The Fan Hitch Volume 12, Number 3, June 2010

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

From the Editor: Romancing the Bone –
Unreasonable notions and unrealistic expectations

Kevin Walton Memorial Lecture

QTC’s Community Consultation Tour

An Examination of Traditional Knowledge:
The Case of the Inuit Sled Dog, Part 3

'The Hunt'

OP Nunalivut 10

CAAT Returns to Baker Lake

New to the Crew: Introducing Adult ISDs to Your Kennel

IMHO: Some Things Never Change

Navigating This Site

Index of articles by subject

Index of back issues by volume number

Search The Fan Hitch

Articles to download and print

Ordering Ken MacRury's Thesis

Our comprehensive list of resources

Talk to The Fan Hitch

The Fan Hitch home page

ISDI home page

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Editor-in-Chief: Sue Hamilton
Webmaster: Mark Hamilton
Print Edition: Imaged and distributed by the IPL students of the Ulluriaq School, Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik
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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:
Geneviève Montcombroux, Box 206, Inwood, MB R0C 1P0;
ISDI Coordinator USA:
Sue Hamilton, 55 Town Line Road, Harwinton, CT 06791,

Part 3 of 4…

                                                                     Photo: Hamilton

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



The teeth of sled dogs were sometimes taken out or altered.  A few elders mentioned that the dogs would chew on the lines and harnesses especially when they were very hungry.  One elder remarked that he had to remove the teeth, "I would hammer them off, that is how we used to take it off when they [the dogs] would chew too much of the line or harness."  Alternatively, the dog's mouth was tied in order to prevent the dogs from chewing.  One elder mentioned that dogs' teeth were not removed but,

if a dog ate something it was not supposed to eat, like the harness or the dog rope or any food that they were not supposed to eat, then they would be disciplined, by hurting their teeth or something, by hitting their mouth.

One elder recalled her father filing down some dogs' teeth in order to prevent them from chewing on harnesses.  Only a few respondents mentioned that it was necessary to remove teeth when the dogs were fighting:

Me and my brother busted off their teeth because his dogs were always fighting, trying to kill each other most of the time.  That was the only time that we had to take the tooth out. 

The larger percentage of respondents mentioned that they did not remove any teeth.  In understanding the behaviour of dogs, a few respondents mentioned that when puppies are gaining their second set of teeth they fight often in order to remove their first set of teeth. 

Lead Dogs
Like most aspects of dog team travel, there are many different preferences.  The technology involved in dog team travel is very individually tailored.  A common interview question investigated how lead dogs were chosen.  Because the lead dog is usually the most important in the operation of the team, I was interested in how this dog was chosen from among all others.  There did not seem to be one collective answer but rather a great variety of personal preferences.  There were complete opposites expressed in reasoning for selecting the best lead dog. Many dog team owners preferred a male dog while others believed a female dog made the best leader. One dog team owner explained his rationality for continually choosing male leaders:

I prefer a male because everybody prefers a male - because females will get in heat and have pups and then if you have no other leader your team will be second rate, and then that won't be good because they will not have a leader anymore.

In contrast, many respondents stated that it was beneficial to have the mother of a litter of puppies as the leader.  One elder describes his past team:

I used to have six dogs, from one litter most of the time.  I used to have dogs from one litter because those gathered dogs [dogs from different litters] were not helping each other.  The ones from one litter, they helped each other more. 

Furthermore, he explained how his groups of dogs were trained:
I used to use the mother with those puppies, with the mother being a lead dog, and they'd get tired the first time I used them and after that they got better.  I used to use the mother to be the leader and they would pull better, with the mother being a lead dog.

Many respondents experienced that if the team was related to one another (dogs that all came from the same mother), then the dogs would get along better as a team and have a natural respect for the mother as leader. 

When I questioned if there would be an alternative lead dog in case the mother became pregnant, an elder recalled,

I used to notice that if the female lead dog had puppies they [dog team owners] really did not want to use another dog so they would just keep using that female dog - they would just cover the nipples up with caribou skin and put the puppies in a box and take them, so they would just keep using the female lead dog.

A current dog team owner explained who his leader was:

The lead dog is a female right now - it is the mother of those dogs, the young ones that are growing up right now. They respect their mom, but it has a disadvantage too, that when she gets pregnant you have to get another lead dog, so I have another lead dog that is a male.
In the process of choosing dogs, a few respondents mentioned that if the dog did not want to be a lead dog it would purposely slag behind the others, while other dogs preferred to be up front to assume their position of being a leader.  Although the dog team owner would choose the lead dog, the dog's own behaviour also influenced this choice.  One dog team owner commented that he would train the dogs by trying each of them:

I tried one to be a lead dog and if it does not listen or listens, but not that much, then I would take it off and put another dog on, and the one that listens the most is the lead dog.

Some owners commented that they could tell the leader by watching the dogs.  In deciding on the lead dog some dog team owners wanted a calm dog, while others preferred an aggressive leader, a dog that would be the natural leader amongst the other dogs and win fights.  In picking his lead dogs one dog team owner suggested,

I look for a calm dog that pulls a lot and looks smart.  I don't use hyper dogs as leader because they just won't cooperate.

Another dog team owner explains that it is best to have a dominant dog,

...the other dogs had to respect the lead dog and without a lead dog you can not drive a dog team.       

In deciding on a lead dog, one elder summed up a good lead dog as one that listens very well, but also knows when not to listen because it would know better than the master. 

Food and Feeding Practices
Sled dogs were fed a variety of foods depending on the availability of resources.  Walrus, seal, whale, fish and caribou bi-products were among the foods fed to dogs.  There did not seem to be one preference for what was the best food for the dogs but rather the dogs were fed a variety of foods with walrus being the most common.  When I asked one elder what he fed his dogs, he answered that he fed them:

walrus, mostly walrus and if there was no walrus available then I would feed them seal and square flipper seal.  In the dead of winter I always fed my dog team walrus and in the early spring - March, April - I would switch to seal because the walrus would run out then - all the walrus I had caught in the fall.  When I switched to seal meat from walrus meat, it seemed like my dogs always got more energetic - I am not sure why but maybe because the meat was very fresh.

In order to feed the dogs, some people chopped the food into small chunks while others left the pieces large. Some owners also preferred to thaw the meat. The meat was/is either thawed inside (porch, snowhouse, house, shed) or thawed in water. To thaw the meat underwater a hole is cut in the ice where the water temperature is warmer than the air outside allowing the meat to become partially thawed in the water. The practice of thawing meat in water was something mentioned by elders as well as currently practiced by dog team owners.  When the meat is thawed it is easier to cut up and also easier for the dogs to digest.

Feeding practices also vary with the season.  Most respondents feed their dogs every other day in the wintertime.  The amount of food fed to dogs can depend upon the amount of use and also the temperature. Food for dogs is especially important for them in winter in order to keep warm and survive the cold.  One dog team owner commented,

I have to feed them every three days - but when it is stormy like this - my mom always says that you ought to feed them every day because when it is a blizzard, it's very cold even for animals - so she keeps telling me - feed your dogs - feed your dogs - if it is going to storm.

In the summer the dogs are fed considerably less but are usually relocated to islands in lakes where they would have plenty of water.

When travelling with the dogs it is important not to over feed them, for then they are said to become sluggish. Dogs are generally fed the evening, not morning.  One elder mentioned that if the dogs were going to be used they would be fed a little every day and when they were not being used they would be fed more one day and then only fed every other day. 
I often asked what the hardest part of maintaining a dog team is/was. The most common response was, "...the hardest part of keeping dogs is trying to feed them because they have to eat in order to live."  Not only is it time consuming and sometimes difficult to secure food, the actual feeding of the dogs can also be very hard work.  Feeding puppies can be critical in developing a new team of dogs.  An elder explained how the weaning puppies were cared for:

...if the puppy was weaned, the meat was not cooked; but if the puppy was being weaned they would use the soup from the cooked meat and cut up very tiny pieces of meat and feed it from the hand (from the palm of the hand) to the puppies that are being weaned.  They take just a few days to do that because they like the warmth of the hand, they learn how to eat pretty fast, you hold just a little bit of soup in your hand and the rest is just chunks, little chunks of meat.  When they [the puppies] would refuse to eat we would force feed them, we would open their jaws and put down a spoonful, and they survived that way.

In order to have a strong dog team it was crucial that the young puppies were well cared for and healthy.

Weather Predictor
The behavior of canines can be used to predict some weather conditions.  Due to the availability of broadcast meteorological forecasts, weather prediction may not be as important a function of dogs as it was in the past.  I was repeatedly told that the onset of a storm could be predicted by dog behavior.  One elder explained how he could tell when a storm was coming:

I used to know my dogs, and know that there would be bad weather coming because they would start shaking their fur off on a clear day. I do not really know about the bad weather ending, but I used to really concentrate on bad weather coming because my dogs would start shaking their fur off on a good day.

Another elder mentioned that she did not know how to tell when the bad weather was coming but,
I used to notice that when the weather had been bad for quite a while and as soon as it was going to start clearing up the dogs would start jumping around and start really enjoying themselves and having fun, and that is how I knew that good weather was coming, when they started doing that.

Not everyone in town shared this same knowledge. When I asked another elder if he could predict weather through the behavior of his dogs he stated,  "They [the dogs] did not tell me but I know when there is bad weather coming."  In Nelson's account, the dogs howled to indicate the onset of the storm and the end of the storm (Nelson 1969:  46).  The dogs were an active part of human life and their behavior became incorporated into traditional knowledge about predicting storms. 

The names of dogs are very important and part of the intimate bond between people and dogs. Names were sometimes not mentioned. I am aware that names have special significance in Inuit culture, yet before conducting field work I was unaware if the names of dogs had any special significance.
One aspect that sets dogs apart from other animals is that canines usually have individual names.  In Inuit culture names have special significance and are linked to spirit and soul (Balikci 1970; Briggs 1970; Guemple 1965, 1971; Nuttall 1992; Jensen 1961; Rasmussen 1908; Williamson 1988).  Williamson explains that the individual name-soul is "...the point of association of the individual with everything else named in his environment"  (Williamson 1988:  246).  The significance of the naming system is connected to spiritual and cosmological beliefs as well as social practices (Williamson 1988).  Williamson expands on the significance of names in Inuit culture: "The individual name, though contemporary significant in its society, is more than the means whereby a person's separate social existence is evoked.  It is more indeed than the symbolization of his personality; it is his very essence and the spiritual and functional mode of identification and relationship with the rest of his social, physical and spiritual matrix." (Williamson 1988:  246-7)

The naming of dogs is very significant given the importance of names in Inuit culture.  One way people can strengthen the bond between dog and owner is through naming the dog.  Jensen reports on naming practices of the Inuit in relation to dogs, noting that puppies are given names very early.  Jensen also mentions the connection between the name and soul: "It is also of interest to note Spencer's most recent study from the North Alaskan Eskimo:  While dogs, have 'no souls', their names could be important and there is suggestion that by naming a dog one could allow a soul to enter it." (Jensen 1961:  51) However, I did not question on this aspect of naming during interviews.

I was not very successful in my inquiry of dog names.  I usually asked what kind of names people gave their dogs and the answers were most often vague.  Respondents usually stated that they gave their dogs all kinds of names.  When I asked for some examples of names, people would sometimes say that they could not remember the names or after sharing one or two names they would say they had forgotten the others.  I realize now I was probably asking an inappropriate question. I speculate that when the respondent told me they could not remember the names of the dogs, this was a polite way of not making me feel embarrassed for asking an inappropriate question. I was interested in knowing how sled dogs were classified in Inuit society and I believed that understanding more about the dogs names would help me to understand the placement of dogs within Inuit culture. Interpreters often translated aspects of the culture that I did not understand or was ignorant about and I once asked an interpreter if questioning people about dogs' names was inappropriate. The interpreter replied that it was OK to ask, but also stated that some people would not answer it. I inquired why people would not answer this question and the interpreter suggested that the person may want to use those names again for a dog team. I still had difficulties in understanding that explanation because some of the respondents were past the age of maintaining a dog team or were very ill. In further explanation, the interpreter then stated that they may save the names for their children's dog team, and mentioned that names are important to Inuit.  Previously, I was aware that names of people were very important, but I was uncertain if this was also true for dog names. My goal of asking about Inuit names was to understand if the dogs names were important to people like human names are important. Although I only received a few names, I gained an awareness of the importance of dog names. I now understand the sensitivity in asking about the subject.  In addition, I realized how much more I needed to understand about Inuit culture. 
Although I gathered only a little information about dog names, I did learn some general aspects of naming dogs.  The names shared were often descriptive either in relation to appearance or behavior and personality characteristics of the dogs.  Names were very important to dog-team owners and each owner had special names for their dogs.  One elder commented on how different the dog names used to be, and stated:  "each dog owner had different names; no dogs ever had the same name, even in different camps." Additionally, dogs were not usually given the names of people.  One respondent explained to me that a person would become offended if a dog was named after him or her. 
Although dogs are not generally given Inuit people's names, some dogs were named after famous people, such as members of pro-hockey teams.  Although these dogs were named after hockey players, there may be special circumstances that allow this kind of naming; for example, the people whose names are used are not part of the community.  The use of names from folklore and stories was reported in the Stefansson-Anderson Arctic Expedition, indicating that dogs could be named after a legend (Stefansson 1919).  Naming dogs after pro-hockey players, or other outside celebrities, may reflect on-going cultural change. 
A respondent mentioned that she named her favorite dog one of her Inuktitut names spelled backwards.  The interpreter for that interview explained that when people really liked a dog, sometimes they gave it a name similar to their own.  This incident also illustrates the importance of  names and may reflect a strong affective connection between humans and canines. 
Some respondents stated that they had been told by others to name their team all under one name.  Although a few respondents mentioned that this advice had been given to them by elders, no one practices this system of naming.  All respondents preferred to give their dogs individual names.  This inconsistency between advice and practice suggests the importance people place on naming dogs.  Through an individual name, the owner recognizes each dog as an individual and as having a distinct identity.  Since names are significant in Inuit culture and such special importance is placed on them, the fact that dogs receive names suggests their significance.  If someone defines an individual name of an animal and ascribes special significance to that name, then there is an indication that the animal is important in the society and culture.  Moreover, dogs' names are often re-used and reserved for future use, which further suggests both significance of the dogs' names as well as the significance of the dogs themselves. 

Connection to Human Health
Although this belief is not shared among all Inuit, some believe that there is a connection between health and sickness in humans and dogs.  In his article, “Adaptive Innovation Among Recent Eskimo Immigrants in the Eastern Canadian Arctic,” Freeman mentions that Inuit from Port Harrison (relocated to Grise Fiord) believed in a correlation between the health of a person and of dogs, whereas this belief was not shared by the Inuit from Pond Inlet, also living in Grise Fiord (Freeman 1969).  Taylor explores the connection between heath and ritual killing of dogs in Labrador.  He questions whether canicide is sacrificial killing or if the dogs can be a malevolent spirit (Taylor 1993).  Taylor draws upon incidents from Labrador and quotes such explanations for killing dogs as;  "...the dog should die instead of him,"  and "...her dog should not be livelier and healthier than herself"  (Taylor 1993:  7). 
Similar to Freeman's and Taylor's accounts, some respondents expressed a belief about the connection between human heath and canines.  The general notion is that when a sickness would come to a household it would be better if the sickness was taken by dogs or a dog rather than by any of the people.  One elder explained:

My father used to tell me always to have a dog because sometimes sickness came to the household but the dog took it from the people in the house; he used to tell me always to have a dog around the house.

Furthermore, during another interview my interpreter explained that the reason some people keep a dog was because they were told by parents or elders to always have a least one dog around, in case of sickness.  Another elder explained the reason why he kept a dog,

...there was a saying from long ago - this was before our time - way back, that they knew that a sickness could bounce off from the human - it could bounce off to a dog instead of a human, that is why I keep one dog or some dogs around.

In a different manner, Jensen mentions a connection between dogs and human health.  He reports about the notion that dogs should not be beaten for biting a human.  If the dog was beaten the wound would become worse because the inua [spirit] of the dog would be angry.  He also mentions how some Inuit use hair from the dog to dress the wound of a dog bite (Jensen 1961). 
Some Inuit believe that there is a connection between human health and dogs, although not all Inuit share the believe that this is an important aspect of traditional knowledge concerning dogs.  Traditional knowledge beliefs are not necessarily shared among all Inuit but rather demonstrate that there can be differences amongst a group of people.  

Concluding in Part 4: Sections VI, VII and References
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