Sled dogs are dogs that are used to pull a wheel-less vehicle mounted on runners (a sled or sleigh) over snow or ice. It is not certain when and where this unique form of transport first appeared, but it may well have been in eastern Siberia, whose tribes have a long history of nomadic winter travel.

The dog breeds most commonly associated with the idea of sleddogs are the northern dog breeds, such as Huskies or Eskimo dogs.
Sled dogs
Photo by lightcatcherphoto/fotolia
Sleddogs are expected to demonstrate three major qualities in their work:

- remarkable physical strength for their size, coupled to an instinctive desire to pull the sled;

- endurance, to travel over long distances for several days in a row and through the toughest conditions;

- speed, to travel the distance in a reasonable length of time.
What is a Husky ?

The name 'husky' was actually once applied to all northern sled dogs. Many mushers don't consider the Husky a formal breed, but rather a group of more or less independent strains within which dogs are selected for performance, not confirmation to a standard.

Of all modern dog breeds, the northern dog has retained many of the characteristics of his wolf cousins. The body possesses features tailored for long-distance travel; it is powerful and lean, with narrow chests, strong muscles and powerful backs and legs, allowing for efficient trotting over long distances. They are not to large in size in order to maximize the efficiency of oxygen delivery to the heart, brain and muscles. Their temperament as well is adapted to the task: they possess an independent yet social personality.

Which breeds are used specifically as sled dogs ?

Some canine authorities consider that even today there are only three main (true) sled dog breeds or group of breeds. These are:

Alaskan Malamute: the most powerful, but slower than the two others

Eskimo dog: middleweight with moderate speed

Siberian Husky: lightweight, but strong and fastest of the three.

The Siberian Husky, also known as Siberian Chukchi, Arctic Husky is one of the most ancient and purest of all the northern sled dogs. It is also the smallest and fastest of all sled dogs. The origin of the word 'husky' maybe a mispronounciation of chukchi, a local tribe of the extreme north-east of Siberia were this breed was commonly found, or a slang abbreviation of the word 'Eskimo'.

Other dog breeds commonly used as sled dogs are the: Alaskan Husky, Chinook, Eurasier, Greenland Dog, Northeasterly Hauling Laika, Samoyed and Seppala Siberian Sleddog.

Many breed clubs and registeries register the Greenland dog as Eskimo dog and some authors even consider all sled dogs as one and the same breed, within which regional forms developped due to isolation.

Some breeders started breeding programs to save original strains of working sled dogs from assimilation within the larger group of (show) huskies, see, for example, the Seppala Siberian Sleddog Project of J.J. Bragg and the Mackenzie River Husky sled dogs of
Donna Dowling.

What is the difference between an Alaskan Malamute, an Alaskan Husky and a Siberian Husky ?

Although all of these breeds are similar in appearance and have a common ancestry, there are some noticeable differences between them. The Malamute is about double the size of a Siberian and has a much broader head; its ears are also set much lower. Malamutes also tend to bark more than Siberians. They are not as fast as the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Husky. Indeed, the Alaskan Husky is a hybrid dog produced specifically for sled dog racing. It combines the characteristic of a sprint-racing dog with longer legs with that of a Siberian (for increased ability to survive in the cold). Siberians are a light-weight, pure-bred dog, domesticated long ago by the Chukchi natives of northern Siberia. They are perfect for long distance runs, as they are very strong and fast.

Breed descriptions

Alaskan husky: not as hardy as the Siberian husky, they are basically selected for speed rather than endurance. They lack the dense coat necessary to keep them warm and tick fur between their toes, thus making them more prone to feet injuries. In very cold conditions, Alaskans often need "dog coats, belly protectors or "dog booties" to protect their feet from abrasion and cracking. See: Alaskan husky.

Chinook: an extremely rare multi-purpose working and sled dog, taking its name from the foundation sire of the breed, Chinook, born in 1917 and owned by the breed's creator, Arthur Walden. Walden developed the Chinook by crossing a Greenland Husky bitch with a mastiff-type dog, a mongrel with St. Bernards ancestry. The word chinook refers to 'a warm westerly wind from the country of the Chinooks', a group of Native American  tribes that lived in what is now the northwestern United States.

Eurasier, Greenland Dog and Samoyed

Photo: Callallo Candcy
Northeasterly Hauling Laika: a large hauling dog, very similar to the Eskimo Dog or the Malamute.
More about the Northeasterly Hauling Laika.

Seppala Siberian Sleddog: a working dog breed, bred by the legendary dog driver Leonhard Seppala from dogs imported into Alaska from eastern Siberia. More about the Seppala Siberian sled dog.
More recent breeds, such as the Tamaskan dog, are also used for sledding. Although not as fast as the Husky for racing, nor as strong for weights as the Malamute, they make good all round dogs, which can be easily trained and are very eager to work. Tamaskans are mainly used by hobby racers, but are also occasionally used for competition, especially in Finland and Holland.

Most sled dogs can adapt to living within a family and make good companion dogs, provided they are given some work to do at regular intervals. Note that most sled dogs seldom bark, but howl instead, much like wolves.

Sled Dogs
(sleigh dogs, sledge dogs or sleddogs )
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See also:
Scandinavian dog breeds
Northern dog breeds

External links:
Northern Californian Siberian Husky Club
Seppala Siberian Sleddog
Sled Dogs: An Alaskan epic

Northern breeds
Polar Dream
Polar Dream:
The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and Her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole
by Helen Thayer (Author),
Sir Edmund Hillary (Foreword)
More information:

Northern Breeds
(Complete Pet Owner's Manual.)
by Margaret H. Bonham
Soldiers and Sled dogs
Soldiers and Sled Dogs:
A History of Military Dog Mushing (Hardcover)
by Charles L. Dean
A handy reference on the military use of dogsleds from World War I until today.
More information:

Mush ! A Beginner's Manual of Sled dog training
A Beginner's Manual of Sled Dog Training
by Inc. Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers (Author), Charlene G. Labelle (Editor)
sled dogs