- Sled dogs served an important purpose in human history, assisting with transportation and communication.
- Today, sled dogs are mainly used for racing.
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.
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.
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!).
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.