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The Inuit Sled Dog International (ISDI) is a consortium of enthusiasts whose goal is the preservation of this ancient arctic breed in its purest form as a working dog. The ISDI's efforts are concentrated on restoring the pure Inuit Dog to its native habitat. The ISDI's coordinators welcome to your comments and questions.
Sled Dogs Of Russia
L. S. Bogoslovskaya
Institute of Heritage, Moscow, Russia
The region of origin of dog sledding includes the northeastern part of the Eurasian Continent (Kamchatka, Koryakia, Chukotka and Eastern Yakutia) and northwestern Alaska. From here, the culture of dog sledding gradually spread across the Eastern Hemisphere to China in the south and to Scandinavia in the west. In Scandinavia, there were no true sled dogs, but traditionally Scandinavian peoples harnessed their hunting dogs to pull small sleds (pulka). In the Western Hemisphere, Eskimo people traveled in dog sleds across the entire Arctic regions of North America and the populated coastal regions of Greenland.
The oldest site of hunters with sled dogs in the high Arctic was found on Zhokhov Island (Novosibirsk Islands); the remains of the dogs and sleds dated to 7800-8000 years ago. Bones of dogs found at sites of Asian Eskimos are dated to 2480-2630 years ago (Dinesman et al. 1996). In Alaska, dog sledding remained in a primitive state until the Gold Rush Era in the late XIXth century. Native peoples and Russian old-timers of the North, Siberia and the Far East of Russia reached high standards in the technique of dog sledding, the preparation of the dogs and their control. The great traveler of the north, Amundsen, after he visited in 1920 Russian old-timers of the Kolyma River, wrote: "At dog sledding these Russians and Chukchi are ahead of everyone, whom I could see".
Providence Bay, East Chukotka
photo: I. Zagrebin, 2005
Northeastern narta (sleds) are a particular invention of the Russian peoples; they are called Chukchi sleds or Kolyma sleds. They are light, all the parts are assembled with leather ties for suspension; they are very resilient and stronger than any other models and they are suitable for riding on rugged terrain among rocks and hummocky ice. This kind of sled emerged in Neolithic times and it is in use even now in two versions. One is for pulling heavy loads and the other is for light fast riding.
In the northern territories of Russia, two types of aboriginal sled dogs were developed. They differ in body structure and, as many specialists believe, originated from different wild ancestors.
The first type is the Samoyed. This is a sled dog of the European and West Siberian Nenets people. It is so close to the Nenets reindeer herding Laika that a noted cynologist E. I. Shereshevsky did not even separate it as a different breed. Unfortunately, our country has lost the population of aboriginal Samoyeds, but in the regions of their traditional breeding, there is a high content of Samoyed blood mixes. They can be used for the restoration of the breed. This is how the zubr (European bison) was restored from mixes with cattle.
The second type is represented by the relatively big, wolf-like dogs with a sturdy body structure, which during the recent past were used by peoples of the Arctic and coastal regions of the Far East, from Novaya Zemlya to the lower parts of the Amur River and Sakhalin Island. E. I. Shereshevsky (1946) named this dog the Northeastern Sled Dog, according to the region of its origin. Within this type three breeds have evolved, which were named according to the ethno-geographic principle. Actually, each ethnic group of people, living along the seacoast or along major rivers had its own breed of dogs. In 1946-1957, cynologists distinguished the following breeds of Russian sled dogs: Gilyak (Amur and Sakhalin groups), Kamchatka (Itelmen and Koryak groups), Anadyr, Chukotka, Kolymo-Indigirka and Yenissei breeds. Sled dogs distributed west of the Yenissei River were considered as mixed. According to experts, the following breeds are considered the best sled dogs of Russia; they possess high endurance, strength, ability to work and trainability.
Inchoun village, East Chukotka
photo: N.Nosov, 1988
The Gilyak is a dog of the Nivkhs of the Maritime Territory and Sakhalin Island; males and females are 52-62 cm at the withers. The Sakhalin Nivkhs valued particularly the powerful, calm dogs with brindle coat color, with coarse head and distinctly shortened muzzle (possibly traits of the admixture of Mastiff-like dogs). Gilyak dogs were used for pulling sleds and for guarding homes. In 1920-1930, the Gilyak Sled Dog was successfully used in the Red Army and in the former USSR it was considered among the best of military dogs. In 1972, the author of this article found in the possession of the Nivkhs eight dog teams, consisting mainly of mixes with a high content of Gilyak. The breed may have disappeared in the late XXth century.
The Kolymo-Indigirsky dog comes from the lower Yana River, Indigirka River and Kolyma River; males and females are up to 65 cm at the withers. The breed was developed in the XVII-XVIIIth centuries by Russian settlers based on Yukaghir dogs. According to V. G. Chikachev, a local historian of the old Russian village Russkoye-Ustye, in Yakutia, by the year 2000 only one sled dog team remained of the Kolymo-Indigirsky dog. At present, the breed is lost.
The Chukotka of the Asian Eskimos and the coastal Chukchi, which extensively use sled teams of these dogs for hunting sea mammals on drifting and shore bound ice. Males and females of this dog are 53-65 cm at the withers. At present, in villages of the Chukotka Peninsula, there are six large separate populations of Chukotka Sled Dogs and their mixes with imported dogs. During the recent 20 years the total number of dogs grew by approximately 20%.
According to sources of the middle of the XIXth century, the average speed of the Kolymo-Indigirsky dog teams on trails of 250 km was 15-17 kilometers per hour and over long trails it was up to 10 kilometers per hour. A light sled could make 250 km in 15 hours and 750 km in three days.
Lorino village, East Chukotka
photo: N.Nosov, 1987
On a good road, a team of 12-14 dogs pulled during unlimited time a load of up to 1000 kg and without a road it could pull not more then 500 kg. Modern Chukotka Sled Dogs can cover up to 100 km at a speed of about 20 km per hour, and they can cover longer trails (400 km and more) at a speed of 6 to 12 km per hour, depending on the terrain, depth of snow and speed of contrary wind. Chukotka dogs are indispensable for transportation on sea ice and on mountain tundra, where winds often sweep snow off rocky slopes. Exactly these dogs make hunting marine mammals possible. The hunter rides on coastal hummocky ice towards water. He carries a small boat made out of leather, which is used to hook up the killed animal. The dog team would help to pull from the water onto the ice both the hunter and the walrus or seal and transport both back home.
New Chaplino village, East Chukotka
photo: A. Borovik, 2006
Beginning from the XIX century and until the1930s, Chukotka and Kolymo Indigirsky dogs were actively exported to Alaska, where they were used by gold diggers, and they gave a start to the purebred Siberian Husky. In the Russian north, sled dog teams were a very important and sometimes, the only form of transportation in winter until 1960-70. They were used not only by local peoples, but also government agencies, including research expeditions and border troops. In 1937, in Kamchatka only, 50700 dogs were used for work, or over 4500 complete dog teams. By 1970, sled dog teams were replaced by vehicles everywhere. Cynologists of central Russia quickly forgot about sled dogs and even their names disappeared from listings of Russian breeds and the great book written by E. I. Shereshevsky with co-authors "Sled Dog Breeding and Usage" (1946) was also forgotten.
Chukotka sled dogs were rediscovered in the early 1980s by the Chukotka Zoological Expedition of A. N. Severtsov’s Institute of Evolutionary Morphology and Ecology of Animals (IEMEZH), Academy of Sciences of the USSR. "Restoration" of the breed required putting together a new breed standard. In 1987-1992, L. Bogoslovskaya, N. Nosov, I. Fradin and V. Belenky described and took measurements of 2500 dogs in the villages of Yanrakynnot, Lorino, Uelen, Inchoun, Enurmino, Neshkan and Markovo. In 1988, we managed to conduct a complete survey of dog teams simultaneously in all villages of the Providence and Chukotka Districts. At that time, there were 149 dog teams per 4195 local residents. The total number of dogs, not counting puppies, was 1594. Among them, about 400 dogs could be considered of pure type and the rest were mixes with a varying content of authentic blood.
Providence Bay, East Chukotka
photo: I. Zagrebin, 2005
Based on data obtained by taking measurements, investigations of working qualities and behavior of dogs, we put together a description and standard of the Chukotka Sled Dog breed, which in 1999 was approved by the Russian Cynological Federation (RKF). After additional surveys of dogs in 1999, 2001 and 2004, the standard was corrected and in its new version was published in the Newsletter of the RKF, 2005, No.4 (57): 24-25.
In the process of surveying dog teams, a small group of large shaggy dogs was found. People call them "trucks" for their ability to pull heavy loads by a single dog. They also called them "four eyed" because of the typical yellow spots above the eyes. These dogs have an obvious similarity to the Anadyr River Sled Dogs and to Greenland Sled Dogs and also to aboriginal Mongolian dogs. At present, in Chukotka, such dogs are very few. They became mixed mainly with Chukotka Sled Dogs and produced very good mixes, which can be recognized by their yellow spots above the eyes and somewhat shaggy coat.
Original data and materials of my colleagues indicate that during the last 20 years, the total number of sled dogs of Chukotka noticeably increased and their quality improved due to decline of imported dogs along with newly arrived people, who left Chukotka in the 1990s. The number of sled dogs in the entire Chukotka is approximately 4000. At present, it is the largest group of aboriginal Arctic dogs.
The decline of dog sledding in Russia took place in the last third of the XX century. The spread of snowmobile type vehicles, the decline of hunting fur bearers and local fishing, mass epizooties brought with imported dogs and the hunger of the 1990s, when local people could not feed their dog teams, actually killed the majority of aboriginal sled dogs. Only in the Chukotka Peninsula did a population of sled dogs survive and even increase during the 1990s, because here, without them, the sea mammals hunting industry would not be possible. Hunting big sea mammals literally saved the native population of Eastern Chukotka from starvation.
During a long history, sled dogs played an important role not only in the economical, but also in the spiritual life of the peoples of the north. They were a part of cults and sacrificial rituals, guardians of home and family and they are still involved in many rituals and customs at the present time, emphasizing the close ties between the dogs and their owners. The languages of many native peoples contain a large layer of words associated with dog sledding, breeding and teaching of dogs. At present, native peoples of the north are trying to revive dog sledding, without which their life seems incomplete and impoverished.
Bogoslovskaya, L. 1999. On sled dogs and not only about them. [In Russian] Droog, No. 6.
Bogoslovskaya, Lyudmila. 2005. Dog Sledge in Northern Eurasia. Encyclopedia of the Arctic
(ed. M. Nuttall), N.Y., London, 2005, V.1, Pp.501-502.
Coppinger, Lorna. 1987. The World of Sled Dogs: From Siberia to Sport Racing. N.Y.: Howell
Coppinger, Lorna, and Coppinger, Raymond. 2001. Dogs.A New Understanding of Canine
Origin, Behavior, and Evolution. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Dinesman, L. G., N. K. Kiseleva, A. B. Savinetsky and B. F. Khasanov. 1996. Century dynamics of shore line ecological systems of northeastern Chukotka peninsula. [In Russian] Argus, Moscow.
Handford, Jenny Mai. 1998. Dog sledging in the eighteenth century: North America and Siberia. Polar Record, 34 (190).
Smolyak, A. V. 2002. Peoples of the Lower Amur River and Sakhalin Island. [In Russian]
Tugolukov, V. A. 1979. Who are you, Yukaghirs?. [In Russian] Nauka, Moscow.
E. I. Shereshevsky, P. A. Petryaev and V. G. Golubev. 1946. Dog Sledding. [In Russian] Ozd-vo Glavsevmorputi. Moscow-Leningrad.
The Fan Hitch wishes to thank Lyudmila Bogoslovskaya for granting permission to reproduce her article, which originally appeared in the Primitive and Aboriginal Dog Society (PADS) Newsletter, Volume 21, December 2009.