Origins of Dog Sledding


You've booked in your dog sled excursion and you turn up expecting to see a black and white husky with blue eyes and a pink tongue lolling out the side of its mouth, right? Hollywood has definitely trained us novices to think of these dogs, and these dogs only, as huskies.

In reality, the name 'Alaskan husky' refers to a mixed breed dog developed in the early 1900s as the ultimate sled dog. The idea that huskies solely have blue eyes and black and white fur is quite a myth – in fact, there is no predominate markings or colourings in the breed. While 20% of huskies eyes are blue, 60% have brown eyes while the last 20% have one blue and one brown.

History of Sled Dogs

Despite the presence of people in the Arctic region for centuries, competitive dog sledding is a relatively new concept. The Sami people and Inuits of the Arctic had a number of dogs that they bred for different purposes and while these Lapphunds were sometimes used for sledding, they were generally more bred to be stocky guard dogs and reindeer herders.

Siberian Huskies today are not only extremely active, energetic and resilient dogs, but they are loving and friendly.

siberianhusky-1_600pxThe Siberian Husky is one of the oldest breeds in the world, part of a family of dogs directly descended from wolves. Used for hunting and reindeer herding, the Chukchi tribe selectively bred these dogs to be agile and strong, and they were attached to a sled side by side in pairs. These dogs were loved and respected by the Chukchi people, sleeping in shelters with families and being fed even in times of famine. They would accompany adults on hunting trips; obey voice commands; or even stay at home to look after young children.

The Alaskan Husky is a cross breed that finds its roots in the Canadian Eskimo Dog, the Alaskan Interior Village Dog, the Siberian Husky and many European hound breeds. In the early 1900s during the Alaskan goldrush, the demand for sled dogs was enormous to carry mail, freight and for recreational racing. Pioneering Europeans had noticed the Mahlemut Eskimos' large, kind and almost inexhaustible dogs, now known as Alaskan Malamutes. However when Europeans tried to purchase these dogs they invariably failed because of their beloved position in Mahlemut communities.

greenlandhusky-1_600pxThe Greenland husky is a dog bred by Inuits for transportation and hunting in Greenland in the wintertime. During the wintertime, Inuits would rope up 10 to 14 dogs in a fan formation with a clear leader in front of a sledge. As the dogs were often left on isolated islands in summer months to fend for themselves, survival of the fittest ruled and they are now quite difficult to train and aggressive, particularly to other dogs.

Instead, Europeans began to breed their own variation of sled dogs to their purpose. It was this selective breeding that produced the Alaskan Husky, a wiry, less stocky animal that is nevertheless quite strong and resilient to running long distances.

Husky heroes

The Seppala Siberian Sled dogs were developed and then trained by Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian-American trainer, for the first Roald Amundsen polar expedition and this strain of the breed is still around today. He was also one of the mushers in the famous 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy, transporting diptheria antitoxin 1085km in 5.5 days – a journey that usually took 25 days. 20 mushers and 150 sled dogs raced through blizzards, suffering from frostbite in the icy winds. This incredible feat is commemorated each year with the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, along the same route of the serum run.

Dogs have also been a huge part of many famous explorations and pioneering expeditions in the Arctic (they have been banned in Antarctica since 1993), acting as the only reliable means of transportation.

Sled Dogs Today

With all of this variation in breeding, the type of dog that will be pulling your sled depends on what country you are in. These are working dogs who are trained from four month old puppies to pull sledges and not a pet or lap dog. Having said that, some of the dogs will love petting and a cuddle – but always remember to check first!

"I highly recommend this to everyone, especially to dog lovers as you get to visit doggy heaven before you go riding!"

The huskies used on Svalbard are friendly and love cuddles, as they are a mix breed of the hardy Greenland dog with the more social Siberian husky. However, the huskies used in Greenland, although often mixed breed, are more independent and less friendly and do not want to be petted by strangers. In Alaska and Russia, Alaskan Malamutes are commonly used in sled dog formations and are kind-natured dogs.

Responsible Mushing

Mush with P.R.I.D.E. (Providing Responsible Information on a Dog's Environment) is an organisation offering the only internationally recognised industry standard to ensure that Mushing Kennels keep their dogs in a safe and happy environment. Specifically bred to run, these huskies love regular exercise and stick to a strict training schedule and diet. The voluntary standards also include inspection of dog's living spaces, diet and access to water; their demeanour in the pack and around humans indicating their general well-being and happiness; and responsible breeding programs. Most owners absolutely love and respect their dogs, working everyday to make sure their dogs are well cared for and integrating pups into the pack with light sledges and wheeled carts in the summer months.

Where you can dog sled

Dog sled safaris can range from two hours to five days and are available through Bentours in Finland, Northern Norway, Svalbard and Sweden. An exhilarating experience, a dog sled safari is also a magical way to enjoy the Northern Lights. A dog sled safari excursion can easily be integrated into a Hurtigruten voyage and many of our package holidays feature such safaris. With the assistance of our on ground team we are also able to tailor-make a dog sled safari just for you!