two huskies sled dogs outside

Dogs with Jobs: Sled Dogs 

Author Icon from Laurel Lewis

When Rhonda O’Grady found herself at an Iditarod Kennel’s Mushing 101 class in Alaska six years ago, she became hooked.  



Before this experience, Rhonda had no exposure to sled dog racing. When she returned home to Colorado, she began her search to find a sled dog club to join. She joined Colorado Mountain Mushers and began volunteering then eventually mushing with her son at a Kennel in the Upper Peninsula.  She adopted Huck, a retired sled dog, and started training with her local mushers’ community. Huck eventually became her house dog, and soon after that a retiring musher asked Rhonda to take her team over, and another sprint musher gifted her a very talented lead dog, thus beginning her journey as a sled dog team owner.  sled dog outside with their owner in the mountains

Dog sledding began as a mode of transportation in the sub-zero climates of Siberia in the daily lives of Inuit people who eventually moved to the Arctic. Although dogs were already in North America, the Inuit brought dogs with unique capabilities crucial to survival in this new place around 2,000 years ago. With miles and miles of snow-covered terrain, these dogs were needed to transport humans to areas where they could hunt for food and served as a way get the food back to their families. The use of these dogs, who were uniquely adapted to the lifestyle and acting as a cultural symbol in the North American Arctic, also made the humans’ transition from summer camps to winter camps much more efficient. 

Working Dogs

Rhonda’s dog sled team includes Juno (7 years old, Alaskan Husky, lead dog), Bambi (5 years old, Siberian Husky, tandem lead with Juno), Tonto (4 years old, Siberian Husky, wheel dog), and Pippa (4 years old, Tonto’s sister, wheel dog). These dogs like to pull, play, and have energy to burn. If that sounds familiar to you, even if your dog isn’t a husky, then you have a working dog.  

When Rhonda’s dogs aren’t running with a sled in winter weather, they are training to keep up their routine, fitness, and mental stimulation during the warmer seasons. “Doggie Parkour” is often the exercise of choice for Rhonda’s team, jumping from sawed off tree stump to tree stump in the yard, in addition to running, fetching their favorite KONG toy—the Goodie Bone—and working on simple commands. They use every opportunity they can to work on commands and mutual respect—whether it is sitting and waiting at the door, a gate, the kennel at night, or grooming—every interaction is intentional. These are activities that non-sled dogs can do at home for “work.”  

Watch this video to help you create the right mindset for training your dog at home. 

Intentional play is another exercise that can develop your dog’s “career”—using tugging, fetching, and leash work—which all happen in a typical house dog’s daily routine, during playtime and on walks. Tugging is commonly used for training many different types of working dogs and is easy to implement for any dog. 

A great way to adapt these exercises in your home can be found in this short KONG Classroom video! 

A few sled dogs practicing, while connected to an ATV in the mountainsAs temperatures drop to around 40 degrees, Rhonda’s dogs can be found training on backcountry dirt roads in front of an ATV or dog scooter. The dogs do not pull the ATV, rather, it is used to condition them back into running season while they are in formation on the gangline. The gangline, or towline, connects the dogs to the sled, ATV, or Dry Land Rig.  Here is where the paws hit the trail and all of the mutual respect, bonding, and training pay off.   

From this point, the sled dogs run the trail with voice commands.  The sled team captain can lean to shift their weight on the sled, which gives physical cues to turn, but the leading sled dog(s) respond to voice commands of the captain to make decisions about which way to go, speed control, passing other teams or obstacles, crossing creeks, and stopping. 

Each training day begins around 6am, before breakfast for dogs and humans. They start out around eight miles per hour and work up to 12-14mph. The first run of the season starts at 1.5-2 miles distance with lots of hills and increases to racing distances (10 miles or so) over time. Running the dogs with an ATV at the beginning of the season is great for muscle development and losing the extra pounds they gained over the summer.  

As temperatures become progressively colder, Rhonda uses a sled that weighs from 25-35 pounds. The dogs get really excited about racing by barking, howling, and jumping high in the air. When running begins, the excitement transfers into the sound of their breath and heavy paw thumps as they run through the snow.  

At the end of the run is when Rhonda senses the most enjoyment from her pack, with the adrenaline rush from a race well run and the bonding that cements their relationship. She will often sit with her dogs, giving them water and treats, as they climb into her lap to snuggle, simply hang out, and even tend to some self-care: Each team member gets a massage and stretching session after training runs and races. 

“When people engage with our club [at events] or see me running my dogs on the road, they stop and ask how I do it, how I exercise my dogs. That opens the door for people to feel comfortable going outside the box [of their typical activities with their dog] and fostering a deeper connection with their dog. It’s all about education—in helping others connect and giving their dogs a fulfilled life. It helps translate the relationship I have with my dogs to the general population’s relationship with their dogs.” 

So, what makes a working dog? sled dogs connected to an ATV practicing outside in the mountains

If you think your dog needs a job, that doesn’t mean you have to find a mushers’ club to join, although we won’t discourage it! But it does mean that giving your dog a “job” might help you and your dog better manage their energy and give them purpose in life. It also means creating a deeper connection between you and your dog.  

Make your dog’s job fun!  

Give them a silly job title, like CEO of Tugging, or Executive Ball Retriever, and make it a priority to train them for this job using the right tools – toys, treats, leashes, clickers, etc.  

One thing to know… 

When asked if there is one thing she wanted readers to know about having a dog, Rhonda says, “Be present with your dog, however you decide to do it, for some amount of time every day. Off your phone, with your dog.” 

We want to thank Rhonda O’Grady and her dogs for teaching us about their working dog lifestyle, and thank Colorado Mountain Mushers Club and Rocky Mountain Sled Dog Club for sharing what they love with folks all over Colorado and the US.  

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