The Fan Hitch Volume 12, Number 2, March 2010

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

From the Editor

Recollections: Life on the Land

Sled Dogs of Russia

An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:
The Case of the Inuit Sled Dog, Part 2

In the News

For the Love of a Retired Sled Dog

The Chinook Project to Visit Labrador

Behavior Notebook: Some Aspects of Dog Behavior

Behavior Notebook: More on Boss Dogs

About Previous Articles in The Fan Hitch

IMHO: Timelessness

Navigating This Site

Index of articles by subject

Index of back issues by volume number

Search The Fan Hitch

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Ordering Ken MacRury's Thesis

Our comprehensive list of resources

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Editor-in-Chief: Sue Hamilton
Webmaster: Mark Hamilton
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The Inuit Sled Dog International

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.

ISDI Coordinator Canada:
GeneviŤve Montcombroux, Box 206, Inwood, MB R0C 1P0;
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Sue Hamilton, 55 Town Line Road, Harwinton, CT 06791,
Part 2 of 4....
An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:
The Case of the Inuit Sled Dog

by Kerrie Ann Shannon

Winner of the 3rd annual ARCUS* Award for Arctic Research Excellence, 1999

Table of Contents

            Brake / Anchor
            Lines / Traces
            Booties / Paw Protectors
            Hunting with Dogs
            Lead Dogs
            Food and Feeding Practices
            Weather Predictor
            Connection to Human Health

*Arctic Research Consortium of the United States

Although there is information concerning dogs and dog teams in various and scattered reports, ethnographies, and oral history accounts, there is not a collection considering the traditional knowledge of sled dogs.  I have examined certain aspects of traditional knowledge surrounding the care and maintenance of dogs and dog teams.  The information collected provided the community with a record of traditional knowledge from their community concerning dogs.  In addition to sending my thesis to the community, I also agreed to make a separate report compiling the information collected during fieldwork3.  The following is a modified version of the document given to the community.  The traditional knowledge on this subject is so vast that this is in no way a complete document but rather an attempt to gather and record aspects of traditional knowledge concerning dogs and dog teams.

There is an extensive body of traditional knowledge about dogs and dog teams.  Previous to the 1960s dog teams were the main form of transportation and hence an essential part of life.  Dogs were imperative in securing food supplies and hunting.  Because dogs had such great importance the knowledge of how to make a good dog team was passed down from generation to generation.  Traditional knowledge is experientially based and it is shared by doing.  Learning about dog teams was part of growing up and learning the Inuit way of life.  The information about dog teams is learned by practice, therefore the information I helped to gather is rather limited because it was gathered mainly through interviews.

This next section will explore some of the traditional knowledge involved in dog team care, maintenance, and travel.  I interviewed both women and men and people who had dog teams in the past or who currently have dogs.  Specifically, I asked questions about:  sleds, brakes, whips, harnesses, traces, booties, teeth, names, lead dogs, food, weather prediction, names, and connections to human health.

Sleds / Kamotik
The sled is an important part of dog team travel.  The sled or kamotik has had many changes over time.  In addition to the changes throughout time, the design of the kamotik or sled varies across the Arctic.  The traditional knowledge surrounding the design and construction of the kamotik deserves more attention. Unfortunately, the intricacies of sled building is outside the scope of this research.  Sleds have been made from various constructions such as whalebone and at one time runners were made from frozen fish and caribou skins.  The range of materials used for sleds adds to the technological complexities in construction.  I focused my interview questions on comparing the main differences between the sleds used for dog team and sleds used with skidoos.

In describing the difference between the snowmobile sled and a dog team sled, one elder stated that ďfor a skidoo they [the sleds] are built real tough with lots of nails or lots of stuff around it - but for dogs they just tie with ropes; the nappu [cross pieces] are tied with rope.Ē  Although I will list some of the considerations in using one type of sled for dog team, it is important to remember that sleds also differ due to snow conditions, season, and materials available.  In general, the dog team sleds are often shorter and narrower and constructed to be lighter than the sled for a snowmobile.  The runners of the sleds can also differ, some dog team owners use soil runners for their dog team sleds, (the soil runners are covered with water that is smoothed out by a piece of fur or cloth).  One dog team owner explained the differences in the types of runners he used:

I use a kamotik with plastic runners in spring time and in winter I put soil on my kamotik - which makes it a lot easier for the dogs to pull because they are a lot slipperier than plastic runners.  And in fall-time before all the rocks are covered with snow - I use steel runners.

During the field research period most sleds had plastic runners with the exception of the Christmas dog team race when there were a few soil runners used.

Brakes (device to stop or slow the dogs) and anchors (something to hold them back before beginning travel) were not used by every dog team owner, and their use varied among dog team owners (both past and present owners).  Another means to hold the dogs back before beginning a journey was to flip the sled upside-down, with the runners up, therefore making it difficult for the dogs to pull.  However, the use of a brake or flipping the sled over depends upon the individual dog team owner and also the individual dog team.  It is possible that one owner may have had to use a brake with one team but not another team or only during training.  Currently, some anchors or brakes are made from snow hooks.  When I asked one elder if brakes or anchors were used, she replied, "no, the dogs were well trained."

Although a different sort of brake, two elders mentioned another way to slow the sled down when travelling downhill - a walrus hide or bearded seal skin was used in a loop and put over the front of the runners to slow the sled down when travelling fast.  A respondent explained when this slowing process was used for the dogs going downhill:

For the dogs that were extremely strong and fast, they [dog team owners] had a piece of walrus, because walrus was tougher, it was a walrus hide made into a loop that went around the kamotik... It would stop the kamotik because it was on the runner.  Because it was a tough skin, because walrus is so tough they [the dogs] could not pull it.

With a similar function to slow the team, one elder mentioned that,

they [dog team owners] used a whip, not an extra piece [of skin or hide], but the whip under the front of the runners.

I also witnessed someone using this kind of loop over the runner as a brake, however the person did not use walrus hide but a snowmobile belt.

The use of brakes or anchors for dog teams may be due to the difference in the training and use of the dogs.  Training in the past was part of life rather than something supplemental.  Many elders stated that the dogs would sit and wait for them until they were ready to begin and they did not need to have anything to hold the dogs back.  One elder explained,

I never used it [a brake] in my life, not while I had dogs would listen to me, every time I want to stop, they stopped, and every time I want to go, I say the word go and they go.

However, at the present time, most dog teams are not used as frequently as in the past and therefore the dogs today might be exceedingly eager to go and begin a journey.  Another elder explained that he did not use an anchor:

I never used to have the anchor then - in the 1950s they never used to have anchors but today they [the dogs] donít listen to their masters so they use the anchor...They donít listen because they donít use them as much as they used and they donít go see them for week or so but in 1950 they used to see them every day use them everyday most of the day - so there is a lot of a difference from the 1950s and today.

Although quite a few current dog team owners stated that they used a brake, this was not the case for all dog team owners.  One dog team owner explained his reasoning for not using a brake was he felt that if the dogs feel the resistance of the brake, then the dogs learn to stop with resistance.  Stopping with resistance could be problematic when travelling with dogs across land where they might have to cross an area with obstacles that require the dogs to pull against resistance.  The frequency of use of an anchor or brake maybe part of the changing conditions of dog team travel but their use is not shared among all dog team owners.

Whips are an important part of training dog teams.  I asked during interviews if a whip was used and one elder stated,

I use it one hundred percent on the dogs, because it is the only discipline for the dogs. They have to listen to their master and the whip gives the discipline, and the next time they [the dogs] know.

Another elder mentioned that the whip was, "the best equipment they used when they had dog team."  Although he used a whip he also cautioned in that one should not over use it:

The more use you use it on dogs, the dogs would get unhappy and they would not want to pull and be lazy so I avoided using when it was not necessary.

Although most respondents stated they or the person they travelled with used a whip, one elder remarked,

I never really used a whip but I mostly used a fox trap, a regular old trap and shake it ... to make noise and the dogs would pull harder and walk/run faster - I just used that as a whip.

Another respondent stated that he did not use a whip because he did not know how to use it properly and he had been advised by an elder that one should not use a whip if one does not know how to use it correctly.  The whips are generally made out of bearded sealskin (ujuk) and about 25 feet in length.  When dogs are whipped most people concentrate on hitting the dogs bottom.  The dogís rear has a great deal of fur and fat and therefore a correction can be made without injury.

The making of harnesses is yet another important part of dog team technology.  The material for construction of harnesses, as well as design has changed over the years.  The design of a harness can vary a great deal from person to person.  Harnesses are/were sewn by woman and men.  One elder remarked that he used to make his own harnesses because,

...the ones at the stores, I did not like because they were way down, like too far down under the chest, I used to make my own so they would be more comfortable;  ones that would be higher on the chest.  The store bought ones are very tight to their throat... I used to make my own harnesses so that I could go faster.

When I questioned him what they were made out of he stated, "I used to make them out of beluga whale skin and seal skin and canvas."  Many of the harnesses today are often made out of a reinforced nylon canvas.  The local store sold pre-made dog harnesses but many dog team owners preferred to make their own.  Harnesses were often removed when the dogs were not being used, this would help to prevent the dogs from chewing them.

Traditional bearded seal skin harness with
crescent-shaped toggle.  photo: Dragoslavic

In the past dog harnesses were sometimes decorated.  One elder recalled, "I used to decorated them, especially at Christmas time."  When I questioned if the entire team would be decorated she indicated that only chosen dogs in the team would have decorations.  Another elder mentioned that she always used to decorate the harnesses with wool and,

 "sometimes I used to make them for all the dogs in the team and other times I would only make them for certain ones,  I liked it when the dogs seem pretty happy and it is nice to decorate them too." 

Although many respondents commented on how nice the decorated harnesses looked, one elder stated that he did not use decorated harnesses:

I never decorated my dog team because my elders told me that you do not decorate the dogs because it makes them slower and I believe this, so I never decorated my dogs.  I thought, it was believed, that sometimes the decorations would get loose and they would tangle up and the dogs would stumble on them - on the decorations.  That is why I never used decorations because the dogs could stumble over them.

There were other elders that stated they did not decorate the dogs harnesses, and I am now sorry I did not question further as to why.  I did not observe any decorated dog harnesses being used and I believe that the practice of decorating harnesses has decreased with the decrease in the use of dog teams. 

The lines or traces connect the individual dogs to the main line and the sled.  The lines or traces can vary in construction with materials available and personal preference by the owner.  I recall that some dog team owners used sealskin lines while others used nylon ropes.  Previous to nylon ropes being available, I was frequently told that lines were constructed from ujuk (bearded seal skin) or whale.  Some dog team owners believed that sealskin traces were better for durability and strength and easier to untangle.

                                              photo: Hamilton

The types of hitches vary in the Arctic but the fan hitch is the most common in the Eastern Arctic.  The fan hitch allows each dog to have an individual line, the leader having the longest and the others gradually becoming shorter.  Not everyone in the Arctic uses the fan hitch. For example in Alaska the double tandem hitch, where dogs travel side by side in pairs, is common.  The fan hitch seems to be matched with the environmental conditions around Southampton Island.  I have been told that there are certain advantages to the fan hitch, such as travelling across jagged or rough ice.  When travelling through obstacles such as rough ice or rocks with the fan hitch, the dogs can find their own path and take slack so they are able to jump over an obstruction when they need to because they are not tightly connected to the other dogs.  The fan hitch also allows for the ability of the dogs to disperse their weight on thin ice.  Furthermore, Southampton Island is located north of the tree line so there is no danger of having the dogs caught around a tree.  However, I am uncertain if the fan hitch has advantages in hunting.

In addition to the lines or traces there must be connectors between the individual dog lines and the main line that attaches to the sled.  The connectors can be made of carved bone or antler and were pear shaped with two holes, where the main line passed through one hole and the individual dog line was tied through the other.  Some people also used a metal ring to connect the main line and dog lines.

Booties/Paw Protectors
Booties, or a foot covering, were sometimes used to protect the dogs' feet when travelling.  One dog team owner explained that,

 booties were used in spring time, when travelling, when the ground is full of ice crystals - from thawing during the day and freezing at night.  The ground becomes icy and it cuts their feet.

Most respondents recalled making/using dog booties and some respondents even gave advice on how they had to be tied tight but not too tight as to restrict circulation and where to tie, most likely above the first joint on the dogís leg.  Yet one elder remarked he did not use booties:

If I just put them [the puppies] out on that moss with that pointed grass - that pointed sort of grass - where there are sharp edges, they were really bleeding while they are just puppies.  They are really bleeding on their palms but when grow up they get soft and tough they do not bleed in spring time when I used them - I did not put booties on them when using them in spring time.

Another elder did not use booties but said that the dogs' feet became toughened after using them on the ice in springtime.  In a few interviews I specifically asked respondents if they ever put the puppies on prickly grass to toughen their feet.  The respondents I asked replied that although they were aware of the practice, they did not use it themselves.

Hunting with Dogs
Hunting was an important function for dogs, yet not everyone used their dogs for hunting in the same way. For example there were different techniques for using dogs in seal hunting.  The dogs were sometimes used to sniff out breathing holes by taking one or two dogs from the team while the remaining dogs, still hitched to the kamotik, remained behind waiting calmly for the hunter.  One elder describes how the team and kamotik would wait for a hand signal in order to travel to the breathing hole.  A dog team owner mentioned that,

the dogs were not necessarily needed to sniff out the holes but for transportation, so that was a benefit because they were able to sniff out the breathing holes - even if they [the breathing holes] were under snow.  Primarily dogs were used to go to the spot where the seals were, because sometimes hunters would rest their dogs on the thicker ice and they would walk to the breathing holes and hunt on foot, just a little ways from their dogs.  It was to keep the seals from being bothered too much and so they would not go away. Nowadays the sealing program we have going where people are not allowed to go on the ice, they actually walked back then to keep the noise to a minimum4.

Sometimes the entire dog team would find the breathing hole and continue on travelling while the hunter got off the kamotik at the breathing hole.

In bear hunting, dogs would sometimes aid in tracking the bear (especially with no snow), or were released from the kamotik and would chase the bear, therefore slowing it down and providing the hunter a chance to get close to the bear.  One dog team owner explains how his father taught him how to hunt bears with dogs:

...if you are going to chase a bear - he used to tell me stories, about when he would chase bears - he would chase it to where the dogs would stop it [the bear] or he has enough time or it is sitting down and he takes a shot and it's a kill.  That is what he says, you just let them [the dogs] learn how to bite the rear end so it [the bear] will sit down, then you get your aim.

Another dog team owner talks about bear hunt:

Probably the greatest adventure for a dog owner was a bear hunt.  Dogs were used to sniff out bears buried deep in the snow in the den or when there is no snow on the ground they would smell the tracks even though they are not visible and they would track them down, because they would use them even when there was no snow on the ground. They would go out, they were strong dogs.

Dogs often provided an extra awareness or warning for the presence of an animal. An elder mentioned that he used to always prefer going out hunting with dogs because of their ability to sense animals:

I used them [dogs] going out hunting for polar bears or going seal hunting, because the thing that I would not see the dogs would take me to - the breathing hole or the polar bear.  The dogs smell easier than the snowmobile, so I like the dogs more than the snowmobile [when] going hunting.

At the present time some hunters travelling by skidoo take one dog with them to warn of bears and therefore provide protection when bear hunting.

When I questioned if the dogs were trained to be hunters or if certain dogs were trained to sniff out breathing holes or trained to bear hunt, the common response was that dogs usually learn from example of the older dogs and that some dogs were either good bear dogs or not or good seal hunting dogs.  Although the majority of respondents believed that specific training was not necessary, in order for a dog to learn how to hunt one elder explained how dogs could be encouraged to hunt:

When you want them to be very eager to go to the bear or be very aggressive to the bear and to be very protective to you - you let them eat from one of the livers- while they are puppies that is how they can be very aggressive to the bear.  It is not the real liver, it is on the side of the liver - there is another piece by the liver but not the real liver, sort of bluish.   That is how I used to train them to be very aggressive to a bear.

Another elder mentioned that the dogs with white spots above their eyes make good bear hunting dogs because they tend to scare the bear more.  Each person had his own techniques for hunting with dogs and the dogs in turn had different characteristics for specialized hunting.

Next in Part 3: Section V continues with "Teeth" through "Connection to Human Health".

3 "The Unique Role of Sled Dogs in Inuit Culture:  An Examination of the Relationship Between Inuit and Sled Dogs in the Changing North."  (1997) Master of Arts Thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

4  The program the dog team owner is referring to was a ban initiated by the Hunters and Trappers Office.  The ban stopped people from traveling on the ice of Hudson Bay within a specified distance from town in order to prevent disturbance of seals in the area.
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