The Fan Hitch Volume 12, Number 1, December 2009

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog
In This Issue....

From the Editor 

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Evolutionary Changes in Domesticated Dogs:
The Broken Covenant of the Wild, Part 4

An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:
The Case of the Inuit Sled Dog, Part 1

Greenland Dogs of the Eiger Glacier

Boss Dogs and Lead Dogs

Tip: Pack Your Parka

IMHO: Two "New" Dogs

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Boss Dogs and Lead Dogs:
Are They Born or Made?

by Ken MacRury

From Birth to Boss Dog
I believe that most boss dogs are born and not made. In my experience the most forward male puppy in a litter would eventually become the boss. Right from the beginning it would be the male pup who dominated his male littermates that would most likely become a boss. Interestingly, if there were both sexes in a litter, it was often a female who would dominate for the first while, but by two to three months of age it would be a male pup who took over. That pup was also the most adventurous, the most active and the friendliest to humans. The pup also seemed to be most brave in going amongst the adult dogs and was the first one to venture to the boss (most likely his father) and show proper signs of submission even at a very early age.

It was also helpful in later life that a pup would have a very close male sibling and they would be inseparable companions. I always raised at least two pups together, more if possible, as I found that single pups were usually maladjusted and did not fit in well with the team or with humans. These pups would usually be killed by older dogs when they reached puberty as they seemed to lack proper submission techniques. But I base these observations on only limited cases as I only raised single pups on two occasions. The Inuit who spoke to me about this type of case also said that raising one pup was not good as that animal usually became too aggressive toward other dogs and to people. Inuit usually raised these dogs for their fur. (This sounds like another topic to investigate.)

Back to boss dogs. By the time the pups were about a year old, they the future boss and his brother helper would start to test the adult dogs whenever possible and would start to pull themselves up in the pack hierarchy. By the end of their second summer on the island (my dogs spent July to October running free on an island where I went by boat to feed them), the future boss was likely just below the boss and would be dominant over the other team dogs. He and his brother would be testing the boss and his helper-sibling but would submit very quickly when challenged. This could go on for several years but at some point there would be a general blow-up in the team and a terrific fight would ensue, often, but not always, over a female in heat. In the general battle the boss (and his brother) would be deposed and the new younger pair would take over. After that it would be open season on the deposed boss and his helper and every dog in the team would now dominate them, a sad sight to see. It always happens that once removed from the top spot, sooner or later the team will kill the old boss.

If the new boss has enough maturity he will rule with some intelligence, not always fighting the other dogs and not allowing them to fight amongst themselves. If a fight starts he will move to break it up immediately and may take the opportunity to give each fighter a quick bite. If the new boss is too young and insecure he will raise havoc in the team, always starting fights and causing trouble. I had several boss dogs that were older and more secure in their position and peace would reign with no fights at all for a very long time.

Summing it up, the boss is always male, the boss dog is not chosen by the owner but will arise out of the team. The boss dog is never the leader and would usually be placed to run beside his helper and very near the female(s). In my team where I usually had only one female, and often she was the leader, the boss would run near the front of the team. When I had a male lead and the female ran in the middle of the team, the boss would then run behind her, near the back of he team. Placement was determined by where the individual dog worked best. I found that the boss usually worked best when placed near the female but not in front of her.

Boss Dogs and Their Owners
I would describe the relationship between the boss dog and his owner as one of mutual respect. If the boss dog is really good, the owner can rely on him to keep order and discipline the team members that misbehave. The owner must never discipline the boss dog as this would lower his status in the team and make it necessary for the boss to physically exert his authority to regain his position. He should be fed first and petted first but he will most likely not want excessive attention. If he is secure in his position, he will not object to other dogs receiving their share of affection from the owner. If he is not secure or too young to be a mature boss, he may take exception and be quite jealous of others receiving attention. The real test of a boss dog is when all the dogs are running loose and able to interact without the owner present. In that situation the real mature and dominant boss will be very obvious. As long as the owner is present or the dogs are tied or penned, they cannot interact normally or naturally.

Running Positions in a Fan Hitch
The placement of the dogs in a fan hitch involves a bit of good luck and a bit of good management. In my experience, every dog has a preferred place and when the driver finds the right placement, the dog will do its best work there. When pups are first started in harness at about six months of age (this depends on their time of birth and how it corresponds with the sledding season), they would normally be placed at or near the back of the pack. But all pups are not created equal and it would be obvious to the experienced driver that one or more would like to be further up in the fan hitch. Perhaps their mother is up there near the front or perhaps they have a relationship with an adult dog and want to be near him. For whatever reason, the driver will then move the pup and see how it fits in at a new spot. I have had pups that started their first run at the back of the pack and were moved several times during the day and ended up running in second or third place by the time we got home. At all times the driver must be observing the team and trying to figure out where each dog wants to be. Some are very content at the back and if moved up will not pull. Others are so keen to run beside their friend or sibling that they do not want to be anywhere else.

Qualities of a Good Lead Dog
This also raises the topic of how a lead dog comes about. I have found that a dog must possess three traits to be a lead dog. First, they must want to please the owner (but many in the team have that characteristic). Second, they must always want to run at the front and not care who is behind them (only a few have this characteristic) and third, they must be smart, capable of learning the commands to turn. But their level of intelligence must be even more than this as the turn is not always a ninety degree turn and the lead dog must be able to differentiate between a command for a U-turn and one for ten or fifteen degrees. They must know when to traverse a hill and when to go straight down. They must be able to detect thin ice and to avoid areas of soft snow over rocks. They must understand when they are not to run at the valley bottom but to hug one side in order to avoid deep sastrugi*. A good lead dog can do all this and more. I had one young dog that was my second lead in his first winter. Being a good lead can come early in life.

 * Sastrugi are sharp irregular grooves or ridges form on a snow surface by wind erosion and deposition.   Ed.
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