Sleddog Racing without the snow-you must be joking! 

How often do you get that response when you try telling someone that you spend every spare minute, training, playing and thinking about your dog team?

More than once! 

I think the most important piece of single advise I could give would you can only get out of your dogs what you put in. 

We started six years ago with two "pet" dogs. I say pet dogs because when we bought our first dog then 6 months later our second we never had any intention of racing. It was only by chance that a guy where I was working at the time also had huskies and suggested giving it go. Well I was hooked and of course the dogs loved it. 

There are a few reasons why I think we have been so successful from the start. I came from a track background and understood the need to train and how to vary it. I also made a point of phoning mushers, I read about in Mushing Magazine, and asking them "how do I make my dogs run faster?", "What I should be feeding them" "Should I weight train?".  

When we started in the UK there was very little science behind racing. I remember only a few would bait water to encourage dogs to drink prior to racing and most raced with 60lb rigs, for example. We came out with a 22lb rig and now all the top runners use light weight race rigs. Alone the way we have been quite controversial because of our desire to make what most regarded as a weekend pastime, a sport. But very quickly people began changing the way the trained and prepared for races, when they saw how much difference good training can make especially when a complete newcomer was beating them by minutes! Others of course didn't want to change and this does cause bad feeling towards us as a group, sometimes.

 The basics for gig racing are not much different from sled training. The difference of course is a lack of snow, so we cannot go as far, before feet problems would begin to be a problem, for example.  

J-M Littman with his four dog Championship winning team 1997

My season starts off 3-4 months before my first race, weather allowing. I never run above 12C if I can help it. This season the first 4 weeks were written off because it was too warm, and the damage you can do to a dog if it overheats is irreversible. In a lab test a dog could run 2hrs before reaching a point near to overheating. The day he went over that point, then next run he overheated in 10 minutes! It took 2 years for that dog to get back to 90% of his original condition and never recovered to his previous state.

The reason why we start early is because it takes along time to work a dog up to full fitness without making mistakes and risking injury. If we can control our own and our dogs impatience then we have half the battle won!

The early runs are made fun with no pressure. Short runs of maybe two miles for a 4-6 dog team, for a 2-dog team maybe 1-1.5 miles. This is all heavy work. I use an ATV for pretty much all my training. It weighs 180kg plus my body weight, and though the engine is running I use the gears to create more resistance or to help them out up hills. The speeds are kept low a maximum of 15-16 mph. I stop the team on the run, walk up to the line and generally interact with them. Don't let them get away with anything though. We'll run 2-3 times a week at this point again if we miss a run or if a dog's off colour, it isn't the end of the world.

A month in we've upped the mileage, assuming the dogs are training up well. The runs are now mixed up with longer interval runs. We run a little faster until they start to slow, then down to a trotting pace or walking then keep them there for a few minutes or as long as it takes them to start pushing then give them the Hike command, and let them go again. This builds up stamina and strength.

You don't have to train over distance in fact some might say that you should only train 3/4 race distance.

Commands are important. Lead training is a different ball game, so I will only suggest you buy or borrow an old leader and work up new dogs this way. I find it useful to emphasis the command by giving them a "ready" command, before calling them to "get up" or to "hike" i.e. speed up! It's important to use this when you start and when to interval train as it will click in and you can use it in a race to up the pace. 

Around six weeks before the first race we will start some speed training. Lightweight rigs, our training rig weighs 35lbs, but we still use interval training, but higher speeds. You must always watch your dogs. Study the y way they run, who's working, whose tug isn't tight. Single the dog out and call his name and call him to "get up". You may find that some of your leaders aren't on the pace and maybe a younger dog will be better paced for up front. You're only as fast as your slowest dog but you should have your fastest dogs up front. So long as they will respond to gee/haws!

Train for the race. If its a two day race train two days on then two days off then maybe three days on, and two days off. Try and train on the race trail (if possible) if not try and train on the same terrain and surface. Teams that always train on the flat won't do it on the hills and to a slighter degree the reverse is true. 

Remember to rest your dogs as well. After a run it's useful to allow your dogs to stretch out. Don't throw them back in their boxes and not take them out for a few hours. If you can let them free run (sibes in a fenced area!) terrific, it helps them cool down and cuts down on injuries.

The dogs can be 60% of the success of the team 30% is training and 10% is nutrition.

You need to feed the best you can. High quality feeds are good and for the newcomer is without doubt the only choice. But the best mushers feed a mixture of both meat and complete. Balancing a meat-based diet needs careful research and work. I don't recommend it unless you are completely clued up on nutrition and are able to lab test your diet. You can cause far more many problems by getting wrong than you can from meat. Meat supplies vary so much and following someone's diet in Alaska isn't going make the same in your home country.  

On dogs well we have always competed at the top with firstly two pet dogs then more recently specifically breed racing dogs. You can't really expect compete with a show line dog against a true working line such as Igloo Pak or Zero. A different purpose was meant for both types, neither is wrong and it's upped to you what you want to do with your dogs. Always breed the best or buy the best. Breeding two average dogs will only make average puppies. If there isn't anything worth breeding from or you need new blood look to import, maybe look into frozen straws (artificial insemination).

At the end of the day it purely down to your own enjoyment and your dogs. Not everyone can win and winning is such a fickle thing it probably isn't worth it!

Everyone can always improve and learn and the best are always doing that.  

J-M Littman - Musher
Based in Herefordshire (25 miles north of London)
3 time British Champion 2 & 4 dog
11th in the 6 dog 1994 World championships - racing with Terry Streeper
16th in the 6 dog 1997 Limited N American Championships - racing with Terry Streeper
President of the British Mushers Association

Return to main index