So you've decided that you want to run your first "sled dog" race. Here are some "beginner's notes" to explain what you need to know and can expect at a race. These notes apply to both dryland and snow races. But they are not the official rules. They are targeted at beginners and small teams (1-4 dogs). Current Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club (PSDC) rules are noted.
Key Things to Know
You are responsible for knowing the rules and procedures.
You need to keep you and your dogs safe at all times.
No loose dogs at any time.
No inhumane treatment of dogs (you will be told to leave and banned from racing).
You should have enough experience to know that you can finish the race course in a reasonable time.
Your goal should be to have a good race, not your finishing time.
If something goes wrong, it's OK to stop (or not race day 2) -- you're looking for experience.
The race officials control the race and can tell you to leave for cause; but they want to help and this is a last resort if there are serious problems.
Don't be afraid to ask questions -- everyone has to run their first race.
Finding a Race
There are lots of places to find out about races:
Registering for a Race
From the race site you'll find a registration form. It will list:
classes and distances
when and how to register
a waiver that you will sign indicating that you understand and assume the risks of racing
Most races require you to submit your registration in advance of the race -- these are hard deadlines so do submit it in time.
PSDC races require advanced registration -- no exceptions.
PSDC races require information on purebred dogs to be submitted in advance -- no exceptions.
Other races will let you register at the race site.
Register and pay your entry fee.
If you can't make it, let the organizer know so they can adjust the start times.
Registration fees are generally not refunded if you cancel, but are generally returned if the race is cancelled.
For a 2-day race, you must race day 1 to be able to race day 2.
Getting to the Race
Once you know you are going, plan how to get there and check directions.
Races are often off the beaten path and GPS routes may not work.
Decide where you are going to stay if it is a 2-day race or if it's a long way from home.
Obey any rules at hotels about dogs.
Arrive at the race site on race day early enough to be ready to go to the driver's meeting (the time should be listed on the form when you register or the race web site).
Park in the same place each day (this is for you and your dogs' health -- you don't want to spread or catch diseases).
Let the big 6 and 4 dog teams park closer to the start chute.
Parking is generally not assigned -- pick your space.
Be prepared to rough it, deal with mud, snow, cold, no running water, ...
You may need to provide your own lunch or food may be for sale.
Bring sufficient water for your dogs.
Clean up all trash and dog poop from where you are parked before you leave -- you may have to haul it out.
Fill in any holes your dogs dug before you leave.
Make sure your dogs are fit and not sick -- don't bring sick dogs.
Your dogs should be socialized to be handled by race officials and handlers.
A race might require that a veterinarian check your dogs before the race.
Your dogs need to be current on all vaccines -- any special requirements will be listed.
You need to bring your dogs' rabies certificates -- you may be asked to show them.
Most medications are prohibited.
Races may drug test for performance-enhancing drugs.
If you are running in a purebred class bring your proof of purebred registration:
Some races define purebred as any registered breed.
Some races, ISDRA and PSDC define purebred as only Siberian Husky, Malamute or Samoyed.
Some races have Siberian Husky only purebred classes.
Some races do not accept Purebred Alternative Listing as proof of being purebred.
ISDRA and PSDC do not accept PAL -- your dog must have real papers.
PSDC requires information on purebred dogs be submitted in advance.
If your dog is injured, after you have dealt with the problem, report it to the officials:
A race might have a vet on site or a vet tech.
Officials should know about the nearest vet clinic.
Other participants can often help deal with injuries.
Many race dogs are intact.
All your equipment needs to be in good condition -- check it before you head to the race.
Check what equipment the race requires, e.g., shock lines, necklines, dog bags, snub lines, ...
Your equipment may be inspected before the race.
Use only pulling harnesses.
No choke collars.
Make sure collars are very secure so your dog cannot get it off -- probably tighter than you expect.
No muzzles of any kind.
Belly bands are generally OK.
Dogs can be harnessed side-by-side or inline.
Harnesses need to be connected to the gangline with tug lines.
Collars need to be connected to the gangline with necklines.
The gangline needs to be connected to the rig, sled, scooter, bike (you can't hold it or use a leash).
The rules will specify if leaders need to be connected with a neckline (generally required).
Required by ISDRA and PSDC.
Helmets and protective eyewear may be required.
Required by PSDC for all wheeled classes.
Use whatever protective gear you think is appropriate.
You need adequate locking brakes on a rig or scooter (which must really lock).
You are not permitted to connect a gangline to a bike or scooter with only a snap.
Lines are typically connected to a rig or sled with a locking carabiner (which must really lock).
For canicross or skijoring, the line is connected directly to your belt.
There will generally be a drivers' meeting, typically each morning.
Some races will have a drivers' meeting the night before the race.
Be there on time.
At the meeting the race organizers will go over the course, rules and officials.
You will get your bib.
You will get your starting time.
If you can, and are permitted (ask the race officials), check out the trail in advance so you know what to expect (without your dogs).
The trail will be explained at the drivers' meeting.
A trail map should be available.
The trail will be marked:
Yellow or Orange markers typically indicate a caution -- slow down!
Red markers on the right side typically indicate a right turn.
Red markers on the left side typically indicate a left turn.
Blue or green markers indicate straight ahead.
Other markers typically indicate no man's land -- where passing rules are not enforced.
Roots, rocks and other dangers on the trail should be painted yellow or orange.
You might encounter hills, bridges, tunnels, open fields and shallow water stream crossings.
The trail surface might be dirt, gravel, grass, snow.
There may be road crossings.
There may be fencing along parts of the trail.
There will be trail help at critical parts of the trail.
There may be spectators anywhere along the course.
You may encounter a swing gate at a turn. Someone will be managing the gate to keep teams from going the wrong way and the gate will be in different positions for different teams (incoming vs. outgoing).
Many courses have head on passing -- make sure your dogs have been trained to pass another team coming at it; if needed stop to let the other team by.
Getting Ready to Race
Know when your start time is.
Most people "soup" their dogs 1-2 hours before the race:
Something tasty in warm water so dogs drink and are hydrated.
Get your team and equipment ready so you can get to the chute on time.
Get some help to take your team to the chute if you need.
If someone helps you, return the favor with their team.
Plan your routine to get to the start chute on time.
Start times can change due to unforeseen events; so if you leave you need to be back for the proper start time.
Starting the Race
You will be given a bib that you must wear.
You will be given a start time. Your time on the course begins at the start time, ready or not.
You will be given a chute time.
Your chute time is typically 2 minutes before your start time; this is when you can enter the start chute.
Teams typically start on 2-minute intervals (may be shorter for smaller classes or in warm weather).
Get your bib and gear on, and your dogs ready to run so you can be at the chute on time.
Your equipment will be inspected. If you have questions, ask before the races start.
Your dogs may be marked with colored paint or crayon markers so you don't run different dogs on different days.
If you have show dogs, tell the judges so they can mark them in a less conspicuous place.
Some races require helmets and eyewear. We always recommend it.
Bring your team to the starting chute -- find some handlers to help, typically at least 1 handler for every 2 dogs.
Be at the chute before your chute time.
Teams often line up in starting order before the chute.
Enter the chute when called at your chute time, but not before -- you can be asked to leave and start last.
You will get a final inspection; if anything is wrong you will have to fix it before you start.
Your team will be placed on the starting line -- front wheel or front of sled brush bow on the line.
Handlers and officials will help hold the team on the start line.
Countdown to zero and go.
If you have a problem and can't start, you can be removed from the chute and put at the end to try again.
Handlers exit the chute immediately.
Only officials can help after countdown goes to 0.
For a multi-day race, your second day start time will typically be based on your first day time -- fastest teams go first.
If there are both professional (pro) and recreational or sportsman (rec) classes, second day starts may ignore the class distinction and a fast rec or purebred team will start before a slow pro team.
Canicross is typically a group or mass start; stand anywhere behind the start line.
Large races might have dual starts (two teams side by side).
You may not block or interfere with other teams.
No one can pace your team.
No outside help (handlers, spectators), except to secure a loose team.
If you leave the course, you have to re-enter where you went off course.
You don't stop to pick up poop.
You may have to pass or may be passed.
Know how to pass; practice with someone before your first race.
If you want to pass another team, call "trail".
You can request a pass when you are within 50 feet of the team you want to pass.
The team being passed must let the passing team by as soon as they can and it is safe.
If being passed, slow down.
If being passed you must control your dogs, which might mean stopping and holding them.
The team that is passing can request that the team being passed stop and hold their dogs -- but no need to stop unless asked.
Once passed you must remain behind the team that passed you for a set distance or time (typically 1/4 mile or 1 minute for 4 dog or smaller teams).
Generally you have to give the passing team time (30 seconds for 4 dog or smaller team) to deal with tangles before re-passing.
Passing rules do not apply in no man's land, often the last 1/2 mile of the race -- any passing or repassing is permitted.
Head on Passing
Some courses have head on passing.
Don't let your team interact with the other team.
If needed, stop and hold your team.
Incoming or outgoing teams may have priority by race-specific rules.
Incoming or outgoing teams may have to be on a particular side of the trail.
Race officials will explain special passing situations.
Your finish time is when the first dog crosses the line.
Clear the chute and go to your dog truck.
Your handlers should be ready to help when you arrive.
Take care of your dogs -- water, snack, praise (they worked hard), ...
Check your dogs for injuries.
Return your bib -- some multi-day races let you keep it overnight but many ask that you return it each day.
If there is a "driver's form" fill it out and return it -- it helps the race organizers improve the race.
There might be a bib fee as part of your registration -- you will get it back after you return your bib and forms at the end of the race.
Awards will be given after the last race on the last day.
Stay through the awards if you can to show support for your fellow mushers, but people will understand if you have to leave for a very long drive to get home.
Thank the officials and everyone who helped -- putting on a race is a LOT of work.
If you aren't going to run day two of a race, tell the officials so they don't look for you on day two.
If you have a problem, talk to the race officials.
If you need help, ask -- most everyone is very helpful.