They’re powerful, have remarkable strength and are blessed with stamina and the most efficient gaits that keep them going for extended periods of time. They’re the most ancient means of transportation in arctic areas where they were used to explore the poles and haul supplies to otherwise inaccessible areas. We’re talking about sled dogs (or know as sledge or sleigh dogs), physical marvels capable of pulling more of their weight over great distances.
An Insight into the History
There is belief that these dogs probably evolved in Mongolia any time between 35,000 to 30,000 years ago. In North America, there are historical references attesting that Native Americans were using dog harnesses even before European contact. Two different kinds of sled dogs were being bred; those kept by those living in coastal areas, and those kept by people living inland. In the mid 1800’s, Russian traders traveling along the Yukon River acquired several sled dogs from interior villages because they found them to be superior in hauling heavy loads compared to their native sled dogs.
During the Alaskan Gold Rush, these dogs increased in popularity because many gold camps were reachable only by dog sleds in the winter. They were also used to deliver about 500 to 700 pounds of mail in Alaska between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This time frame was often referred to as the “Era of the sled dog.” Their use declined though when airplanes took over mail delivery in the 1920’s.
The tradition of dog mushing is now kept alive by recreational mushing. The larger, stronger dogs used in the past for hauling heavy loads, were replaced by faster, lighter dogs that excelled in endurance. Siberian huskies were imported and crossed so to increase the speed of the local dogs.
One of the biggest sled dog racing events is the Iditarod inspired by the historic six-day serum run to Nome, Alaska in 1925. Because of a lack of serum to treat a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, a dog sled relay was set up between the towns of Nome and Nenana, about 700 miles away. Nowadays, that trail adjoining these two towns is open for the famous Iditarod Race.
The Making of a Good Sled Dog
In order to work in rough environments, sled dogs require certain traits that make them suitable for the task. These dogs must have tough feet that are webbed and have closely spaced toes. These characteristics make their feet function almost as snow shoes. Their coats are double with an insulating and waterproof inner coat and a harsher top coat that repels the snow. Their long tails help protect their noses and feet when they curl up to sleep.
When it comes to temperament, a good sled dog must have good “pack drive,” and therefore, must get along with the other dogs and work as a team. They must have stamina, endurance and that special will to get going. Picky eaters are frowned upon because they must be OK eating whatever food is given to them during a race.
As mentioned, the original sled dogs were selectively bred based on size and stamina; whereas modern sled dogs are much lighter and faster. Today’s sled dogs mostly weight anywhere between 35 and 71 pounds, with the average around the 50 pound range. The average speed of a sled dog is about 28 miles per hour.
Popular Sled Dog Breeds
Not all breeds have what it takes to make good sled dogs. In the past, many unsuitable dogs perished because they lacked the body structure and endurance required to be up for the task. In some cases, mutts seemed to produce splendid results. The following are some breeds that were used and continue to be used as sled dogs.
Canadian Eskimo Dogs
If you attend sled dog racing events you’ll likely run into an Alaskan Husky. Not really a breed, the Alaskan Husky is a mongrel specifically bred for pulling sleds since the late 1800’s. His heritage includes mixes of Alaska malamutes and Siberian huskies for specimens meant to run long distances, and Pointers and Salukis for specimens meant to sprint. Anatolian shepherd blood was also added into the mix for strong work ethics. Some bloodlines may include greyhounds to improve their speed. Because this dog is a result of crosses with Northern and non- Northern breeds, it’s not considered pure, and therefore, it’s not registered by the American Kennel Club.
Often confused with huskies, Alaskan malamutes are slightly larger in size and have tails that curl on their backs. These dogs are mostly bred for pulling strength, so they make the ideal dogs for hauling heavy loads over long distances. They were extensively utilized in World War II for hauling and messenger work. Today, Alaskan malamutes are still used as sled dogs and recreational sports such as mushing, skijoring, bikejoring and cani-cross.
Also known as the Exquimax Husky or Canadian Inuit Dog, the Canadian Eskimo Dog was the preferred means of transportation for the Inuit inhabiting the arctic areas of Greenland, Canada and United States. While utilized as a sled dog, in the past, he was also helpful as a hunting dog for the Inuit hunters helping them catch seals, ox and even polar bears. Nowadays, this breed is quite uncommon having been replaced by snowmobiles, but there’s a slight resurgence due to sled dog teams entertaining tourists.
Originating in the early 1900’s, the Chinook was developed in New Hampshire by crossing German and Belgian shepherds, mastiffs and Greenland huskies. The breed owes its existence to Arthur Walden, who bred his stud dog named “Chinook.” Nowadays, the Chinook is quite rare being still used for recreational dog sledding but more often as family pets.
These are powerful dogs that originated in Greenland and feature high endurance and strength. They were bred to be sled dogs but were also utilized as hunters aiding in the capturing of seals and polar bears. As an ancient breed used through the centuries as a draught animal, the Greenland Dog is blessed with a heavy coat and powerful body meant to pull loads over harsh environments.
Developed in Siberia, this breed was utilized to herd reindeer, hunt and haul loads. Nowadays, they’re not commonly seen on racing trails, but when they participate it’s hard to ignore them because of their striking looks. These dogs have pure white fluffy coats, dark eyes and curled bushy tails. Nowadays, Samoyed are used as companions, watchdogs and for recreational racing. Even though they can’t compete with the huskies and malamutes when it comes to speed, they stick out for their desire to please.
The sled dog par excellence, the husky works great for pulling sleds but its endurance can’t match the malamute. They made perfect working dogs adaptable to the harsh Siberian conditions. The husky was later brought to Alaska by fur traders for arctic races. Always happy to work in packs, these dogs could work for hours on end. It is one of the most popular sled dog breeds as it has mainly become a companion dog.
The Bottom Line
Sled dogs are impressive dogs that have certainly played a big role in the development of remote arctic areas and the survival of many early indigenous groups. Once trained, they have the potential to remain in top shape for many years. It’s not unusual to see 10-year old dogs still racing. They are truly physical marvels and musher. Joe Runyan who won the 1989 Iditarod claims that their drive is so strong “even brakes have difficulty holding them back.”