Mushing Terminology

Are you hearing some unfamiliar words at the sled dog race? Here’s your guide to the most commonly used mushing terms. Many thanks to Race Marshal Arleigh Jorgenson, who helped put this information together.

A note from Arleigh about the words used for the positions of the dogs in the teams: “The terminology comes from horse drivers and mule skinners, thus the “wheel dogs” for example.  For some reason I still do not understand, Alaskan drivers use the word swing dogs for those right behind the leaders, and lower 48 drivers use the word point dogs. Both are from the horse and mule driving terminology. I don’t know where these differences came from, but I have noticed that many drivers in Minnesota are beginning to use the Alaskan terminology.”

All Right!: Musher’s command for the dogs to get moving. The more commonly used term is Hike! See also Let’s Go! Mush!

Basket: The main body of a sled, where gear or passengers may be carried.

Bed: The floor of the Basket. May also be called Cargo Bed.

Booties: A  type of sock worn by the dogs to prevent ice balls from collecting between the toes of the dogs. Dogs sweat between their pads and the crossbred dogs have solid fur, which conducts the heat of the dog all the way to the snow. This means that the wet, hot hair collects a build-up of ice, which then frostbites the tissue between the pads. Traditional breeds such as the Siberian Husky have hollow fur and do not conduct the heat to the snow. However, even they can have problems, under the right temperatures and snow conditions. In addition to the ice balls, the booties can prevent injuries on rough trails, including injuries from snow crystals, which can be abrasive in severely cold weather. Lastly, booties are also used for dogs whose feet show signs of worn pads or soreness, so they can properly heal. Booties can be made of various materials, such as denim, polar fleece or trigger cloth.

Brake: Metal claw attached to the back of the Sled, which digs into the snow when the Musher stands on it, causing the team to slow down or stop.

Brush Bow: The curved piece in front of the main body of a sled, designed to stop brush from damaging the sled, much like a bumper on a car.

Cargo Bed: The floor of the Basket. May also be called Bed.

Dog Bag: A fabric bag carried on a race sled, used to carry a dog that is riding in the sled. The dog bag allows the dog to squirm around to get comfortable, find some support and to stay warm. It also confines the dog so that it doesn’t jump out and create a nuisance going down the trail. A dog with an injured shoulder, for example, is not going to want to ride in the sled. Keep in mind that a dog can be carried for a number of reasons. For more information about that, refer to Dropped Dog.

Dog Box: A carrier for several dogs, most often seen as a wooden structure in the bed of a pickup truck. Dog boxes usually have individual sections that hold one or two dogs each.

Dog Driver: A person who drives a sled dog team. May also be called a Musher.

Driving Bow: The handle that the musher holds. The term driving bow comes from older times, when the bar that the musher hangs onto was bent in the same shape as the Brush Bow, and was thus called a driving bow. That term is pretty much passé; it is now called the Handle Bar.

Dropped Dog:  A dog the musher has dropped from the team at a checkpoint. The dog is cared for at the checkpoint by the handler and if necessary, a race veterinarian. Dogs are dropped for various reasons, not all of them serious. Sometimes the dog is young and should not go any further for psychological or developmental reasons. Sometimes the dropped dog, while still pulling, may be just a little too slow for the pace of the team going forward. As George Attla says, “You win races with the dogs you leave in the truck.”

Easy!: Musher’s command for the dogs to slow down.

Gang Line: The main line to which the dogs and sled are attached.

Gee!: Musher’s command for the dogs to turn right.

Handle Bar: The handle that the musher holds. May also called a Driving Bow.

Handler: A person who assists the musher. A handler is a critical part of the sled dog team and the duties vary depending on the musher. A dog handler may care for the dogs, including those left at a checkpoint; feed the dogs; help the musher get the dogs to the starting gate; clean up after the dogs; and collect veterinarian samples.

Harness: Webbing that fits snugly around a dog’s body, to which the Tug Line is attached. It is designed and fitted to enable the dogs to pull most efficiently with as little stress on their bodies as possible. The design of the harness spreads the force out. For example, the X that you see on the backs of most harnesses gives a pulling point when the dog reaches the top of his/her lope, allowing the flex of the back to contribute to the pull.

Haw!: Musher’s command for the dogs to turn left.

Hike!: Musher’s command for the dogs to get moving. This is probably the most commonly used term to start the team. See also Mush! All Right! Let’s Go!

Lead Dog or Leader: Dog or dogs in the front of a team, who understand and take the Musher voice commands. These dogs are noted for their high level of intelligence and drive. May be run as Single lead (1 dog) or Double lead (2 dogs).

Let’s Go! : Musher’s command for the dogs to get moving. The more commonly used term is Hike! See also All Right! Mush!

Line Out!: Command to the lead dog to pull the team out straight from the sled. Used mostly while hooking or unhooking the dogs into the team or while stopped to avoid tangles. The more common command to ask the leaders to keep the line tight while stopped is Tighten Up! 

Mush!: Musher’s command for the dogs to get moving. The word “mush” comes from the French word, Marche. As Race Marshal Arleigh Jorgensen tells us, “I have heard French Canadian Mushers shout out ‘Marche’ with an emphasis on the “che”, but no one else. Virtually no one uses “mush” as a command.  It is always, Hike!, Lets Go!All Right!, something like that.

Musher: A person who drives a sled dog team. May also be called a Dog Driver.

Neck Line: A short line (10-12 inches) attached loosely to the dog’s collar and used to keep the dogs in line.

On By!: The musher’s command to the dogs to pass another team or other distraction.

Pedaling: Pushing the ground with one foot while the other remains on the runner, providing extra momentum for the dog team.

Point Dogs: Used by some mushers to denote the two dogs right behind the Lead Dogs. May also be called Swing Dogs.

Rigging: All the gear used to attach dogs to a sled.

Runners: The two bottom pieces of the sled which come in contact with the snow. They extend behind the basket so the musher can stand on them. Runner bottoms are usually wood, covered with plastic or Teflon (in the past it was bone, antler, ivory or metal).

Safety Line: An extra line from the Gang Line to the sled, in case the main fitting breaks.

Snow Hook: A large metal hook that can be driven into firm snow to anchor a team for a short period of time so the musher doesn’t need to tie them to something.

Snub Line: A rope attached to the back of the sled, which can be tied to a tree to hold the team when the snow is not firm enough to use a Snow Hook.

Stakeout: A main chain with separate short chains to which several dogs can be attached. May be strung between the front and back bumpers of a truck, or between two trees.

Stanchions: The upright pieces that attach the runners to a sled basket.

Swing Dog or Dogs:  May refer to the two dogs running directly behind the Lead Dog or may refer to the dogs between the Point Dogs and the Wheel Dogs. Further identified as right or left swing, depending on which side of the tow line the dog is positioned. The swing dog’s job is to help “swing” the team in the turns or curves.

Team Dog: All dogs other than the Lead DogsPoint DogsSwing Dogs and Wheel Dogs.

Tighten Up!: Command to the lead dog to pull the team out straight from the sled. Used mostly while hooking or unhooking the dogs into the team or while stopped to avoid tangles. While Tighten Up! is the more common command, some mushers use the term Line Out! 

Toboggan:  A sled with a flat bottom instead of runners. Used when deep, soft snow is expected instead of a good trail. These sleds were originally designed and built by Tim White, who happens to be a local musher. The design was based upon and inspired by sleds designed by the US Army, for their dog teams during WWII. The runners extend an inch or two below their tobaggon bed. This keeps the bed of the sled off the surface of the trail on a hard packed trail. But when the trail is deep and drifted, the sled floats on its toboggan bottom. The low bed of a tobaggon is also better for carrying loads.

Tug Line: The main line that connects the dog’s harness to the Gangline.

Wheel Dogs: Dogs placed directly in front of the sled. Their job is to pull the sled out and around corners or trees. These dogs are often larger than the other dogs and must take the greatest load when making turns or changing directions.

Whoa!: Command used to halt the team, accompanied by heavy pressure on the Brake.