If you’ve been around mushing very much, you may have heard a musher exclaim:
“My dogs were so strong I was standing on the brakes with both feet all the way…”
So, some of us decided we could use all that wasted energy to give a dog a ride and also take one of those over-amped maniacs off the tow line for a while, reducing unnecessary power. Jeff King did it a long time ago and I’ve done it almost as long. We simply carried a tired or favored dog between checkpoints, hoping they would be extra-rested later in the race. Even before that, Ernie Baumgartner carried the eventual 1982 golden harness winner for a significant portion of the race before hitching her in lead to brave a wind storm on the coast. Bud Smyth tried a huge sled, hauling half his very large team at once, in the very first Iditarod.
Dallas got technical and mathematical, and in spite of being home-schooled, figured out how to do this systematically enough to favorably alter his race schedule. I had one year of college, so I eventually caught on. Instead of standing on the brake to control speed, if you add a dog’s weight to the sled and remove a dog from the pulling equation – that just makes sense. This is one of the most significant innovations in the history of long-distance racing, in my opinion.
Iditarod strategy mostly centers around the run/rest rhythm employed by each team. Run a while, rest a while. Rest too much and you get left behind. Rest too little, your dogs get tired, you go too slow – and get left behind.
Imagine this from the perspective of a dog near the bottom of the team roster for athleticism. Say her team is running six hours and resting five hours. This less athletic dog needs a little more rest, so she gets more tired as the race progresses. But, then I give her a ride in the sled for two hours. That gives her a full seven-hour rest and only a four-hour run. She feels like a new dog, and that may be the difference she needs.
So, whether it was decisive or not, hauling dogs was a part of the six-year period when Iditarod winners were named Seavey. Others were doing it too. King, Maixner, Petit, Royer. Burmeister denies it, straw and hair in his trailer notwithstanding.
From 2016 to present the ITC Board of Directors, vaguely citing “safety,” made several rule changes governing where in a sled-trailer combo a musher may carry her/his dogs, making hauling dogs more difficult. Dogs could only be carried in the front sled, then only ahead of the handlebar in the front sled. At one point it was illegal to carry mandatory gear in the trailer, leaving even less room in the front sled for dogs. (That was later reversed, as it had apparently become less clear what hazards were faced by an axe or sleeping bag riding in the trailer.) Dog hauling can’t be banned altogether since any injured or fatigued dog will need a ride to the next checkpoint to be returned home.
Presently, dogs may only be hauled ahead of the handlebar in the front sled. Trailers are allowed, and all gear may be carried in any part of the sled
It takes a really strong team to consistently carry dogs in the sled. Something else you may have heard around dog racing is:
“I had to carry a big dog in the sled and it ruined my run – cost me 45 minutes.”
Most teams simply can’t haul a dog, let alone two or more at a time and keep up their speed and stamina at racing levels. And most mushers aren’t willing or able to do the hard work required, many, many, many times, over the course of 1000 miles to put dogs in and out of the sled on an effective schedule.
Conversation has swirled around this topic for many years, from the practical to the possible to the philosophical. (What if we could carry half the dogs at a time and never stop?) Some have questioned whether the practice is even fair.
I would point out that all the power to get down the trail is derived from the team and driver, as stated in the preamble of the rules. Nobody gets a free ride. They pay it forward by pulling their comrades in turn. And all the teams in the race have the same opportunity to try it if they want to. That seems fair to me.
I don’t agree that it’s safer for dogs to ride in front of the handlebar. Imagine a crash or hitting an obstacle like a downed tree. Your dog in the sled is the first one at the scene of the accident. Sleds drive much better with the weight in the back, not the front. So, with dogs ahead of the handlebar, sleds are more likely to veer off track. Less safe, not more.
The strategy of carrying dogs gives each dog a little more rest, a little less running and a little less exposure to trail hazards. But to make this work, each dog, when in harness, has to really “get it on,” to pull their mates while they take a break in the sled. If that suits a particular team’s characteristics and personality, then it could be a good strategy for them to employ.