Is it just me, or do you think of Santa Claus every time you hear the phrase “sled dog?” I know it’s Rudolph and his gang who pull the sled, but just once, I’d love to see it being pulled by Scooby Doo.
Sled dogs are workhorses. Their endurance is unmatched in the world of dogs, and their perseverance is palpable. But what do we really know about them? That they’re fast? That they work as a team? There’s so much more, and we brought the best of it to you.
The Huskies and Malamutes have talented company as they speed across snowy land. There are sled dog breeds like Chinooks and Chukotkas that don’t get the mention they deserve.
So strap yourself in. We’re about to go on a wild ride with these fabulous dogs. Mush!
What Is a Sled Dog?
A sled dog is any trained canine used to pull a land vehicle across deep snow and ice. These dogs build deep relationships with their drivers. A musher (sled driver) put it all in perspective when she said, “Generally, I like the dogs better than I like most people.” – National Geographic
Sled dogs eat high-fat diets for energy, pull heavy loads, and can run for miles in a day. They have tight bonds with each other and their human guardian. Helping them travel through harsh Arctic conditions, they’re medium-sized, and most sled dogs weigh between 35-60 lbs.
History of Sled Dog Breeds
It’s impossible to know when the first person led a dog-tethered sled into the wilderness, but we know the origins of some dog breeds that pulled those sleds.
A dog named Zhokhov started it all. His ancient remains were discovered, along with dog sledding equipment, on Zhokhov Island in Siberia in 2017. Researchers determined his age was 9,500 years old. Also discovered was that all of today’s sled dogs shared major parts of their genome with Khokhov, cementing their origin in Siberia.
It’s believed that humans, with their dogs, migrated north of the Arctic Circle about 25,000 years ago. Sled dog breeds served as a way to communicate and travel in inclement weather conditions. Experts go so far as to say that human survival couldn’t have happened in the Arctic without sled dogs.
These dogs played important roles in major, life-changing events in history, like the Klondike Gold Rush. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), “The late 1800s and early 1900s were even nicknamed the “Era of the Sled Dog.”
Eventually, airplanes, trucks, snowmobiles, and highways took over the sled dog’s jobs, but that didn’t stop them. (Note: Sled dogs today, some communities in Alaska, Greenland, and Canada still use them for their original purposes.)
Mushing, or racing, was born, and contests like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest became the pinnacle to reach for these tireless animals and their people.
Sled Dog Breeds
Now, let’s get into the phenomenal dogs that lead these humans and their sleds through jagged mountain ranges, dense forests, and really whatever nature can throw at them.
1. Siberian Husky
|Fur & color||Double-coated – Agouti & white, black & white, gray & white, red & white, sable & white, white, brown & white, black tan & white, black|
Arguably the most famous sled dog breed, the Siberian husky was developed for endurance, speed, and an even temperament. They were developed in Siberia by the Chukchis.
They started winning sled dog races in 1909 and never stopped. When Nome, Alaska, was almost crushed by a diphtheria epidemic, sleds pulled by Siberian huskies relayed life-saving serum almost 700 miles to the city which was saved.
These sled dogs, with plush gorgeous hair and stunning blue eyes, are heroes.
|Fur & color||Double-coated – Red gold, fawn, tawny, palomino, gray red, silver fawn, buff, white, black & tan, gray & tan, black|
This sled dog breed was developed in the early 1900s by Arthur T. Walden as a farm dog in New Hampshire, USA. They’re even-tempered, agile, and adaptable. Chinooks are rare dogs, so you’d need to look for a breed-specific rescue group or a reputable breeder to find one.
This rare breed excels at:
- Obedience – Obedience trials feature dogs that are well-behaved at home, in public places, and in the presence of other dogs. – AKC
- Drafting/Carting – Pulling a cart or a sled
- Search and rescue
These loving, intelligent dogs make excellent family pets.
3. Yakutian Laika
|Fur & color||Double-coated – White, white & black, black & white, white & gray, gray & white, white & red, brown & white|
This intelligent breed, who often looks like he’s wearing spectacles, is highly active, so if you’re a couch potato (no judgment here!), it’s not the right fit. The Yakutian Laika is a spitz dog breed from Russia.
They were mostly treated as treasured companions and have carried that torch until this day. However, the Yakute people have also used them for herding and even mail delivery.
This sled dog breed is a loyal and affectionate animal that, at times, can be stubborn. Early socialization and obedience training will ensure smooth sailing for this willful breed. Also, use caution if you have other, smaller pets since these dogs have a noticeable prey drive. All in all, this is a friendly, social, and loving dog with no aggressive tendencies.
4. Greenland Dog
|Fur & color||Double-coated – All colors from fawn to black (excluding albino and merle)|
Sled dogs like the Greenland dogs weren’t only developed for stamina and intelligence but also for their beauty. This is a gorgeous dog. One of the world’s oldest breeds, they’ve been the Inuits’ only sledge/sled dog for eons, used as hunting dogs and for transportation.
This breed is energetic, strong, and bold and has a deep hunting instinct. They’re not great as guard dogs since they’re friendly to strangers but will love to accompany you and them outdoors.
5. Alaskan Husky
|Fur & color||Double-coated – Agouti & white, black & white, gray & white, red & white, sable & white, white, brown & white, black tan & white, black|
This sled dog breed originated in the far north of Alaska. With their power and agility, Alaskan Huskies are fast and can pull heavy weights, which is good news for mushers. They’re taller and more slender than the Siberian husky.
Although they adore being around people and other dogs, apartment living isn’t for them. They’re at their best living in super cold temperatures where they have plenty of room to run. (And then coming inside with their guardians.)
Alaskan huskies have been used for centuries as sled dogs, and their ability to work with a dog team and use their intelligence to communicate with mushers is top-notch.
6. Alaskan Malamute
|Fur & color||Double-coated – (All mixed with white)… Gray, black, red, seal, silver, sable, blue, Agouti, or all-white|
Although they look a little bit like a wolf or a whole lot like a Siberian husky, the Alaskan Malamute is a breed all on its own. They can have a stubborn streak, and that, coupled with their size and strength, doesn’t make them a good choice for first-time dog guardians. Early training and animal and human socialization are key.
They’re not too vocal, except for the occasional howl, and love to be in the middle of things, so they’ll do well being around family activities. Their double coats shed heavily twice a year (“blowing” their coat), and although they can quickly overheat in hot temperatures, never shave them. Just make sure they have access to air conditioning.
The Alaskan Malamute’s playful, friendly nature will win the hearts of adults, kids, and new people alike.
7. Labrador Husky
|Group||Working (Two working classification parents)|
|Fur & color||Double-coated – Many colors and color mixtures|
The Lab Husky mix is a “designer dog” (also called a hybrid) that has one Siberian or Alaskan husky parent mixed with a purebred Labrador retriever parent. Both breeds are incredibly loyal and sociable, so the hybrid can become overly protective if not trained early. Depending on genetics, they can look more Labrador retriever-ish or Husky-ish.
Highly active, they need to go on hikes or jogs to release pent-up energy. If left alone for long periods, they can develop digging and chewing habits that aren’t going to be pleasant. They’re best suited to someone who’s home a lot.
Both the Lab and the Husky enjoy having a job to do, so keep your Labrador husky busy by letting him pull a small wagon or carry a backpack on a hike. They’ll be playful with kids, but you might keep them away from small pets due to their prey drive.
8. Sakhalin Husky
|Fur & color||Double-coated – Black, russet, biscuit, cream, gray, brindle, and any combination of these|
This breed is thought to be extinct. No one knows how many, or if any, Sakhalin huskies are left in the world today. This sled and hunting dog is sometimes referred to as the Japanese husky or the Karafuto Ken. The Nivkh people, indigenous to Sakhalin Island in Russia, developed the breed.
After thorough research, the information I give to you is much of what I discovered.
The Red Army used the Japanese husky for their stamina, strength, and intelligence. However, these dogs ate salmon, which was too expensive for their upkeep, and during the 1930s, many were killed en masse.
The Japanese husky is said to have had a wolf-like appearance with long bushy tails, huge paws, and muscular bodies. This high-energy and intelligent breed could catch its own fish and pull heavy weight. They were also known to be incredible companions due to their loyalty to their guardians.
I saw reports of there being two, seven, or twenty of them left in the entire world. It’s such a travesty that we’ll probably never see one again.
9. Chukotka Sled Dog
|Fur & color||Double-coated|
This spitz breed, developed by the Chukchi people of Russia, is the ancestor of the Siberian husky and related to the Alaskan Malamute. They’re known for their endurance and strength. They were close to extinction in the Soviet era but, thankfully, survived. The Russian Kynologic Federation (RKF) approved the first official standard of the breed in 1999.
Archeological evidence from before 500 AD has shown that local populations relied on whales as a food source and that dogsleds were used to transport marine mammals to them.
During the Klondike Gold Rush, Chukotka sled dogs from Alaska transported gold miners to the Yukon. Today, those in Chukotka use these dogs for herding reindeer, transporting goods, and towing boats. Only around 4,000 of these animals exist today; however, no one knows how many of them are purebred.
10. Canadian Eskimo Dog (or Qimmiq)
|Fur & color||Double-coated – From black to light brown|
The Canadian Eskimo dog has been in the Arctic for at least 4,000 years and was developed by the Thule People, who were first in Alaska in 500AD and later in Nunavut, Arctic Canada. Built for strength, not speed, these Polar Spitz dogs can pull loads over long distances in a freighting or draught team.
The Canadian Eskimo dog played a crucial role in hunting, aiding Inuit hunters in tracking and capturing seals, muskoxen, and polar bears.
These aboriginal sled dogs are affectionate, love human attention, and according to the Canadian Eskimo dog Club of Great Britain, “[They’re] pack oriented with extremely rapid response to outside stimulus.” These inuit dogs are one of the oldest North American, indigenous, purebred dogs.
During the 60s and 70s, they almost became extinct but have increased in numbers since then. In 2000, Nunavut officially adopted the “Canadian Inuit Dog” as its animal symbol.
11. Mackenzie River Husky
|Fur & color||Double-coated – Black & white, grey and sable, tan, blond, red|
This sled dog breed was developed to support fur traders for Hudson’s Bay Company and, later, for prospectors during the Gold Rush. They’re Arctic and sub-Arctic dogs.
These dependable animals interact well with humans but can sometimes have problems with others of their own species.
By the 1860s, this breed was a top dog in Canada and Alaska. But their numbers began to decline in the 1950s and 60s, and today, there are very few of these incredible dogs in existence.
|Fur & color||Double-coated – White, biscuit, cream, white & biscuit|
This popular sled dog has a ready smile and is tireless, powerful, and social. The name “Samoyed” comes from the nomadic people from Asia who migrated to Siberia 1,000 years ago. They were called the Samoyede.
This breed’s glorious white, dense fur protects them from the most hazardous weather. In Siberia, temperatures can reach -60 degrees, so the Samoyede people huddled in their tents for warmth with their sled dog packs. This built the deep trust and respect Samoyeds have for people.
These dogs pulled heavy loads through Siberia’s wilderness or acted as watchdogs and hunters.
13. Seppala Siberian Sled Dog
|Fur & color||Double-coated – Black, gray, sable, pied, white|
The Northeastern Siberian sled dogs are ancestors of the Seppala. Famous dog sled musher, the Norwegian Leonhard Seppala, developed this breed.
These dogs are wolf-like in appearance, alert, gorgeous, and devoted to their family members. Their intelligence and energy serve them well as working sled dogs. They were considered to be Siberian huskies, but as those dogs began to develop more for conformation shows (dog shows), the Seppala was held back so their strength and abilities would be kept intact.
They’re never aggressive towards their people, even strangers, and build deep bonds with other breeds as well. This precious dog has also been close to extinction but today lives on.
Meet the elite athletes of the canine world: sled dogs, the world champions of endurance and strength in the snowy realms.
1973 – Dick Wilmarth won the first Iditarod. (20 days, 0 hours, 49 mins., 41 seconds) Lead dog: Hotfoot
1982 – Rick Swenson was the first musher to win four races. Lead dog: Andy
1985 – Libby Riddles was the first woman musher to win the race. Dogs: Axle and Dugan
1991 – Rick Swenson was the first musher to win five races. Lead dog: Goose
2007, 2008: Lance Mackey won both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. Dogs: Larry and Lippy, Larry and Hobo
2017: Mitch Seavey had the fastest winning time. (8 days, 3 hours, 40 mins., 13 seconds) Dogs: Pilot and Crisp
2021: Dallas Seavey became the second person to win five races. Dogs: North and Gamble
2023: Ryan Redington – Dogs: Ghost and Sven
4-time winners: Susan Butcher, Doug Swingley, Martin Buser, Jeff King, Lance Mackey, Dallas Seavey, Rick Swenson
5-time winners: Rick Swenson and Dallas Seavey
The Golden Harness is given to the lead dog(s) of the winning team, along with a cupcake shaped like an Alaskan Malamute named William.
Which brings us to this…
How humane is sled dog racing?
Here are the facts: The dogs do enjoy parts of the sled racing process, and mushers certainly take excellent care of them. However, many racing sled dogs have been injured, and some have died from the sport.
Spokespersons from the animal activist organizations People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the ASPCA have both publicly stated their opposition to sled dog racing.
So, where do we stand? As always, we’re on the side of the animals. Just as horse and dog racing injures and kills animals (no embellishment), sled dog racing does as well. Is it worth it? Over a title? We think not.
It would be valiant and humane to instead donate the money spent on sled dog racing to save the lives of animals in shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries.
Famous Sled Dogs
Remember the epidemic we talked about earlier that happened in Nome, Alaska? In 1925, diphtheria broke out in the city, affecting inhabitants and, in particular, children. Nome needed antitoxin, and lots of it, to stop the spread, which was in Anchorage, over 1,000 miles away.
The main transportation routes were closed due to horrific weather, and so the decision was made to send sled dogs to get the medicine/serum. Through the storms and an average temperature of -40 degrees, the mushers and their dog teams successfully retrieved and delivered the serum and saved the entire city of Nome.
The best musher in Alaska was Leonhard Seppala, who led a team for 91 miles. A Siberian husky named Togo was the best sled dog on his team. On the last leg of the journey, however, an unlikely dog named Balto, a jet-black Siberian husky, led all of them to their destination with a different team led by Gunnar Kaasen.
Togo continued on dog sled teams afterward and died at the age of 17. Balto later became a show dog and died at the age of 14. Today, some of the route of the 1925 Serum Run is replicated by the Iditarod, which is the world’s largest and most famous dog sled race.
Balto has become the most famous sled dog in the world – he has a statue in NYC’s Central Park – but only because he ran the last portion of the race. Seppala explained it was Togo who was the better sled dog and ran the most dangerous part of the run. We write this in loving memory of Togo and Balto… 4-legged heroes.
Selecting the Perfect Sled Dog
Choosing sled dogs is an art. Mushers choose those who are/have:
- Lean and muscular
- Able to work with the team (canines and humans)
- Thick-furred or thick double coat
- High stamina/endurance
What Breeds of Dog Are Used for Sled Dogs?
The most well-known are huskies, Malamutes, and Samoyeds, but there are many other sled dog breeds.
What Was the Famous Sled Dog’s Name?
Balto, the Siberian husky, is arguably the most famous sled dog in the world.
Which Dog Breeds Are Commonly Used As Arctic Sled Dogs?
Siberian huskies, Alaskan Malamutes, and Samoyeds are some of the better-known and most commonly used dog breeds, but there are many more.
Couldn’t you just snuggle up by the fire with some hot chocolate and a husky right now? These dogs are faithful and tremendously loyal, which is something we all need. But unless you’re a wilderness person or a musher, they probably wouldn’t have the life they could have living “wild and free.”
Let’s try to spread the word about sled dogs since education is paramount in keeping them alive and well. They’ll certainly be grateful.