Changing a sled dog into a pet dog can be a challenging task. Done correctly, however, it can provide an aged canine athlete with an enjoyable retirement, and a person with a beloved companion.
The first step to adopting a sled dog is to pick the right dog for you. Some dogs will adjust much more easily to moving indoors than others. Females will generally make the transition more easily than males, but the dog’s personality is probably the most important factor. Luckily for me, I got to know a group of sled dogs very well.
As a dog sledding guide at Jackson Hole Iditarod, I was able to get to know my group of dogs intimately over a four-year period. Many of them would have made good pets, but many would not have. Some were too aggressive, or too skittish, or too crazy and full of energy. There was one of my favorite dogs, however, who had a great personality and would make the easiest transition: Muck.
Muck was one of my best lead dogs. She was an honest dog, that is, a dog who was a good worker. She was smart and fast, and in the autumn she would help train the puppies, pulling four-wheelers instead of sleds. Even though she was dependable and hardworking once we were moving, if she got the chance she would jump into the sled and curl up as if she wanted to be pulled instead of doing the pulling. This was a sign that Muck just might like to spend her retirement curled up on a couch.
There were other signs that Muck would become a great pet. I would take her places to go skijoring, which is a crazy form of travel where a person decides to strap on skis and have a dog (or two or three) provide the power. All I had to do for transporting Muck was to open the car door and point to the seat, and she would happily jump in, curl up, and quietly ride the whole way. When we camped overnight on a skijoring trip, she was crawling in the tent to snuggle with me before I could even finish laying out the sleeping pad. I knew that I wanted Muck to retire with me, and I knew that she would love it, but would she be allowed to leave the kennel?
Muck was eleven. While that is certainly not young, she was (and still is) in great shape. She could probably have kept pulling sleds for another two years, or maybe more. It is astonishing, but in my first year as a guide I had a fifteen-year-old dog named Mario who still loved to pull. Muck was also a great leader, and a kennel can never have too many leaders. My hopes were slim, but I asked Frank Teasley, the veteran sled dog racer, owner of Jackson Hole Iditarod, and my boss, if Muck could leave with me. To my delight and gratitude, he allowed Muck to take an early retirement.
Sled dogs are all used to living outside and relieving themselves whenever they feel like it, so they will require some training to become housebroken. The instinct to mark their scent is generally much stronger in the males, so if you adopt one of them it would be extremely helpful to have a room that is easily cleaned to aid in the transition. Training Muck in this respect was pretty easy.
Training her in every respect has actually been pretty easy. She is the best pet I have ever had. Sled dogs can be very hard to walk on leashes, because they tend to pull people over. After a couple of weeks Muck got over that, as long I was the one holding the leash. After a few more weeks she was trained to walk off the leash. The only time she has barked since leaving the kennel was one soft “woof” at the man who delivered our couch.
Muck has been naughty on occasion. She has chewed up an ottoman, a couple of books, and two printer cables. She used to chew on her wooden house whenever she wanted, so this was not completely unexpected. There were chew toys purchased for her to help combat this problem, but we have not quite solved this yet. The stuffed porcupine that was meant to be a chew toy instead became her baby doll. Instead of chewing it she carries it around and comes to save it if you squeeze its squeaker. This is so adorable it is not frustrating.
If you should adopt a sled dog as a pet, be aware that there will be challenges and setbacks. You will need patience, consistency and love. These dogs generally need a lot of exercise, and you should not expect them to be interested in many typical dog things, such as fetch or dog treats that are not made of meat. If you are the right person and can find the right sled dog, however, then I highly recommend it and I believe you will find it to be incredibly rewarding.