Sled Dogs: A Study in Endurance, Fidelity, and Intelligence

Old Man Winter has made his presence known in most of the country by now, and both people and dogs are preparing themselves for the even colder days ahead. While many dogs blanch at the prospect of a long trek in the ice and snow, there’s one category of dogs that approaches it with sheer, unbridled eagerness and joy: they are the sled dogs, denizens of the frozen tundras and icy poles. Their athleticism and endurance is unrivaled, and their heroics, intelligence, and loyalty have been lauded around the world. This week, DogWatch would like to pay tribute to these hard (and hardy) workers, and we hope you’ll fall as in love with them as we have.

For thousands of years, man has used dogs as draft and pack animals, tapping into their endurance and strength to haul both people and goods across increasing distances and harsh climates. The earliest evidence of man using dogs to pull sleighs exists in the Thule people of Canada – the precursors of the Inuits – and dates back to around A.D. 1000. However, it is believed that domesticated working dogs existed in North America as far back as 15,000 years ago. For the Thule, Inuit, and Athabascan people of the great white north, as well as other northern native cultures, using these dogs for transportation of people and goods was a part of daily life.

The historical sled dogs were split into two breeds: the Native Village dog, bred and used by the Thules and Inuits of the coastal regions of Canada, and the Interior Village dog, bred by the Athabascans that settled further inland. "Sled Dogs Thule Greenland." Photo by Drew Avery via Flickr.It is the Native Village dog that is believed to be the ancestor to today’s predominant sled dog, the Alaskan husky.

The Native Village Dog itself was a mix of breeds, which are thought to include the Germanic spitz and the northern timber wolf. An exceptionally hardy breed, it had extreme tolerance of cold and the ability to haul heavy freight over long distances. In later years, the faster but less sturdy Siberian husky (brought to Alaska by Russian fur traders in the 18th century) was introduced to the mix by those were looking to increase the dogs’ speed, at the cost of decreasing some of their hauling capacity.

While Alaska has in most circles become synonymous with modern-day mushing (as the activity of captaining dog-pulled sleds is called), it is actually the fur traders and gold prospectors of Canada’s Northwest Territory in the 18th and 19th centuries that are responsible for mushing’s formalization and standardization. With the Gold Rush in the late 19th century, trade boomed in the Northwest Territory, and traders and prospectors used dog sleds as their chief mode of transportation for their wares and supplies.

These traders introduced the commands used today to direct the dogs: “marche” (French for “walk” or “march” and often mispronounced as “mush,” hence where the modern “mush” command comes from) to make the dogs go, “whoa” to make the dogs stop, “gee” to turn right, and “haw” to turn left. They also increased the team numbers from two to four dogs, which tends to be the bare minimum for today’s teams. Many sled dog teams comprise ten or more dogs; teams that compete in the Iditarod and other long-distance races have twelve to sixteen hardy canine trailblazers at the helm.

To give you an idea of these dogs’ strength and endurance, records from Northwest Company fur traders in the 1800s note that a single pair of sled dogs could haul upwards of 1,000 pounds on a sledge (a sled like our modern day toboggan) over a short distance, and they routinely hauled loads of 300 or more pounds over 20 miles in under five hours. Modern-day sled dogs travel at an average of 20 mph over shorter distances, and 10 to 14 mph on longer distances. Even in poor trail conditions, sled dogs can manage 6 to 7 miles per hour. The dogs may travel over 90 miles in a 24 hour period while pulling up to 85 pounds apiece!

When air travel became commonplace in the 1920s and 30s, sled dogs began to lose their role as a means of commercial transportation. The advent of major highways in the 1950s, as well as the invention and increasing use of snowmobiles, further rendered the dogs an object of the past. In today’s society, there are still working sled dogs, used to haul logs or wood, work trap lines, or give tourists rides on glaciers. The majority of mushing, however, is recreational or for sport.

The most common dog used for mushing today, as we mentioned earlier, is the Alaskan husky. The Alaskan Husky is not actually a unique breed but rather a mix of several breeds, including the Native Village dog of yore and oftentimes one or more hound or husky breeds (such as the Siberian or Malamute); however, pointers and even greyhounds have also been added to the mix in recent years. The Alaskan husky has a short to medium dense coat which is crucial for maintaining body heat in the frigid northern temps; for longer journeys, mushers often choose to outfit their teams in jackets and booties to help maintain body heat and protect the dogs’ paws from the elements. This has become more commonplace with the popularity of racing; racing dogs are being bred for speed, at the sacrifice of some of their natural hardiness and endurance.

Alaskan huskies range in weight from 50 to 80 pounds for working sled dogs, and 35 to 60 pounds for a racing dog. They are intelligent, affectionate dogs with an independent streak; while loyal to their pack (and people), they are prone to wandering and adventuring if not kept occupied or engaged. "Sled dogs -Two of the dogs pulling our sled on top of a glacier near Skagway, Alaska." Photo by Jeremy Keith via Flickr.They are also avid diggers and renowned escape artists, so if you are planning to have one as a pet, a DogWatch Hidden Fence is the way to go. That said, Alaskan huskies are much more suited to a life of working or athletic pursuits than a life of leisure, and require ample space to exercise. The Alaskan husky is NOT an apartment dog! They can have health issues resulting from both genetics and their participation in racing, and there are veterinary associations, such as the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association, that are dedicated to the health and wellbeing of these amazing animals.

Stay tuned next month for more on sled dogs and mushing, and the most famous sled dog of them all – Balto – as we prepare for mushing’s greatest race: the Iditarod.

Photo credits (top to bottom):

My Public Lands Roadtrip: Iditarod National Historic Trail in Alaska” by Bureau of Land Management. CC2.0. Image is cropped.

Annual Dog Sled Race, Sled Dogs Thule Greenland” by Drew Avery. CC2.0.

Sled dogs” by Jeremy Keith. CC2.0.

One Comment on “Sled Dogs: A Study in Endurance, Fidelity, and Intelligence

  1. I have had one pure bred Serbian Husky a rescue dog of sorts. I saw an add that a family wanted to give away this Husky as they were being transferred to Hawaii. I called and told them we would come down and look at the dog, no commitment was made to take the dog. When we arrived at their house they had all his bowls, toys and what have you all packed up and their kids had no interest in the dog while my 7-8 year old son fell in love. I had come to look, but seeing how little the kids cared(they were around my son age)I could not leave the dog there, so we load him up, the kids did not get teary eyed or even say goodbye, which I thought strange. He was a wonderful dog but must have beaten, as I just had to raise my hand as you may do in a normal conversation, if you are from a race of people that make a lot of hand jesters when you talk(and I mean just talk it may very well be a conversation that did not involve the dog, but when he saw a hand go up he would shake and shiver I am very glad we had taken the dog and he grew out of being afraid of hand jesters with the help of rewards. He lived to be about 13-14 and passed in his sleep, in the last 2 weeks you could see it coming.
    About 2 months ago I took a Malamute from a shelter, he was suppose to be a pure bred,but I see some Husky in him, I do not know how he was raised, but he knows a lot of commands and did not bark for 6 weeks. The reason he was in the shelter the owners let his collar grew into his skin, it took surgery to remove it I do not know if the pain is what stopped his barking, but when he found his bark he was over joyed, going around the house just trying out different barks and some playful growls. When he found his bark you could almost see his eyes light up. He does not bark at people or other dogs, if I let him out at night he will bark at animals that I can not see but do hear, they could be deer,coyotes,or coydogs where I live. We have a lot of all of them, the only one that bother me are the coydogs as they have no fear of humans and kill for sport, they will kill and leave the animal untouched.

    I am going to build him a super insulated, solar house. I built one before for a black lab I had, when it got below freezing I tried many times to bring her inside, but she wanted to be in her house after about a 1/2 hour, I wonder why so one night I crawled in the house with her , it was warmer than my own house.
    I would not mind being put in touch with rescue groups of Malamutes, Huskies or Samoyed’s. I have no plans on showing the dogs, could care less about papers, I am just interested in the dogs pulling logs out of the woods maybe a mile or two. They only would be pulling wood for my stove and maybe to build their house with, cabins just seem like a good fit for both the dogs and the area, I live in the woods. I’d prefer not to have dogs mixed with wolves, wild animals and domestic mixes are asking for trouble. There was a period that Huskies were bred to 1/4 wolf they thought it made a better lead dog,it did not.

    A lot of people are going back to dogs from snow machines as the cost of a dog including food and vets are cheaper than the up keep on a snow machine and they do not run out of gas. They can also help you stay warm. Just a side note; I lived in New Brunswick, Canada on an old 100 acre farm a friend bought back in the 70’s for $10,000. One day a horse should up at the house, he had been shod not long ago, I tried to but him in the barn, he preferred staying out in Mid October, he had a halter on but no other tack, we put a sign up in the General store that we found this horse, I figured out he was a logging horse and they respond to the same commands as dogs Gee, Haw an whoa, I road him with just a blanket for about a month and one day I got up and he had moved on. No one ever responded to the sign at the general store which was the only shopping for about 60 miles. If you are young and know all the building trades or want to cut pulp wood and are fast you can get buy out in the country , otherwise you have to drive sixty miles of dirt roads to get a real job and they were hard to come by, know this was 30 almost 40 years back. Lots of peace and quiet, but there was a lot of work also, the old farm house would take a cord of wood ever week or two, and that was with 2nd floor closed off, water was a hand pump in the kitchen, baths were a tub next to a cook stove that had a side water heater and the water drained under the house, the water closet was outside, around September we would cut evergreen limbs to stack around the foundation to keep the wind out and the heat in, it took two wood stoves not including the kitchen stove to heat the place dead of winter. There was lots of time for writing, thinking, drawing, if you could. We did have electricity(30 amp total)and a telephone, bu not to many people to call. About once a week we would get together with friends. But if yo were a person that needed daily human contact or a social life this was no place for you, but if you wanted to be left alone or needed to escape so called civilization it was perfect. If you wanted to see the Northern Lights or a moose just passing through it was perfect.

    I have not been there since, but just a gut feeling, I doubt that it has change, except maybe that old farm house and 100 acres probably costs 50-60k know, still not all that bad.
    An old Inuit woman said she rather have dogs than snow machines cause if the snow machine died you could not eat it. not that I would I am mostly vegetarian, fish and fowl for calories.

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