In honor of Alaska’s famous annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, we bring you 5 remarkable facts about sled dogs. While we recognize that the Iditarod is a difficult, challenging and sometime dangerous endeavor for the dogs, it draws upon a long and storied tradition of dog and human partnerships. From historic race teams to legendary dogs who saved an entire city, these stories showcase the inspiring and indefatigable spirit of these amazing dogs.

1. A sled dog named Balto helped save the town of Nome, Alaska from a deadly diphtheria outbreak in 1925.

Gunnar Kaasen with Balto

Gunnar Kaasen with Balto, circa 1925

On January 20, 1925, doctors in the remote city of Nome, Alaska diagnosed several cases of diphtheria, a very contagious and potentially deadly disease that affects the throat and lungs. The only hope to save the village was a batch of serum that was nearly 700 miles away in Anchorage. The only pilot capable of flying in blizzard conditions was flying another mission to the south, so the citizens of Nome arranged a relay of dog sled teams to travel the Iditarod Trail to Anchorage.

A critical portion of the journey fell to Gunnar Kaasen and his sled dog team lead by Balto, who covered the last two legs of the trip. Balto was not known as a strong leader, but contrary to his reputation, the black-and-white Siberian Husky fearlessly pushed ahead into the gale-force winds and white-out conditions of the roaring blizzard. Balto and the team arrived in Nome just before dawn on February 2, 1925. The serum was dispensed and the city was saved. Balto and Kaasen became national heroes, and a statue of Balto was soon erected and still stands in New York’s Central Park. And in 1995, Balto’s story was turned into a classic animated movie!

To learn more about Balto and his brave journey, check out our blog post on the topic.

2. Sled dog team members are separated into four categories based on their position.

Each sled dog team has a lead dog, or in some cases two lead dogs. Lead Dogs (like the famous Balto) are fast and intelligent, and must be able to set the pace and direct the team effectively.

Directly behind the lead dogs are Swing Dogs, who help “swing” the team in the turns or curves. The dog(s) at the very back of the sled are known as Wheel Dogs, and are typically the largest and strongest of the group. According to the Iditarod’s website, their job is to “pull the sled out and around corners or trees.” Finally, the remaining dogs in the middle are known as Team Dogs. The number of Team Dogs depends on the size of the sled dog team; more Team Dogs means more “dogpower”!


3. Dog sledding has been around for at least 9,000 years!

The earliest evidence of man using dogs to pull sleighs was found in Siberia dating back 9,000 years. For the Thule, Inuit, and Athabascan people of North America, as well as other northern native cultures, using these dogs for transportation of people and goods was a part of daily life for centuries.

To read more about the history of sled dogs, check out our blog post on the topic.

4. Sled dogs played a crucial role in the Gold Rush

Mining claim No 39 below Hunker Creek, Yukon Territory, ca 1898

Miners and sled dogs at a mining claim below Hunker Creek, Yukon Territory, ca. 1898.

While sled dogs have been part of North American culture for centuries, their popularity boomed during the Gold Rush of the late 19th and early 20th century in Alaska and Northwestern Canada. Historians report that during “one of the big rushes it was said that no stray dogs could be found on the streets of Seattle, having all been rounded up and shipped to Alaska.”

One of the most important dog sled travel routes during the Gold Rush was the Iditarod Trail, a 1000-plus mile trail that had long been used by the Inupiaq and Yup’ik peoples of the Bering Straits, among others. The Iditarod Trail ran from Seward to Nome, Alaska. Travel between these two cities exploded between the 1880s and 1920s. According to the Smithsonian, by the summer of 1900, the population of this small, remote city ballooned to over 20,000 people. (To put that in perspective, Nome’s current population is roughly 3,600 people). These numbers eventually dwindled as prospectors failed to strike it rich and the onset of WWI drew young men away from the mines.

Dog sleds remained important transportation vehicles in Alaska until the advent of airplane travel. The practice languished until the late 1960s, when dog sled racing enthusiast Joe Redington Sr. joined forces with an Alaskan historical committee chairman Dorothy Page to establish the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race. The first Iditarod race took place in 1973.

5. The Iditarod’s oldest and youngest winners have a special bond.

Dallas Seavey made history in 2012 when, at age 25, he became the youngest winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Just one year later, Dallas’ father Mitch Seavey became the oldest winner of the Iditarod at age 53, and he broke his own record in 2017 when he won again at age 57.

And that’s not all the records held by this impressive father-son team. Both Dallas and Mitch have held the record for the fastest finish in Iditarod history, with Mitch currently at the top thanks to his 2017 winning time of 8 days, 3 hours, 40 minutes, and 13 seconds. Dallas and Mitch are also the first father-son team to finish 1-2 in the Iditarod, a feat they accomplished in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Check out this video of Dallas and his remarkable dogs at the finish line in 2015.

We hope you enjoyed this mini history lesson! And we wanted to give a shout out to all the Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and Husky mix dogs who run free with their DogWatch Hidden Fences – this one’s for you!

Image Credits
Featured Image: “Damon in front – Sled Dogs in Wallgau Bavaria” by Ralf Κλενγελ is licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Image is cropped.)
Balto with musher Gunnar Kaasen, who traveled the last leg of the Nome serum run. Photo by Brown Brothers, circa 1925, via Wikipedia.
Mining claim No. 39 below Hunker Creek, Yukon Territory, ca. 1898, via Wikipedia.
“Mushing in detail” graphic via Wikipedia.

This post, originally published on March 9, 2016, was updated most recently on March 12, 2021.