Defining the Inuit Dog
Canis familiaris borealis

by Sue Hamilton

© December 2011, The Fan Hitch, all rights reserved
revised: January 2014

I. Introduction
A. The Inuit Dog’s place in the natural world
B. The Inuit Dog is not a wolf!
C. Dangerous confusion

A. The Name Controversy
B. Defining 'Purity'
C. Mistaken Identity: Promoting a breed vs. avoiding
D. The Belyaev Experiment
E. Summary

A.  Ancient history
B. Recent history: The Inuit Dog in service to nations          
1. Exploration
2. War
3. Sovereignty
C. Population decline
A. In the North
B. Below the tree line

A. Inherited diseases
B. Disease prevention and access to veterinary services

A. Appearance
B. Behavior
C. Performance
D. The big picture

VII. The Inuit Dog in Scientific Research, Films and
        in Print

VIII. Acknowledgements

Appendix 1: Partial list of scientific publications about
                     the Inuit Dog

Appendix 2: Selected (alphabetical) list of other resources
                    with a focus on Inuit Dogs

Appendix 3: A small sampling of other resources of

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Editor-in-Chief: Sue Hamilton
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III. History

    A. Ancient history

Inuit Migration from Alaska across Canada to Greenland

The Inuit Dog, considered to be about 4,000 years-old, dating back to the paleoinuit culture, originally accompanied humans across the Bering Strait, eventually migrating to Greenland. However, it wasn’t until about 800 BP, in the period of the Thule culture, that archaeologists identified sled runners and harness material. Therefore it is believed that in between these two time periods the Independence I, Pre-Dorset, Independence II and Dorset cultures used this primitive aboriginal dog not as a sledge dog but as a hunting partner and defender from polar bears1. One must not assume the Inuit Sled Dog to be only the aboriginal sledge dog of the circumpolar north based on its name alone, for it possessed other essential skills as well. Many characteristics: scent locating seal breathing holes (aglu) and birthing lairs, tracking and catching prey wounded by hunters, alerting hunters and family encampments to the presence of bears and then keeping these large predators at bay, carrying belongings on their backs in summer and hauling a heavily laden qamutiq (sledge) over snow and ice covered surfaces, along with their legendary resilience to hardships, have credited the Inuit Dog as being the principal reason for the survival of the ancestors of today’s modern Inuit2, including into the mid-twentieth century, at which time the lives of these hunters, already affected by the presence of the outside world,  began to dramatically change.

Looking for seal pups in a birthing lair
Photo: Doug E. Wilkinson; N-1979-05 /NWT archives;
courtesy of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

B. Recent history: The Inuit Dog in service to nations

      1. Exploration
Arctic explorers came to the North eager to gain notoriety and favor by mapping, naming and claiming arctic territory for their homeland’s sovereigns. They also sought to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Others searched for fame as the first to reach the geographic North Pole. Missionaries, as well, came to establish their religious domination by "converting the pagan aboriginals" to their church’s denominations. Fur traders, seeking their own version of fortune for themselves and the companies they represented established trading posts to encourage Inuit to bring in as many fox and other pelts as could be trapped. It was through these foreigners, who traveled across the barrens by dog team, that the legendary strength and endurance of the Inuit Sled Dog was made known to the outside world.

The Hobbits, a British Antarctic Survey dog team, sledging on sea ice
Painting by Mike Skidmore

When polar exploration headed south, the Inuit Dog's reputation made it the choice (although not exclusive to every expedition or nationality) of Australia, New Zealand, France and Great Britain who established Antarctic bases in the early 20th century. Beginning in the 1940s, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), now called the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), began the golden era of Antarctic exploration and scientific investigation. Much of the early knowledge gained, still invaluable to this day, was made possible thanks to the endurance and stamina of "British Antarctic Huskies" – Inuit Sled Dogs3.

Due to political maneuvering associated with the Madrid Protocol, all non-indigenous life (except human) was banned from the continent as of April 1994. Save for a very few BAS huskies that were "repatriated" to their homeland in Arctic Quebec (Nunavik), the British government ordered the  doggy men, many of whom who owed their lives to the dogs, to shoot these loyal companions. The remorse and bitterness over this act has not lessened over time. Nearly fifty years since some of these "Fids", as they are still nostalgically called, sledged across the continent, they still show fierce loyalty and respect for their dogs.4 The British Antarctic Husky Memorial was created to honor these dogs so that their contributions will never be forgotten.

Sadly, the dogs returned to Arctic Quebec died and no animals can be traced back to the BAS dogs, thus losing a valuable and unique genetic population of Inuit Sled Dogs. There is, however, a possibility that frozen semen from one of the dogs returned to Canada is currently in storage5.

      2. War
The original establishment of a British presence in Antarctica was part of the wartime (WWII) effort, Operation Tabarin. But Inuit Dogs were "recruited" with plans to use them in Europe as well. In his article, Sled Dogs in His Majesty's Service: Clark's Eskimo Dogs in World War II, Charles L. Dean, author of Soldiers and Sled Dogs: A History of Military Mushing, describes how in 1942 the British military arranged for the purchase of Inuit Dogs from Ed Clark of Lincoln, New Hampshire. These dogs were sent to both Iceland and Scotland, destined to work in Norway.

     3. Sovereignty
In post-war Greenland, with the cold war heating up, the Danish government established a secret military sledge dog patrol, code name "Operation Resolute". Three years later the program was revealed to the public as the now famous Sirius Patrol. Today, from their headquarters in Daneborg on Greenland's east coast, the only military dog sledge patrol in the world sends out five teams of two Danish soldiers and eleven dogs traveling in the huge expanse of north and northeast Greenland surveilling Danish sovereignty, conducting military exercises and serving as the civilian police authority. During a typical year, collectively the teams may cover over 11,000 mi (18,000 km).

Sirius Patrol dog man Peter Schmidt Mikkelsen and his team,
from 1000 Days with Sirius by P. Mikkelsen, The Steading Workshop

In April 2010, a Sirius Patrol team was invited to participate in OP Nunalivut 10, a joint operation by the Canadian Forces in Canada's North. It employs the unique capabilities of the Canadian Rangers in support of Joint Task Force North (JTFN) operations in the extreme environment of the high Arctic. In an interview at the conclusion of the joint Canadian/Danish exercise, published in the June 2010 issue of The Fan Hitch Captain Neal Whitman, Deputy Commander of 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, stated that the Canadian military had no plans to specifically form a Sirius Patrol-like division. "There is a very unique capability that works very well for the Danish concept of operations where they're patrolling along the north eastern coast of Greenland in a very isolated environment," Whitman explained. "In our context it gets a little bit different though because our area of operations is a lot more heavily populated really than the areas that the Sirius Patrol operates in. We operate directly with the aboriginal communities. Fifty-eight different communities participate in the [annual] program and a total of sixteen hundred Rangers, which is quite different from the twelve that participate in the Sirius Patrol. For our purposes, again we just choose whatever the community wants to use to get out on the land. If they want to use dog sleds then we can support that and if they want to use snowmachines we can support that. So for us it's really tied in to what the community wants to do and what they feel is the way to get around."

C. The population decline
There is no doubt that the numbers of traditional Inuit Dogs working in the Canadian North6 has dwindled precipitously in the last century, leading to Bill Carpenter and John McGrath's efforts to restore their numbers with their creation of the Eskimo Dog Recovery Project (see II B). Some of these reasons were:
  • genetic contamination by non-indigenous dogs brought north by explorers, missionaries, prospectors, fur traders and other workers;
  • diseases introduced by southern dogs to disease-naive aboriginal dogs;
  • population decline as a result of a hunting society relocating into settlements, which accelerated beginning in the 1950s;
  • arrival of the snowmachine (although many Inuit wives still admit that they don't worry when their husbands go out hunting by dog team, but they do when snowmobiles are used. A dog team will not break down; they can find their way in a blizzard; they can help with the hunt; and they have a sense when the sea ice is dangerously thin);
  • Surely the most controversial and contentious issue involving the decline of traditional working teams of Inuit Sled Dogs is what is commonly referred to as the slaughter of sled dogs by the RCMP and others said to have taken place from the 1950s to the 1970s. A year-long self-examination by the RCMP concluded in 2006 that some dogs were killed to end their suffering from sickness and for human safety reasons. However, investigations by both the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (Nunavut) and Makivik (Nunavik) truth commissions' investigations, concluded in 2010, have determined otherwise and described far more complex issues leading to the killing of sled dogs as well as other cultural-social injustices7.
Challenges to a vibrant northern population of traditional Inuit Dogs continue with:
  • influences of a wage-earning economy and lifestyle;
  • loss of Elders to teach traditional ways;
  • lack of access to vaccines and veterinary care.

Elder Paloosie Koonaloosie was a traditional and very well
respected hunter from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut. After he died,
none of his children wished to continue on with their father's
way of life. Photo: Kevin Slater, Mahoosuc Guide Service

The presence of non-indigenous dogs is now ubiquitous throughout the Canadian North and currently there are no regulatory mechanisms in place to control this influx, either by outright banning or by allowing only altered dogs to accompany their owners north. In Greenland there is a law forbidding non-indigenous breeds into regions where sled dogs are kept as a measure to keep the Greenland Inuit Dog uncontaminated. However it is believed that strict enforcement has not been in place. For example, after a distemper epidemic around 1986, traditional Inuit Dogs from the north Baffin region of Canada were sent into the Thule District of Greenland. Dogs were also sent into this region from other parts of Greenland as well8.

1 The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History; Ian Kenneth MacRury; Chapter 1.
2 The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History; Ian Kenneth MacRury; pg 45, para. 1.
3 See The Contribution of Dogs to Exploration in Antarctica by Peter Gibbs, The Fan Hitch, V5N2, March 2003.
4 Two of the many examples found throughout The Fan Hitch are: How do you say good-bye? by Peter Noble; V10, N4, September 2008 and Brave Little Heart by Ken Pawson, V2 N2, November 1999.
6 Although it is apparent that there are still pure Inuit Dogs in Greenland, the status of that population is not clearly known to this author.
5 Personal communication, Winter 2009.
7 The RCMP, Qikiqtani Truth Commission and Makivik official reports can be found under "Official reports regarding Canadian Federal Government vis-a-vis Inuit social/cultural issues, including sled dogs" on The Fan Hitch Resources page.
8 Personal communications with people of the Baffin region.

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