The dark days of an Alaskan winter are upon us and have made its presence known in most of the country by now, and both people and dogs are preparing themselves for the even colder days ahead. While many dogs blanch at the prospect of a long trek in the ice and snow, there’s one category of dogs that approaches it with sheer, unbridled eagerness and joy: they are the sled dogs, denizens of the frozen tundras and icy poles. Their athleticism and endurance is unrivaled, and their heroics, intelligence, and loyalty have been lauded around the world. This week, Mushing would like to pay tribute to these hard (and hardy) workers, and we hope you’ll fall as in love with them as we have.

For thousands of years, man has used dogs as draft and pack animals, tapping into their endurance and strength to haul both people and goods across increasing distances and harsh climates. The earliest evidence of man using dogs to pull sleighs exists in the Thule people of Canada – the precursors of the Inuits – and dates back to around A.D. 1000. However, it is believed that domesticated working dogs existed in North America as far back as 15,000 years ago. For the Thule, Inuit, and Athabascan people of the great white north, as well as other northern native cultures, using these dogs for the transportation of people and goods was a part of daily life.

For more information on these awesome dogs, we encourage you to check out the book, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic.

The historical sled dogs were split into two breeds: the Native Village dog, bred and used by the Thules and Inuits of the coastal regions of Canada, and the Interior Village dog, bred by the Athabascans that settled further inland. "Sled Dogs Thule Greenland." Photo by Drew Avery via Flickr.It is the Native Village dog that is believed to be the ancestor to today’s predominant sled dog, the Alaskan husky.

The Native Village Dog itself was a mix of breeds, which are thought to include the Germanic spitz and the northern timber wolf. An exceptionally hardy breed, it had extreme tolerance of cold and the ability to haul heavy freight over long distances. In later years, the faster but less sturdy Siberian husky (brought to Alaska by Russian fur traders in the 18th century) was introduced to the mix by those were looking to increase the dogs’ speed, at the cost of decreasing some of their hauling capacity.

While Alaska has in most circles become synonymous with modern-day mushing (as the activity of captaining dog-pulled sleds is called), it is actually the fur traders and gold prospectors of Canada’s Northwest Territory in the 18th and 19th centuries that are responsible for mushing’s formalization and standardization. With the Gold Rush in the late 19th century, trade boomed in the Northwest Territory, and traders and prospectors used dog sleds as their chief mode of transportation for their wares and supplies.

These traders introduced the commands used today to direct the dogs: “marche” (French for “walk” or “march” and often mispronounced as “mush,” hence where the modern “mush” command comes from) to make the dogs go, “whoa” to make the dogs stop, “gee” to turn right, and “haw” to turn left. They also increased the team numbers from two to four dogs, which tends to be the bare minimum for today’s teams. Many sled dog teams comprise ten or more dogs; teams that compete in the Iditarod and other long-distance races have twelve to sixteen hardy canine trailblazers at the helm.

To give you an idea of these dogs’ strength and endurance, records from Northwest Company fur traders in the 1800s note that a single pair of sled dogs could haul upwards of 1,000 pounds on a sledge (a sled like our modern day toboggan) over a short distance, and they routinely hauled loads of 300 or more pounds over 20 miles in under five hours. Modern-day sled dogs travel at an average of 20 mph over shorter distances, and 10 to 14 mph on longer distances. Even in poor trail conditions, sled dogs can manage 6 to 7 miles per hour. The dogs may travel over 90 miles in a 24 hour period while pulling up to 85 pounds apiece!

When air travel became commonplace in the 1920s and 30s, sled dogs began to lose their role as a means of commercial transportation. The advent of major highways in the 1950s, as well as the invention and increasing use of snowmobiles, further rendered the dogs an object of the past. In today’s society, there are still working sled dogs, used to haul logs or wood, work trap lines, or give tourists rides on glaciers. The majority of mushing, however, is recreational or for sport.

The most common dog used for mushing today, as we mentioned earlier, is the Alaskan husky. The Alaskan Husky is not a unique breed but rather a mix of several breeds, including the Native Village dog of yore and oftentimes one or more hound or husky breeds (such as the Siberian or Malamute); however, pointers and even greyhounds have also been added to the mix in recent years. The Alaskan husky has a short to medium dense coat which is crucial for maintaining body heat in the frigid northern temps; for longer journeys, mushers often choose to outfit their teams in jackets and booties to help maintain body heat and protect the dogs’ paws from the elements. This has become more commonplace with the popularity of racing; racing dogs are being bred for speed, at the sacrifice of some of their natural hardiness and endurance.

Alaskan huskies range in weight from 50 to 80 pounds for working sled dogs, and 35 to 60 pounds for a racing dog. They are intelligent, affectionate dogs with an independent streak; while loyal to their pack (and people), they are prone to wandering and adventuring if not kept occupied or engaged. "Sled dogs -Two of the dogs pulling our sled on top of a glacier near Skagway, Alaska." Photo by Jeremy Keith via Flickr. That said, Alaskan huskies are much more suited to a life of working or athletic pursuits than a life of leisure, and require ample space to exercise. The Alaskan husky is NOT an apartment dog! They can have health issues resulting from both genetics and their participation in racing, and there are veterinary associations, such as the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association, that are dedicated to the health and well-being of these amazing animals.

Photo credits (top to bottom):

My Public Lands Roadtrip: Iditarod National Historic Trail in Alaska” by Bureau of Land Management. CC2.0. The image is cropped.

Annual Dog Sled Race, Sled Dogs Thule Greenland” by Drew Avery. CC2.0.

Sled dogs” by Jeremy Keith. CC2.0.