Musher experiments with new dog harness design

Posted: Monday, March 24, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A new harness design may help cut down on sled dog injuries, according to a former Iditarod champion.

Jeff King of Denali Park credits the lack of injuries this year to the design that may put less pressure on a dog's hindquarters and a decision to abandon another traditional piece of dog team rigging, the neckline.

King this year arrived at the White Mountain checkpoint, 77 miles from the end of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, with 12 dogs, his highest number ever, he said. Farther up the trail, daughter Cali still had 14 dogs, the most yet left in the race.

''I haven't had a single wrist injury (the most common injury that takes dogs out of the race) since I started using these,'' he said. King has won the Iditarod three times and finished third this year.

The traditional harness is known as an X-back. It has one loop running around the dog's shoulders and another loop around its hips. Additional straps run across the dog's back in a diamond or an X to connect the shoulder and hip loops. The tugline, which connects the dog to the gangline, attaches at the rear, over the hips.

King's new harness circles the shoulders, like the traditional harness, but goes around the dog's belly, not its hips. He also eliminated the X-straps and instead connects the shoulder and belly loops with one strap down the dog's backbone and another down its chest. On his harness, the tugline connects at the dog's middle, not its hips.

''There's no impact on the hips -- zero,'' he said.

Because the harness has no X-straps, it can rotate around the animal's torso. Once the team starts pulling, the harnesses of dogs on the right side of the gangline roll to the left, closer to the gangline.

''Most dogs don't run perfectly straight. They lean out and away from the gangline,'' King said. ''I was always bothered by that waste of energy, pulling out when what we want is to go forward.''

The harnesses, with floating tugline connections, allow the dogs to run without crabbing outward, he said.

''They're a hassle to put on,'' he said. But the time he has saved in massaging sore wrists and the advantage of keeping more dogs in the race make up for the difficulties, he said.

Another King innovation was eliminating the neckline, a short leash between the dog's collar and the gangline.

Most mushers use necklines to keep their dogs in line with the gangline and pulling straight ahead. King said they're another waste of energy.

''I'm removing a crutch,'' he said. ''Necklines are for dogs you don't trust to do what you want them to do.''

His solution is to train the dogs better, he said.

''There's not a single dog (in my team) that I would hesitate to put in lead.''

Eliminating necklines also is easier on the dogs, King said. When leaders go around a curve and the gangline is tight, necklines can pull dogs to the side, where they can't avoid obstacles or ice.

Similarly, if the trail has high bumps, dogs caught in the valley can be jerked around by their necklines.

The freedom that King gives his dogs has brought objections from some other mushers. Last June, the Iditarod Trail Committee board of directors adopted a rule that required dogs to always wear necklines and tuglines.

The rule was based on reports that teams without necklines had tangled with other teams and bystanders. Existing race regulations require dog drivers to control their teams. Rules also prohibit teams from interfering with others. In July, after more discussion and comments from King, the committee reversed the neckline decision.

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