The Fan Hitch Volume 5, Number 4, September 2003

Newsletter of the Inuit Sled Dog

Table of Contents

Editorial: Newton's Third Law (of Motion)
Fan Mail
Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Ken MacRury, Part 2
Page from the Behaviour Notebook: Death and Transfiguration
Lost Heritage
Antarctic Vignettes
The Qitdlarssuaq Chronicles, Part 4
News Briefs:
ISDI letter to the Editor of Mushing Magazine
Inuit Dog Thesis International Sales
Update: Traveling Dog Exhibit
Product Review: The Original Zipper Rescue Kit®
Janice Howls: PETAphiles
IMHO: Means, Motive and Opportunity
Index in The Fan Hitch, Volume 5

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

Editor's/Publisher's Statement
              Editor: Sue Hamilton
              Webmaster: Mark Hamilton
The Fan Hitch Website and Publications of the Inuit Sled Dog– the quarterly Journal (retired in 2018) and PostScript – are dedicated to the aboriginal landrace traditional Inuit Sled Dog as well as related Inuit culture and traditions. 

PostScript is published intermittently as material becomes available. Online access is free at:  PostScript welcomes your letters, stories, comments and The editorial staff reserves the right to edit submissions used for publication.

Contents of The Fan Hitch Website and its publications  are protected by international copyright laws. No photo, drawing or text may be reproduced in any form without written consent. Webmasters please note: written consent is necessary before linking this site to yours! Please forward requests to Sue Hamilton, 55 Town Line Rd., Harwinton, Connecticut  06791, USA or
Featured Inuit Dog Owner....

Ken and his team on Holiday Island                 Feder photo

Ken MacRury, Part 2

TFH: What kind of dog would you reject from your team?
KM: The selection process to get good working dogs, as opposed to pets, starts very early.  The first thing was to breed from proven adults.  At times the bitch could be young and may only have worked one winter, but I always made sure the male was an older dog with several (4-8) years of work behind him.  If any defects, either behavioural or physical, are going to show up it is most likely to be within the first three years, after that the dogs are pretty well going to last the long term. 

When the pups are born I looked for the active ones that do not shy away from human contact.  When they start to walk I looked for the ones that come when called by the clicking/sucking sound.  When they start to eat I looked for the ones that learn quickly to sit and wait to be hand fed, that do not grab their food and that wait their turn.

By the time they are 8-10 weeks, I have selected the pups I will keep.  After that I would be reinforcing their attachment to the team by exposing them to all the adults.  By the time they are 4-5 months they would be running loose with the team, sometimes ahead, sometimes in the middle of the team and sometimes following.  At that age, I am looking for the will to be part of the team, to never quit trying to keep up.  If after several hours they get tired and fall far behind they will get a ride.  The important thing is that they keep trying even when tired.

By 6-8 months, it varies with the individual pup, they should be able to run in harness with the team for 3-5 hours.  Females and smaller males mature faster and can keep the pace when larger siblings cannot and may need another two months to reach the same point of development. Starting pups in mid-winter or spring is more difficult as the team has been running all winter and the traveling conditions are faster.  The best time to start pups is in the fall when the team is slower, the snow is soft and going is generally slower and runs are shorter.

If a pup makes the first few months in harness, their career in the team then depends mostly on behavioural traits as they have proven they are willing workers able to go the distance.  They must above all be part of the team, fitting in at the bottom of the heap, deferential to the older adults, no fighting, and they must learn quickly to respond to the driver's commands, when to go, when to stop, lay down, stay in tight with the team, etc.  If they don't get it they are off the team. 

With older dogs, it sometimes happen that they lose their position in the hierarchy and everybody will then pick on them. Better they should go.  Sometimes an old boss dog sees the end coming and becomes very aggressive, starting fights all the time. Better he should go.  Sometimes an older dog just gets too slow and cannot keep the pace of the younger dogs. Better it should go. And then some dogs I got rid of for no particular reason other than a "personality conflict".

Off season on Holiday Island, Ken's team enjoys its weekly meal
                                                                        Feder photo

TFH: On purity: How do you define it? If you don't know for sure what the "pedigree" of a dog is, what criteria of purity are considered when breeding?
KM: Purity is difficult to define so I wont try.  I always looked for dogs that met the breed standards and had proven themselves as team dogs.  I discussed that above.  A physical trait I looked for in pups that I believe indicates purity is upright ears that are thick and feel hot to the touch.  The ears should be unfolded and upright by 3-4 days of age and should always remain upright thereafter.  Of course things like blue eyes in adults, lack of curl in the tail, too long in the body, too long in the leg, thin pointy heads in males, ears set too far back, too long and thin a neck are all serious faults and indicate non-purity.  I also would reject any dog with soft long hair, the "merkijuk" type.  They may come from pure parents but any Inuk I knew would dispose of them at birth.

TFH: Just how critical is genetic diversity in this breed, given the process of natural selection provided by the arctic environment? How did you maintain genetic diversity over the past thirty years?
KM: From a lay perspective I doubt that genetic diversity is as important as most people think.  When referring to animals kept in the traditional context of working animals, only those which meet the most rigorous standards survived. When I was in Iglulik, the traditional hunters (those not using snowmobiles) used dog teams exclusively and raised pups each summer. At the start of winter a team might have 18-22 dogs. By spring, the team would be 12-15 dogs. Most young dogs did not survive their first winter and a few older dogs would also be killed, in fights, by drowning through thin ice, run over by a 2000-lb loaded sled, strangled in the chain or traces, or culled by the owner because they were too slow, too small, too big, would not come when called, would not listen to commands, or what I call "a personality conflict". In those circumstances only the best survive to pass on their genes.   I maintained my team by out-breeding and also getting rid of any dog (young or old) that did not meet my standards.  I also had five dogs over the years that were killed by the other team members (not when I was around). Several died when they swallowed something they should not have.  In twenty-six years of having my own team, I only had two old females that died of old age.

TFH: You devoted an entire chapter in your thesis to addressing the wolf-dog controversy, presenting a lot of physical evidence to support your claim. Yet the opinion persists that the Inuit Sled Dog is more closely related to the wolf, or at least more “wolfy" than other breeds of dogs. Why do some people seem to hold on to this belief?
KM: I devoted an entire chapter in my thesis to the topic because I felt it important that the issue be fully explored as it does continue to be raised, often by quite knowledgeable people who should know better. I am fully convinced, both from my research on the topic and from my experience in the Arctic that the Inuit dog, the beagle, the lab and the Dalmatian are all equally related to the wolf.  In other words, no domestic dog is more closely related to the wolf than any other breed.

I believe that people have two primary reasons for wanting to relate the Inuit dog to the wolf. The first is too much reading and believing of Jack London and similar authors who have a very limited knowledge of the north, sled dogs and wolves and yet have written with great authority about all three.  The second is a need to relate to a wildness that exists only in remote places but which some people try to hold close to themselves by having wolf-dogs, sled dogs or other pets that they want badly to believe are a piece of the wildness that they need. 

Inuit Dog (l), Arctic Wolf (r) in summer      Wolf image: L. D. Mech/NOAA
                                             Arctic Theme Page

In my thirty-one years in the Arctic I did hear stories about dog/wolf breedings taking place but when I really tried to track down the event to specifics I could never verify the event or locate any offspring. It was always, "It happened somewhere else." or "It happened in my grandfather's time." or some such explanation.   I have seen the photos of the wolf in North-east Greenland, traveling with the dogs of the Sirius Patrol. But one must remember that wolves in that area are extremely rare (I have seen estimates of 5-10 wolves for the entire NE Greenland area). As wolves are social animals, perhaps the wolf just wanted some company and had not seen its own kind in many months. I am also aware that in Baffin, where wolves are much more plentiful, dogs and wolves are most often mortal enemies who will kill each other when the chance arises.  In the 1980s, at a camp near Steensby Inlet on the north side of Foxe Basin, a wolf or wolves took to raiding the camp and killing and eating the sled dogs, until one night the dogs ganged up on one large adult male wolf and killed it.  After that the wolves departed the area.  The camp people believed that the wolf killed had been leading his pack into the camp but one night tried to do a raid on his own and was no match for the eleven dogs that he met. There are other similar stories from the eastern arctic.

As I point out in my thesis, dog-wolf crosses would make terrible sled dogs, being unfit for the role both physically and temperamentally,  should they survive to an age when they would be put to harness, and that would be unlikely since they would be the first to be culled from a team as they are not built to be pullers but are sprinters built for the quick chase.

Inuit dogs in a team situation do exhibit some of the behavioral characteristics of a wolf pack as they are living in a similar social context.  I have also read research reports on packs of feral dogs that revert to a social order similar to that of a wolf pack when left to their own survival.  That does not mean that feral dogs or Inuit Dogs are closely related to wolves, only that they exhibit similar behavior.

TFH: Is the biological clock ticking down for the Inuit Dog? What is the future of the breed in the Canadian Arctic? 
KM: I believe the Canadian Inuit Dog breed is in serious genetic peril in the Arctic and elsewhere.  They are not an easy breed to keep, either in the Arctic or in the South and will need a wider range of ownership and use if they are to survive in the longer term. I always felt in my twenty-eight years of association with the breed that we are presently in a holding pattern.  The "present" being about the 1960s to some future date when the Inuit become committed to saving the breed.  If we, non-Inuit, and a few Inuit owners can keep the breed alive until that time then we will have accomplished a great deal.  In Greenland there seems to be a level of commitment by native Greenlanders to ensure the breed survives, although I do wonder about purity.  In Canada, I do not believe there is yet the critical mass required to ensure survival of the breed in the Arctic.  Southern breeders are therefore critically important in the retention of the breed and must ensure that only the best animals are kept for future breeding success. I do believe that we will see an Inuit cultural revival in the Arctic and a renewed interest in the dog by young Inuit committed to using the breed in the old ways.  When that will happen is hard to say. It could be five or twenty years away, but I am quite certain it will happen.

TFH: How would you explain to a total novice why the Inuit Dog can be so incredibly social with humans, yet still be such a tough dog to manage?
KM: The Inuit dog is a product of a particular set of environmental factors that made it what it is today.  On the one hand it existed at the whim of man without whom it could not have survived.  Man chose those dogs which were to survive and they chose the ones who were, for want of a better word, "social".  If a dog did not come when called, if a dog looked the wrong way at a human, if a dog did not learn the rules of the team there was no second chance. He was simply killed. At the same time the dog had to exist within the team where life was a struggle to find a place within the hierarchy and get enough to eat.  In that context they had to be aggressive.  Today we tend to be much too involved in the social interactions of the team because we inject into the structure our ideas of democracy or fair play, or some such human attributes that for the dogs are only confusing and disruptive. (On this, I noted about a month ago the spirited debate about an old boss dog and a young wannabe.  The simple answer to the dilemma is that in a larger team one or the other would have been assisted by other dogs and the likely outcome would have been a dead dog. Case closed.  My bets would be on the young dog, because if the older one cannot beat him to a state where he acknowledges the older dog as boss, but keeps coming back, then eventually he will take over. There is no such thing as honorable retirement within the team.  In traditional times all old boss dogs were eventually killed, most often in a gang slaying by two or three young thugs who were almost certain to be offspring of the boss.)

Asleep (maybe), but keeping tabs on his "prize", a caribou leg.  Sanders photo

TFH: For those folks living below the treeline who breed Inuit Dogs, what extra diligence, what must they take into consideration to "make up for" the culling mother nature in the Arctic is not there to provide?
KM: Mother Nature in the Arctic is indeed rather harsh and ensures only the best survive.  I do not think that most southern owners of CIDs have much of an understanding of how harsh nature is, and I really question if it is possible to replicate the culling that takes place in an Arctic working dog environment. Any known defect should eliminate a southern-based dog from breeding.  In an Arctic working team the issue of cataracts, or any other defect, whether genetic, age related or brought on by injury, can have either no effect or be a death sentence. It depends very much on the circumstances such as time of year, severity of the defect, likely recovery chances, etc. Whether a dog has genetic defects or not is immaterial when they are living in a working team in the Arctic, as they will be weeded out when the defects make them less able to survive than their team mates. And the defects can be social and environmental as well as genetic.

In situations, north or south, where dogs are not subjected to the life of a working dog - and I do not think a short run on the weekend makes a working team - that if we are to make a serious effort to preserve a healthy breed we then have to eliminate any known defect from breeding. Breeding should be by alpha dogs from established teams.  All dogs should be outside at all seasons.  Pups should be born and raised outside with minimal shelter.  An all meat diet should be fed to the dogs through their life.  The dogs should be worked hard whenever possible. These suggestions may be impossible to implement for most owners, but if we want to be in a position to provide good basic breeding stock back to the Arctic, we must be diligent in our efforts to preserve the breed in as natural a state as possible.

I will tell you a story about survival and circumstances.  Tatigat, an Inuit hunter, was out polar bear hunting with his team and, in the process of attacking a bear, his best bear dog was slashed before Tatigat could kill the bear.  The dog was almost scalped, one ear was totally torn off at the base and a large flap of skin covering most of the top of his head was torn loose.  The dog was bleeding badly and Tatigat almost shot the dog to put him out of his pain. But he did not and they camped at the spot for the night.  In the morning the dog was still alive and the bleeding was lessened.  That day they started for home and the dog was left behind to come home or die on its own.  They did not see the dog all day but after another night camping the dog was there in the morning.  At that point, Tatigat thought he might live so from then on the dog rode on the sled until they got home.  When I saw the dog, about a month after the event, although a very ugly dog, he was just about fully recovered and hair was even starting to grow on the new skin covering the head.  The lost ear had not reappeared.  There are a lot of circumstances that could have turned the story another way.

Ken's team at rest on the ice in Iqaluit.                 Sawtell photo

Return to top of page