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What Is A Sled Dog?

By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz, October 06, 2021

The relationship between humans and dogs goes back thousands of years. A fascinating example of this relationship is dogs being used as draft animals to pull sleds or carts. Sled dogs have been historically significant to many cultures and continue to be relevant in this day and age. This article will explore the history of sled dogs and how sled dogs continue to be an important part of many societies.

What Is A Sled Dog?

A sled dog is a dog that has been trained to pull either a sled or a cart. Dogs are fitted with harnesses that are attached to the sled or cart with a tether. Depending on the weight of the load and the distance they need to travel, dogs may pull individually or as a part of a team. Sleds are used to move people and objects across snowy terrain, while carts allow for movement across land. “Mushing” is the term used to describe the sport or transport method in which dogs provide the power for the transportation. Sled dogs are vital to the survival of many people, especially in terrains that are difficult to navigate in more modern ways. They also serve as a source of community pride and help keep communities active and employed.

History Of Sled Dogs

There is evidence of dogs being used in central Serbia approximately 4,000 years ago as draft animals (animals used to pull heavy loads) (Coppinger, 1977), with more recent evidence suggesting sled dogs may have been used as far back as 9,000 years ago in the New Siberian Islands (Grimm, 2015). Dogs served as humans’ primary mode of transportation, protection, and companionship in northern, snow-covered climates for thousands of years.

In Alaska, archaeological evidence suggests dogs were harnessed to pull sleds by coastal Eskimo groups 500-1,500 years ago (McGhee, 1978). Sled dogs in Alaska would have been much smaller than the breeds later imported from Russia and other countries (Osgood, 1936).

It is believed that from 1840 to 1985, Russians influenced the dog sled culture in Alaska, sharing the knowledge of tandem hitch styles as opposed to each dog being hitched separately to the sled (Michael, 2019). During this period, sled dog use became much more apparent in the interior of Alaska (Michael, 2019).

From 1896 to 1940, the network of sled dog trails substantially expanded, and sled dog teams began to be used by non-natives, especially during the gold rush and for army expeditions (Wendt, 1999). During this period, it was also common for dog sled teams to work with the US postal service to deliver mail to remote locations (Alaska Geographic Society, 1987).

From 1941 to 1960, sled dogs continued to serve as a critical form of transportation for families and for hauling supplies across difficult terrain. They were also used by the military to assist emergency rescue teams.

In Norway, sled dogs historically had four main uses: Artic and Antarctic expeditions (in the early 20th century), sled dog ambulances (in Oslo and other cities from 1930s to 1990s), competitive racing, and recreational mushing (Knudsen, 2019). Other sled dog uses over the years have included transport of prospectors, trappers, doctors, and for commercial freighting (Andersen, 1992).

What Are Sled Dogs Used For Today?

Today, sled dogs are still important for transport in some inaccessible areas, especially in rural Russia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. However, snowmobiles have begun to replace the use of dogs in some areas as they are easier to care for but can be cost prohibitive. In addition to general transport, sled dogs are still often used for trapping, hauling wood, supplies, and for racing during the winter months.

During the summer, sled dogs may be used as watch dogs, bear dogs, breeding dogs, or as family pets. It is thought that sled dog racing began in the late 1930’s and continues to be an important cultural event in many communities (Wendt, 1999). Some races are known globally such as the Iditarod and play an important role in tourism, bringing in people and money during the slow winter months (Jæger and Viken, 2014).

What Breeds Of Dogs Can Be Sled Dogs?

Any dog that is trained to pull a sled can be considered a sled dog, meaning there are no set breed standards for sled dogs. Many sled dogs are mixed breed dogs that have been breed for athletic traits. On average, sled dogs typically weigh 55 pounds, but can range from 30 to 70 pounds. The density of their coat can vary widely depending on the racing style (sprint or distance), geographic location, and breed makeup (Huson et al., 2010). In Norway, sled dogs are often Greenland dogs, Siberian huskies, or German Shorthaired Pointers (Knudsen, 2019). Alaskan sled dogs are typically mixed breeds. With genetic testing, it was estimated that these existing mixed breed sled dogs contain Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, Pointer, Saluki, and Anatolian Shepherd influences (Huson et al., 2010). Different breeds are known for having different traits. For enhanced endurance, Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Huskies are often used. For speed, the Pointer and Saluki breeds are utilized. For a great work ethic, Anatolian Shepherds are incorporated (Huson et al., 2010). In general, larger breeds are used for hauling, while smaller dogs are used for speed in racing. Some other well known sled dog breeds include the Samoyed and the Chinook.

What Is The Distance Of A Sled Dog Race?

There are several lineages of sled dogs, each optimized for different racing styles or other purposes (Huson et al., 2010). There are two main styles of races, long or short distance. Long distance races can span several hundred miles to over a thousand miles long like the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. These long-distance races take place over multiple days. Sprint races are much shorter and are typically around 30 miles in distance. With proper care, food, and rest sled, dogs can cover vast distances across difficult terrain. It’s no wonder these races attract people from around the world to witness such amazing achievements.

How Many Dogs Make Up A Sled Dog Team?

The size of a sled dog team depends on a number of factors. Historically, teams for delivering mail consisted of teams of 5 or 6 dogs bred for speed. Teams for hauling large loads were typically much bigger, around 7 to 11 large and strong dogs. However, teams would sometimes reach over 20 dogs for extra large loads. Local miners and native people often had smaller teams to meet their needs, with teams usually consisting of 2 to 5 dogs (Herron, 1909). For the Iditarod, mushers may have teams of up to 14 dogs, but they typically trade off dogs throughout the race. The racers typically finish the race with smaller faster teams, and they are allowed to finish the race with as few as five dogs.

Who Are Some Famous Sled Dogs?

There are a number of sled dogs that have captured wide public recognition and have starred in films and other media. These include:

  • Balto

Balto is arguably one of the most well-known sled dogs. He was a black Siberian Husky that played a significant role in leading a team of sled dogs on the final leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome in order to combat an outbreak of diphtheria disease (Salisbury and Salisbury, 2003). There was an animated movie released in 1995 about Balto’s life and a bronze statue of Balto stands in New York City’s Central Park in his memory.

  • Togo

Many argue that Togo deserves more fame than Balto, as it is believed he had a larger contribution during the serum run to Nome. In 2001, a statue of Togo was placed in New York City’s Seward Park and in 2019 Disney released a movie about his life using updated information from historians.

  • Taro and Jiro

This pair of sled dogs received an outpouring of media attention due to an unfortunate situation. Severe weather conditions had prevented the 1958 Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition from bringing their 15 dogs home, leaving them chained with very little food. Taro and Jiro were the only dogs to survive until the following spring when researchers could return. Their bodies were taxidermied and are on display for public viewing.

Conclusion

In summary, sled dogs have played an important role in society over the years. They have allowed people in remote, snowy locations to have transportation, access to goods, and a way to make a living. In modern times, sled dogs continue to serve many more remote areas of the world and also contribute to tourism through racing. Many individual dogs have made an impact through their heroic actions and serve as a way to tell the story of these remarkable human-dog relationships that have existed for thousands of years.

Works Cited

Alaska Geographic Society. South/Southeast Alaska. Vol. 14, no. 2. Alaska Geographic Society, 1987.

Andersen, David B. The use of dog teams and the use of subsistence-caught fish for feeding sled dogs in the Yukon river drainage, Alaska. Juneau, AK: Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Subsistence, 1992.

Coppinger, Lorna, and International Sled Dog Racing Association. The World of Sled Dogs: From Siberia to Sport Racing. Howell Book House, 1977.

Grimm, David. "Dawn of the dog." (2015): 274-279.

Herron, Joseph Sutherland. Explorations in Alaska, 1899: For an All-American Overland Route from Cook Inlet, Pacific Ocean, to the Yukon. Vol. 138. US Government Printing Office, 1901.

Huson, Heather J., Heidi G. Parker, Jonathan Runstadler, and Elaine A. Ostrander. "A genetic dissection of breed composition and performance enhancement in the Alaskan sled dog." BMC genetics 11, no. 1 (2010): 1-14.

Jæger, Kari, and Arvid Viken. "Sled dog racing and tourism development in Finnmark. A symbiotic relationship." Tourism destination development. Turns and tactics (2014): 131-150.

Knudsen, Inge Bugge. "From Polar Exploration to Sled Dog Racing. A Brief Overview of some Important Elements in Norwegian Sled Dog History." Dog Sledding in Norway: Multidisciplinary Research Perspectives 28 (2019): 15.

McGhee, Robert. Canadian arctic prehistory. 1978.

Michael, Henry N. Lieutenant Zagoskin's Travels in Russian America 1842–1844. University of Toronto Press, 2019.

Osgood, Cornelius. Contributions to the Ethnography of the Kutchin. Vol. 14. New Haven: Published for the Section of Anthropology, Department of the Social Sciences, Yale University, by the Yale University Press; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936.

Salisbury, Gay, and Laney Salisbury. The cruellest miles: the heroic story of dogs and men in a race against an epidemic. WW Norton & Company, 2003.

Wendt, R. "Alaska dog mushing guide: facts and legends." Fairbanks: Goldstream Publications, Fifth (1999).