When you think of Switzerland’s winter sports, you probably think of skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, ice skating, hockey or maybe even Telemark. When you think of dog sled racing, mushing, you probably think of places like Finland, Canada, Alaska, Colorado or even Minnesota. Chances are, Switzerland isn’t your first thought. In the 1950’s Switzerland encountered sled dog racing. It didn’t take long for it to become popular.
While they don’t host the Iditarod, Switzerland hosts many large races. Les Mosses, near Chateau d’Oex, hosted the Mara Cross-Country Dog Sled Race, one of the most important of the season, this past weekend.
The race was 16 kilometers long and the dogs traveled of speeds averaging around 20 mph (32 kph). In the competition there was no limit on the number of dogs that could pull the sled. Generally, the number ranged from 5 to 10.
The dogs can be any breed, although most were some type of husky. There were also Malamutes, Labrador Retriever, Samoyeds and Greenland Dogs.
The level of cooperation between the dogs and the mushers was astounding. The musher would say “left” or “right” and the dogs would turn accordingly. When they crossed the finish line, the musher would stay stop and immediately the dogs obeyed.
Speaking with some of the participants, they said that the hardest part is training the dogs. They said that it was in their blood so, most of the dogs picked it up quickly, but there is always an occasional dog who is never able to master the necessary commands.
They said that the next most difficult part is choosing which dogs to put where in the harness (the lineup). The smartest, most obedient and most dominant go up front. The strongest go in the back. The dogs must be arranged so they can work together and maintain the same speed.
The dogs get extremely excited when they are hitched up to the sled as they know they are going to get to run. They bark and jump. People hang on to the dogs to ensure (along with the brake), that the dogs don’t take off too early and things stay under control. When the officials count down to the start, the assistants let go and the musher gives the start command, the dogs sprint off the line.
When the dogs finish, they are scanned to ensure that the dogs that finished were the same ones that started and no dogs were swapped for fresh ones while out of sight on the course.
It looked like tons of fun. We are dog lovers. Watching the race made us want to try a lesson, a dog sled tour, or even a trip. It looked like so much fun. Although I don’t think you will see us participating in the Iditarod anytime soon, dog sledding has definitely been added to the list of things we would like to do next year.