Two of the most famous sled dogs - Balto and Togo - may be from the 1920s, but most sledding breeds have existed for centuries. Originating in regions of the world where winter's grip is profound, sled dogs have played an integral role in the history and cultures of indigenous peoples, offering indispensable assistance in transportation, hunting, and overall survival. Beyond their historical significance, sled dogs continue to captivate the imagination and admiration of people worldwide, being showcased in exhilarating sled dog races and enjoyed as loving companions to this day. They are a living testament to the long-lasting and harmonious partnership between humans and canines. Here's all about sledding dogs, including 16 sled dog breeds, the history of dog sledding, the most famous sled dogs and more.
What Is A Sled Dog?
The term "sled dog" encompasses a variety of breeds and types, each with its own strengths and characteristics. Sled dogs are specific kinds of working dogs trained and bred to pull a sled, typically in cold or snowy environments. These dogs have been historically used for transportation, hauling goods, and assisting in other various tasks in regions with winter climates, such as the Arctic and sub-Arctic. The practice of using sled dogs is particularly associated with indigenous cultures and traditional ways of life in cold climates.
History Of Sled Dogs
The history of sled dogs and dog sledding is ancient and diverse, spanning across several cultures and regions. It arose in areas and among people that relied on sled dogs for their livelihood - such as transportation, hunting, exploration and more.
Ancient Roots And Cultural Significance
Scientists believe that sled dogs likely evolved between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago in Mongolia and that, 25.000 years ago, people migrated north of the Arctic Circle with these dogs. But they also believe that they only started using their dogs to pull sleds thousands of years ago, rather than tens of thousands.
For these thousands of years, indigenous Arctic and sub-Arctic peoples used sled dogs for transportation and hauling goods through snow. It was the only way to do this until 20th century transportation advances created vehicles like snowmobiles, airplanes and trucks. As such, the region's peoples - such as the Inuit, Chukchi, Sami, and others - developed breeds specifically suited for pulling sleds in extreme cold and harsh winter conditions. Their sled dogs were also helpful in hunting and providing warmth. For many indigenous peoples, sled dogs hold cultural significance and their use in traditional activities is preserved as a part of cultural heritage.
Pro Tip: There were two main types of sled dogs - one for the coast and one for inland - that were kept mostly separate. For example, it wasn't until the mid-1800s that Russian Traders acquired coastal sled dogs after traveling along the Yukon River.
Use In Exploration, Transportation Of Goods, Mail Delivery And War
In more modern times (1800s on), sled dogs served many important roles. They were vital in early Arctic and Antarctic explorations, such as those of Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton. Sled dogs were also crucial in the transport of goods, mail, medicine and food. For instance, they pulled people and transported supplies to remote mining locations in Alaska and Canada during the Gold Rush of the late late 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the most famous examples of sled dog transportation was the delivery of the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska in 1925. Sled dogs were even used in wars that took place in snowy regions, such as World War II. For instance, sled dogs were trained for alpine and arctic warfare by the 10th Mountain Division in the U.S.
Competitive Racing And Modern Use
As technology and transportation innovation evolved, sledding adapted as well. In the early 20th century, many sled dogs were used for sport as sled dog racing became popular. In 1908, one of the earliest sled dog races, known as the All Alaska Sweepstakes, was established. And in 1973, perhaps the most famous race called the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which spans 1,000 miles in Alaska, was established.
Today, sled dog races still occur around the world with some covering long-distances and hundreds of miles while others are shorter sprints. Sled dog racing has evolved into a competitive sport with a dedicated community of mushers and fans. There are many regional and local sled dog races worldwide, but here are a few of the more well-known ones that still exist:
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (Alaska, USA): spans over 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome and usually occurs annually in March.
Yukon Quest (Alaska, USA, and Yukon, Canada): spans over 1,000 miles between Fairbanks to Whitehorse, alternating its direction each year and typically occurs in February.
Finnmarkslopet (Norway): Europe's longest sled dog race, covering a challenging course of over 1,000 kilometers through the Finnmark region.
La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont Blanc (France and Switzerland): takes place in the French and Swiss Alps and is known for its challenging terrain.
CopperDog 150 (Michigan, USA): a mid-distance race held in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, covering around 150 miles and known for its scenic route.
Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon (Minnesota, USA): named after the region's historic mail carrier John Beargrease, this race covers a challenging course along Lake Superior's North Shore.
Volga Quest (Russia): a long-distance race along the Volga River and provides a unique cultural and geographical experience for participants.
Femundløpet (Norway): another one of Europe's longest races and takes place in Norway's mountainous region.
Beyond competitive races, sled dogs are also used today for recreational purposes, such as offering dog sledding experiences to tourists in various winter destinations. Their modern day use is seen as a way to celebrate the historic partnership between humans and sled dogs, while honoring and preserving their cultural legacy.
Is Dog Sledding Ethical?
The ethics of dog sledding is often up for debate and, in reality, depends on various factors - such as the treatment of the dogs, the conditions in which they are kept and worked, and the overall practices of the mushers and anyone involved. When conducted responsibly and with the well-being of the dogs in mind, dog sledding can be an ethical and enriching activity for both the canines and the people. However, there have been instances of controversy and concerns related to the welfare of sled dogs in certain operations. Here are some considerations:
Ethical Practices in Dog Sledding:
Prioritize the care, health and well-being of the dogs such as providing proper nutrition, veterinary care, and suitable living conditions.
Ethical training methods using positive reinforcement and humane methods without the use of force, cruelty, or harsh discipline.
Provide sufficient rest and recovery time between runs such as scheduled breaks and rest days to prevent exhaustion and ensure the dogs' physical and mental well-being.
Regular and proactive vet checks to monitor and ensure sled dogs remain healthy.
Retirement and adoption plans for when sled dogs reach a certain age or are no longer fit for the demanding work.
Eco-friendly considerations and measures to reduce the impact on the environment and strive for sustainability.
Common concerns about dog sledding include overworking, exhaustion and injury as well as poor living conditions, improper shelter or confinement, inadequate nutrition and social interaction. Some of these may occur due to pressure in tourism as well as lack of regulations over dog sledding in certain regions.
Because of this, it's important for potential mushers and tourists to adequately research and only support only those with a strong commitment to the ethical treatment of sled dogs and actually practicing it.
What Makes For A Good Sled Dog?
Dog sledding is a demanding sport that requires a special combination of physical characteristics and temperamental traits. Specific characteristics vary slightly depending on the type of sledding (e.g. long-distance versus short sprints versus recreational), as well as the surrounding environment and climate. But generally, the following traits are desirable in a sled dog and make them well-suited for the demands of sledding:
Endurance And Stamina: Sled dogs need to cover long distances over challenging terrain, so maintaining a steady pace over extended periods is vital.
Strength: Pulling sleds, especially those loaded with equipment and supplies, requires strength (particularly in the hindquarters).
Speed: Quickness can help in long-distance expeditions but are especially important in competitive sled dog racing.
Teamwork and Social Skills: Because sled dogs work in teams, they must cooperate with their teammates and have good social skills for a harmonious team dynamic.
Trainability And Intelligence: Mushing requires dogs to follow directions accurately, so sled dogs need learn, understand and be responsive to commands. They also need to have a level of intelligence for decision making in real time.
Agility And Adaptability: Sledding typically occurs on a variety of terrain, including difficult and changing conditions, so agility is required to navigate, maneuver and adapt to the surroundings.
Thick Coat: Because sled dogs often work in cold climates, a thick double coat is important for insulation and protection against harsh weather conditions.
Strong Paws: Sled dogs need strong and well-structured paws to traverse rough terrain, snow and ice. In fact, some breeds have webbed feet, which can be an advantage in certain conditions.
Energy and Enthusiasm: High energy levels and a strong work ethic are essential for sled dogs to pull over long distances and periods.
Resilience And Mental Toughness: Similarly, resilience is required to push through challenging weather and difficult terrain as well as physical exertion and long hours of work.
Good Health: Good overall health is necessary for sled dog performance, which can be achieved through regular veterinary care, proper conditioning and nutrition.
Sled Dog Breeds
Sled dog breeds have been historically developed for pulling sleds in cold and snowy environments. They are known for their strength, endurance, and ability to withstand harsh conditions. Some common sled dog breeds include:
1. Alaskan Husky
The Alaskan Husky is not a recognized breed in the traditional sense and thus does not have a breed standard. Rather, it is the result of careful crossbreeding between breeds with desirable sled dog traits. The Alaskan Husky is not associated with a specific foundation breed, though it is believed to descend from native northern canines like Inuit and Interior Village dogs. These dogs were crossed with Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and other racing and working breeds (like the Pointer and Saluki) to create dogs with both speed and endurance. Some are even suspected to have incorporated wolves into their breeding.
The Alaskan Husky, bred specifically for sledding, is one of the few dogs bred for performance, rather than appearance. As such, Alaskan Huskies exhibit a range of temperaments as well as physical characteristics, like size, coat color, and overall look. What unites them is their work ethic, speed, endurance, athleticism, cooperative nature and ability to perform in the demanding conditions of long-distance sledding. In fact, Alaskan Huskies are particularly known for their adaptability to different terrains and weather conditions.
These traits make the Alaskan Husky ideal for sledding and resulted in their use to transport people and supplies. For example, gold miners regularly enlisted Alaskan Huskies during the Gold Rush in the late 1800s and early 1900. After that, as sledding shifted from service to sport and racing gained popularity, Alaskan Huskies became popular choices in sled dog racing. Today, they remain one of the preferred types of sled dogs for competitive races.
2. Alaskan Malamute
The Alaskan Malamute is one of the oldest Arctic sled dog breeds, with a history that can be traced back over a thousand years. The breed gets its name from the native Inuit tribe called the Malamutes, who settled in the Kotzebue Sound area of western Alaska. These indigenous people developed the Alaskan Malamute for their strength, endurance, and ability to pull heavy freight in the harsh Arctic conditions. They were mostly used for transportation and hauling supplies, like food and equipment, as well as assisting with hunting. As such, the breed helped play a critical role in Inuit life, helping them survive and thrive in the Arctic environment.
In the late 19th century, Alaskan Malamutes were used during the Gold Rush to transport gear and supplies. Around the same time and into the early 20th century, the breed gained recognition after being used in Arctic expeditions, like the 1899 Harriman Expedition to Alaska and Robert Peary's 1908 expedition to the North Pole. The breed was officially recognized by the the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1935 and soon after, they were also used in World War II as part of the Army's Arctic Search and Rescue Unit. After the war, the Alaskan Malamute gained popularity as a companion dog.
3. Canadian Eskimo Dog
The Canadian Eskimo Dog dates back up to 4,000 years ago when Inuit people kept them as pets and working dogs in the Arctic. They were bred to pull sleds and haul supplies, as well as hunt, find seal holes and keep predators (like polar bears) at bay. They are also known as the Qimmiq or Kingmik, Exquimaux Husky, and Esquimaux Dog. Although they sound and look somewhat like wolves, genetic testing and DNA analysis has shown the Canadian Eskimo Dog has no wolf ancestry.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Arctic and Antarctic explorers often chose Canadian Eskimo Dogs as companions. In fact, the breed was used at an Australian Antarctic station until 1992. They became so popular, it was estimated that there were more than 20,000 at one point in time. But the breed nearly went extinct by 1970 with the invention of the snowmobile and the rise of Siberian Huskies, who were smaller and faster. The population dropped to around 200, resulting in removal from the American Kennel Club registry. But Inuits, dedicated breeders, the Canadian Kennel Club, the Canadian Government and the Northwest Territories set out to save the breed. Though they remain rare, the Canadian Eskimo Dog is recognized as one the oldest dog breeds from Canada and iconic in Canadian culture.
The Chinook is a rare breed of sled dog (and one of the rarest breeds in general) and one of the few dogs originating from the United States. It was developed by experienced sled driver Arthur T. Walden during the early 20th century in New Hampshire (where it's the official state dog today). The intent was to create an ideal sled dog that combined strength, endurance, and a friendly temperament. The breed's founding dog, named Chinook and born in 1917, was a cross between mastiff, Greenland Husky and Belgian Shepherd. After acquiring Chinook, Walden carefully selected and bred dogs to maintain and enhance the excellent sledding qualities he saw in Chinook. All modern Chinooks are descendants of Walden's dog Chinook and the breed was named after him in his honor.
The breed gained recognition during Admiral Richard Byrd's first Antarctic expedition in 1928, when Chinook and other Chinook dogs played a crucial role in transportation and hauling supplies. But the breed faced decline soon after with the rise of Siberian Huskies and Walden's death in 1947. In fact, the Chinook had just 125 known dogs remaining in 1965, making it the rarest dog breed at the time according to the the Guinness Book of World Records. By 1981, there were only 28 remaining, with many being seniors or requiring neutering and spaying. Though still rare today, breed enthusiasts were able to bring the Chinook back from the brink of extinction. The breed was officially recognized by the AKC in 2013, where 813 dogs were registered, and preservation efforts still continue to this day.
Fun fact: Any type of ear is allowed in the Chinook standard, which isn't the case for most breeds. Chinooks can have drop ears (those that hang down and the preferred style), prick ears (those that stand up) or propeller ears (those that have a fold).
5. Chukotka Sled Dog
The Chukotka Sled Dog (also known as the Chukchi Sled Dog or Chukotka Husky) is a centuries-old spitz breed. It originated in the far northeastern part of Russia called the Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, near the Bering Strait. As such, the breed has deep roots in the culture of the indigenous Chukchi people, who have inhabited the region for hundreds of years.
The Chukotka Sled Dog was developed to work in the harsh Arctic conditions, selectively bred for endurance, strength, the ability to navigate through snow and ice, and physical characteristics adapted to the extreme cold climate. The breed is known for the latter, able to withstand freezing temperatures. Chukotka Sled Dogs were also hunting and companion dogs, making them highly valued by the Chukchi people and essential for their survival. In fact, Chukotka Sled Dogs were used to hunt marine animals, meaning they had to work on diverse and challenging terrains such as ocean ice and mountain tundras.
The breed gained international attention during explorations of the Arctic region when European explorers, such as those searching for the Northwest Passage, encountered the Chukchi people and their sled dogs. They were later used in sled dog racing events as well. But the Chukotka Sled Dog may be most well known for its role in developing the Siberian Husky.
During the Soviet Era, the Chukotka Sled Dog breed declined due to lack of interest. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, interest increased due to food insecurity and special allowance of whaling for native Chukchi people. This helped revive the breed, though there are only an estimated several thousand Chukotka Sled Dogs today, with uncertainty of how many are purebred. In 1999, the Russian Kynologic Federation (RKF) approved the first official standard of the breed, though it is not recognized by other clubs. Today, preservation efforts continue to protect the breed, which is now valued for its working abilities and as a companion dog.
The Eurohound, like the Alaskan Husky, is not a specific breed but rather a type of sled dog developed by deliberately crossbreeding European breeds and Alaskan Huskies. Common breeds used were the Pointer, Greyhound and other hounds known for speed and agility. This, combined with the Alaskan Husky's strength, endurance and adaptability - as well as physical traits for cold weather - made for an versatile sled dog.
The development of the Eurohound, however, was driven by sport rather than utility, thanks to the growing popularity of sled dog racing in Europe. The breed type emerged as mushers sought dogs with the ability to perform well in the demanding conditions of European races. Eurohounds, in particular, are known for their adaptability to a variety of racing conditions. For example, they can excel in both short sprints as well as longer distance races. As such, Eurohounds became popular choices in European sled races and have found success in them.
The breed has been refined over time and continues to evolve as mushers desire the best of the best. Today's Eurohound breeding programs focus on maintaining the health and performance of the dogs.
7. Greenland Dog
The Greenland Dog (also known as the Greenlandic Husky or Kalaallit Qimmiat) is one of the oldest and most important Arctic sled dog breeds. It is closely tied to the indigenous people of Greenland, the Inuit, with a history spanning centuries. It's believed that the Greenland Dog descended from dogs used for transportation by the Thule people (the ancestors of all modern Inuit) in Siberia over a thousand years ago. In addition, DNA testing shows that the breed shares genetic similarities with the now-extinct Taimyr wolf.
It's estimated that around 850 years ago, Inuit people brought these dogs to Greenland. They then developed the Greenland Dog to assist in transportation, hauling supplies, hunting, and other daily tasks. They were bred for their strength and endurance to pull sleds over long distances, as well as physical characteristics to withstand the harsh Arctic environment. However, Greenland Dogs were not only sled dogs and hunting companions but also versatile working dogs, used for herding and guarding. This adaptability made them indispensable to the Inuit communities and their survival.
The breed maintained genetic purity for centuries thanks to their isolation in Greenland. Only after expeditions to the Arctic regions - particularly by famous explorers, like Robert Peary, attempting to reach the North Pole - did Greenland Dogs gain international recognition. And despite the arrival of other dog breeds in Greenland and the introduction of modern transportation, efforts have been made to preserve the purity of the breed. Today, Greenland Dogs are still used as working dogs in Greenland for various tasks, including sled dog racing and hunting, among other tasks. They remain an important part of the cultural heritage of Greenland and are recognized for their endurance and resilience. The Greenland Dog is officially recognized by kennel clubs, including the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI).
The Greyster is a relatively modern breed developed specifically for sled dog racing, particularly long-distance events. It originated in Scandinavia, with a focus on Norway and Sweden, and is a crossbreed of Greyhounds and German Shorthaired Pointers (GSP). Hence the name "Greyster," which is a combination of Greyhound and Shorthaired Pointer. The breed gets its speed and agility from the Greyhound and its enthusiasm, athleticism and endurance from the GSP.
After World War II, sled dog racing that required small, fast teams of dogs competing over short, hilly distances gained popularity in Norway and nearby Scandinavian countries. The Norwegian Sled Dog Racing Association required teams use purebred dogs, so the GSP became the top choice of breed. But during the 1970s, longer distance racing gained popularity. Norwegian mushers began importing Alaskan Huskies for such races, though they could not legally race until 1985 when the Norwegian Sled Dog Racing Association removed the purebred requirement. This allowed mushers and breeders to develop their own top performing crossbreeds and the subsequent production of the Greyster - a dog that excelled in the demanding conditions of long-distance sled dog racing and able to maintain a consistent pace over extended distances.
The Greyster has gained popularity in long-distance mushing events, particularly in Scandinavia, despite not being as widely known as some other sled dog breeds. This is in part because it is a relatively modern breed, which also means that it is not yet recognized by major kennel clubs nor is it standardized. As such, the Greyster's characteristics can vary among individual dogs. Generally, though, they have a sleek and athletic build, which reflects its Greyhound ancestry, but with a coat more suited for cold climates. There are, however, ongoing efforts and selective breeding to refine its characteristics and improve its performance in sled dog racing, as well as maintain the health of the breed.
9. Labrador Husky
The Labrador Husky is it's own distinct breed, not to be confused with a Labrador Retriever-Siberian Husky or Labsky mix. They were developed to be sled dogs and pack hunters on the coast of Labrador, Canada and believed to have originated around 1300 AD. Labrador Huskies have well-padded and webbed paws to run and pull sleds for hours and help with traction in the snow. And their chest is wide and deep to allow for more lung capacity needed for their endurance work.
As the breed spread outside Labrador, they were used for search and rescue, as well as drug detection. The Labrador Husky's exact origins are unknown but their wolf-like appearance has some people believing they come from Northern Spitz-type breeds and wolves. It's also hypothesized they are part Alaskan Malamute to enhance their sledding skills and German Shepherd to improve trainability.
10. Mackenzie River Husky
The Mackenzie River Husky (also known as the Mackenzie River Husky or simply the Mackenzie Husky), is not a recognized breed but rather a type of sled dog originating in northern Canada, particularly in the Mackenzie River region. The breed was developed over time through the natural selection of dogs that were capable of completing demanding physical tasks while withstanding the cold climate. These dogs were used by indigenous peoples, such as the Dene and Inuit, for various tasks in the harsh Arctic environment. Specifically, Mackenzie River Huskies aided with transportation, hauling supplies, communication, hunting and trapping.
During exploration of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions, European explorers and traders were impressed by the Mackenzie River region's sled dogs. And in the mid-1800s, Canadian fur trading business Hudson’s Bay Company created incentives to improve efficiency, which resulted in crossbreeding to create larger, stronger sled dogs that could carry heavier loads over longer distances. Native North American sled dogs were crossed with European freight and drafting dogs, such as mastiffs, Newfoundlands and Saint Bernards. The Mackenzie River Husky name was applied to these dogs as they were part of various dog populations in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Canada and Alaska.
Although the Mackenzie River Husky is not a recognized or standardized breed, descendants of the breed still exist in northern Canada. But the population is quite small due to the diminished use of sled dogs for transportation with the introduction of technology. Despite the how few are left today, the cultural significance of these dogs still persists.
11. Sakhalin Husky
The Sakhalin Husky (also known as the Karafuto Ken or Karafuto Inu) is a critically endangered breed that originated on the island of Sakhalin, situated between Russia and Japan. It was developed over centuries by the Nivkh people, bred for their working abilities in the harsh conditions of cold temperatures and heavy snowfall. The breed's history is closely tied to the indigenous Ainu people of Sakhalin, as they played a vital role in their daily lives and survival. They assisted with various tasks, pulling sleds, transportation, hauling goods, hunting (including big game, like bears) fishing and serving as loyal companions. In addition, their fur was used to make clothing and, in unfortunate times of famine, the dogs would be used for food. The dogs were so valuable that they were also considered a measurement of wealth, with dogs awarded as payment to settle debts.
In the early 20th century, the breed gained attention worldwide when they were used in exploratory expeditions. Most notably, for its involvement in the Japanese scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1910-1912. But in the 1920s and 30s, Soviet policies forced the Nivkh into drastic lifestyle changes and they were unable to feed or care for their Sakhalin Huskies, which devastated the local breed. In addition, for a short period during World War II, Sakhalin Huskies were used by the Red Army until it was determined that horses were less expensive.
Sakhalin Huskies began being used by many explorers, though some found them to be too short for deep snow and less suited for extreme cold with their docked tails (historically, one third of their tail was docked at birth to prevent grabbing during sledding). One of the expeditions that launched the Sakhalin Husky into fame included two dogs, Taro and Jiro, who survived 11 months in Antarctica after a failed mission in 1958.
However, the need for sled dogs declined with the rise of technology and the development of Sakhalin. By 2011, the breed was critically endangered with only seven known individuals. In more recent years, efforts have been made to preserve the Sakhalin Husky and protect its genetic diversity as well as cultural heritage. Today, there are approximately 20 remaining. The Sakhalin Husky is not officially recognized by major kennel clubs, however, there is recognition and interest in the breed, particularly in Japan and Russia.
The Samoyed, easily recognized by its fluffy white coat, is an Arctic dog breed with roots to the nomadic Samoyede (hence the name, Samoyed) of the Siberian region of Russia (though they do not originate from Siberian Huskies). These Samoyede nomads developed the breed and relied heavily on their dogs for various tasks in the harsh Arctic environment, including pulling sleds, herding reindeer and providing warmth in the extreme cold (likely why many owners say Samoyeds like to cuddle). Samoyeds also served as guard dogs, despite their friendly and social nature (which made them good companion dogs as well).
The Samoyed's strength, endurance, and adaptability made them ideal for sledding and polar exploration. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the breed gained international recognition for their use in Arctic expeditions. In fact, Samoyeds were on the first exploration team to reach the South Pole. In 1889, one of the first Samoyeds was imported to England and the breed quickly became popular, particularly among aristocrats. The breed standard for the Samoyed was established in England in the early 20th century, which outlined desired physical and temperamental traits like the distinctive "Sammy smile" and the fluffy, white coat. In 1904, the breed arrived in the U.S. and the AKC officially recognized the Samoyed in 1906. Because there were fewer reindeer in Europe and the U.S., the Samoyed's job was primarily to haul goods and supplies. Today, Samoyeds are mostly companion dogs, which reflects its successful transition from ancient Arctic sled dog to modern times.
13. Seppala Siberian Sleddog
The Seppala Siberian Sleddog originated in the early 1900s as a working dog, sled puller and pack animal. Legendary dog driver Leonhard Seppala developed the breed from Siberian sled pulling dogs adapted to cope with harsh winds, blizzards and frozen conditions. Seppala Siberian Sleddogs resemble wolves, with their long but sturdy legs and almond-shaped eyes. Their build helped them be superior sledders, with Seppala's dogs often winning every race they participated in.
Sepalla and his sleddogs were also part of the famous "Great Race of Mercy" when diphtheria struck the town of Nome and medicine was needed urgently. Because it was January of 1925, the only way to deliver the antitoxin serum was through sledding. Respected mushers were organized to create a relay that would deliver the medicine over 674 miles. Seppala and his sleddogs (with famous lead dog Togo) took on the most miles and most dangerous leg, traveling 260 miles over four and a half days with temperatures around -30 degrees. They successfully delivered the serum to the next musher and returned, traveling over 400 miles total.
The breed faced extinction by 1969 but kennels in Canada and the U.S. came together to revive the breed.
14. Siberian Husky
The Siberian Husky is an ancient breed, originating in the Arctic regions of Siberia. They were developed by the nomadic indigenous Chukchi people for various tasks like transportation and sled pulling, particularly over long distances, as well as companionship. As such, Siberian Huskies played a vital role in the survival of the Chukchi people. The dogs were selectively bred for their ability to thrive in the harsh Arctic conditions, such as extreme cold, snow and challenging terrains. For instance, their double coat provided insulation, and their erect ears helped regulate body temperature. They were also bred to pull light loads over long distances in freezing conditions without expending too much energy.
Over the years, Siberian Huskies were given other tasks including herding reindeer, providing warmth, and working as search and rescue dogs. In fact, Siberian Huskies were used by the U.S. during World War II for transportation and search and rescue operations in the Arctic regions. Siberian Huskies were also used in Antarctic expeditions, as their endurance and adaptability made them ideal for the extreme conditions of the South Pole.
In the early 20th century, Siberian Huskies were introduced to Alaska where the breed gained recognition for its endurance, strength, and ability to navigate the Arctic landscape. They were utilized in various capacities, including in sled dog racing. One of the most famous events involving Siberian Huskies was the Serum Run to Nome in 1925. During a diphtheria outbreak, a team of sled dogs, led by Balto, delivered life-saving medicine to the isolated town of Nome. This event brought international attention to the breed. The AKC officially recognized the Siberian Husky as a breed in 1930 and the breed standard emphasized their working origins and unique physical characteristics.
The breed became popular choice for sled dog racing, including long-distance races like the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, as well as companion dogs. Their social tendencies and outgoing nature, striking appearance, and intelligence contributed to their popularity as family dogs. Today, Siberian Huskies are both working dogs and companions, exemplifying another successful transition of an ancient working dog to modern times.
15. Yakutian Laika
The Yakutian Laika (also known as the Yakut Laika or the Yakutian Sled Dog), originates from the Sakha Republic (the Yakutia region) of Siberia, Russia. The breed is newly-developed but with ancient roots to the indigenous Yakut people and their traditional way of life in the harsh Arctic climate. Dogs were utilized as all-purpose animals that hunted and herded reindeer, as well as served as draft and companion dogs. Their fur was also used in religious ceremonies. But their most crucial role was transportation. In fact, the Yakuts were some of the first known people to use dogs to pull sleds.
The Yakutian Laika was developed to withstand the region's harsh environment, which included extreme cold reaching as low as -58°F in winter. As such, one of the distinctive features of the Yakutian Laika is its remarkable resistance to freezing temperatures, able to endure extreme cold without suffering adverse effects. This is in part due to the dogs' dense double coats, erect ears to minimize heat loss and compact but sturdy build.
The breed was thriving in the mid-1800s, but that changed in the 1900s with technological advancements and development. Fortunately, breed enthusiasts worked to revive the Yakutian Laika in 1998. In 2004, the breed was recognized by the Russian Kynological Federation (RKF), though it is not yet widely recognized by international kennel clubs. And in more recent years, there has been increased attention to the conservation and preservation of the Yakutian Laika breed with efforts aiming to protect the genetic diversity and traditional qualities of these dogs. Today, the breed is still valued for its working abilities with some continuing to be used for herding and sledding, while others have found roles as family companions.
Bonus, Not Pictured: Kugsha Dog
The Kugsha Dog (also known as the Amerindian Malamute or Amerindian Husky) is a rare but unique breed, developed for its working abilities and companionship. The breed's history is not as well-documented as some other sled dog breeds, but it is believed to have originated in North America. It is possible that the Kugsha Dog developed among indigenous people, as the breed is sometimes referred to as the Amerindian Malamute or Husky, which suggests a connection to Native American cultures. Or it may have developed as part of efforts to create a breed with specific traits, such as sled pulling and working in the harsh Arctic climates of North America.
Like many other sled dog breeds, the Kugsha was likely valued for its strength, endurance, and ability to thrive in cold conditions. It is described as a strong and agile breed with a thick double coat, erect ears, and a bushy tail that curls over the back. It is believed to have physical and temperamental traits suitable for the demands of Arctic and sub-Arctic environments.
The Kugsha Dog is not officially recognized by major kennel clubs, and there is limited documentation about its history compared to more established breeds. Today, some people appreciate the breed for its working abilities and companionship, but the breed remains relatively rare and less well-known. As such, preservation efforts may be crucial for maintaining the breed's genetic diversity and characteristics.
Famous Sled Dogs
There are a handful of sled dogs who have gained fame for their roles in historic events, expeditions, and races. Some of the most famous sled dogs include:
Balto - Perhaps the most famous sled dog, Balto is known for his role in the Serum Run to Nome in 1925, leading his team through harsh conditions to deliver diphtheria antitoxin. A statue of Balto stands in New York City's Central Park.
Togo - Another heroic sled dog during the Serum Run to Nome, Togo actually covered the longest distance, playing a crucial role in the success of the mission.
Seppala's Team (Leonhard Seppala and his Siberian Huskies) - Leonhard Seppala was a Norwegian musher and breeder of Siberian Huskies. His team, including dogs like Togo, won races like the All Alaska Sweepstakes and was instrumental in the development of the Siberian Husky breed.
Sergei's Team - Sergei was a Siberian Husky who was part of the Soviet Union's Antarctic expeditions in the 1950s and 1960s. He and his team played a vital role in establishing research stations and transporting supplies in the harsh Antarctic environment.
King, Prince And Lefty (Joe Redington's Team) - Joe Redington Sr., known as the "Father of the Iditarod," and his team of sled dogs (including notably King, Prince, and Lefty) contributed to the development and popularization of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Susan Butcher's Teams - Four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher had several notable sled dogs on her teams, such as Granite, Mattie, and Tolstoy.
Buser's Dogs (Martin Buser's Team) - Another four-time Iditarod champion, Martin Buser is known for his competitive teams of sled dogs including Blondie, Silver, and Dime.