Who are These Dogs That Pull Sleds
By Robert Forto, PhD
Who are these dogs that pull sleds? Are they purebreds or mongrels? What sets them apart from other dogs and enables them to work with man under brutal weather conditions? What sort of strange dog is it that yammers and yowls to be a part of a team, preferring to work or race than rest in a warm kennel?
Written pedigrees are not required to enter a sled dog race, nor does the dog have to be a northern breed, although a majority of dogs on the racing trail are related to working dogs of the North. These dogs have a strong instinct to pull. These dogs can be everything from an American Kennel Club registered Siberian Husky, a “one-quarter husky” mixed breed, or any variety in between. These dogs can be Irish Setters, Walker Coonhounds or even a Border Collie. In search of an unbeatable dog team, dozens and dozens of cross-breedings, in-breedings and line breedings have been tried. Some breeders work within a recognized breed, seeking to refine that breed’s natural talents; others select the fastest and strongest or whatever dogs come to their attention, caring more about performance than good looks or a fancy pedigree.
The Siberian Husky
The most popular of the registered breeds for sled dog racing is the Siberian Husky. An uncommonly attractive dog, the Siberian evokes for many the call of the wild, the lure of the North. The finely chiseled, fox-like head, the pricked ears, the “mask” markings on the face, and the expressive eyes (often a light, icy blue), seems to personify the romantic image of the North country. In temperament, Sibes, as they are often called, can be affectionate or aloof, playful or serious. They are basically gentle, protective dogs. Stories about their exploits as guardians of children are legend, and a keener companion would be hard to find.
Siberians are bred today for the show ring or for racing, and sometimes for both. The original standard of the breed, accepted by the American Kennel Club in 1930, purposefully described the qualities of the Siberian that made him a fine working animal.The peoples of the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia had already developed a dog which excelled as a draft animal and companion; in the hands of Alaskan sport racers at the turn of the century the husky from Siberia was selectively bred to improve these desirable traits.
When Leonhard Seppala took some forty-four of these dogs to New England in 1927 and began racing and promoting the breed there, the stage was set for the development of the American Kennel Club registered Siberian Husky. Most of Seppala’s dogs figured significantly in the foundation stocks of such influential eastern kennels as Chinook, Foxstand, and Monadnock (these dogs from Harry Wheeler’s kennel at Gray Rocks carried the suffix “of Seppala”). This researcher even has a spattering of the Seppala lines in his own breeding stock and kennel under the name of Trafalgar. Seven other imported dogs found their way to the kennels of Elizabeth Ricker, in partnership with Seppala, and to Gray Rocks. The two males in Quebec, Kree-Vanka and Tserko, influenced the registered breed tremendously. In 1946, two descendents of these dogs were sent back to Alaska, care of Earl and Natalie Norris’s Anadyr Kennels, and a new generation of racing drivers rekindled the interest of Alaska in Siberian Huskies.
Siberians predominated on the best New England teams in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Roland Lombard drove Siberians when he won the World Championships at The Pas in 1957, and took second at the North American Championship in 1958. His dogs, especially one named Igloo Pak’s Tok, showed excellent Siberian conformation and would have provided tough competition in the show ring. In Alaska in the fifties, Champion Tyndrum’s Oslo, C.D.X. led the team of Charles and Kit MacInnes to dozens of victories. Champion Bonzo of Anadyr, C.D., led Earl and Natalie Norris team in sixteen championship races and was never out of the money.
The suffix of C.D.X. and C.D. are titles given to dogs at an American Kennel Club obedience trial. C.D.X. stands for Companion Dog Excellent and C.D. stands for Companion dog. These are advanced titles for a sled dog to obtain. Most of the time these titles are given to dogs that show promise for service dog work such as guide dogs for the blind or assistance dogs. For a sled dog to obtain these titles shows an excellent temperament and the ability to adapt to training. This in turn shows a strong correlation of the human-canine commination conundrum. Many times pure sled dogs do not do well in the obedience ring due to their innate nature to pull and their desire to roam. In an obedience trial one of the commands that must be mastered is a long down where the handler leaves the sight of the dog for up to five minutes. Typically a sled dog is too anxious to stay in one place for an extended period of time. Therein a sled dog with an advanced title shows the correlation to the sport of dog sledding and the training procedures used to train them.
Purebred Siberian teams abound wherever there is racing, and although they are often eclipsed in speed by the mixed-breed Alaskan Husky, their racing records are solid. Today’s racing Siberian can be a credit to good breeders, for behind the breed statistics (average 22 inches at the shoulders and 45 to 50 pounds), and beneath it’s glossy coat, still stands much of the graceful, intelligent, light footed, speedy husky from Siberia. It seems harder to tell what a blue-eyed dog is thinking than a brown-eyed dog, but when the sporty Siberian is harnessed to a sled, his thoughts are transparent. “He is all go! ( Note: endnotes have been removed for blog posting. If you would like to read article in its entirety please contact me through email at firstname.lastname@example.org )
Next Week: The Alaskan Malamute
Dr. Robert Forto is training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at http://www.teamineka.com