How Do Sled Dogs Survive The Cold?

Sled dogs in front of sled with a little boy

Sled dogs were such a vital means of transportation, traveling, and hunting in the Arctic areas for many centuries. Some territories were too inaccessible during winter. Humans couldn’t travel on foot until the introduction of snowmobiles and semi-trailer trucks.

You’re probably wondering:

“How do sled dogs survive the harsh cold weather conditions?”

Sled dogs are adapted physically and morally to the harshness of the cold winters. Their double coats protect them. The undercoat isolates their skin and keeps the body warm, while the outer layer of hair prevents snow and ice from building up.

That’s why they can live and run in the coldest weather without being tired.

The magnificent physical adaptations of the sled dog is fantastic. Here is what I found:

The Characteristics Of Sled Dogs

All the other types of dogs meant for sledding have been bred from the Canadian Eskimo, like the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, or Mackenzie River Husky.

The glory of husky dogs pulling a sled through frozen land is matched by magnificent physical adaptations to help them not only survive the climate, but they aren’t bothered by the ice or the snow at all.

The eye’s shape: the husky dogs have strikingly blue eyes that present a gorgeous contrast against their face’s black and white hair.

The almond shape of a husky’s eye has a significant advantage in defending sensitive ocular tissue against frigid temperatures and the icy snow, which is often kicked up as they pull the sled.

Husky dogs can squint so that they barely expose their eye tissue and still be able to see accurately because of their eyes’ shape. But what other characteristics that make Huskies the best sled dogs?

  • Earmuffs – The husky dog has a natural set of earmuffs that protect his sensitive ear canal and eardrum from the biting cold wind. This thick hair covers his ear’s interior and is a warming adaptation that creates a natural muff where the dog’s ear ends.
  • Double coat – The husky dog’s body is covered with two coats of hair to provide a double layer of warmth. The under layer is very short, and the dog sheds it in spring to prevent overheating during the warmer temperatures.

    However, during the cold winter months, this dense, cashmere-like undercoat works as an insulator to keep the dog’s body warm and his core body temperature constant. A thick long outer layer of hair called “The guard hair coat” covers this short undercoat.

    This overcoat prevents snow and ice from building up in the dog’s hair as it is a water-resistant layer. It also protects him against the harmful ultraviolet rays and the seasonal temperature extremes.
  • A furry tail – The husky dog has a fox-like bushy tail, long enough to reach his face and curl around his nose when he lies down to sleep. His tail provides additional warmth by trapping his breath around his face.
  • Leather-like, furry feet – The husky dogs’ feet are warmed and protected against the harsh cold snow and ice by a furry foot with a very thick skin with a leather-like structure. The dog has a massive amount of fur on his feet and around the pads of his feet.

    It is worth mentioning that dogs sweat through the mouths and feet and not through the pores of their skin like humans; accordingly, mushers would continuously need to balance the use of booties for protection. Thermoregulation or controlling their body temperature occurs through their feet.

Do you wonder if dogs should wear shoes in the snow? You can find it in our article here.

Nutrition of Sled dogs

Food is the fuel that pushes the dogs’ engine. Each musher would develop his own unique food formula, including high protein fats, oils, and other nutrients.

Sled dogs often run long distances without too much food. When humans do this, they start to use their body’s glycogen and fat, which results in fatigue. However, huskies burn many calories without tapping into their other energy stores; this happens by regulating their metabolism.

Before running, these dogs’ metabolic make-up is similar to that of humans. Then suddenly, while they are running 100 miles per day, they throw a switch reversing all that.

Domestic dogs may require up to 1,700 calories a day, depending on their size and activity levels. Sled dogs, typically Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, or Eskimo dogs, can consume as many as 10,000 calories a day. The food that these types of dogs get has a significant impact on how happy and healthy they are, and, in turn, how they run.

Due to their power, sled dogs have special food requirements, along with a huge appetite. Since these dogs love fatty meat, we use a mixture of meat and dry food, which adds many of the extra nutrients that high-end athletes need.

In winter, we wouldn’t leave their water bowels out to freeze. We have to monitor their intake carefully and encourage them to take fluids on board by giving them hot soups at key points. This will make them get used to drinking rather than eating snow.

In the morning, at least two hours before they run, you would give them meat or mushed dry food soup using steaming water. After running, they would be given an additional soup.

The use of warm water will provide these dogs with a chance to enjoy food rather than it turning into ice quickly in front of them. Hence, they get hundreds of liters of hot water per day.

However, in the evening, they would be given a mixture of dry food and meat, which adds up between 200 and 700 calories, depending on the mileage they run at that time.

Positions Of Sled Dogs In Front Of The Sled

If you’ve been lucky to see live sled pulling, or have seen photos/videos of sled dogs pulling a musher through the frozen land. In that case, you may have noticed that each sled dog pair has a different role in the difficult and sometimes challenging territories they are facing.

Sled dogs in front of a sled

The dogs are positioned in pairs on either side of a gangline that attaches to their harnesses and the sled. The maximum number would be 16 dogs, and the minimum is 12 dogs on the gangline.

This is a description of each position pair:

  • Lead dogs:

    This is the most vital part of the team. The lead dogs set the pace and keep the rest of the team on the trail. They respond to the musher’s commands: “gee” for turn right and “haw” for turn left. The lead dogs should be alert and intelligent to find and follow the trail when covered with snow.

    They do this using their sense of smell, sensing where the other teams may have passed and felt with their feet the packed train underneath the loose snow cover. They also keep the rest of the dogs in the team moving by pulling the gangline. Mushers used one lead dog in the past, but today we see two of them more commonly.
  • Swing or point dogs:

    These are positioned directly behind the lead dogs. They help steer the team around corners. When the lead dogs turn, the other dogs usually want to jump off the trail to follow them. The swing dogs would pull the team in an arc to keep the others on the track and bring the sled and musher safely around a corner.
  • Team dogs:

    They are the team’s brawn. They pull the sled and maintain speed. On average, sled dogs pull 300 to 500 pounds, including the sled, suppliers, and the musher. These are several pairs of team dogs, depending on the size of the sled-dog team.
  • Wheel dogs:

    They are the closest pair to the sled. As they are the first to take on the weight of the load being pulled, they are usually the dogs’ most massive. They should be even-tempered, as they have to withstand the sled runners’ constant slamming behind them.

Mushers don’t usually switch their dogs’ positions. Some dogs are better leaders in certain weather conditions than others are. However, sometimes a musher would like to give a leader dog a break after the long run. Additionally, the musher would split up dogs who fight together.

Are Sled Dogs Still Helpful In The Alaskan Wilderness?

Although sled dogs are not widely used nowadays, they are still higher than snowmobiles in some areas and some situations. This is due to the fact that dogs have proved to be hardier in tough conditions.

They can see further than humans can, preventing sleds from driving over drop-offs or submerging in icy water. Sled dogs’ sense of direction can serve as a virtual GPS system. However, strange scents may cause them to stray a bit, but they always manage to find their way back to where they came from.

Additionally, they offer warmth and protection at night by scaring predators, and during the daytime, they can sense weak ice and open water. Let’s not disregard their ability to forecast bad weather conditions, spot dangerous animals, and run long distances without much food.

What Characterizes A Good Sled Dog?

A good sled dog has some physical characteristics besides his personality traits. These types of dogs are like a good person, friendly, honest, hardworking, curious, and have a positive attitude.

They are the best dogs with their willingness, heart, and desire to get their job accomplished. Over and above, the physical traits and muscular structure of their bodies are fundamental. They should be able to run fast for long distances, good feet, and good appetite.

They are known for their commitment and dedication to their work with a combination of strength, speed, and attitude to make the team.

However, lead dogs are a bit different; they kind of select themselves. They show signs of leadership from puppyhood, like being very curious and spunky.

They show signs of the desire to be in charge, and they can learn the commands very quickly. While most dogs would hesitate to lead, a real lead dog would go for it.

Modern Sled Dogs

The original type of sled dogs was chosen according to their size, brute strength, and stamina. However, the modern ones are mixed-breed.

Alaskan Huskies that have been bred for their endurance, tough feet, strength, speed, good attitude and appetite, and initially their desire to pull in harness with an outstanding ability to run well within a team.

Any dog that is somewhat overweight will most likely lead to soreness, as their joints and muscles won’t be able to support the extra strain and effort created by the additional weight.

These dogs are so athletic, they look amazingly small and tiny, but the truth is they are in excellent physical health, just like an Olympic marathon runner.

Accordingly, mushers would always look for dogs that love to run in harness and work well in a team with other sled dogs.

They look for dogs that have a special bond with them. Dogs that eat with enthusiasm all the time, regardless of the weather conditions.


In addition to all the physical traits of sled dogs, it is said, “attitude is everything.” Their care and eagerness to please their musher make them the best companions. They would lay down their lives for their owner.

I Hope you have enjoyed what you read today 😀 And always check our previous posts and stay tuned for the next!

Soheir Maher

Hi, I am Soheir. I have always been passionate about dogs. My first dog was Leo who was a wonderful Golden Retriever after that I got Kira another Golden Retriever who is wonderful too. My passion for dogs made me read a lot about them. Training them personally made me become an expert in everything related to them, that's why my writing is always a mix of experience and science. My writing about dogs isn't for the sake of earning a living but instead, for the sake of benefiting people around the world.

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