Courtesy of Bert-Jan Elfrink
published in Mushing Magazine (www.mushing.com)
March 1, 2010
Story by Genevieve Montcombroux
Entry in the author’s journal Resolute Bay, March 2, 2003
I’m moved by the untamed, stark simplicity of the North while I listen to its sounds: the ever-present sough of the wind, the continual swish of sled runners over packed snow, and the panting of the dogs, bent into their harnesses. Nothing brings such joy to my heart as my Canadian Inuit sled dogs. They belong to this arctic wilderness, as they have done for over four thousands years.
There was a time, not long ago, when this ancient breed of dog almost disappeared. Following the enforced settlement in the mid-twentieth century of the nomadic Inuit and the arrival of the snowmobile a couple of decades later, dog teams were no longer the vital form of transport they once were. Consequently, the dogs were abandoned. Yet, in scattered locations in the Canadian north, a few stubborn elders persisted in following the traditional way of life.
The decline in this once-proud breed cannot be blamed solely on their diminished usefulness. The establishment of government in the Northwest Territories (at that time encompassing all of Canada’s arctic region, apart from the Yukon Territory) saw an influx of dogs from southern Canada, which bred with the indigenous dogs. In the days when patrols of the fabled Royal Canadian Mounted Police crisscrossed the North by dogsled, the police deliberately crossbred the Inuit dog with Siberian Huskies to create a more manageable animal. By the early 1970s there were scarcely any pure bred Inuit dogs remaining in the Arctic.
Enter biologist Bill Carpenter and government official John McGrath. These two men witnessed the decline of the Canadian Inuit dog first hand and set out to re-establish the breed. Bill Carpenter gave a name to the project: Canadian Eskimo Dog Foundation & Research. Financial help came from many sources: government, airlines, the city of Yellowknife, businesses, and private individuals. Carpenter and McGrath contacted the Inuit still possessing pure teams. Fortunately, these traditional Inuit understood the need to preserve the breed and were willing to part with some of their best dogs. Carpenter and McGrath turned to the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) in the belief that they needed the backing of this organization in order to validate the Canadian Inuit dog as a recognized breed. The hope that the CKC would help “save the breed” proved illusory. It should have been obvious to the well-meaning Carpenter-McGrath team that the free-spirited Canadian Inuit dog, with its varied coat ranging from pure white to pure black, through gray, red, roan, could never fit CKC requirements.
If we accept the claim that the domestic dog is descended from the wolf, then the Inuit dog is the wolf’s direct cousin. Like the wolf, the Inuit dog is pack oriented, with a boss dog at the head. Just as in the wolf pack, Inuit dogs have an alpha male and an alpha female. Below them, each dog takes his or her place, the ranking achieved by fighting. The Inuit dog fights with little provocation until the pack hierarchy is established. Usually, the boss dog is the strongest male, unless he lacks intelligence to match, in which case he may be outranked by a smaller but smarter pack member.
This wolf-like pack mentality makes it difficult to integrate a new adult male into an existing team. The author personally doesn’t attempt it, having seen a new, young dog being torn apart by the boss, aided and abetted by the rest of the pack. Whilst females often make the best lead dogs, instances occur where females become both boss and leader. The author had such female and, currently, that female’s great-granddaughter exhibits the same energetic no-nonsense approach to pack life and won’t let another dog lead, though she will tolerate her mother running next to her.
A boss dog is made not born. A casual observer might think that the pup who pushes aside its siblings to suckle first is going to be the boss, but that’s not always the case. By the end of their first year, the pups begin to jostle for pack position. What was play becomes a serious struggle for dominance. The mother will intervene only when play changes to real fight. In the author’s experience, the boss merely looks on from a distance. Later, he will begin to growl at the unruly pups and when he does, they roll on their backs in submission, uttering plaintive cries. At about this time, one pup will get to his feet to lick the boss’ muzzle. Other pups might follow suit but only because they are copying. Soon, that pup will follow the boss around, growling when he growls, sitting when he sits, and so on. This pup is learning the ropes to be the next boss dog. He’ll frequently try to assert an authority he doesn’t yet have over his brothers and sisters or any pup who has joined the pack. That’s when they accept him as number one and the jostling continues until position number two is determined, and so on.
By the time the young upstart is two years of age, the boss dog puts him squarely in his place, as well as the other young members of the pack. Life will go on amicably, fights being quickly put down by the boss. This system of pack governance continues until the boss dog isn’t as fast as he once was. More than likely, it’s the dog who, as a pup, learned from him who will jump the boss. In the ensuing scrap youth most likely prevails. The now deposed boss dog may be injured, sometimes seriously, and has to be removed from the pack for his safety. The position of boss dog is filled by the dominant younger dog.
By the mid1980s, Bill Carpenter gave up the breed recovery work he had undertaken. During the life of the program, he oversaw the breeding of several hundred Canadian Inuit dogs of pure heritage. Some of these were sent back to the high Arctic to revitalize the stocks. Others went to mushers and kennel owners in southern Canada and the northern United States. All these ‘southerners’ shared a common goal: the preservation of the Inuit dog its original, unadulterated form. Not all these efforts were successful, due primarily to a lack of knowledge and a misunderstanding of the specific requirements of the breed.
Up to this phase of its history, this uniquely Canadian breed had been labeled the ‘Canadian Eskimo dog,’ because the Inuit people themselves were called Eskimos. This was true until the 1977 Circumpolar Conference, held in Barrow, Alaska, when the name ‘Inuit’ was adopted in favor of the pejorative term Eskimo. This change, however, only applied to the people of the Arctic. Their dogs were still referred to as ‘Eskimo’ dogs, particularly by the CKC, who even to this days has not changed the name of the breed. The author campaigned to call the breed the ‘Canadian Inuit Sled dog.’ The move was not without some resistance, but gradually, the new name became widely accepted. It was also necessary to make a definite distinction from wolf-hybrids groups that adopted the name Inuit to disguise their cross-bred animals, which are banned in several countries, including some American states. Later, the name of the dog was shortened to Inuit Sled Dog (ISD) to include the Greenland dog, who shares the same roots as the Canadian dog.
In 1999, Canada created a new territory, named Nunavut, out of the eastern part of the Northwest Territories. The government of the new territory adopted the Inuit dog as its mammal emblem, using the official name ‘Canadian Inuit Dog’ out of recognition of the role the dog played in the traditional life of the Arctic’s indigenous people.
The Inuit dog was born to work and loves nothing better than to be in harness and pull, and pull. He also loves food and pays scant heed to any human fingers holding the morsel. The Inuit learned that fact long ago and usually fed their dogs by throwing them the meat. Yet, with correct handling, the dogs – females, particularly – are capable of surprising gentleness. In spite of their propensity to fight with other dogs, the Inuit Sled dog is affectionate toward humans. His size (90 lbs for a grown male, 60 lbs for a grown female) as well as his exuberance render him unsuitable as a pet. Even mushers experienced in managing other husky breeds, often fail in their attempt to keep Inuit dogs.
Racing enthusiasts prefer the faster Alaskan huskies over Inuit dogs. The latter is the quintessential freighting dog, capable of pulling loads over considerable distances under the harshest of conditions. Speedy he is not, with a cruising speed of some 8 km/ph (5 mph). Alaskan and Siberian huskies run at twice or three times that.
The Inuit sled dog has a majestic if somewhat disdainful air about him. He’s bigger than the Siberian Husky and slightly smaller than the present day Malamute. One striking feature of the Inuit dog is his broad, wedge-shaped head and rounded muzzle. His ears stand erect as early as three hours after birth, and are set well to the side of the head, leaving a wide forehead. His slanted eyes are small compared to the Siberian and Malamute, and are almond shaped. Eye color is always brown of one shade or another – a light amber in the red or white dogs, dark brown in dogs with predominantly black coats. They are never blue or any shade of blue-green.
This color indicates breed contamination. Other Inuit dog characteristics are the large muscular chest and powerful shoulders, which contribute to his prowess as a puller of heavy loads. The paws are solid, heavily furred, and spread wide on the snow to ensure a firm grip. His magnificent bushy tail curls low on the rump and is used to keep the nose warm when the dog curls up in the snow. He has a thick coat with guard hair, varying in length from 8 cm (3¼ in) to 15 cm (6 in), and a dense undercoat. The Inuit didn’t breed their dogs for coat color. As a result the color hasn’t been fixed. The only color characteristic is a white belly and tail tip.
In keeping with other husky breeds, the Inuit dog howls. His howl is very close to that of a wolf. A pack of wolves on the author’s property will howl in unison for a few minutes in the night and is answered by a corresponnding howl from the dogs. It’s sometimes difficult to know who’s responding to whom.
When the Inuit people followed a nomadic life, their dogs were free to roam the encampment. Once the hierarchy was established in the pack, there was only minor fighting as long as the boss dog was strong enough to maintain order. Once permanent settlements were established and it was made compulsory to picket dogs teams, their temperament altered. The inability to sort out their differences by a fight made the dogs more belligerent. The moment they were hitched to the qamutik (komatik) they would engage in the fight they’d been spoiling for but deprived of. Lack of freedom created boredom. This could explain why humans, particularly children, who accidently blunder into a dog yard are mauled, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Skilled mushers socialize their dogs from birth and continue that socialization every day, even when the dogs are much older. This doesn’t mean the dogs will become as tame as pet spaniels, but they will become more responsive to commands.
The Inuit dog learns easily, but because of his stubborn temperament, will decide whether to obey or not. This can be infuriating to an impatient owner. To his credit, the moment the dog is in harness and hitched to the sled, he’ll usually obey willingly, unless of course they know something that the musher does not. The author recalls times when her lead dog refused to follow a trail across a lake and made a lengthy detour around it. The lake had patches of thin ice on it.
All dogs, whether a pampered Chihuahua or an Inuit sled dog, have to learn to behave toward humans and other dogs. This is even more important in the case of the naturally pugnacious Inuit dog. Most of the common breeds are breeds achieved through targeted genetic selection (including inbreeding) over long periods of time. In contrast to the Alaskan husky or the German Shepherd, both man-made breeds, the Inuit dog has been bred randomly for as long as the Inuit peoples have inhabited the Arctic.
During the short arctic summers, the Inuit frequently let their dog teams run free on small islands and still do in certain locations. This gave the dogs an opportunity to refine their hierarchical structure. They hunted small game if there was any on the island to supplement the rations their owner brought at intervals by boat. If pups happened to be born on the island and were already eight weeks or so by the time the owner came to retrieve his team, the Inuit was likely to destroy them, because the pups hadn’t been socialized by humans and wouldn’t be sufficiently responsive to be used on the sled.
The author doesn’t wish to anthropomorphize the Inuit dog, but there is one trait common to both humans and dogs: jealousy. The Inuit dog can become extremely jealous when attention is paid to another dog. Members of the British Antarctic Survey, who used Inuit dogs for many years before switching to motorized transport, soon discovered this characteristic. Hence the motto at the bases, “Pet one, pet them all.” In the author’s kennel, packs are kept loose in large enclosures to partially recreate the conditions of the pre-picketed era. Even so, if one dog is overlooked, he will chase the last dog petted and jump him. If one dog is petted too long, another will wait a few steps back and challenge him the minute he moves away.
Because of his primitive digestive system, the Inuit dog requires a different diet from other dogs. He doesn’t assimilate cereal-based foods (i.e. composed of wheat, oats or barley). If fed such a diet, the dog encounters problems and fails to grow into the magnificent adult he should be. In northern climates, the dogs need fat (pork, beef or seal) in the diet to a level of thirty to forty percent of the total nutritional intake. When fed the correct food, the Inuit dog will enjoy robust good health. Minor injuries heal quickly and the dogs develop their trademark thick double coat to protect them from the cold. There are no known genetic diseases in this breed.
Explorers were prompt to recognize the value of such a strong and hard-working dog. Roald Amundsen’s expedition reached the South Pole in December 1911, pulled by teams of Inuit dogs, whereas Captain Scott’s expedition ended tragically because he had no faith in the reliability of sled dogs. In 1921 Knud Rasmussen travelled east-west along the Arctic coast with Inuit dogs. Modern explorers and adventurers, using teams of Inuit dogs, blaze new trails or retrace the classic routes of earlier expeditions. Renee Wissink’s 1987 expedition retraced the epic journey of Qitdlarssuaq from Iglulik, Canada, to Thule, Greenland. Paul Schurke of Minnesota, along with Dmitry Shparo of the former U.S.S.R, led the 1989 Bering Bridge Expedition from Anadyr in Siberia to Kotzebue, Alaska. His aim was to get the Soviet and the United States governments to agree on allowing the Upik and Inupiak peoples from both countries to travel across the Bering Straits, something they had always done until 1938, when the Soviet regime imposed travel restrictions. To Paul Shurke’s credit and that of his Inuit dogs, both governments ratified the agreement. Schurke was also co-leader of the 1986 Steger unsupported dog team expedition to the North Pole.
As a breed, the Canadian Inuit dog has made a hestitant recovery. Projects like Utirtut Qimmiq in the Nunavik region of arctic Quebec have helped integrate hands-on learning about the Inuit dog into the northern school curriculum. Under the watchful eye of the project managers, the best dogs are bred and teams maintained. Using the dogs in the traditional manner has become a community activity. The Inuit and their dogs have adapted to a modified, modern lifestyle. Races, such as the Nunavut Quest and the Ivvakak have fired the enthusiasm of Inuit mushers, as well as that of a few non-Inuit, and created a renewed interest in the Inuit dog.
Utirtut Qimmiq and other projects have been helped by the Inuit Sled Dog International (ISDI), the not-for-profit organization that has its roots in the ‘Friends of the Inuit Dog’, a loosely-knit association that the author established in 1988 to disseminate information on the Inuit dog and to rescue Inuit sled dogs in need. In 1997, the author met Sue Hamilton. Both shared a passion for the Inuit dog and possessed the same vision for the breed’s future. Thus the ISDI was founded. Sue Hamilton took over the newsletter, which rapidly expanded to become The Fan Hitch, the official journal of the ISDI.
Since its inception, the ISDI has participated in several scientific studies, has been a specialist resource for such movies as the Dogs of the Midnight Sun by the Discovery Channel. The ISDI aids scholars and researchers, and students, engaged in projects dealing with a variety of polar topics. It also mentors new owners of Inuit dogs. In addition to starring in movies, like the 1995 National Geographic movie entitled Arctic Disaster: Stalin, in which the author’s Inuit dogs recreated a dramatic rescue, and television appearances, the Inuit dog has been featured on postage stamps and the dog itself has been the subject of countless magazine articles, most recently the 2009-10 Winter issue of Modern Dog.
The mission statement of the ISDI is to preserve this ancient arctic breed in its purest form as a working dog. Not everyone needs to be a musher, but a solitary Inuit dog doesn’t do as well as two or more together, no matter how much attention he receives. An Inuit dog can be trained successfully to skijor and bikejor with his owner, so long as there is not too much chance of meeting other dogs on the trail. The Inuit has a pronounced disdain for dogs of other breeds. When confronted, the Inuit dog will adopt a dominant stance to express his sense of superiority and give a low growl. If the stranger dog immediately submits, the Inuit dog may simply walk away without another glance. If the other dog has no intention of submitting, a fight may ensue.
The Inuit dog is the sled dog of choice among many tour operators, valued for his dependability and his uncanny ability to get himself and his team (and the paying clients!) back to the lodge no matter how much the weather conditions worsen.
As mentioned above, the dog has a sixth sense for detecting thin ice and avoiding it. This particular talent was perhaps developed over centuries in their natural arctic environment, where hunters would rely on their dogs to find the aglu – the seals’ breathing holes in the ice, often from as far away a mile. Inuit polar bear hunters use the dogs’ enthusiasm and pack intelligence to surround the bear until the hunter is close enough to make the kill. Although the author’s dogs live on the Canadian prairies, they have lost nothing of their ancestral instinct. Two of them, a father-son team, once rounded up a deer and held it captive at the edge of the house yard until the author could grab the dogs by the scruff of the neck and put them back into their pen. It was nonetheless impressive to see the dogs’ precision teamwork (the deer escaped unharmed back into the surrounding bush). In the Arctic, Inuit dogs are still used to warn of polar bears, who sometimes wander into the settlement or camp. The author’s semi-wilderness property is home to many black bears and she relies on her Inuit dogs to keep them at a distance. On several occasions, her dogs chased bears away or treed them.
The Canadian Inuit Dog has been brought back from the cusp of extinction as a pure breed, thanks to dedicated owners in southerly regions and the effort of the Inuit people of the North. But his status is fragile and much work remains to ensure the future of the Canadian Inuit dog.
Further information is available on the ISDI website – www.inuitsleddoginternational.com, and The Canadian Inuit Dog: Canada’s Heritage, second edition, ISBN 0968167527 by Genevieve Montcombroux – the only book dedicated exclusively to the breed and its history.