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Key Points
  • Sled dogs served an important purpose in human history, assisting with transportation and communication.
  • Today, sled dogs are mainly used for racing.
In the early 1900s, when prospectors were beginning to move into the Alaskan interior, new settlements and towns were very spread out and isolated. This made mail delivery a challenge, especially to the most far-reaching parts of Alaska, such as Dry Bourbon, White Mountain, and Otter Creek. In Alaska, mail was delivered by sled dog. The Star Route carriers had to figure out how to deliver mail across the huge Alaskan landscape, in snow and dangerous conditions. Their motto was, “The mail must go through!” Their solution was to use sled dogs and the railway tracks. The track in the attached picture is captioned “Little Creek Express – Nome Alaska."
Rex aka “The Blizzard King” was a Samoyed that rescued stranded campers, downed aviators, and anyone else that became lost in the passes in the Sierra Nevada. His most notable rescue came when the passenger train named “The City of San Francisco” became trapped near the Truckee Pass. The train got stuck in high drifts in a remote location, and the 226 stranded travelers spent three days on the unheated train and had exhausted their supplies. When the news reached Lloyd van Sickle, Rex was with his owner Agnes Mason competing in the Golden Gate Dog Show and had to be flown into the Sierras. Once there, he transported a Dr. Nelson to the stricken train to evaluate and provide medical assistance to the more vulnerable passengers.
One of two postcards from Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica. On Byrd’s first expedition, he was accompanied by Arthur Treadwell Walden, who helped train sled dogs and rivers for the expedition. The Chinooks Walden trained proved to be the backbone of the expedition: they freighted 650 tons of equipment and supplies from the ships to base camp over a span of three months. Admiral Byrd would later write the following in his book titled Little America: “Had it not been for the dogs, our attempts to conquer the Antarctic by air must have ended in failure.”
One of two postcards from Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica. On Byrd’s first expedition, he was accompanied by Arthur Treadwell Walden, who helped train sled dogs and rivers for the expedition. The Chinooks Walden trained proved to be the backbone of the expedition: they freighted 650 tons of equipment and supplies from the ships to base camp over a span of three months. Admiral Byrd would later write the following in his book titled Little America: “Had it not been for the dogs, our attempts to conquer the Antarctic by air must have ended in failure.”

When you think of sled dogs, your mind may go straight to the legendary dog races, such as the Iditarod, in which teams of beautiful huskies pull mushers (the sport’s term for the sled drivers) through ice and snow. It’s a stunning thing to watch, but there’s much more to sled dogs’ history than just racing.

A Look Back at the History of Sled Dogs

The first formal sled-dog race wasn’t held until 1850, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to St. Paul, Minnesota. But sled dogs’ place in human history goes back thousands of years and served a much greater purpose than simple entertainment. Sled dogs served as a primary means of communication and transportation in harsh arctic weather conditions. Some scholars, in fact, believe that human survival in the arctic would’ve been impossible without the assistance of sled dogs. There are many significant moments in history in which sled dogs played an important role. A few notable ones over the last two centuries include:

  • The Yukon’s Klondike Gold Rush at the end of the 19th century, where sled dogs transported everything from prospectors to supplies to mail. Jack London immortalized this in his legendary novel The Call of the Wild.
  • Roald Amundsen’s 1911 South Pole expedition, in which the great Norwegian explorer used sled dogs (something he’d learned from the Inuits during a previous exploration of the Northwest Passage). Amundsen beat rival Robert F. Scott to the South Pole and many credit the use of sled dogs as one of the reasons for his success.
  • The 1925 diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, in which 20 teams of sled dogs transported a vital anti-toxin to the ailing members of the town almost 700 miles in the span of 6 days.
This photo was taken during the second relay for antitoxin, which started on February 8, 1925. This may be the only actual photograph of the serum package in a sled basket.

The Right Breed for Mushing

One glance at any sled dog tells you what qualities they need to succeed: warm fur (an undercoat to insulate and an overcoat that prevents the buildup of ice and snow), tough paws (for that rough and cold terrain), extreme strength, and the ability to run long distances.

Historically, sled dog breeds included the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute, Chinook, and Samoyed.

Chinook sled dog team

Today’s Sled Dog

Although sled dogs are still used for transportation in some rural communities in Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, their main role now lies in racing, or “mushing.” The Iditarod and the Yukon Quest — a race from Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon territory, to Fairbanks, Alaska (considered even more challenging than the legendary Iditarod) — are two of the most popular mushing events, but there are dozens of events in the United States alone every year.

Interest in the sport is waning, however, with fewer competitors and a smaller prize purse (it has shrunk from $750,000 to $500,000 in recent years). The reason for this is a combination of factors including vocal animal rights groups, decreased sponsorship, and a dog-doping scandal (yes, you read that right!).

Siberian Husky sled dog team

What is the Future of Sled Dogs?

Lessened interest isn’t the only challenge in sled-dog mushing events. Climate change is impacting today’s sled dogs’ in the biggest way. The lack of snow and ice is forcing race cancellations and changes. In fact, the two areas in Alaska where the majority of the Iditarod takes place — the Central Interior and the West Coast— are experiencing the second- and third-fastest rising temperatures in Alaska.

With these changes comes the increased closure of sled dog companies and a need for new homes for these dogs. While some mushers believe that sled dogs don’t make great pets — they point to challenges in house training, walking on a leash, and separation anxiety — others argue that if you approach them with the same patience and willingness to train that you would approach a puppy, a sled dog makes for a very good companion.

The exhibit “Mush! A Tribute to Sled Dogs from Arctic Exploration to the Iditarod” is on display at the Museum of the Dog January 6 – March 29, 2020.

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