Mush! Onward! Imagine yourself driving a team of sled dogs in the frozen Arctic wasteland. Ahead of you is a double row of baying canines, leading you and your sled into the vast, trackless north. Your breath and the breath of your dog team freezes quickly in the frigid, wintry air. Aside from snow, wind and the feeble rays of the sun, the only thing in the air is the yipping and joyous barking of your team, calling direction and expressing excitement in Doglish to each other. Perhaps you are taking part in a sled race or maybe you're just out for an afternoon's training for your team, but it could also be that you're running supplies to an isolated village in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, Sweden, or even Finland.
But stop for a moment and check your imagination. What kind of dogs did you imagine to be pulling the sled? It wasn't Dachshunds, was it? And it wasn't Irish Setters or King Charles Spaniels either, right? Chances are, if you're imagining a snowy sled dog adventure, you're imagining Siberian or Alaskan Huskies leading the way. And there are good reasons for that.
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The Root of the Behavior
At least in the United States, most sled dogs today are Alaskan Huskies, a mixed breed that's well-suited to the hard Arctic life. There are some pure breeds that do well at sledding, most notably Siberian Huskies, Malamutes, and Samoyeds, but the Alaskan Husky's flexibility makes it a standout. Alaskan Huskies have a great deal of Siberian Husky and Malamute DNA in their genetic background, but some professional sledders and dog breeders will actually mix in other breeds with desirable characteristics in order to get just the right traits - quickness, toughness, and high-energy drive. A dog needs all those traits to be a success on the trail. Breeders have been known to include pointers, hounds, Border Collies, and even Greyhounds in the mix as they strive to get the best musher possible.
Due to their mixed heritage, Alaskan Huskies can vary a fair amount in both appearance and size. Some Huskies will resemble Malamutes and other related large dogs (these Huskies are often suited for 'freighting' sled work) due to having more of those breeds in their background, while others may resemble hounds or pointers (and are thus more likely to be racing dogs) because of having those breeds in their history. They can vary in size as well; Huskies suited for freight work are generally larger, stronger, and somewhat slower than the smaller and quicker racing Huskies. Also, freighters can be 25-50 percent larger than racers.
Huskies - both Alaskan and Siberian - don't necessarily make great pets, especially if they're not given the amount and degree of exercise they prefer. They're friendly dogs, which means that they aren't the best watchdogs. They also tend to be quite vocal, which can be irritating to you and to your neighbors, especially if Blizzard and Snowball like to howl at the moon at night. And if you don't give them the exercise they want and need, they tend to dig - sometimes digging their way out of the back yard. But if you can give a Husky or two enough exercise and attention, a deep bond of respect and trust can be formed.
Encouraging the Behavior
Dog sledding and modern sled racing entered public awareness in 1925, when a deadly diphtheria outbreak struck Nome, Alaska. Even today, Nome is hard to reach, but in 1925, the town was virtually inaccessible, especially in winter. The harbor is icebound from fall to mid-summer and no railroad exists even today. The only way to get medicine to the isolated townspeople was by air or dogsled, and a fierce blizzard made flying, or even starting an airplane engine, impossible. It fell to professional mushers to get the medicine to Nome, some 600 miles away. Despite raging winds, whiteout conditions, and polar night, musher teams prevailed, getting through in just 5-1/2 hours. The lead dog on the last leg of the trail was a Siberian Husky named Balto, and today a statue of him stands in New York's Central Park.
A 1995 animated children's movie, entitled "Balto," tells the loosely-adapted tale of the lifesaving 1925 relay. Even so, despite Balto's fame, handler Leonhard Seppala credits another dog named Togo with doing most of the work, including leading the team on the most dangerous portions of the route and during the worst of the blizzard conditions. And if that's not enough history for you, the Nenana to Nome route, along which the diphtheria medicine was carried by dogs, is world famous today. With a few minor changes, the route is now the northern leg of the world-famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race. And as you might expect, Huskies - both Siberian and Alaskan - make up a large portion of the competing dogs each year.
Other Solutions and Considerations
If you have a Siberian or Alaskan Husky or two, or even a Malamute, you can give mushing a try yourself. Done properly - and without ever forcing a dog into pulling a load - mushing is a perfectly safe recreational activity for dogs. Some animal welfare advocates do have issues with professional mushing, primarily relating to how dogs are handled, fed, and housed, along with the harsh conditions they can face on the trail during race season. However, you need not load up a sled or wagon and exhort your dogs to pull; you can connect a lead to a mountain bike for your dogs or even try skijoring, which involves a lead connecting to a belt or harness on the human driver. The human, on skis, is then pulled by a team of as few as two dogs. If your dogs take to pulling a load, you can enjoy skijoring in winter weather and bike towing in warmer weather. If you have Huskies, this can be a great way of ensuring they get the exercise they want while engaging in a bonding athletic activity. Always check with your vet before getting under way with canine athletics.
Huskies, both Siberian and Alaskan, have a storied and athletic history. They aren't necessarily suitable pets for everyone, but if you're an athletic and outdoorsy person yourself, they do present a unique and potentially rewarding opportunity. And even if you don't live in the far north, there are still plenty of ways to take advantage of Huskies' innate skills and drives.