Dogs have been bred for the correct size, shape and gait for pulling sleds for centuries. Sled breeds were essential to the survival of native people living in the Arctic Circle. For the thousands of outsiders who were attracted to Alaska's inhospitable landscape by the gold rush, sled dogs were their only means of transporting freight and getting about. Some breeds were developed to haul heavy loads over distance, while lighter dogs were bred for speed and to race.
Canadian Eskimo dogs are an old breed, originally developed by the Inuit people 1,100 to 2,000 years ago. The Inuits called these powerfully built dogs, which can weigh up to 88 pounds, Qimmiq. Each dog could pull 99 to 176 pounds more than 15 to 70 miles a day. They also helped the Inuit locate seal breathing holes and were capable of attacking polar bears and holding them at bay for the Inuit hunters. Their ability to pull heavy loads great distances made them popular with Arctic explorers. Canadian Eskimo dogs are considered to be gentle and affectionate, but primarily remain working dogs.
Siberian huskies originally came from Siberia where they were bred as sled dogs. Siberians were introduced to North America during the gold rush and their endurance and eagerness to work made them a popular choice of sled dog. Racing with dogs became a favorite pastime in the early 1900s and teams of Siberian huskies dominated races like the 408 mile All-Alaskan Sweepstakes. In 1925, Nome, Alaska, was stricken with a diphtheria epidemic. A statue in Central Park in New York City honors the teams of huskies that raced 340 miles to the city with life-saving serum. Siberian huskies are friendly with people and can make great pets, but have a tendency to roam. They ideally need an enclosed space where they can run, combined with long daily jogs or lead walks. If Siberians get the chance to run in harness, they will be happy huskies.
The American bred Alaskan malamute was named after the Mahlemuts, an Inuit tribe, who kept malamutes to help them hunt and haul seals and polar bears. They're one of the largest and strongest sled dogs and were developed to pull heavy loads over long distances. In 1933, they assisted Adm. Richard Byrd to get to the South Pole and in World War II malamutes served as freight haulers and search and rescue dogs. Alaskan malamutes have become popular companions for active families. They happily join their humans when they go jogging, swimming, backpacking and of course, sled riding.
Samoyed dogs originally were bred by the nomadic Samoyed people in northeastern Siberia to herd and guard their reindeer. The dogs occasionally were used to tow boats and pull sleighs. In 1906, Samoyeds came to America where they became popular as sled dogs, especially for expeditions, as they could be more amenable than other sledding breeds. The Samoyeds' black lips that curl slightly to form a smile, stand out against their white, cream or biscuit colored heavy, weather resistant coats. They're gentle, friendly and love to be busy. As companion dogs they benefit from, and enjoy, activities such as herding, agility, hiking, weight-pulling and sledding.
The Chinook -- the name means warm winter winds in Inuit -- is a relative newcomer. Chinooks were developed in New Hampshire by the polar explorer, Arthur Treadwell Walden, in the early 1900s. The dogs' athletic and hard bodies have the power to pull heavy loads of freight, but with the speed of lighter racing dogs. In 2009, the tawny colored Chinook was named the New Hampshire state dog. Chinooks are gentle and easy to train. They love children, and with plenty of regular exercise, make ideal family companions.
Sled drivers always have used crossbreeds. Alaskan huskies, which tend to be long-legged, racy looking dogs, are a hybrid of fast running dogs. Today, teams of Alaskan huskies are winning the top races and their success is mainly due to their gait, or manner of moving. The Alaskan huskies' front feet hardly leave the surface of the snow and the dogs skim forward into the next stride. At top speeds, the dogs' motion is so level and smooth, it almost looks possible to balance trays of crystal glasses on their backs.
- Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour and Evolution; Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger
- Canadian Kennel Club Breed Standards: Canadian Eskimo Dog
- American Kennel Club: Get to Know the Siberian Husky
- The Dog Breed Bible; D. Caroline Coile, Ph.D.
- American Kennel Club: Get to Know the Alaskan Malamute
- American Kennel Club: Get to Know the Samoyed
- American Kennel Club: Get to Know the Chinook
- Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Getty Images