When most people think of sled dogs, they think of Alaskan Malamutes or Siberian Huskies, two purebred dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club. Indeed, both breeds were used as sled dogs for years in Alaska, and a handful of mushers, such as Karen Ramstead, still race purebred Siberians. However, the favored dog of today’s Iditarod champions is the Alaskan Husky, a type of mixed-breed dog made up of Malamute, Siberian Husky, and several other breeds.
The word “Malamute” comes from the Mahlemut tribe, an Inupiat tribe of northwestern Alaska, now commonly called the Kobuk. Mahlemuts favored these sturdy dogs because of their great hunting and pulling capabilities. Large and muscular, Malamutes were later used as sled dogs for hauling freight during Alaska’s gold rush era and as search-and-rescue dogs in World War II. Admiral Byrd used Malamutes on his South Pole expedition.
Alaskan Malamutes won the first major sled-dog race in Alaska, the 1908 All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a 400-mile run from Nome to Candle and back. At the time, it was thought these hefty haulers also made the best racing dogs. However, another kind of dog introduced to Alaska by Russian traders in the early twentieth century, the smaller and faster Siberian husky, soon began to dominate the race. John “Iron Man” Johnson used Siberians to set a course record in 1910: 74 hours, 14 minutes, and 22 seconds. Leonhard Seppala also used Siberian in his three All-Alaska victories. Siberian huskies, it seemed, were the new top dog in sled-dog racing.
Meanwhile, native villagers of the Alaskan interior had been mixing new lineages composed of Malamute, Siberian husky, and other breeds of hunting and working dogs. Initially called “Indian dogs,” these mixed breeds were smaller and sleeker than Siberians, with longer legs and sturdy feet for running on the abrasive snow and ice. Non-native racers began to take notice when Athabascan mushers such as Johnny Allen and Gareth Wright started winning races with their “mongrels.” Wright’s dogs were said to be half Siberian husky, a quarter wolf, and a quarter Irish Setter.
As the purebreds became less and less competitive, more non-native mushers turned to mixed breeds, which today fall under the generic term “Alaskan husky.” Considered a type of dog rather than a pure breed, Alaskan huskies are not recognized by the American Kennel Club. However, they have become synonymous with the term “sled dog” and are the most widely used dog in the Iditarod.
A few mushers have been known to race more exotic breeds. For example, John Suter began racing poodles in the mid-1970s. Although he received a great deal of media attention, Suter was unable to obtain sponsorship with his all-poodle team. They were not deemed competitive, and their thin coats made them susceptible to hypothermia. Suter finally declared his “experiment” a failure in 1990 and began using Alaskan Huskies. Race officials subsequently stipulated that dogs entered in the Iditarod must be of the northern breeds used to arctic conditions.
Many of today’s top mushers own their own kennels. Those without kennels must buy their dogs from elsewhere, oftentimes from other mushers, who generally raise around 50 dogs at a time. During the early part of training, mushers and handlers look for certain traits in their dogs—physical traits, mental traits, temperament—that indicate a dog’s capacity for distance-running. You will sometimes hear mushers or others involved in sled-dog racing refer to a dog’s “head,” by which they mean attitude. Dogs with good head—healthy, happy, intelligent, enthusiastic—are considered ideal for long-distance sled-dog racing.
My next post will be about the makeup of sled-dog teams and what the dogs are typically fed on the trail.