R+ Recreational Dog Sledding – Starting Out

Here in our area of the country, fall is 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 youngest 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 on a sled should not exceed twice his own weight. That also depends on the dog and her fitness level. To determine this weight, use your thinking cap.

Starting Out

Traditional dog sledding has developed a negative association with how dogs are treated when being trained, not to mention how the dogs are often treated. Many people, mushers included, believe that dogs need to be treated harshly to train them to pull a sled.

This is simply hogwash.

A dog can be taught everything he needs to be able to pull a recreational dog sled (and much more) WITHOUT USING FORCE TO TRAIN.

All training for pulling a sled, or a human on skis, can be kept as upbeat and positive as possible (which means no corrections at all and using food rewards). 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. Not all dogs were cut out to be sled dogs. It is not appropriate to “test” a dog out by over-working him to see if he’ll how he does on a sled without proper training. How about simply doing the proper training instead, without forcing a dog to pull.

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 quite easy since there are many pet stores that carry sledding harnesses. 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 for purchase 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.

Conditioning Your Dog

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 shape 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.

This is only the cardio fitness part. Proper conditioning requires that you work other muscles by doing certain stretches and strengthening exercises. This can be done by visiting a canine fitness trainer to get a program made up for your dog, taking a canine fitness class (could be online or in person), or learning on your own however you may want to do this.

Always have your dog checked by a vet before starting any kind of exercise program, even if you think your dog is fit. Injury can be avoided with preparation and careful consideration to what you are asking your dog to do.

Putting On The Harness

In order to get a dog to love pulling there are several things you need to do.

You will need to have your dog be completely comfortable in the sledding harness before you do any pulling training. This means your dog must “allow” you to easily put the harness on, without being scared or uncomfortable with it. This can be done by using desensitization and counter conditioning if your dog already doesn’t like it, or by slowly and carefully putting a harness on – progressively – while feeding food rewards at the same time in order to create a positive association with the harness.

Start training inside your home, which is where you should really start training any behaviour, using no distractions and lots of yummy food rewards.

Teach your dog to stand still to have the harness put over his head by teaching your dog to stand on a platform or mat first. By doing this, your dog will learn that standing still is very rewarding. Read about how to make and use a platform HERE.

You will be facing your dog for this.  Hold the harness in an open position with the head opening and the back opening together in a kind of circle. The tail end of the harness needs to flog over to the front for a second so your dog’s head doesn’t go through it. Slip this over your dog’s head and then turn and face the same direction as your dog. You may straddle your dog if you have done training for this and your dog is comfortable with this position.

You don’t want your dog to be uncomfortable during this process.

Many dogs are wary of having people, even their humans at first, stand or hover over them. Do this training before your start with the harness.

Below is a video showing how to put the harness on properly (beginning of the video). In this video I am not using a mat, but with my new dogs, I have used one to train the standing still behaviour.

Once your dog is happy about the sledding harness, you will likely not have much if any trouble teaching her to pull. If your dog hates the harness because of a previous association, it is going to be difficult to teach her to enjoy sledding.

Pulling and Walking On Leash

You also want your dog to distinguish between PULLING and WALKING ON LEASH WITHOUT PULLING. When we walk we always allow the dogs to sniff. If not properly trained, that generally results in pulling.  If I don’t want pulling, I use a front attach harness and do the proper training. 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 to pull using a back-attach harness.

These are two different and separate 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 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).

Let Your Dog Pull In The Harness

This initial training is done ON LEASH – not attached to the sled.

This pulling is to help condition a dog and learn to lean into the harness. You are essentially rewarding your dog for pulling by moving forward towards whatever she is sniffing. If your dog is used to walking beside you on leash, and continues to do that while in a sledding harness, You will need to enlist some help. Ask someone who knows your dog and your dog likes to stand several feet away from you and your dog. Get that person to call your dog. Let your dog pull you towards this person. Get the person to reward your dog with food.

This will start to create a positive association with pulling and facing away from you which some dogs have issues with, mostly due to training. If your dog doesn’t have a problem with this, count yourself lucky and start working on this pulling behaviour. you may also want to give the pulling behaviour a cue such as “go” or “hike” (traditional sledding word).  Just before your dog starts to pull towards your helper, say the cue word. I use “GO!”.

To Sum Up

This is only the beginning. You will want to do this many times (if your 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 sessions with a front attach walking harness so that your dog can more easily make the distinction between pulling and not pulling (walking) and when to do it.

So, find a good fitting harness, locate and purchase a recreational dog 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. Remember! Don’t attach your inexperienced dog to the sled just yet. And 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.

Go here for the next lesson in sledding.

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!