Dallas Seavey and refrigerated dog treadmill

Dallas Seavey says his sled dogs took to the treadmill right away. 'As soon as the ground started moving underneath them, they started pulling. I guess that's what sled dogs do.' (YouTube)

For elite mushers hoping to take on the famed Iditarod trail, training a team usually begins in September when the cool weather arrives and ends with the race in March.

"That's always been the limiting factor to training an Iditarod team," says three-time champion and innovator, Dallas Seavey. "What we came up with was a refrigerated treadmill that we can run up to 16 dogs at a time on."

Seavey, who's been training sled dogs his entire life in Alaska, found the solution in a standard refrigerated transport truck, "not unlike what you would see being pulled down the road with a truckload of produce or refrigerated anything or frozen meat."

He installed a 15-metre treadmill and turned the temperature down to around the freezing mark — what he calls ideal training temperature, taking into account the dogs' summer coats.

"We'll hook-up a whole team of dogs just like you'll see running down the snowy trail in the winter, only running on a rubber track," he says. "However, behind them is just a wall, and in front of them, another wall. And there's no sled and no trail."

'What sled dogs do'

The track accommodates 16 dogs at a time. It's wide enough that dogs can use their natural gait, or run on an angle if they prefer. Seavey's been using it train 40 dogs regularly. They run for about an hour at a time.

Seavey says he did worry about whether the dogs would like it, or just be confused as to why they weren't getting anywhere. That fear proved unfounded.

"As soon as the ground started moving underneath them, they started pulling. I guess that's what sled dogs do."

If the dogs need a break, Seavey hits the stop button. If they seem hot, he pours water on their feet.

"That's the best way to cool them down," he says, noting that only dogs' feet have sweat glands, and that they have excellent circulation to their feet.

'A whole new perspective'

Watching his dogs run on the track has created one side benefit Seavey didn't anticipate: "a view that a musher is not accustomed to seeing their dogs at.

Seavey says he's been able to notice subtle differences in the dogs' gaits and movements.

"It's a whole new perspective on what a dog team looks like running."

The treadmill has prompted interest from other mushers, Seavey says, and though the expense wasn't negligible, he says it was the right choice for him.

"I live in a 700 square foot yurt on three acres out in the middle of nowhere outside of Willow, Alaska," he says. "Mushing is a hobby and we decide not to have other things to be able to have the best possible dog food for our dogs, our equipment for our dogs is the best possible, and this training centre is in the same vein.

"Obviously this is a capital improvement, not a one-year expense."

'If they're running, they're happy'

As for his dogs, Seavey says they seem to love it.

"I've been really surprised. They just don't care. If they're running, they're happy. They put their head down and it's just a blur of legs."

But, he says, the training will only be short-term for his team.

"We're not trying to replace mushing in the winter. We're replacing the 80 degree summer where they're gonna be sitting at their houses doing nothing."