History shows dogs, especially sled dogs, as prominent companions to man in numerous cultures.
In addition to being loyal friends, they’ve been trained to aid man in hunting, herding, security, and in some cases, making traveling a bit easier.
This was especially true in areas with harsh winters, where despite the conditions, there was still work to be done and need to transport supplies. The sled dog became the primary means of communication and transportation in subarctic communities around the world centuries ago.
Dogs helped deliver everything from mail, food, firewood, furs, mining equipment, to gold, and other required supplies to and from remote towns and camps.
Many attribute the success of life in those harsh winter climates to the cooperation and utilization of sled dogs so long ago.
The Beginning of Dog Sledding
The use of dogs and dog harnesses for transport by Native people dates back before colonization of the United States.
It is believed that the native and Inuit people of what we now know as Northern Canada, invented this mode of transportation to aid in delivering necessary food and supplies.
When pioneers arrived at the Alaskan frontier, they found an established culture that relied heavily on the use of these working dogs.
The head of the US Geological Survey, Alfred H. Brooks, wrote at the beginning of the twentieth century: “Countless generations of Alaskan natives have used the dog for transport, and he is to Alaska what the yak is to India or the llama to Peru.”
Russian explorers are credited with bringing a new efficiency to dog sledding in the late 1700s.
In the beginning of dog sledding, or mushing, just one to three dogs were used to pull small-sized handmade sleds. There was no lead dog, as they ran alongside each other as equals.
The Russians began arranging the dogs in pairs or single file on their own explorations, and trained a lead dog to take specific commands and keep the rest of the team in line. Dogs were given specific places in line and trained to perform according to their place.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Alaskan Gold Rush brought an increased demand for sled dogs. Anything that needed transport from gold camps and hunting camps during the winter was done so by sled.
Sled dogs were bred heavily and in high demand, as many camps and rural cities were accessible only by sled.
Famous Mushers and Dog Teams in History
The most famous event in the history of mushing was the Great Race of Mercy.
In 1925, an outbreak of diphtheria affected the majority of citizens of Nome, Alaska. The nearest available serum that could halt the outbreak was in Seattle, Washington.
The serum was delivered to Nenana by train, where it was then transported by dog sled teams over 674 miles and six days to arrive in Nome.
Around 20 mushers and around 150 sled dogs formed the trail to deliver the serum. Together, they saved the town and surrounding communities from what could have been an epidemic.
Out of this event came two of the most well-known dog teams in history.
Balto, a black and white Siberian husky, was the lead dog in the sled team on the final 53-mile leg of the 1925 serum run. Fearlessly charging ahead in near white-out conditions, he led his team to Nome to deliver the necessary diphtheria antitoxin, saving the town from further deaths.
Balto and his owner, Gunnar Kaasen, were famous in the aftermath of the run. Both of them toured the West Coast before appearing in a 30-minute film about the adventure.
A life-size statue was erected in Central Park in Balto and the other sledding dogs’ honor. He was later re-imagined as a wolfdog in the 1995 animated Universal Pictures movie.
Balto remains one of the most famous canines in history and his taxidermied likeness is on display at the Cleveland Museum of National History.
Togo was the lead sled dog for Leonhard Seppala’s sled team during the rush to Nome.
As a puppy, he was thought to be too small to become a sled dog, and wasn’t particularly obedient.
Seppala did not see Togo as suited for a sled dog role, and ended up giving him away to be a house dog instead.
After just a few weeks at his new home Togo jumped through a glass window and ran several miles to rejoin his team. Seppala saw this as extreme loyalty, and after some training, Togo became one of his most treasured lead dogs.
At the time of the 1925 serum run, Togo was 12 years old and had been Seppala’s lead dog for seven years. His stretch of the serum run was the longest and most treacherous.
The team covered a round trip of 365 miles, part of which was during the hazardous conditions of a blizzard and -40 degrees Fahrenheit. At one point, Seppala was unable to see through the storm, but Togo led the team in a straight line through the dark to safety.
While Balto is more well-known in culture today, Togo was arguably the true hero of the serum relay to Nome.
Flowers and Anna
A lesser known sled dog to make history was the Anna, a small Alaskan Husky, who ran on Pam Flowers’ expedition team of the Arctic coast.
Flowers was the first and only woman to cross the Arctic alone, covering a distance of 2,500 miles in 11 months in 1993.
Anna was the runt of the dog pack, but was incredibly loyal and eager to be a part of the sled team. After being chosen for the trek along the Arctic Coast, Anna proved to be integral to the team’s success.
The lead dog, who happened to be the largest and strongest of the pack, ran off and left the team without a lead to follow.
Anna, as the most obedient, took his place and led the team with ease. She turned out to be an incredible lead dog, and helped Flowers’ complete the trip of a lifetime.
Their journey remains the first and longest solo dog sled trip by a woman.
Sled Dog Breeds
Sled dogs were originally chosen based on their size, strength, and stamina.
Thick and insulated fur coats and tough, webbed paws similar to snowshoes made them impermeable to the winter ground.
Coming in at around 35-70 pounds, they were strong enough to pull heavy loads while keeping adequate energy for lengthy trips.
Modern sled dogs are bred for endurance and speed for racing, rather than brute strength.
Alaskan Huskies are most commonly used in sled racing. Occasionally referred to as Indian Dogs, they were known as coming from Native American villages in the Canadian and Alaskan regions.
Smaller than Siberian Huskies, they are said to be part-wolf, and thus a bit more difficult to train and control.
Alaskan Malamutes are larger than Alaskan Huskies and known for their thick coats, broad chests, and tough feet. Slightly more domesticated, they are used to haul heavy loads over long distances.
They were also the dog of choice for delivering messages during World War II.
Smaller than Malamutes, the Siberian Husky is a medium-size sled. They are known for being able to pull larger loads than the Malamute pound-for-pound, but cannot pull as long.
The hunter-gatherer Chukchi people of Siberia first bred these dogs. But it wasn’t the Nome Gold Rush that they were finally introduced to Alaska.
Canadian Eskimo Dog
The Canadian Eskimo Dog originated from the aboriginal sled dogs used by the Thule people of Arctic Canada.
Also used as hunting dogs, they assisted the Inuit hunters in catching polar bears, seals, and ox.
Previously known as the Eskimo Dog, these sled dogs are moderately sized with a thick neck and broad shoulders. However, their build gives the impression that they were made for strength, not for speed.
A blend of several breeds, the Chinook is a combination of Mastiff, German Shepherd, Belgian Shepherd, and Greenland Husky.
Bred in New Hampshire in the early 1900s, they are tireless workers whose name means “warm winter winds” in native Inuit.
Greenland Dogs are a large breed of Eskimo dog used for sledding and for hunting. Genetically similar to the Canadian Eskimo Dog, they have extreme endurance for long trips across difficult terrain.
They have a distinct triangular shaped area on their shoulders called the “úlo” that makes them recognizable.
Of Siberian descent, the Samoyed are reindeer herders, hunters, and sled dogs. They are snow white and have a much fluffier appearance than other common sled dogs.
They were so prized by their owners that they were often allowed to sleep in the same tent. Even today their obedience makes them notable show dogs.
Other common sled dogs are
- St. Bernards,
- Labrador Retrievers,
- Irish Setters,
- and Poodles
However, when it comes to races like the Iditarod, “only dogs suitable for arctic travel will be permitted to enter the race.”
Dog Sledding Today
Modern-day technology has decreased the need for dogs to transport supplies.
Aircraft was introduced in the 1930s, and snowmobiles in the 1960s. Mushing began to take on a more recreational form as a result.
The first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held in 1973 in Alaska. It is still held annually to honor the history of dog sledding.
Each team consists of one musher and a team of 12 to 16 dogs (the maximum changes per the rules each year), which must travel approximately 938 miles over the course of six days.
In 1992, the International Federation of Sleddog Sports incorporated as a way to focus the efforts of many dog sledding organizations. The main goal: Olympic recognition and alignment of mushing with other mainstream sports.
While less common than it used to be, mushing is still alive and well in rural communities of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Alaska is considered the central place for dog sled racing today.
Dog sled demonstrations and tours have become popular tourist attractions in parts of Alaska, Canada, and Russia. In fact, yours truly has been dog sledding on a glacier in Alaska.