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How To Get A Job On A Alaskan Dog Sledding Team

Updated on March 30, 2013

Learn The Basics

Set out into the wilderness...
Set out into the wilderness...

Getting Started

Do you love dogs as much as I do and want to live in the beautiful state of Alaska? Maybe joining a dog sledding team is just the ticket then. Learn all aspects of dog sledding working for one of the local kennels and enjoy the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness.

In the last several years, a number of entrepreneurs have begun to offer sled dog rides to the general public. For the more serious adventurer, daily and weekly sled dog trips are also offered in and around Denali National Park, Fairbanks and on the Kenai Peninsula. Backcountry trips allow the visitor to try it all from driving the sled to caring for the dogs and winter camping or staying at a remote lodge. These experiences range from a short ride in the sled up to and including traveling the entire length of the Iditarod trail, mushing dogs and learning a way of life all but forgotten.

If you want to be a knowledgeable observer and not branded immediately as a "cheechako" or greenhorn, it helps to be aware of the commands the musher uses and the names and positions of the members of the team. Unlike racing horses, there are no reins or other mechanical connections between musher and dog for transmitting the musher's wishes to the dogs- it's all done by voice. Basic commands include "Hike" to get going, "Whoa" to stop, "Gee" to turn right, and "Haw" to turn left. In a dog team, the dogs first in line are the lead dogs, followed immediately by the two swing dogs. The wheel dogs are the ones just in front of the sled, and any animals in between wheel and swing are the team dogs.

All of the races make extensive use of volunteer labor, and you can sign up for any number of jobs where you'll learn to handle dogs, provide help in setting up and taking down race courses, work in communications or computers-the possibilities are numerous. Long distance races like the Iditarod and the Quest especially depend on a small army of volunteers to help administer the race, and prior knowledge of dog racing is not required. No matter what your age or level of physical fitness, there's something you can do to help and be a part of this spectacular Alaskan enterprise. Of course if you have specialized knowledge, all the better, but there's literally room for everyone where volunteers are concerned.

Though working for one of the kennels may not pay well, if you feel the way I do, money is not everything in this world. I’ll take a spectacular sunset and majestic mountains over a crisp dollar bill any day. Also, working with animals, especially dogs, has it’s own rewards as well.

As with any sort of entry level job, you may not be jumping right into your own sled and team of dogs, but will have the opportunity to learn and develop the skills required to do so. You will learn all the properties of training and racing sled dogs. Also learn about ATVs, jet boats, and how to maintain off the grid, living in the bush. Not all positions would be for a racing team however. There are a number of small businesses that offer these sort of openings for different purposes. Some are fishing lodges which use dog sledding as a primary means of travel. Also, survival training lodges and guided expeditions have a demand. As always, a love for animals and the outdoors are the primary requirement for these positions.

Get to know the types of dogs you will be handling and caring for. There are several different breeds that you may be dealing with that have their own unique needs and behavior.

The dogs...

Alaskan Huskie

Alaskan Huskies are usually somewhat larger than Siberian Huskies. Alaskan Huskies are usually leaner in build than Siberians. Siberians often have blue or any combination of blue and brown eyes, whereas Alaskan Huskies often have brown eyes.

Alaskan Huskies are primarily bred as working dogs. They have greater endurance in sled racing than Siberian Huskies do. Gentle and playful, this cheerful dog is very fond of his or her family. A puppy at heart, they are clever, sociable and loving, easy-going and docile, though they do generally have a lot of energy, especially as puppies. Good with children and friendly with strangers, they are not watchdogs, for they bark little and love everyone. Huskies are very intelligent and trainable, but they have a mind of their own and will only obey a command if they see the point and if you do not display leadership, they will not see the point in obeying you. Training takes patience, consistency and an understanding of the Arctic dog character. If you are not this dog’s 100% firm, confident, consistent pack leader, he will take advantage if he can, becoming willful and mischievous. Huskies make excellent jogging companion, as long as it is not too hot. Huskies may be difficult to housebreak. This breed likes to howl and gets bored easily. They do not like to be left alone, so if this is the breed for you, you may want to consider having two. A lonely Husky, or a Husky that does not get enough mental and physical exercise can become very destructive. Remember that the Husky is a sled dog in heart and soul. They are good with other pets if they are raised with them from puppyhood. Huskies are thrifty eaters and need less food than you might expect. This breed likes to roam. Alaskan Huskies can make wonderful companions for people who are aware of what to expect from these beautiful and intelligent animals. Although there are exceptions to every rule, there are a number of breed characteristics that are generally present among members of this Arctic breed.

Alaskan Huskies are carefully bred to produce the best working dogs possible. The breeding of the Alaskan Husky are planned breeding and are technically pedigreed, however they are not consider pure and are not registered by the AKC or CKC because they are sometimes crossed with other Northern and non-Northern breeds to produce the best working dogs possible.

Alaskan Malamute

The Alaskan Malamute is the largest of the Arctic dogs. This thick, well-built dog is solid with a plumed tail that is held over the back. The head is wide with erect ears. The eyes are of medium size, dark brown small, and almond in shape and are obliquely placed in the skull. The dog holds an image of a wolf but with a proud, sweet expression. Dark eyes are preferred; blue eyes are a fault according to the written standard. The feet are large, of the snowshoe type with tough pads. The thick, coarse double coat averages one to three inches in length and comes in a range of light gray to intermediate shadings of black, sable and shadings of sable to red. Combinations include wolf gray, black and white, wolf sable (red undercoat with dark gray outer coat) or red. The only solid color allowed is white. The dog often has darker highlights and sometimes has a dark mask or cap. The legs and muzzle are almost always white. In some areas, dogs may be either smaller or larger than the official standard.

The Alaskan Malamute is extremely loyal and intelligent, sweet and most affectionate toward its master. Great with children who are old enough to play with him safely. If its canine instincts are met, it matures into a dignified and mellow adult dog. They are very friendly and therefore are not suitable as guard dogs. Malamutes are happiest living outdoors as long as they receive enough companionship, but they also enjoy living indoors where their human "pack" lives. Without firm leadership and daily mental and physical exercise, these dogs may become destructive nuisances, acting like big, rambunctious puppies. In one case, a single dog ruined an entire living room of furniture valued at $15,000 in just three hours! Malamutes love outdoor activities and even do well in obedience with firm encouragement. Although it can be difficult to train Malamutes for formal obedience, it is not particularly hard to train them to be well-mannered because they love to please. Males can be very dominant. This breed needs the humans around him to be firm, confident and consistent pack leaders. Some dogs may be difficult to housebreak. This breed is a thrifty feeder and needs less food than you might expect. However they do tend to wolf down whatever is offered, which can lead to obesity and bloat. Malamutes are quiet compared to most dogs but they do like to howl and dig. This breed should be supervised around unfamiliar small animals, as they have a strong prey instinct. This does not mean they are not good with small animals; some Malamutes have been known to raise small kittens as their own. Both sexes can be combative with other dogs, especially with the same sex and breed and firm handling and training are necessary to curb this. Proper socialization with people and other dogs is imperative. Obedience training is highly recommended.

The Alaskan Malamute is a Nordic sled dog descended from the Arctic wolf. Its name comes from Malamutes, an Alaskan tribe that raised and cared for these beautiful snow dogs. Originally used 2000 to 3000 years ago by these Mahlemuit Eskimos of Alaska, these highly valued dogs were their only form of transportation. These amazing dogs have strength and endurance with a will to work. They pulled not only light traveling sleds, but they also hauled heavy loads of food and supplies for the Arctic people. Packs of Malamutes have participated in many polar expeditions, for which they are particularly well adapted due to their tenacity, sense of direction, and excellent sense of smell. They have appeared as unforgettable characters in the stories of Jack London and Rudyard Kipling. The Malamute went with Admiral Byrd's expeditions to the South Pole. The Alaskan Malamute is cousins with the Arctic breeds Siberian Husky, Samoyed, and the American Eskimo dog. Some of the Alaskan Malamute's talents are sledding, carting, search and rescue, weight pulling and racing.

Chinook

The Chinook has a compact muscular frame that well suits this gentle sled dog. The body is well balanced; the chest is deep; moderate bone and flexible musculature are prominent. The skin on the head is tight with no wrinkles. The stop is moderate and there is a furrow running vertically from the stop to the occiput. The muzzle is powerful and the teeth are enduring. The breed's ear carriage, rather wind-blown and bending, gives the dogs a curious and entreating glint; however, the ears can also be pricked up. The nose has large wide nostrils, should be solid black, and project slightly over the mouth. The lips are black in color. The top lip overhangs the lower lip very slightly and the corners of the lower lip are slightly pendulous. The teeth meet in a scissors bite. The eyes are almond-shaped and of moderate size, with an intelligent expression. Dark brown eyes are preferred, but lighter, amber eyes are acceptable. Eye rims are dark-pigmented. The feet are oval, firm and compact, with well-knit, well-arched toes and tough, deeply cushioned, darkly-pigmented pads. The toes are moderately webbed and the feet are well-furred, even between the toes. The front feet turn slightly outward. Dewclaws can be removed from the front feet and, if present, are usually removed from the back feet. The tail is thick at the root and tapers to the tip. When the dog is standing, the tail hangs downward, approximately to the hocks. When the dog is moving, the tail is carried up. The Chinook tail is never docked. Chinooks have a double coat of medium length hair. The undercoat is thick, soft, and downy in texture. The outer coat is coarse and the hair lies close to the body. Less dense coats are normal in very warm climates. The neck is well-furnished with hair, which forms a protective ruff blending into the apron. The tail is well-furred, with longer hair at the base and underside of the tail. The groin and inside of the rear legs are protected by the coat. In color, the Chinook is tawny (a golden fawn).

These are dedicated, hard-working and versatile sled dogs. Performing their given task is their primary concern in life. In addition to sled-pulling, the breed also can be used for carting, obedience, fly ball, search and rescue, and packing. The build of the dog, coupled with its agile movement and drive, make it a great agility dog. One of the key breed characteristics is the Chinook's temperament: calm, non-aggressive, with a willing, friendly disposition. Chinooks are bred to work in teams and should not exhibit dog-aggression. Notwithstanding its gentle, even temperament, the Chinook is a dignified dog. Socialize well to prevent them from being reserved with strangers or unfamiliar surroundings. In action, the Chinook is graceful but purposeful, alert but calm. His expression reflects his intelligence; his proud carriage reflects his dignity. Most Chinooks make excellent pets for children, especially when the dog is raised with them (even with rough and tumble children). Most Chinooks tolerate children even when they haven't had any contact with them. These dogs are incredibly loyal. They work totally reliably off-leash and really only want to be with you. Given acres and acres of land, the dogs are generally going to be wherever you are; so having a lot of space is not a requirement, but you do need to take them for daily walks where they are made to heel beside or behind you, never in front, as the pack leader goes first. The Chinook needs to be close to its family and part of the family. They do not make good outdoor pets. The Chinook is generally good with non-canine pets. They need an owner who is confident and firm with them, but not harsh. If you are passive with them they will become strong willed. They need to be shown who is the "top dog". Chinooks are easily trained through positive reinforcement, but do not respond to heavy-handed training tactics. A calm authority in a way dogs can understand is best. They are very smart, and only need to know what you want them to do. The Chinook is a Northern breed derived from a single ancestor. The father of the breed, Chinook, was born on author/explorer Arthur Walden's Wonalancet, New Hampshire farm in 1917. He was one of three pups born to a "Northern Husky" female, sired by one of the dogs on Peary’s North Pole team. Chinook’s sire was a large, mixed-breed dog. Chinook was a "sport," a phenomenon of nature, not resembling either of his parents. He was an outstanding sled dog and accompanied Admiral Byrd's South Pole expedition in 1927. Chinook’s offspring, who inherited his coloring, size and general characteristics, were bred to combine the strength of the large freight dog with the speed of the smaller racing sled dogs. In the early 1900s, the Chinook set records for distance covered, loads carried and running time. This breed has been bred through the years by a small number of dedicated fanciers. The Chinook is a very rare breed. The Guinness Book of World Records listed the Chinook as the world's rarest dog in 1966 when only 125 existed. The Chinook used to be an outstanding sled dog, but in the 1980s the breed was almost extinct, with only 12 breedable dogs left in the world. Their sled drive is greatly reduced. They are much more companion dogs who are capable of doing any sort of work, but they really love sledding, skijoring and carting. They are particularly good at carting because, unlike their Siberian and Alaskan counterparts, they are easily trained in obedience and can work very calmly in harness. Fanciers are working to gain more recognition and are actively seeking sledders to work with the breeders in programs that emphasize the working qualities. The Chinook was recognized by the United Kennel Club in March 1991. The United Kennel Club worked with the COA (Chinook Owners Association) to develop a crossbreeding program, which uses dogs originally bred into the breed to create more diversity and health in the gene pool. There is an application process, stringent guidelines, and a committee to oversee the whole program. At the end of the program, the dogs will be eligible for purebred registration in the UKC. In an unprecedented move, the UKC also allows intact Chinook Crosses to be LP registered. (Only spayed/neutered non-pure dogs can be LP registered in the UKC.) The Chinooks New England Club is one of the affiliate clubs of the COA. They are also working hard at preserving the breed.

Grow A Lasting Bond

Fall in love with each and every one of these majestic animals.
Fall in love with each and every one of these majestic animals.

Start An Adventure Of A Limetime

Again, these are not the most lucrative jobs to have. Most of these establishments offer these positions on practically an internship basis. They will supply room and board, in almost all cases, and a small stipend. However, additional work is often available in the nearby towns. Opportunity for advancement and more prestigious positions become available as with any job. This is a great chance to break into a satisfying career and lifestyle.

Although many of these openings are seasonal, there are positions available now for the summer and winter of 2013, depending on the business you apply to. Some kennels to consider are Doggy Heaven, out of Tanana, Alaska, and Broken Runner Kennel, out of Willow, Alaska. Also, Alaska Icefield Expeditions and Alaska Excursions are also looking for handlers.

Work the summer as a handler and by winter you may be bumped up to musher. Maybe even sooner than that. You will get out of it what you put in and in most cases, have the experience of a lifetime.

Keep in mind though that this is a major commitment and you must prepare yourself for it. Not everyone is suited for a job like this. You must be comfortable working outdoors under extreme conditions and be somewhat of a minimalist. A passion for huskies and all dogs in general is a mandatory qualification as most of your time will be spent caring for them.

The bonuses include extravagant wilderness as far as the eye can see and abundant wildlife all around. Paradise for the right outdoors man.

Prepare a resume that depicts the fact that you have the ability to handle these conditions and the desire to learn something new. Do some research and find kennels that are looking for a hand and send them an email expressing your interest accompanied with your resume. Describe your love for dogs and the outdoors and explain your availability.

Good luck and happy sledding!

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