Eskimo Dogs “All but forgotten and now near extinction”

Courtesy of Bert-Jan Elfrink

Eskimo Dogs “All but forgotten and now near extinction”
Reprinted from Dogs in Canada – January 1976
By William J. Carpenter.

The Eskimo dog, having attained fame and recognition as part of the Thule-Inuit culture and in the exploratory and scientific expeditions into Canada’s North and other polar regions, is “today in 1975” on the brink of extinction. It is on this note that I will commence to discuss my personal involvement in a research project aimed at saving this noble breed from extinction. My work will include both the standardization of the breed through a scientific breeding program and the compilation of a complete breed history or monograph.

From recent experience I have discovered that before I commence a detailed review of my project, it is always necessary to provide some background on the Eskimo dog for many people will exclaim “Eskimo dog, I’ve never heard of the breed!”

The Eskimo dog (Canis familiaris borealis) or Kingmik as he was known to the Inuit of our northern regions, is one of three indigenous breeds of dogs found in Canada. The literature indicates that the Eskimo dog likely arrived in the polar regions of Canada same 1100 to 2000 years ago with the Thule migration of Inuit. The animal was therefore previously found across the Arctic coast to Greenland and from Baffin Island to Labrador. This noble dog should not be confused with the Alaskan Malamute nor the smaller and sometimes blue-eyed Siberian Husky, both being breeds very popular in the modern-day world. Many people, however, incorrectly refer to the three northern breeds as Huskies.

Allen in his classic paper of 1920 entitled “Dogs of the American Aborigines” viewed the Eskimo dog not only as one of 17 distinct types or breeds of dogs which belonged to inhabitants of the Americas at the time of white man’s contact, but classified the Eskimo dog in a distinct group by itself while only two other groups differentiated the 16 other breeds.

The Canadian Kennel Club some 85 years ago, at the time of the club’s inception, recognized the Eskimo dog as an aboriginal breed of dog. The breed standard for the Eskimo as found in the CKC standard for “Working Dogs” describes the dog in terms identical to those of both Allen (1920) or J. G. Children who in 1827wrote what is now recognized as the first scientific paper on the Eskimo dog.

The Eskimo dog is a sturdy and majestic-looking dog weighing from 65 to 85 pounds for males and slightly less for females. The average height at the shoulder extends from a low of 20 inches for females to as high as 28 inches for large males. The animal on the whole, has a powerful physique with a thick neck, broad chest and strong muscular legs. The feet are densely furred. The Eskimo dog has a thick pelage or coat with a shorter under fur and guard hair of three or four inches which may grow longer in a mane-like appearance over the neck and shoulders. The ears of the dog are thick erect and pointed while the eyes are small and deep-set. In a healthy and active state the dog holds this thick plume-like tail high and acutely curled. The colours and colour combinations of the Eskimo dog range through white; grey; black on white; red or buff; red on white; and red black or grey patch on head around ears with white body. Also typical are white eyebrow spots in the dark fur mask of dark-coloured dogs. The Inuit refer to these as Takoolik.

Viewing the dog as I do, one can observe an animal marvellously adapted to Arctic conditions. The Eskimo dog is not designed for speed but rather is likely the strongest dog and possesses the most stamina in relation to his weight. He can live on raw meat alone and because of his reserve strength, can go for several days without food while still drawing up to 120 pounds while in harness. With proper feed, teams of Eskimo dogs have been known to haul 110 pounds per dog on journeys lasting 40 days, covering 20 to 40 miles per day. Fuchs (1951) found that nine dog teams could pull up to 1450 pounds or 160-pounds per dog.

The noted northern explorer Peary stated ” The Eskimo dogs are sturdy, magnificent animals; there may be larger dogs than these, there may be handsomer dogs, other dogs may work as well or travel fast and far when fully fed, but there is no dog in the world that can work so long in the lowest temperatures on practically nothing to eat … ”

In spite of his strength, stamina and survival ability the breed as a whole is playful and sub missive and exhibits such familiar traits as tail wagging and leg rubbing. The Eskimo dog does have certain primitive characteristics, however, and his instinctive approach to ripping and tearing his food as well as his wolfish appetite could fit well into this description. A well-fed Eskimo dog will, for example., ferociously devour a four to five pound fish in about two minutes.

With an animal such as the Eskimo dog spread across the Canadian North and traditionally used by the Inuit, it is little wonder that early explorers and scientists utilized this animal during polar expeditions. Besides, the animal was an all-round worker, having played the role of not only a draft animal but as a pack dog, carrying up to 40 pounds, and as a hunting dog for the Inuit. The latter use found him sniffing out seal-breathing holes for his Inuit master or aggressively holding the polar beat at bay during hunts.

Expedition use of the Eskimo dog brought him not only into demand and respect but put him under the eyes of the scientific community. This latter group studied and researched this marvellous dog during the 1800s and until the 50s in the 1900s. In addition to expedition work in the Canadian North the Eskimo dog has seen service in the exploration of the Antarctic. The British, for example, used Eskimo dogs in their Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey and acquired dogs from both Canada and Greenland.

American and New Zealand Antarctic expeditions also used Eskimo dogs and found them far superior to other breeds.

The Canadian Defence Research Board, during their scientific studies’ in the Lake Hazen area of northern Ellesmere Island from 1957 to 1959, used Eskimo dogs both for sledging and packing. One pack trip in particular covered a distance of 200 miles from Hazen Camp to Alert and back.

With an active history going back some 2000 years it is hard to imagine that ”today in 1976″ the Eskimo dog’ is a breed very near extinction.

My interest in this breed is not new, for I recall first learning of the Eskimo dog back in 1956 and 1957 as a member of the Alberta Kennel Club and the Calgary Kennel and Obedience Club. Instructional classes were held and the history and status of various breeds were presented to those of us who were junior members. The majestic and dominant look of the Eskimo dog was something I did not forget. Fourteen years later, in 1971, I found myself living in the Northwest Territories working as a biologist for the Territorial Government.

Over those 14 years my interest in dogs in general continued and my hobby centered around raising and training Springer Spaniels for field trial competition. However, once in the Northwest Territories, I was exposed to the working sled dog.

My first observation was to note the distinct difference between the types of dogs used by the Indian people of the boreal forest region as compared to those dogs used by the Inuit of the coastal areas and barrenlands. The dogs of the Inuit, although showing some variation, in general appeared very similar. I also noted during my first two years, that a dramatic decline in numbers of sled dogs was occurring in many Inuit communities and settlements.

In 1972 I met John McGrath, then Economic Development Officer for the Government of the Northwest Territories in Spence Bay. John was not just an Economic Development Officer, for he had several hats to put on. I believe he was a Game Officer, a Coop Specialist, a Fisheries Officer and by special appointment, was viewed by some as the Art Director for the Central Arctic. I believe his business card stated “John McGrath, Pooh-bah of the Arctic”. You may wonder why all the reference to John, but it was he who started this entire project off. I believe our discussions on dogs began over a 40-ouncer of rum as most meetings with a Newfoundlander should be; but by midevening we both realized that the dog we were observing was in most cases, and for all intents and purposes, the Eskimo dog, and its numbers were crashing downwards by the day.

Within two months John acquired a few dogs and our search for more began. The cost of transportation in the North made it impossible to visit the communities, thus it was through friends and contacts in various locations that the project began. The search went ,as far west as Holman Island and Paulatuk and east to the east coast of Baffin Island. Sight unseen, I began purchasing dogs and by various means had them shipped to Yellowknife where by now I was living on the outskirts of town and built a kennel to

continue my hobby of raising spaniels. The results of my purchases were unfortunately disastrous, and Joho was not having any better luck. The influence of the Siberian Husky – Alaskan Malamute cross that the RCMP had introduced to the North was so significant that the dogs first obtained all displayed Siberian characteristics such as blue eyes or slender builds. The plan by the RCMP to introduce these exotic dogs for the purpose of replacing an aboriginal dog will later take up a chapter itself in the breed monograph. I can only state now that their plan was so much influenced by emotion, politics; and perhaps some wild desire to have matched teams, that it was mishandled from the beginning. To be overly critical would be rode, for likely those involved at the time thought they were doing the North a favour. They were not, however, as it simply added to the demise of the Eskimo dog.

While the search for Eskimo dogs continued in the North, I began to track down other sources. The breed was recognized by The Canadian Kennel Club and I was hopeful that in the south I could locate a few breeders who were raising pedigreed stock. This pedigreed stock would simply be several generations removed from Northern indigenous bloodlines and was from dogs accepted into the CKC stud book following export from the North during the early and mid-parts of this century.

“My contact at the Kennel Club, James W. Hueston, General Manager, was extremely interested in what I was setting out to do. In short order he conducted a review of their stud books to locate breeders and to provide background material for my research project.

My hope soon faded when I later learned from Mr. Hueston that the last Eskimo dogs to have been registered with the CKC were entered in 1965 and 1966. This put the youngest dogs at ten years of age if they were still alive. With the assistance of Mr. Hueston, I began to track down the people listed as former owners or breeders, again only to reach a dead-end as all reported they no longer had the Eskimo dog. Thus, technically, as far as the CKC records were concerned, the breed was gone. In the United States the breed was gone all together for it was back in the late 1950s that the American Kennel Club removed the Eskimo dog from its list of recognized working breeds.

By the Fall of 1974, things were beginning to show life in the Northwest Territories, as John McGrath had located some dogs among the Netsilik Inuit which appeared pheno-typically pure. Another individual in Yellowknife, Fred Negal, volunteered his assistance in selecting dogs while attending to some electrical contracts in remote Arctic coast settlements. Again success, as Fred returned with two magnificent specimens, a white male and a grey bitch. He also had pages of notes from discussions with elderly Inuit hunters who had used Eskimo dogs all their lives. We suddenly found that part of the key to success was locating outcamps or settlements that did not have the honour of receiving a Siberian-type team from the RCMP.

Time was against us, however, as with each passing week we heard of four or five more dogs being destroyed in settlements because they were no longer being used: Perhaps none of these were pure, but it would have been nice to select any that were.

Word about the project began to circulate in the North and one of the most remarkable finds came from Dave Turner, who has lived since 1939 in the Chantrey Inlet area, south of Spence Bay. Mr. Turner has always kept a few pure Eskimo dogs for breeding purposes to supply him with a team of dogs when required. Ten hours after running 50 miles behind a snowmobile to meet a plane in Spence Bay on charter to Poole Construction, his dogs were at my kennel. This was likely the turning point which made me realize the project could go ahead.

The next plateau was reached when I made contact with the Inummarit Cultural Society of the Baffin Region in the Northwest Territories. This group of Inuit were prepared to assist me in obtaining some Eskimo dogs from a remote corner of the North near the Melville Peninsula where the Eskimo dog was making his last stand. The only complication I saw was that of logistics. How would I ever manage to get into that part of the world, let alone bring the dogs out!

Several phone calls later, and after several delays, the problem was solved. Pacific Western Airlines, through the kind assistance of Harry Herbert, Public Relations Manager, agreed to freight the dogs from Resolute Bay to Yellowknife. Not only that, but I received two complimentary tickets for myself and Lynn Fowler, who agreed to assist me on the trip. Their contribution amounted to approximately $3000 and was certainly appreciated.

The Government of the Northwest Territories where I am employed, also was able to help by allowing me room on an existing charter with Kenting Aviation that was going from Resolute Bay as far as Igloolik on the Melville Peninsula.

The Inummarit Cultural Society continued to do their part and in particular, Joe Attagutaluk was most helpful with his ability to translate the details of my project into the Inuit dialect of the area. Michael Denker, of the Society, also gave a great deal of support to the project. The greatest contribution came from the Inuit men who owned some of the best Eskimo dogs in the world. I was given the opportunity to select, from their dogs, the best specimens which would form the foundation stock for the Eskimo dog project.

While in Resolute, I was able to locate other dogs as a grand Inuit gentleman by the name of “Idlout” was also aware of my project and offered to make available one of his best bitches. Idlout lives with his family group in an isolated corner of the world about 100 miles from Resolute Bay, and had travelled into Resolute by dog team.

It wasn’t long before others got in the picture. Polar Continental Shelf of Energy, Mines and Resources, agreed to look after some of the dogs as we shipped them into Resolute for transport to Yellowknife. In Resolute it was a grand moment as I stood in front of the PW A Boeing 727 with the co-pilot and 18 of the finest Eskimo dogs one could hope to find anywhere in Canada.

Hours later, I was in Yellowknife with the new dogs which, when added to the stock previously acquired, made a total of 41 Eskimo dogs. The project was to go ahead.

Dr. David Moont, a veterinarian from Calgary who is providing monthly veterinary service to Yellowknife through a clinic held at my kennel, was in Yellowknife a week later and we began vaccination an checking the dogs. David was amazed at the soundness of the dogs, and gave the opinion that we in deed had some excellent dogs to form the foundation stock.

Dr. Moont had become interested in the project following discussions with John McGrath and myself. Together we plotted out a breeding program aimed at bringing together the foundation or parent stock in such a manner that through the permutations and combinations available from the various matings, we would produce several different bloodlines. This, of course, would amount to a five year selective breeding program to which we were all committed.

The Canadian Kennel Club was advised of the breeding program and their support is currently being sought. Once the dogs have been bred through three generations with sufficient documentation on the dogs’ parentage, the breed of dogs known as the “Eskimo” will be re-registered with the Kennel Club, in part giving it the recognition it deserves.

In addition to registering the Eskimo dog, the final aim is to return some of the dogs to remote outcamps where the dog is needed. To reverse the picture, the Eskimo dog can then replace some of the cross-bred animals resulting from the previous RCMP program and from indiscriminate introduction of other outside breeds. At the end of the breeding project we hope to see about 250 to 300 animals which surely place the breed in a safer position than the imbalance that now exists.

It should be clarified that all dogs will be given away as the project terminates, and this is not to be seen as a commercial adventure. None of the dogs are, or will be, for sale.

With the advise of the CKC, selected numbers of Eskimo dogs will be placed in the hands of top Canadian dog breeders who can guarantee the continued breeding of pedigreed stock. The balance of the Eskimo dogs will remain in the North where they belongs.

All this sounds easy, but there are real problems. For example, the dogs devour about $70 worth of feed per week. They require general care and attention, all of which takes time. Large chain link holdings pens are desperately required and although for the summer I placed 2 0dogs on an island near Yellowknife, the pens will be required for new pups and to hold the adult dogs in the winter. Purchasing the dogs to date has cost me a total of $3500.

Ralston Purina of Canada Limited have recently given their support to the project and will be supplying a very much needed 10.000 pounds of hiprotein Purina Dog Meal.

A real break came when the City of Yellowknife provided a large piece of property at a price nominal lease of $25 per year. The property is ideally suited to our needs and will accommodate large pens. The City also gave their written support to the Eskimo dog project.

Recently, Connaught Laboraties advised Dr. Moont that they supply vaccines for the dogs, thus alleviating another added expense. We are also hoping to see research people from either Guelph Veterinary College or the University of Saskatchewan Veterinary College take advantage of the project, for it will provide the rare opportunity to study an aboriginal breed of dog free from many genetic defects such as hip dysplasia found in modern breeds.

Financial assistance for the project to date has come from private individuals across Canada. The amounts of money received, while greatly appreciated, have been small as compared to the expenses. My plans are to apply for research grants to enable me to complete the project and thus not only prevent the extinction of this noble breed of dog, but to document its complete history as it relates to the culture of the Inuit and in its role in polar exploration.

The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs can rest assured that they will receive an application from me for funds for the project, as can Canada Council. The latter agency has already contacted me regarding the project and I am looking forward to positive results in the near future.

As a final word on the Eskimo dog project, 1978 will be a year of true recognition. Approximately 36 dogs from the project will be flown on loan to Scott Base in the Antarctic where they, along with six men under the direction of Ivan McDonald of New Zealand, will attempt the first foot crossing of the Antarctic continent.

My final word to you, as Canadians, is that the project desperately needs your support. All I ask is that now, in the midst of major northern development, someone should stop and help out in a project that will not only recognize, but perhaps hold on to some of that cultural past that was so important only a few short years ago, to both the Inuit and white Northerners. The Eskimo dog (Canis familiaris borealis) deserves at least a place in modern Canada, and should not be forced into extinction. Please help me in my attempt to retain the Eskimo dog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *