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Your Guide To… Sled Dogs

sled dogs playing in snow

A sled dog boasts stunning looks – but if you’re considering one as a pet, could you handle its exercise needs? Read on to find out more about the history, temperament and characteristics of these Arctic beauties to see if they would be a good fit for your family. 

What’s a sled dog?

In bygone times, dogs and sleds were the Arctic equivalent of horses and carts. You’ve probably seen them in adventure movies, or read about their heroic exploits in polar expeditions. 

Pulling a laden sled across ice is not a task for your average family pooch! Sled dogs were specially bred to be super-furry, super-strong, and super-energetic. Yes, we’re going to keep mentioning those energy levels!

History of sled dogs

It’s thought that sled dogs have been around for thousands of years, bred and trained by indigenous communities in northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Scandinavia and Greenland. 

When settlers arrived, they found dogs more suited than horses to the terrain. They trained teams of dogs, controlled by “mushers”, to pull heavy loads. 

Sled dogs have played a major role in many adventures! They helped prospectors transport supplies in the infamous Klondike gold rush of the late 1890s. Expeditions to the North and South Pole in the late 19th and early 20th centuries relied on sled dogs, too.

Over the past century, pup-powered transport has been surpassed by trucks, snowmobiles and planes. However, dog sledding as a sport has grown, with mushing teams showcasing their stamina and skills on long-distance races such as the Alaskan Iditarod. 

And nowadays, the highlight of any Arctic vacation is a sled trip into the frozen wilderness. For dog-loving kids and their grown-ups, it beats a visit to Santa’s grotto paws-down!

What breeds count as a sled dog?

Several breeds originated as sled dogs – we’ll describe the main ones below. So what characteristics do they share?

Size-wise, they’re usually medium-large. They’re strong, with a desire to pull on the leash that can turn your strolls into sprints. They have an efficient gait, saving their energy for their work. And they’ve got tough webbed feet which act as cool canine snow shoes. 

Their big selling point as pets is their fur. Most breeds have a double coat: the outer one keeps snow away, while the inner one is waterproof and insulating. When they curl up to sleep, their fluffy tails protect their noses and feet from night-time chills – how adorable is that?

However, all that gorgeous fur can cause sled dogs to overheat in warmer climes and centrally heated homes. They’ll need regular brushing and grooming, too. 

Did we mention those energy levels? If you’re not setting these pups to work, you need to think how else you’ll get them happily tired out. 

Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the individual breeds. 

Siberian Husky

husky

Originating from Chukotka in eastern Siberia, these super-speedy dogs can run for hours without flagging. They’re highly intelligent, and respond well to firm training. 

Friendly, playful, and often with icy-blue eyes, the Siberian Husky has won the hearts of many American families. But be warned: they’re escape artists with huge exercise needs and prey drives (keep them on the leash). They’re known to howl, and without firm handling, they might well destroy your home and garden - and neighborly relations, too. 

In their working past, the Husky was the sports car, built for almost indefinite speed. In modern life, this means if they’re let loose, they’ll run almost indefinitely (hence the tip about not letting them off lead) so catching them will be a challenge. If you like to go jogging (or even better, running), this is a great breed to have by your side as you’re sure to get tired long before they do.

Alaskan Malamute

malamute

Often mistaken for a husky, this large, solid breed has a strong desire to pull and run. They’ve got bags of character, fabulous thick coats, and you can even join a club and take up sledding together!

Due to their size and energy levels, these magnificent but challenging animals are best suited to experienced owners with no young children. But if you’re prepared to put in the training, and love daily hikes - preferably into snowy mountains - this breed could be your perfect match. A word of warning: you’ll need to keep them occupied, and you can’t leave them home alone for too long. 

If the Husky is the sports car, the Malamute is the artic lorry. Whilst they can get some speed going, they were used more for pulling the heavy loads. For modern Mutes, this means power - they’ll think nothing of bulldozing their way through your fence if there’s something interesting on the other side and if you’re attached to the other end of their lead, you’d better have plenty of strength and understand their visual clues that precede their desire to charge. 

Akita

akita lying down

Originating from the snowy mountains of northern Japan, these large dogs were bred to hunt and guard, but their thick coats and strong bodies make them suited to sled-pulling, too. 

Fiercely loyal, but also affectionate to friends and family, the Akita can be a perfect family companion if properly trained. They’re super-clean, too, and almost odorless. You’ll need to keep them exercised and occupied, otherwise they’ll become bored. Take care when any strangers come to your home, as your Akita’s protective instincts could kick in.

The Akita was the guard dog of the sled world, whilst they have power and speed, their forte is defence. When the artic lorry and sports cars would be resting, the Akita would be on guard which is why they still make incredibly loyal pets today. Just be careful not to give them reason to dust off their guarding ancestry. 

Samoyed

Samoyed

These medium-sized fluffy beauties, who often have snow-colored coats and dark eyes, look almost too delicate to be sled dogs. But they originate from central Asia, where they were used to pull sleds, guard, and herd reindeer. 

They’re cheery, affectionate, and fun-loving animals, making them highly attractive as pets. But they’ve also got an independent streak that means they’re not always easy to train. Plus, those coats require a huge amount of maintenance to keep them pristine. 

As mentioned, whilst the Samoyed did some sled pulling, this working breed is more about its agility especially when it came to hunting and herding. Today, these traits are still apparent in their intelligence and desire to be part of a pack.  

Eskimo Dog

eskimo dog

There are two types of dogs known as “eskimos”. The Canadian Eskimo Dog is large and looks similar to a husky. Bred for sledding, it’s now very rare. 

You’re more likely to find the American Eskimo, which was bred in Germany as a farm dog but became popular in the US as a circus performer! Looks-wise, it shares the Samoyed’s stunning coat and dark eyes. If you want a smaller dog, this could be the breed for you: it comes in toy, miniature and standard sizes. 

American Eskimos are playful, companionable and intelligent. If you’ve got plenty of time to devote to their training, they can be a great addition to your family.

So that’s our guide to sled dogs. One final note: sled dog puppies don’t stay small forever – when they grow, they really grow! Many end up in shelters as their owners can’t cope with their size and needs. So if you’re thinking of opening up your home to a sled dog, check your local rescue center and do your research first.