X-treme: It's dog beat dog

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The Independent Culture
"It made me feel sick," says Alan Stewart, describing a recent trip to Paris where he saw a woman with two preened Alaskan huskies in tow. As an experienced sleddog racer (and Britain's representative in the forthcoming World Championships in Switzerland), he believes that such dogs shouldn't be used as mere fashion accessories.

"They're just not bred for that," he argues. Stewart's dogs (including three Siberian huskies) enjoy a contrasting lifestyle, where they awake before 5.30am each day, hoping to go running. They're rarely disappointed.

"They come running up to the fence and all around me going absolutely mental because they want to go running."

Stewart's route to sleddog racing came from a desire to find a canine companion to run with on the hills near his home in Scotland. Further impetus came from meeting Rick Atkinson, who had worked dogs at the South Pole and raced in Alaska, and the Director of the International Federation of Sleddog Sports, John Coyne (right), in Aberdeen.

"The Federation started 20 years ago," says Coyne. "Obviously, we don't have that much snow here, so we race rigs through forest trails.

"Sleddog racing involves a good degree of physical fitness, courage, a head for speed and the ability to handle animals. We've recently had people coming into the sport from areas like motorcross, cycling and running, and the rigs have become lighter [they often weighed in excess of 100lbs in the past]. Now we've switched to `trike' rigs [three-wheeled rigs with handlebars similar to a child tricycle], which weigh around 2.5 stone."

Racing rigs are designed for two to eight dogs of Nordic breeds. The overwhelming majority of protagonists race a type of husky.

At amateur level, some competitors use a single dog to pull a small sled, while the "musher", or driver, skis alongside. This makes the sport open to a wide range of people. There's little danger in occasionally taking your pet dog out on a small sled at weekends; even if it doesn't have the pedigree of an Alaskan husky, it should happily pull a small pack with the owner running behind.

The other end of sleddog racing involves professional mushers (the word comes from the command "marchez!" - walk! - used by the French to drive their dogs), who mostly come from Canada and Alaska.

Just before a race begins, spectators gather to see up to 20 teams of dogs waiting for the off. It's pure noise and adrenalin. Like motorsport fans, they gain great satisfaction from walking around the dogs' vans and watching the preparations.

"Experienced racers will have dogs ranging from 40lbs to 55lbs in weight," says Coyne. "By the beginning of the season they're pure muscle, so you have a tremendous amount of pulling power.

"I began with three dogs and now have over 20. The dogs are like extended family, and I know them all well. I can tell if they're happy or not, and that's part of the richness of the sport. When I take them out, we work as a team, and part of the excitement is knowing that, as the leader of the team, I am responsible for their welfare."

"I see it as an adventure," says Stewart. "The racing is fine, but I love the training because it's a team effort. Races in the UK are across three or four miles, which do not test you or the dog as much as many international races.

"I get far more enjoyment taking them into the more remote environments - crossing rivers and camping - that sort of adventure pushes you and the dogs.

"In mid-distance racing, you're off the sled, running, quite often. When you get to a hill, you get off and help the dogs because it's quicker. I'm very competitive - the dogs always give me their all, so I always try to give them my best."

The UK sleddog community is awaiting the forthcoming amendment to the quarantine laws, which will allow them to take dogs abroad for races, bring back new animals to the UK, and compete against foreign opposition. There are also plans for the creation of a sleddog academy to harness the growing interest in the sport.

"It's an amazing experience," says Stewart. "I can use my dog team like a set of gears on a car. I can put them into turbo-charge or slow them down; speed comes naturally to these dogs."

Forget about buying that new car... As they say, a man's best friend is his dog.

For more information on sleddog racing, contact the associations below


International Federation of Sleddog Sports for Wales, Ireland, Scotland & England

Prespect House, Charlton, Kimersdon, Bath (01761 436599; ifss@ukonline.co.uk)

This, the largest sleddog organisation, has details of all aspects of the sport around the world.

Affiliated British Sleddog Activities (ABSA)

La Quinta, Pinesfield Lane, Trottiscliffe, Kent (01732 822910) They have a social scheduled for 24 Jan in Ringwood, Hants, plus a race on 7 Feb in Brandon, Suffolk, and on 28 Feb at Castle Combe, Wilts.

The Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain

The Old Post Office, 3 High Street, Lamport, Northampton (01604 682281)

Contact this club for details of their two-day rally in Aviemore, Scotland, next Sat. This is the biggest event of its kind in the UK, with around 20 competitors taking part.