The Fan Hitch Volume 7, Number 1, December 2004

Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog

Table of Contents

Editorial: New faces, Old Passions
F.I.D.O.: Peter Schmidt Mikkelsen
A Conversation with Palle Norit
DNA Analysis of the Greenland Dog and the Canadian Inuit Dog
Pregnancy, Whelping and Pup Development in the ISD, Part 1
Product Review: Herculiner®
Tip for the Trail: Anti-fatigue Mats
In the News
Janice Howls: At the Heart of Greatness
 IMHO: Training or Interference

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Editor: Sue Hamilton
Webmaster: Mark Hamilton
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Greenland Dogs from Qaanaaq on a 2004 Wintergreen trip         Steege photo

DNA Analysis of the Greenland Dog and the Canadian Inuit Dog:
Are these breeds the same or are they genetically distinct?

by Hanne Friis, Denmark

This research project, being undertaken in completion of my master's thesis, will investigate the degree of genetic variation between four groups of dogs, the Canadian Inuit Dog and three populations of Greenland Dogs - the Thule District, the Disko Bay region and the east coast. My theory, as stated by Ken MacRury in his master's thesis, is that the Greenland Dog and the Canadian Inuit Dog is the same breed. However, it is known that after a certain amount of generations, any isolated gene pool will be different from one another. Therefore a certain variation within the breed is expected. I would expect is there is less variation between the Greenland Dogs of the Thule District and Inuit Dogs of Canada and more variation between Inuit Dogs of East Greenland, the Disko Bay region and Canadian Inuit Dogs. 

*     *     *

The dog found in Greenland today is believed among Greenlanders to be one of the most isolated and pure dog breeds in the world and no interbreeding with other breeds of dogs is allowed.  Among sled dog enthusiasts, this subject is a little more controversial than that, and discussions about breed standards, eye colour etc. puts a question mark on the pureness of this Greenland Dog seen with the eyes of a Greenlandic person.

The Greenland Dog was brought into the country with the last major migration from Canada, the Thule Culture, approximately, 1005 B.P. Since then the dog population is believed to have been isolated. Coming from Canada, these dogs must originally have been related to the Canadian Inuit Dogs. The questions my research seeks to answer are the following. How much interbreeding between dogs in Greenland and Canada has taken place? Are breeds are no different? How much variation may there be between dogs from different regions within Greenland? This may not be such a big issue for a dog lover, but for the Greenlandic government it is very important to state that the Greenland Dog is one breed.

The fact is, that in the Thule district the distance to the Canadian border is only little. The bear hunters from Greenland used to hunt in the same areas as Inuit from Canada and the people of Thule today tell about exchanging dogs when visiting each other. On a personal journey to Qaanaaq this past summer I received hair for DNA sampling from a now dead dog, which was given to the owner from Canadian Inuit.

Why is this breed's characteristics at all relevant? Well, as a veterinary student writing a master's thesis it is indeed relevant. I have spent the last six years traveling between Greenland and Denmark and have seen many different dogs on my journeys along the coast of Greenland. When visiting various geographically separated places, I have found that the dogs will often look different. When you read about the Greenland Dog in any writings about Greenland, it is always emphasized that this breed is "pure" and "original". This made me wonder about the genetic traits of the dog, its gene pool and how it relates to other breeds of sledge dogs. This also led to the question: "What about the Canadian Inuit Dog? Is that any different?" According to the master's thesis of Ken MacRury (The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History), it is not. No previous work has been done on the genetic material of Canadian Inuit Dogs and Greenland Dogs which made it seem even more relevant.

A while ago the Danish Sirius Patrol brought semen from other dog breeds into their stock to improve the breed and overcome problems with inbreeding. Now, these dogs had to be taken out of the pedigree again as no import of dogs or semen/eggs is allowed in the dog sledge district of Greenland.

The total population of sled dogs in Greenland is approximately 25, 000 spread over the whole island. Breeding is often fairly random as vary few dog owners keep any kind of statistics on relatedness. Also there seems to be an endless stream of stray dogs which makes it even more difficult to know who the father is of a litter. This can result in inbreeding, especially in the smaller districts and it is indeed relevant to look at this in a population genetic study.

In my master's thesis I shall genetically compare DNA of the Canadian Inuit Dog, and Greenland Dogs from three different locations by use of microsatellite markers. The geographical regions are: Ilulissat in the Disko Bay area, Thule and the East Coast. These populations are three distinct dog populations with very little interbreeding. The dogs on the east coast of Greenland have been isolated from the last migration up until East Greenland was "discovered" in 1884. The dogs in Thule would have been isolated if they had not had a severe distemper epidemics in 1998/1999 where they had to import dogs from the Disko Bay district. This was not the only major distemper epidemic, and in 1986 dogs from the Baffin district of Canada had to be brought into the district. 

What will this show? It will tell something about what is specific for the Greenland Dog. Also the method used is able to give an overview of the degree of inbreeding in the sub-populations which for the Greenland Dog has never been investigated. Also, it opens up for a further study of the dog breeds. In Norway there is a very enthusiastic congregation of Greenland Dog breeders who believe their dogs to be more "pure" than many of today's Greenland Dogs from Greenland and do not recommend to take any dogs from Greenland in. If that is true, it can be shown by sampling these dogs also to see if they differ significantly from the Greenlandic dogs.

On the larger scale a more detailed population study of the Greenland Dog and other sled dog breeds can eventually tell when these breeds were separated and thereby add important information about the Inuit cultures  and their use of dogs.

The first lab work has been done this fall but the actual work on the thesis is to take place this spring. I shall get back when I know more.

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