Recreational Dog Sledding – How To Start

Here in our area of the country, it’s time to start thinking about introducing our new dogs to pulling a sled. We use the ELSA kick sled that was originally designed for humans but has been adapted for dogs and works very well. (This is not a sponsored post and we do not receive any compensation for writing about this.)

JoJo is our new dog, an Australian Shepherd. She has a good activity level and I feel she will be a good puller. Being a fairly small Aussie, she won’t be pulling by herself, but when starting to train a recreational sled dog, I like to begin by working with one dog at a time. Even if the dog is already experienced at pulling someone or something, I start that way.

Most dogs, if they are over about 30 pounds can pull a sled, along with other dogs of course depending on the weight to be pulled. The maximum weight for a dog to pull should not exceed twice his own weight. That also depends on the dog and her fitness level. To determine this weight, use you head.

FYI!: Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means we get a small amount of money if you make a purchase. This does NOT cost you anything and you can click on it to check it out first, but it helps to support this blog so I can keep proving free dog training information.  We really appreciate your help! I only put links for products that I use myself for my dogs.

Starting Out

All training for pulling a sled, or a human on skis, should be kept as upbeat and positive as possible (which actually means no corrections at all), and if a dog shows little/no or reduced interest in pulling after all the correct training has been done, then that dog should not be required to pull at all.

Never try to force your dog to pull. It will not work.

If you have a sledding breed you may have less trouble encouraging the pull. However, you can also ruin a sledding breed dog with improper training and handling or over working.

Harness Fitting

The first thing to do is find a harness that fits the dog well. This is easy. There are many pet stores that carry these. You can take your dog in to the store and do the fitting right there. Don’t buy one if it doesn’t fit well.

You can also find them online and most are pretty good with sizing. Another option is having a sledding outfit custom make you one. You measure your dog, send in those measurements, pay, and then get sent your harness.

All of these are appropriate ways to get good fitting harnesses. If you are a good sewer and a do-it-your-selfer you can make a harness. There are many excellent articles and videos online to help you with this.


The following blog post by UBERPEST is one of the best I have found: DIY Dog Sled Harness.

A harness should not be too tight around the dog’s neck. You will need to get his head through the opening without a struggle. The bottom of the “Y” in the neck area needs to be on the dog’s chest so he can lean into it well. The end of the harness should reach to the base of your dog’s tail and go no farther. The middle, main part should be slightly snug on the dog’s body when the dog is pulling, but definitely not tight.

Working Only On The Weekends

Sometimes a dog is taken out to pull and have fun with the family only on the weekends. This is not recommended, as a dog who is only exercised on the weekends is not in shaping for pulling. This can also make a dog hate pulling. If you are only going to have time to do sledding with your dog on the weekends, don’t do it.

You MUST practice during the week to condition and train your dog properly.

If you are already doing some running sports with your dog or dogs during the week, that will help, but there needs to be at least one sledding training session during that time, preferably two. They only need to last for a short time and can substitute for another sport or activity like disc or fetch if done properly.

To sum this up, use you head about your dog’s condition and don’t overdo anything.

How I Start Training

When I am training a new dog, I simply take her out on a harness and allow her to pull. When we walk we always allow the dogs to sniff. That generally results in pulling. I don’t use neck collars to walk my dogs anymore. If I don’t want pulling, I use a front attach harness. You can teach your dog to walk nicely and sniff (which is what walks are for – the dog to sniff) using a front attach harness and pull using a back-attach harness.

These are two different behaviours.

I like to make this distinction because we sled. Some people won’t be sledding and will prefer to use a back attach harness for walking. That is fine.

Here is a video that shows the difference between these two and how to train. It is do-able.

Letting your dog pull and sniff is not completely ideal because you don’t want your dog to learn to sniff while sledding. However, this will not likely happen since sledding is such an exciting activity that once you start training for real, your dog will forget all about sniffing (hopefully).

The pulling that I am letting my dog do here is to help condition her and learn to lean into the harness. You are essentially rewarding your dog for pulling by moving forward towards whatever she is sniffing.

This is only the beginning. You will want to do this several times (if you dog doesn’t already know this behaviour 😉), to make sure there is some understanding that pulling is good with this particular harness on. Also do many session with a front attach harness so that your dog can more easily make the distinction between pulling and not pulling and when to do it.

So find a good fitting harness, locate and purchase a sled (or whatever you are going to use such as skis) and start letting your dog pull in the new sledding harness on short walks attached to a leash. Don’t panic if your dog is sniffing a lot and not pulling. ALL TRAINING TAKES TIME.

This is the method I use. If you would prefer to use another method you are welcome to.

The next training steps are too detailed to go into in this post, so I will leave them for the next one.

For those of you who are anxious to keep going, here are some video links to help you out if you wish.

How To Teach Your Dog Do Wear Boots

Teach Your Dog Sledding Cues Part 1

Teach Your Dog To Pull A Sled Part 1

Have Fun!


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