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A Guide to Sled Dogs

Author:

JC Scull is an animal lover, in general, and a dog and cat-admirer, in particular, who enjoys writing about them.

Sled dog (husky) - By Denali National Park and Preserve

Sled dog (husky) - By Denali National Park and Preserve

Is Dog Sledding Ethical?

Before moving on with this article, there is one ethical consideration that we must get out of the way: Is dog sledding ethical? In my opinion, as well as those held by many animal rights advocates, dog sledding in itself is ethical as long as the dogs are treated as equal members of the team. Just as the mushers, trainers, or any other humans involved in the endeavor are treated, so should be the case for the four-legged participants.

They must be treated humanely and must not be euthanized just because they are not able to contribute to the team. Only when a dog is facing imminent death from a painful illness or injury can this final act be performed. They must also not be treated as property. Dog sledding must be seen as comparable to horse riding, or to working with animals on a traditional, sustainable farm.

Dog sledding enthusiasts and observers will say that the dogs love to run and participate as members of the group. Those who have been around dog sledding competitions or have seen videos about this sport can attest to this. Sled dogs seem to get excited at the idea that they are going to get a chance of running with their mates.

Certainly, dog sledding is a much more environmentally friendly way to get around compared to snowmobiles or any other motorized vehicle. The carbon footprint of a dog sled compared to other forms of mechanized transportation is virtually non-existent. Motor vehicles in the wilderness not only pollute the air but also damage the environment.

This article, however, is not about dog sledding as much as it is about sled dogs. These wonderful creatures are quite amazing.

For those readers wanting to see sled dogs in action, the following two videos are a good start. However, YouTube has a wide array of videos on the subject which are not only fun to watch but also quite educational.

An 1840s oil painting of a fur trader using a dog sled pulled by 3 dogs. Dog sleds have been used for over a thousand years.

An 1840s oil painting of a fur trader using a dog sled pulled by 3 dogs. Dog sleds have been used for over a thousand years.

The History of Dogs

Let’s face it, pooches have been around for thousands of years. No one really knows for sure the exact moment when they began to partner with humans or even when and how they evolved from wolves. Certainly, there are plenty of scientists who are trying to figure out the puzzle of how ‘man’s best friend’ showed up on the scene and how they adapted to humans.

One scientific piece of evidence that seems to make a lot of sense is that dogs were the first animals to be domesticated. Archeological and DNA evidence points to dogs being around when humans were hunter-gatherers and well before the emergence of farm animals.

Another fact we know about our canine buddies is that their domestication brought about evolutionary changes from the original wolf species. These changes include shorter paws, floppy ears, blunter teeth, and a docile disposition. However, while dogs date back thousands of years, modern dog breeds only go back to the late 19th century.

Prior to this time, there were a few different types of dogs that were mostly defined by the work they did or the need they fulfilled. However, around this time society began to change and so did the role of dogs. Form became more sought after than their function in society. Consequently, different breeds were developed through animal selection in order to accentuate specific characteristics and desirable features.

Today, dogs are the mammals with the largest number of varieties. This is due to artificial selection which has produced some 450 dog breeds over the years. Each breed possesses distinct traits in body structure such as size, skull shape, tail, fur type, and coat color. These breeds also defer behaviorally as they each possess traits that include guarding, hunting, herding, hyper-social behavior, and aggression.

Sled Dogs

Perhaps, one of the most fascinating of these varieties of canines, mainly because of the type of work they do are the sled dogs. These are hardy tail-waggers that are trained to pull a rig while wearing a harness. In most cases, this includes a sled over snow.

Sled dogs have been used in the Arctic for at least 2,000 years. Prior to the introduction of motorized land vehicles and airplanes, they represented an important form of transportation in the frozen regions of the world. For centuries, sleds being pulled by dogs hauled supplies and carried people to areas inaccessible by other means.

During the last hundred and fifty years, they have been used to deliver mail to rural communities in Alaska, Yukon, and Greenland. They participated in the exploration of both poles and hauled humans and supplies during the Alaskan and Klondike gold rush.

Lucy Nersoo [Nerysoo] with a team of 4 dogs, Aklavik, 1943.

Lucy Nersoo [Nerysoo] with a team of 4 dogs, Aklavik, 1943.

Let us not forget Buck, the fictional Klondike sled dog created by novelist and adventurer Jack London in his timeless story The Call of the Wild. Though Buck was fictional, through London’s anthropomorphization, we were able to get into the minds of these noble creatures and get an imaginary ‘dog-view’ of the world.

Today, they are used for recreational purposes which include racing events such as the Northern Pines Sled Dog Race in Wisconsin and the Finnmarksløpet a 1,000-kilometer race from Alta to Finnmark in Norway.

Facts About Sled Dogs

Originally, sled dogs were chosen for size, strength, and stamina. Today, however, breeders and trainers look for speed and endurance. While currently, most sled dogs weigh around fifty-five pounds, they can be as small as thirty-five and as large as seventy pounds.

Sled dogs have been bred to have an efficient gait. A quality that is needed when running as a team on snowy, icy, and uneven surfaces. Mushers, typically strive for a well-balanced dog team in which all members are compatible in gait efficiency, transition speed (changing from one speed to another), and size.

Normally, sled dogs can run up to 28 mph. In order to accomplish this on snow, they must have very tough, webbed feet with closely spaced toes. This allows their feet to act as snowshoes. These same weather conditions require different types of sled dogs to have fur that matches the type of activity in which they engage.

For example, freight dogs typically have dense and warm coats that hold heat. Sprint dogs, on the other hand, have short coats that allow for heat to escape.

Dog's webbed foot

Dog's webbed foot

Most sled dogs have a double coat in which the outer coat keeps the snow away and an inner coat making the pooch waterproof and well insulated. These dogs, usually find it difficult to regulate their body temperature during the summertime. Hence, it is important for their human partners to make sure they do not overheat.

Their tails serve as a furry rope that wraps around their noses and feet during freezing temperatures when they are curled up sleeping. For those who have read Call of the Wild, they might remember when Buck learned this trick on a cold snowy night at a camp. He saw his other teammates cover themselves with snow and use their tails as a wraparound and began to copy them. Buck was a quick learner.

These snow warriors also have a unique arrangement of blood vessels in their legs to help protect against frostbite. And of course, they must have a hearty appetite in order to keep enough fat on their bodies to run long distances in extreme cold. To this end, they are typically fed high-fat diets and on the trail, they may eat oily salmon or blubbery sea mammals.

Finally, one very important requirement is that sled dogs are not overly aggressive with other animals. This means they must be able to work as a team when out in the field.

A smiley dog: Samoyed

A smiley dog: Samoyed

Breeds

The following are the most common breeds of sled dogs:

Alaskan Husky

These are the most commonly used dogs in racing. In reality, they are mongrels bred specifically for their performance as a sled dog.

Alaskan Malamute

The Alaskan Malamutes are large, strong freight-type dogs. They weigh between 80 and 120 pounds have round faces with soft features. They are thought to be one of the first domesticated breeds of dogs, originating in the Kotzebue Sound region of Alaska. These dogs are not necessarily fast runners but rather have extraordinary pulling strength. They are mainly used in expeditions, long adventure trips, and for hauling heavy loads.

Canadian Eskimo Dog

They are also known as the Exquimaux Husky and Qimmiq. The Canadian Eskimo Dog was originally used by the Thule people of Arctic Canada. These excellent workers are capable of pulling between 99 and 176 pounds per dog for distances of 15 to 70 miles. They have also been used as hunting dogs by the Inuit people. They helped in the catch of seals, muskoxen, and polar bears.

Chinook

Originally developed in New Hampshire in the early 1900s, they are a rare breed of dogs. They are a blend of English Mastiff, Greenland Dog, German Shepherd, and Belgian Shepherd. It is the state dog of New Hampshire and has been recognized by the American Kennel Club in the Working Group in 2013. They are athletic and muscular, with a tireless gait.

Greenland Dog

As per their name, these dogs originated in Greenland. They are heavy dogs with high endurance but not fast. They are often used in dog sled adventures and long expeditions. It is estimated that there are some 15,000 of them living in Greenland. A population that has significantly diminished in the last few decades. They are a primary mode of transportation north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland during winter.

Samoyed

The Samoyed was originally developed by the Samoyede people of Siberia for herding reindeer, hauling sleds, and hunting. They are an early breed that predates the modern breeds of the 19th century. They belong to the spitz or northern dog group. They have a friendly and affable disposition which makes them poor guard dogs. Their alert and happy expression are usually referred to as “Sammie smile” or “smiley dog.” They do have the tendency to bark, making them good watchdogs.

Siberian Husky

Although smaller than an Alaskan Malamute, the Siberian Husky can pull more weight on a pound per pound basis. They have been used by the Chukchi people of Siberia as sled dogs. In recent years they have been selectively bred for their appearance and pulling ability. They are known for being the dogs that carried the diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska in 1925.

Seppala Siberian Sleddog

These dogs are descendants of Tog, the famous sled dog and named after his musher and breeder, Leonhard Seppala. Today, the Seppala Siberian is a highly sought after sled dog. They have been bred to be strong workers and as a moderately-long-distance sled dog.

A young handler driving her Collie.

A young handler driving her Collie.

Mushing

Mushing refers to the sport or transport method powered by tail-waggers. It includes carting, polka, dog scootering, sled dog racing, skijoring, freighting, and weight pulling. It basically means that one or more dogs will be used to pull a sled on snow or a rig on dry land.

History

Using dogs to pull sleds dates back to at least 2000 BCE, in Siberia or North America where many native cultures used dogs to pull loads. However, the first Europeans to adopt the practice were the French who after colonizing parts of Canada in 1534, clashed with the Iroquois in a series of attacks and reprisals.

As a way of better understanding the native population of the area, French colonizer Samuel de Champlain arranged to have French men live with the indigenous people. The idea was to learn their language and customs, as well as help the French adapt to life in the rugged North American environment.

Panorama of Canadian Shield geography in the Flin Flon, Manitoba, region. Big Island Lake is in the background.

Panorama of Canadian Shield geography in the Flin Flon, Manitoba, region. Big Island Lake is in the background.

These men, known as coureurs des bois or runners of the woods, became the first European mushers. In fact, the word “musher” originates from the French word ‘marche’ meaning walk or move, used to get the dog team moving.

Eventually, the word evolved into ‘mush’ and later into ‘musher.’ These men became responsible for extending French influence south and west and by 1609, New France controlled the Laurentian Plateau (Canadian Shield). Consequently, dog sledding became the common form of transportation in the north of New France.

Mushing in Detail

Before we can begin to read and appreciate the world of sled dogs, we must know the words and phrases associated with this particular canine sphere. The following graphic gives the reader an excellent visual of the terminologies used in the sled dog endeavor.

Elements of a sled dog team

Elements of a sled dog team

Words and Phrases

Sled dogs are strong, fast, and quite smart. They listen to the musher's commands and are expected to follow them. The following are some of the most common commands used in a dog team:

  • Hike!: Signals the team to get moving or get started. To increase speed.
  • Gee!: Turn to the right.
  • Haw!: Turn to the left.
  • Easy!: Slow down.
  • Straight Ahead!: Tells the team to move forward, for instance at an intersection of trails.
  • Whoa!: Stop.
  • On By!: Pass another team.
  • Line Out! Command to the lead dog to move forward in order to tighten the gangline and avoid tangles.

Other Terms:

The following are some of the terms associated with dog sledding.

  • Basket: The main body of a sled where passengers or gear may be carried.
  • Bed or Cargo Bed: The floor of the basket.
  • Booties: Slippers for dogs. Worn while working under certain conditions to prevent ice from forming between their toes.
  • Brake: metal claw attached to the back of the sled for the musher to use as a brake.
  • Brush Bow/Brush Bar: The curved piece of metal in front of the main body of a sled. It is designed to stop the brush from damaging the sled. It acts as a car bumper.
  • Crabbing: When a dog's hindquarters pull at an outward angle instead of parallel to the gangline. May be indicative of discomfort or fatigue.
  • Dog Bag: A fabric bag used to carry a sick or injured dog in order to transport it to get veterinarian treatment.
  • Drag, or Drag Mat: A rectangular piece of rubber attached to the back of the sled between the runners and used by the musher to control the speed of the team and sled by applying foot pressure.
  • Gangline: Connects the pulling dogs to the sled. It runs down the middle of the dog team. The gangline attaches to the sled.
  • Loose Leader: a lead dog who runs free of the team, yet still guides the tethered team and listens to commands.
  • Loose Leader: A lead dog who runs free of the team and guides while listening to commands from the musher.
  • Toboggan: A sled with a flat bottom instead of separate runners. Used when deep, soft snow is expected instead of a good trail.
Gunnar Kaasen with Balto

Gunnar Kaasen with Balto

Famous Sled Dogs

As a final note, let’s pay tribute to two famous sled dogs who saved countless lives: Balto and Togo, who were the two lead dogs in the teams that brought the diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska in 1925. Togo ran the first leg and Balto made the last delivery of the serum.

Ten months after Balto completed his run, a bronze statue was erected in his honor in Central Park (Manhattan) near Tisch Children’s Zoo. The plaque at the base of the statue reads “Endurance · Fidelity · Intelligence”.

Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 02, 2020:

They live with the perfect people in that case. The husband, John, runs marathons, and he regularly runs in a nearby park and takes the dogs with him.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 02, 2020:

Hello Peggy...they are not dogs for sedate people. They are high energy dogs and must be allowed to blow steam.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 02, 2020:

We know a couple that loves husky dogs. They are very active dogs and often accompany them when they go on 10-mile or more runs.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 01, 2020:

Thank you for commenting MG.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 01, 2020:

This is a very nice article and added to my knowledge about sled dogs. I have never been to this area hence reading about these wonderful animals was very illuminating.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 01, 2020:

Thank you for commenting Pamela. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on December 01, 2020:

This is a terrific article, JC. I had no idea that there were so many types of sled doges, let alone the 450 types of dogs. I really like dogs, so that made this article very interesting.

I have watched sled dogs on long race in Alaska on the TV, but I have never been around them. They are beautiful dogs.

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on December 01, 2020:

Thanks Ann. They are great dogs.

Ann Carr from SW England on December 01, 2020:

Great hub! I love the husky; they are about the closest in looks to a wolf that you can get. The blue eyes get me every time!

They seem to take great pleasure in pulling the sleds.

Ann

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