because without momentum or the directed application of the weight of the object, it really is a dead load on the harness. A thirty to fifty pound dog can easily moved a wheeled cart, bike, scooter or even a runnered sled once it is moving, even with an adult on board. The same dog simply cannot start the load moving without a bit of help.
This is often the time when dogs injury themselves when being asked to do too much. Never ask a dog that is not trained for weight pulling or when starting a heavier than normal load to do it on his or her own or even as a team if the load is more than the weight of the dog or dogs. Always start the load moving by pushing or getting off the sled or wagon, then addition your weight once the object is in motion.
Starting dogs off with light weights and loads is also important. This may include using bags of sand or other specifically weighted items so you are sure exactly how much weight the dogs are being asked to run with or start.
Another key component of conditioning sled dogs for competition or fun types of activities is to take a close look at their diet. Dogs that constantly running and working require a higher quality of food with more protein and slightly more fat, especially if the dogs are being used in cold conditions. Many competitive sled dogs are fed natural BARF diets, which means they are given raw meats, meaty bones, natural fats, vegetables and small amounts of fruits, whole grains and additional mineral supplements if necessary. These types of diets are very high in protein but also in all the natural, healthy ingredients that dogs would be eating if they weren't living in a nice warm house.
The dog's feet are also in need of conditioning until they reach the point where they are literally as tough as the soles of shoes. Even very experienced competitive sled dogs typically will wear some type of protective boots on their feet when on the very long and grueling races and runs. New dogs just getting started, especially those dogs that have been indoor dogs or rarely run on hard surfaces will need time to build up the pads of their feet.
Walking and running a dog on pavement can be brutal on the dog for two reasons. The first is that the slight friction of the movement of the foot against the pavement will literally act as sandpaper over even a short distance, resulting in very painful, bleeding feet. The second is that the pavement doesn't provide any cushioning or natural bounce, resulting in greater shock to the joints and skeleton. This is the same issue with humans that run on pavement, but dogs can't simply by a better quality of running shoe to cope with the problem.
Slowly working your dog into greater physical condition while toughening up the pads of their feet can be done by increasing walking and running duration and intensity on the same type of surface you will be running them on with the sled, scooter or wagon. In addition adding a lighter load and working up to a heavier load will also help with preventing significant foot and leg problems from developing.
One thing to keep in mind is that dogs, unlike humans, don't know when to quit. A dog will keep on trying as long as the master or handler is asking for the dog to go forward. It is absolutely essential for those starting their dog out on any type of fitness routine or conditioning program to be able to realistically assess the physical strain that the dog is under and stop before the dog is exhausted or causes some type of injury.
Signs of fatigue in a sled dog getting into condition include excessive panting, wheezing, coughing, muscle shaking, lack of coordination, tripping or staggering. Excessive drooling, confusion, vomiting or high levels of anxiety may indicate heat stroke or dehydration, both very serious conditions. Always stop and provide water for your dog several times an hour when they are being worked and never exercise the dogs in the heat of the day or in extremely humid and warm conditions.