Our relationship with dogs has existed and evolved over tens of thousands of years and different breeds were developed for different jobs. Chihuahuas in Mexico were bed warmers and watchdogs; Golden and Labrador Retrievers were hunting companions; Great Pyrenees dogs were livestock guardians. One such job was pulling sleds in the colder climates, like the Arctic tundra, Alaskan wilderness, and other parts of the Far North. And research shows sled dogs have pulled us for millennia, allowing humans to survive and traverse the coldest parts of the world.
Sled Dog Characteristics
There are several sled dog breeds, including Samoyeds, Alaska Malamutes, and Siberian Huskies. These breeds have many characteristics that make them great sled dogs in some of the coldest parts of the world. They are able to run long distances for significant periods of time in cold, low oxygen environments and thrive on high protein and fat diets. Because of physical features like their thick double coats, furry tails, and leather-like feet, they’re also able to survive in below-freezing temperatures and snowy conditions for hours at a time. Many sled dog breeds aren’t particularly bothered by sub-freezing temperatures but do need special care to make sure they’re healthy and safe. It’s truly too cold for your dog if they’re shivering or refusing to come out of their dog house or curled position.
- What Makes a Great Sled Dog? Breed, Ambition, Tough Feet by Jane J. Lee, National Geographic
Dangers and Care for Sled Dogs
There are, of course, dangers associated with traveling with or racing sled dogs. During the spring, parts of the Far North start to melt, causing the ground to be icy and sharp. That causes problems for the dogs’ feet but many owners and mushers use booties to keep the dogs safe from injuries. Sled dogs also rely on a high protein and fat diet and will need ~10,000 calories a day while racing.
Dehydration and overexertion are also problems for sled dogs during runs so it’s important to keep an eye on how your dogs are doing and make sure they have regular access to clean drinking water.
Balto, Togo, and the Journey to Nome.
One of the most famous sled dogs is Balto, a Siberian Husky that helped lead the last leg of a relay that carried diphtheria serum to Nome, Alaska during the 1925 diphtheria epidemic. The closest the serum could travel by train was close to 675 miles away from Nome and between an impending blizzard and the icy terrain, other forms of travel were impossible. So teams of sled dogs made the journey and delivered the lifesaving serum. While Balto was vital during the last 53 miles of this journey, he wasn’t the most important dog in that run. Togo, a 12-year-old Siberian Husky, ran a whopping 264 miles during that time when the average was around 31 miles for other dogs. Regardless, Togo, Balto, and all the other sled dogs were vital in that journey and helped save the 10,000+ people living in the Nome area.
Humans’ Relationship with Sled Dogs
Those who race or travel with sled dogs usually have a very special relationship with their dogs. These working dogs are an important part of people’s lives and have been for tens of thousands of years. It may seem cruel to have dogs out in the freezing cold or pulling a sled. But generations of breeding have built sled dogs into the dogs they are today. Their coats and metabolism help them survive (and even thrive) in cold and snowy climates while their energetic nature and pack mentality make them great runners.
If you decide to get a sled dog breed, there are many things to keep in mind. First and foremost, these dogs are intelligent, stubborn, and do not tolerate apartment living or hot climates. Most sled dog breeds are big, fluffy, and opinionated so it’s important to keep up training, grooming, and exercise. If you’re looking for a running or hiking partner, a sled dog would be great, especially if you live in a cold climate or near snowy mountains.
Like any dog, sled dogs need plenty of care and attention. Regular exercise and enrichment (like puzzles) will keep them happy and healthy (and will decrease the chances of them destroying your house out of boredom). Grooming, like brushing and nail trimming, will keep their coats nice and shiny and their nails short.
Sled Dog Mushers
For many people throughout history, sled dogs have been a vital part of survival in some of the coldest parts of the world. Nowadays, sled dogs are still important but many will race just for fun! The Yukon Quest and the Iditarod are two famous sled dog races that are usually held annually in Canada and Alaska and span 1,000 miles and 975 miles respectively. While the dogs are incredibly important to the team, their musher (the person on the sled!) is also vital.
- I’m a professional dog musher. Here’s how I budget by Donna Freedman, Policy Genius
Mushing, even for fun, is a difficult sport and one that can’t be half-assed. There’s a lot of work and resources that go into mushing and sled dog racing! You need to bond, care, and train for your dogs all year round and dog sled racing also means you need certain equipment and knowledge. There’s a lot to learn from dog sledding but it’s not a world you can just jump into.
Do you have a dog that’s a sled breed? Or have you been to a sled dog race? Let me know in the comments!