What is a Sled Dog?

by Stuart Nelson, Jr., DVM

What is a sled dog? This question was addressed by the ISDVMA (International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association) board of directors at their recent meeting in Germany. The answer seems to be rather obvious, but as with most things in life, it is more complex than a superficial assessment would indicate. The topic came to the forefront when concern was expressed by European organizers in regard to the suitability of certain dogs for participation in mushing events.

The Alaskan Husky is the predominant racing dog in North America. As we all know, this is not an AKC registered breed, although efforts have been made to generally describe what an “Alaskan Husky” is. In Europe, purebreds are typically entered in competition, but separate classes may be provided for Alaskan Huskies. Europeans are facing a problem related to the fact that mongrels of many types are being called “Alaskan Huskies” to establish their eligibility. As a result, race organizers and officials are troubled by the possibility that a percentage of these dogs may not be suited for competition and subject to a substantially greater risk of illness or injury.

It was appropriate that the ISDVMA addressed this issue in a timely fashion. Rather than entering an endless debate as to what an “Alaskan Husky” is, it was more prudent that a definition of “sled dog” be established for competition purposes. From the standpoint of health care, any dog that meets certain criteria can be considered capable of participating safely. Within this framework, individual races may have the jurisdiction to determine appropriate classes for competition.

The Definition Adopted by the ISDVMA Board of Directors

Any dog entered in a competitive pulling event must fulfill certain criteria to be considered a “sled dog,” and therefore, be eligible to participate. Such “sled dog” must:

  • Demonstrate a willingness to be harnessed and desire to participate in the activity for which it is harnessed.
  • Be adequately trained and conditioned for such activity as established by participation in prior events or by demonstration of an appropriate training and conditioning program as determined by knowledgeable race officials, including the race marshal, race judge(s) and race veterinarian(s).
  • Be vaccinated and dewormed as required by event rules.
  • Be capable of withstanding environmental extremes as deemed appropriate by knowledgeable race officials.
  • Pass a pre-race physical exam by a veterinarian who has specific training and knowledge applicable to sled dogs. Such an examination will include evaluation of the following health parameters, based on the established ISDVMA endorsed protocol:


Less than 5% dehydration
Adequate muscle mass — adequate, but not excessive, fat reserves
Pink — Capillary Refill Time (CRT) less than one second
Rate less than or equal to 120 beats per minute — normal rhythm
Respiratory rate less than or equal to 15 breaths per minute — normal sounds
Normal 100.5 F to 102.5 F (38C to 39C)
No observable lameness — palpation of muscles and tendons — joint flexion
  • Coughing
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Trembling
  • Lethargy
  • Other

Pre-race health screens including bloodwork (CBCs, chemistry panels) and ECGs are encouraged. Individual organizers shall have the authority to determine appropriate classes of competition for all canids meeting the criteria of “sled dog.”