Finland/Lapland Dogsled Setup, Maintenance, Operation

The following outlines the steps to setting up and arranging a traditional Lappish (northern Finnish) dogsled team, along with operating the various functions of the sled itself.


The process is one I learned from my guide during a weeklong excursion into the northern Finnish wilderness and subsequently practiced myself on a daily basis.


In the morning, after feeding the sled dogs, who are altogether kept along a chain line (attached by their collars), each member of the five-dog team is harnessed one-by-one onto the sled. Their harnesses are first slipped over their heads, with their collars then buckled to a line attached to the sled. Their front paws/legs must then be guided through two front straps. At this point, the dog can be considered securely attached.


A particular layout and order of the dogs is required for a one-man sled with about 50-100 lbs of cargo to be properly driven:


Two dogs are placed at the front of the line, one in the middle, and two in the back (closest to the sled). The dogs at the front are known as the lead dogs, typically reserved for those that are younger and less experienced, while the dogs at the back are known as the wheel dogs, the strongest and most capable of the pack. The dog in the middle, known as the center, is the dominant member of all five, meant to lead the wheel dogs on and keep the lead dogs in check should they misbehave.


The lead and wheel dogs are also buckled to each other, along with being attached to the sled line, as to keep their strides in sync and prevent any wandering from any direction that is not forwards.


If the sled is larger in size, or there is a greater amount of cargo (and thus more weight), more dogs will be needed. To do this, a set of three dogs (a single and a pair of leads) are attached to the front of the already present five, totaling eight. A greater number is typically unnecessary.


It should be noted that having a greater number of dogs on a smaller sled will not make it go any faster, as the dogs are all attached and therefore can only run at the same speed as an individual is capable. What it does serve to do is disperse the weight of the sled even more, and thus allow the dogs to travel for longer distances and amounts of time without becoming exhausted.


What is interesting to note is that the dogs, having been raised by Finnish trainers, respond only to commands in Finnish, unable to understand any other languages such as English. This is particularly important when driving the sled. As there are no steering-related controls, any shifts in direction must be verbally commanded to the dogs in Finnish, being either vasen (left) or oikea (right). However, steering is not often necessary as the dogs usually follow paths that are already made, leaving the commands to be reserved for turns and switches onto new paths. Should the dogs travel the wrong way, the driver must hop off the sled and manually guide the dogs back in the proper direction.


Getting off the sled arises the matter of braking, which is performed using the feet. A flat metal mandible bar is stepped on, the bottom of the bar containing two outward-sticking pieces of rebar that dig into the snow below, slowing or, if pressed completely down, halting the dogs.


Longer periods of braking require a large metal hook tied to the sled and hung off the side when not in use. To use this hook, one must have already braked the dogs to a halt with the manual step, then throwing the hook into a solid patch of snow/ice and lodging it firmly into the ground. This way, when the dogs attempt to move forward, the hook anchors them in place and prevents them from moving. Additional security can be managed by using another length of rope to tie the sled to a nearby tree.


Once back on the sled, (and if necessary, having removed the anchor hook from the ground) the driver lifts their foot from the brake and shouts at the dogs mennä (go) or juosta (run) in order to prompt their team to resume running.