When we hear the words Sled Dogs most of us will think of the beautiful fluffy Husky breeds of dogs or sled racing. But did you ever wonder how dog sledding became a popular sport or event? What breeds were used and why? Where did these breeds originate from?
Please join me in discovering a brief history of their heritage, how they’ve helped mankind and the beginning of their popularity.
Many thousands of years ago the original breeds of native sled dogs migrated from Siberia and surrounding areas. The need for survival kept their nomadic owners, known as Thule or more commonly now known as Inuits, on the move. As they moved they took their dogs with them. Some of these breeds have now been named after the places they settled in.
These dogs were already being used as sled dogs, they were helping to transport supplies and belongings as their owners and entire villages were on the move. They also helped with hauling their captured food supplies back to their families.
Different tribes of Inuits ended up in different parts of the Arctic Circle. They were able to leave Siberia via the North East coast of Siberia using the land islands in Bering Strait. These Islands may have been fully connected a long, long time ago bridging the gap between Siberia and Alaska or the sea would freeze between these islands at certain times of the year and would make it possible to travel over the frozen ice.
In the Arctic Circle the average temperature in their winter is -34 ºC and in summer is -1.5ºC. The coldest recorded temperature in Siberia was -68ºC in 1933 and 1885.
Due to being below zero degrees it is important that these primitive breeds of sled dogs have all the appropriate features, like thick fur for any chance of survival.
It was too cold to grow any vegetables or fruit so survival came from hunting for food, back then this would have included land animal such as Polar bears, Caribou (reindeer), and Sea creatures like Otters, Walrus and Whales. All parts of these animals would have been used and nothing left to waste.
The Siberian Husky
The Chukchi (chook-chee) tribe used to live along the mid-eastern coast near the Sea of Okhotsk in Siberia. They stayed in Siberia but migrated north to live on the Chukchi Peninsular. The Siberian Husky breed originates from these areas.
The Chukchi people, due to their religious beliefs, had a lot of respect for all living things, such as animals, plants, forests and rivers. They loved their dogs and treated them like family. The Siberian husky would live inside with their families, be fed all year around even during times of famine.
Due to the extra care and love the Chukchi had for their Siberian Huskies, the Siberian Huskies were very loyal, sociable and obedient dogs. They were sometimes used to help keep babies warm (human temperature 36 – 37ºC; dog temperature 37.5 – 39.5ºC), they made good baby sitters and watch dogs for their families.
Because the Siberian Huskies were well fed, they had low hunting or guarding instincts but were great when it came time to herd the reindeers. Due to the mountainous and forest terrain, these sled dog would have been harnessed in rows of 2 with either 1 or 2 leader dogs at the front.
The Alaskan Malamute
The tribe of Inupiat people called Mahlemuts (now known as Kuuvangmiut and Kobuk) most likely lived near Mongolia and migrated from Siberia to Alaska. Taking with them their breed of dogs that we know as Alaskan malamutes. Currently they live between the rivers of Kobuk and Noatak in Alaska.
The Mahlemuts are very similar to the Chukchi people. They also loved their dogs and treated them well, like family members, and they too helped keep babies warm and they tend to be very friendly dogs. Alaskan Malamutes are big and strong dogs great for working in the harshest of climates.
Malhlemuts were very clever people, they were able to develop this unique breed of Alaskan Malamutes, and they kept it protected from other tribes so crossbreeding couldn’t happen.
Native Thules living in Siberia migrated to Greenland. It took some time to travel through Alaska and Canada and they finally settled in Greenland in the 12th – 13th Century.
Their dogs are known as Greenland dogs.
As Greenland has open wider spaces to travel through, Greenland dogs were harnessed in a fan shape with 10-14 dogs side by side and were individually tied to the sled. This format of harness did not allow for a lead dog as we now come to expect but it was safer for them to travel this way. For example:
– If one of the dogs fell through the ice, the other dogs wouldn’t automatically follow and fall in.
– While out hunting, the musher could cut the lines that attached the dogs to the sled to be free to help herd the desired prey.
– This method also allows all dogs tied to the sled to burden the weight of a heavy load evenly.
Due to the genetic selection process Greenland dogs are a strong and well coated breed. They can withstand hunger and cold.
Descendants of: The Canadian Eskimo Dog and Alaskan Interior Village Dog.
The Canadian Eskimo Dog migrated from the Mongolia area near Siberia, crossing into Alaska then Canada by way of the Bering Strait. Unlike their Thule relatives who went on to Greenland, this Thule tribe stayed in Canada on the coastal regions.
The Canadian Eskimo dog was bred purely for work: to pull sleds and hunt for food. Often these dog had to hunt for food for their owners but also go hunt for themselves. They made good guard dogs alerting if any wolves or polar bears were nearby.
Canadian Eskimo Dogs are generally loyal to ONE person. If raised with a family they will connect to other family members but will prefer just one member and Canadian Eskimos Dogs are not always great with visitors.
In the early days it has been suggested that as soon as puppies could walk they’d be placed in harnesses and by age of 2 months would already be learning, under the guidance of an already trained sled dog, the art of obedience and sled pulling. This breed of dog also prefers to be outdoors. Canadian Eskimo Dogs can be very difficult to train and will need a dominant master. Even though they like to be with other dogs, the potential for dog to dog aggression is in their genetics.
From my research, there is not much information about the Alaskan Interior Village Dog from its early origins.
Greenland dogs and the Alaskan Huskies ancestors are a strong breed. Back in history, during the summer months when these dogs were not being used, they were either put on an island and occasionally fed or left to wonder about and fend for themselves. It became ‘survival of the fittest’, therefore eventually only having the strongest dogs breeding. Due to this method there was a lot of dog to dog aggression and the Greenland dog were more difficult to train compared to the Huskies
History of why Sled Dogs became popular
Alaska and surrounding areas were fortunate enough to have an abundance of food sources in the way of sea life and land animals to keep the Inuit population sustained.
In early to mid-1700’s Russian explorers noted the wonderful supply of goods like caribou (reindeer) whales and whale oil, sea otters, walrus, ‘Steller’s Cow’ and the finest furs. They also knew the wealth that could be procured. Russia had settlements in Alaska in 1733 and set up trading posts to trade with other countries. Eventually other countries like England & France set up trade posts as well to tap into the prosperity.
It wasn’t long before the Europeans noticed the Inuits were using their native arctic dogs to help sled or transport their supplies. This sparked a high demand especially for Alaskan Malamutes, Canadian Eskimo Dogs, and Alaskan Interior Village Dogs. As demands could not be met fast enough, European dogs were imported. These imported dogs were interbred with the local native dogs to try and produce the same qualities as the existing arctic native dogs.
By the mid-1800 over hunting had led to some sea creatures like Steller’s Cow becoming extinct, and some land animals were nearing depletion. With the introduction of Petroleum in other parts of the world, a lot of the Europeans returned home taking their dogs with them.
With the foreign invasion came diseases like flu, measles and canine diseases, which the Inuit’s or dogs didn’t have immunity against. This coupled with a lack of food resulted in the Mahlemiut’s population decreasing by 50% along with some of their dogs. In 1867 Russia sold Alaska back to America for $7.2 million dollars.
Then the Gold Rush Era came in late 1800’s. This sparked interest in Alaska again. High demands were once again placed on sled dog supply. Siberian huskies were now being imported along with more European dogs.
The Alaskan Interior village dog breeding was so diluted that this breed now no longer exists.
The Native Canadian Eskimo dogs were also being used for breeding with imported dogs. By 1970 there were fewer than 200 pureblood Canadian Eskimo Dogs, fortunately some very wise people made plans to preserve this breed. These cross breeds of dogs are now known as ALASKAN HUSKIES.
While the gold rush was on, there were unofficial sled dog races. With the wealth of money, betting on races becoming popular.
Serious racing began.
In 1907 the ‘Nome Kennel Club’ was formed to help improve the care and knowledge of dogs and also sled racing. In 1908 the first race was held. It was called the “All Alaska Sweepstakes”. With the popularity of racing increasing, more Siberian Huskies were imported and trained for the races. This race was an annual event from 1908 to 1917 when it stopped due to World War 1.
In 1925 Sled dog racing would prove to be very useful. Alaska was experiencing the worst winter in 20 years, had a wind chill factor of -65ºC. There was an outbreak of Diphtheria in the town of Nome, Canada. The closest diphtheria antitoxin serum was in town Nenanna which is 674 miles (1085 km) away. In normal weather conditions, the postal route would take 25 days, this ‘Serum Run’ was done in 5 ½ days using a relay system between 20 mushers and 150 dogs. This saved a lot of people’s lives.
In 1967, Alaska had been back in the care of the United States for 100 years. To commemorate this and to save the sled dogs, it was decided to re-open the historical ‘Iditarod Trail’.
The first race was run in 1967 for 56 miles (90km).
In 1973 the ‘Iditarod Trail’ was extended to 1000 miles (1609kms) and is now raced every year.
They have a North and South track which are alternated.
Current day Sled Dogs
Sled dogs are still currently being used today, whether it be for work or leisure purposes.
During the centuries, Sled dogs have helped with the survival of humans in the most unforgiving of environments. Some sled dogs were trained not to bark or sing whilst being transported through enemy territories during World War 1. The Arctic Native Sled Dogs have often led the way in being utilised in the armed forces and work forces. Their intelligence, strength and endurance make them very valuable as service dogs. Over the centuries, they really have shown themselves to be adaptable and loyal and truly “man’s best friend!”