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The Fan Hitch, Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog, is published four times a year. It is available at no cost online at: http://thefanhitch.org.
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Oral histories and first hand stories of traditional life with Inuit Dogs, accompanied by both archival photos and Inuit drawings, appeared in issue number 12, Spring 2000 of Tumivut, the cultural magazine of the Nunavik Inuit, published by the Avataq Cultural Institute. Tumivut means "traces of our footsteps". It refers to the story of Atungaq who went around the world and left his footprints in the bedrock all around Nunavik. The Fan Hitch is indebted to Avataq for granting permission to reprint "Healthy Diet for Dogs".
Two unidentified Inuit working on dog sled
lines; Inukjuak, Nunavik; 1947-48
Credit: Richard Harrington / Library and Archives Canada / PA-146876
Healthy Diet for Dogs
by Paulusie Weetaluktuk
Interviewed in 1979
Some dogs could detect a seal hole, with the help of the wind, if there was no open water around. They could find them even deep beneath the snow. They would dig away the snow. If they were not trained to smell the seal holes, they wouldn’t do it. Some dogs only showed interest in meat that was in sight, but some helped their masters in every way they knew. Helpful ones would find seal holes even when the holes were completely buried in snow.
Inuit men hunted all kinds of arctic animals apart from seals. Everyone told others where they were going. Hunting was very important to us for many reasons, including the need to feed our dogs. In those times nobody carved. Whenever men weren’t hunting, they fished cod for dog food. We needed the dogs to live. If you didn’t have dogs you lived in poverty. So you had to respect your dogs. Without dogs you weren't much of a man.
There were times when almost all the dogs died of rabies. A man with a good team could make a good living. But if he lost all his dogs, his livelihood would turn from better to worse. If he lost his dogs, he lost his ability to travel any distance, or hunt caribou. If he was left with only a few dogs, he could take short trips, but he couldn't travel far. Even with the best advice, things weren't always easy. It wasn't always easy to make a living, no matter how well you had been taught traditional skills. We sometimes went home empty-handed after days and days of hunting. Or if it had been too stormy to hunt, and we ran out of supplies, we would have to go home even if there was nothing there either.
We went very far inland to trap, so we had to catch seals before the trip. Our dogs needed the fat for energy and stamina. A cod diet, without seal fat, made for weak dogs. Dogs were never given too much to eat at once, so that the supply would last. The hunters knew there was always a next day. They knew they had to keep some food in reserve. Hunters estimated the amount of food to dole out each day based on how many days they expected to be traveling. The animals we hunted for dog food were just as scarce as any others. We made sure that the dogs got a healthy diet. When it was very cold, they seemed to require more food, so it was sensible to give them more than usual. In milder temperatures, they did just as well with less food. We gave them just enough so they could travel a long distance, at a walking pace.
I grew up when dogs were used for going places. These days we don't go anywhere when the weather isn't good. In those days, we sometimes traveled even in severe storms, as long as the dogs knew where they were going. You knew you would reach your destination if the dogs knew the way. Some dogs were very intelligent, especially those used as lead dogs.
Lead dogs were very important. A good male lead dog would never loose its way even in the worst blizzard. Males and females were both used as lead dogs, but given a choice, males were preferred. A well-trained male lead dog would never lose his way. I was taught that if I wanted to travel in a blizzard, without ever getting lost, I should train a male lead dog. A female lead dog was likely to feel cold in the muzzle more than a male. When her nose got cold, she would tend to head wherever she thought was less cold. She would follow her own wish for comfort, instead of the correct route. Female lead dogs had more stamina and will to reach a destination, but I was warned that a male lead dog was better if I needed my dog to guide me to safety in a storm.
Dogs lasted for a considerable number of years. A puppy turned into a strong capable dog in three years. By year four it wouldn't be as energetic as the previous year, however hard he tried. You could still use a five-year-old dog, but it wouldn't have as much energy as a three-year-old. That was the peak for liveliness and stamina.
In spring we did our best to make sure our dogs shed their old fur. Even if food was scarce, we took more care with their diet than in any other season, so their coats would renew. If their diet wasn't balanced, their coats didn't change, and then they seemed to loose their will to live. It's a known fact. No matter how much food you gave them, those dogs were as good as dead.
Some dogs would never shed their old coats, and I would not use these for traveling, especially in extreme cold. A dog that hadn't replaced its coat would not improve even with a better diet. It still lost weight. You could tell healthy dogs by the condition of their fur.
Although not in print for ten years, Avataq hopes to relaunch Tumivut if financial support is received. However, Tumivut #12, Spring 2000, is available to purchase for $7.00 CAD plus shipping. To get your own copy, please contact:
Marketing manager / Publications Dept.
Institut culturel Avataq
4150, rue Sainte Catherine Ouest, bureau 360
Westmount, Québec H3Z 2Y5
514 989-9031 #250