Defining the Inuit Dog
Canis familiaris borealis

by Sue Hamilton

© December 2011, The Fan Hitch, all rights reserved
revised: December 2020 

I. Introduction
A. The Inuit Dog’s place in the natural world
B. The Inuit Dog is not a wolf!
C. Dangerous confusion

A. The Name Controversy
B. Defining 'Purity'
C. Mistaken Identity: Promoting a breed vs. avoiding
D. The Belyaev Experiment
E. Summary

A.  Ancient history
B. Recent history: The Inuit Dog in service to nations          
1. Exploration
2. War
3. Sovereignty
C. Population decline
A. In the North
B. Below the tree line

A. Inherited diseases
B. Disease prevention and access to veterinary services

A. Appearance
B. Behavior
C. Performance
D. The big picture

VII. The Inuit Dog in Scientific Research, Films and
        in Print

VIII. Acknowledgements

Appendix 1: Partial list of scientific publications about
                     the Inuit Dog

Appendix 2: Selected (alphabetical) list of other resources
                     with a focus on Inuit Dogs

Appendix 3: A small sampling of other resources of

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Inuit Dogs in Iqaluit, NWT (now Nunavut) around 1990.
                                                     Photo: Cees Ingwersen

VI. Describing the Inuit Dog   

    A. Appearance

The aboriginal Inuit Dog has no official written standard as do cultured breeds registered by organizations such as the AKC, CKC and FCI. The superficial appearance of landrace dogs is not dissected and scored body part by body part. The breeding of Inuit Dogs has been focused on stamina and performance. Lifestyle and harsh polar conditions shaped this landrace by its use and survival of the fittest. In his December 2006 article in The Fan Hitch Journal Mark Brazeau of Kangiqsualujjuaq, Nunavik interviewed community Elders Johnny-George Annanack and Tivi Etok to get their recollections describing the authentic Inuit Dog that had been absent from Nunavik for many decades.

A family in Nunavik 1956      Photo: Luc Boyer

The individual variation of aboriginal dogs within a single population is much wider than would be allowed in a cultured breed.

Variation in the appearance of any landrace in its authentic condition far exceeds what is considered acceptable in a cultured show breed.

When an aboriginal dog becomes designated as a pure breed in order to be "saved from extinction", the same mistake is made repeatedly: one type, which seems most frequent or most attractive, is selected and the rest of the pre-existing variation is purged.

Native people do not care about details of the appearance of their dogs, but pay much more attention to their working ability. Especially in the old days, in every community variation among dogs was maintained by exchange of dogs during travels and trading. This is why aboriginal dogs of the same nomadic camp or a village have less uniform appearance then pedigreed breeds do.
Vladimir Beregovoy, PhD.
Evolutionary Changes in Domesticated Dogs:
The Broken Covenant of the Wild, Part 2
The Fan Hitch Journal, V11, N3, June 2009

Yet there are some generalizations that can be made: 1
  • Considered a hallmark trait, ears unfold at about 3-4 days, become upright, and remain so for life except for fight trauma when they may tip, fold or be torn off.

                               Four days old.     Photo: S.L. Han
  • Coat consists of two layers: a thick, insulating undercoat up to 1.5 (3.8 cm) inches (depending on location) covered by longer, harsher guard hairs which also vary in length depending on location and the dog’s sex. Except for the legs, face and ears, typical length is 3-5 (7.6-12.7 cm) inches. Guard hair on the tail, "bloomers" and around the neck and over the withers is longer and in particular in the males where it is considered an expression of sexual dimorphism, making the males look bigger to other males who may consider a challenge for breeding
  • Coats range from all white to nearly all black or dark brown. There are shades of reds and agouti as well. Except in single colored dogs, the Inuit Dog wears a two-colored coat. Some color patterns are quite uniform, but they don’t have to be. White dogs with brown, red or black heads are not unusual.

On the way back from  Ammassalik Fjord  are in the fog;
  East Greenland April 2017.     Photo: Giulia Morosetti,

  • The frequency of expression of the "merqujuq" gene, (excessively long and soft guard hair), in the Arctic is low and unpredictable. While not necessarily a sign of impurity, it is considered a serious functional disability and such pups are typically destroyed at birth.

White and grey merkuiuq pup with normal coated littermates.
                                                          Photo: Hamilton

  • The eyes can be any shade of brown but never blue.
  • Tails curl over the back and then lay against one side of the body. Some tails are carried more loosely curled.
  • The general impression of the overall body style is a robust, sturdily built dog that is not thin or lanky in body, neck or legs. The feet are proportionately large. The skull and muzzle are more "blocky" than fine and the ears are small and nearly triangular.

                                         Photo: Hamilton

In addition to genetic influence, the Inuit Dog’s size is a function of its environment and use. Prior to access to firearms at which point food was easier to harvest, the population of dogs of the Inuit was lower and their physical size likely smaller, based on accessibility of food resources (pre-Thule period)2. Not only did the quantity and quality of diet impact on a dog’s size, its lifestyle did as well. Dogs that performed work every day had more well-defined and developed muscles.

Males are reported to be significantly larger in weight, height and broader in body and bone thickness than females. According to MacRury, comparative weights and heights are as follows1:

Weight 84.9 lbs (38.5 kg) 67.5 lbs (30.56 kg)
Height 24.3 in  (61.7 cm) 22.4 in (56.9kg)

Inuit Dogs brought out of the arctic as puppies and adults, living in this author's kennel range in size as follows:

Weight 70-80 lbs (32-36 kg)
52-63 lbs (23.6-28.6 kg)
24-25 in (61-63.5 cm)
22-23 in (55.9-58.2 cm)

    B. Behavior

The behavioral profile of the Inuit Dog is the result of millennia of a working life in harsh arctic conditions. In very early times, the dogs were not confined, instead being allowed to roam outpost camps socializing with humans of all ages as well as with their own species. When the dogs were not working in some capacity (not just pulling sledges) for humans they were usually left to forage for their own food. So predatory-aggressive behavior was not only a result of their partnership with a hunting society in the acquisition of animals as food and other raw materials, but also for their own survival when not being fed directly by humans.

These pups, released from their enclosure quickly 
 found some caribou scraps to enjoy.                        
                                                   Photo: Hamilton  
Turned loose at a campsite, this hungry dog scavenges
for something to eat.                      Photo: Hamilton

Within this historically early, free-ranging Inuit Dog society, pack dynamics were established. There existed an alpha dog, also identified as a "king" dog or "boss" dog.3 A competent, intelligent boss dog was the one who ruled supremely, generally kept the peace among lower ranking dogs, ate first and most, and was the male who mated with the bitches. A good boss seldom fought to injure or kill, unless the lower ranking dog for some reason failed to accept the boss's authority or decided to challenge it. Where the boss was old and failing, he would be killed by the younger, stronger rival. This is an example of the ISD’s social-aggressive behavior.

Part of the Inuit Dog's survival success has resulted in an animal with a well-developed sense of pack social structure, an animal who is acutely aware of the hazards and opportunities of its environment and an ability to communicate its feelings and intentions and in a manner far more directly than cultured breeds. It is also adept at reading body language signals of other dogs and humans to a greater degree than dogs bred as pets and show dogs.

The following four images and captions, contributed by behavioural biologist Giulia Morosetti, describe her observations of the evolution of a fight among a team of Inuit Dogs she witnessed first-hand in the Kulusuk area of East Greenland, March 2017. (In 2020 Dr. Morosetti completed her veterinary masters degree “I cani da slitta indigeni dell’Arctico: Simbolo dell’identità dei loro popoli e patrimonia dell’umanità”/“The indigenous sled dogs of the Arctic: Symbols of the identity of their populations and patrimonies of humanity”).

Qasertoq , the boss of a team of Greenland Dogs

The whitish and the black dogs from this team were not getting
along well in general. Probably it was wrong to keep them picketed
next to each other, so that they never had a real possibility to
define their positions, thus becoming more and more frustrated.

Two males instigated the fight on this team. At the
beginning everything looked calm, but already two
dogs were exchanging messages.                            

Suddenly the black dog which is hidden behind the boss,
 did something wrong and was immediately punished by
two other males, especially the whitish dog. The boss
dog intervened later to settle the fight.


Alpha male and female Inuit Dogs posture over a
subordinate full grown youngster.                       
                           Photo: Evert Jan terBerg
The dominant dog on the right is getting the
submissive presentation desired from the dog on the
left while the dog in the middle keeps a low profile.
                                                                  Photo: Hamilton
It has been observed that "cultured" dogs do not or poorly understand or acknowledge the "language" of Inuit Dogs. This communication disconnect along with the Inuit Dog's strong need to live within a structured social hierarchy has given it a reputation to be more likely to fight with dogs outside of Inuit Dog society.
All dogs benefit from early socialization. But for aboriginal dogs in general and Inuit Dogs in particular, human contact right from birth is considered essential to establish a useful bond between working dog, master and other humans. Fear aggression in Inuit Dogs has been described since old times in animals that have not had adequate early and continuing human contact. Properly raised, the Inuit Dog is generally very social to humans, however that should not be confused with "pet" behavior as these dogs are selected for reproduction based on working performance and everything that encompasses, not based on a "soft" temperament.

                                       Photo: Lee Narraway

Today, even though most, if not all, arctic Inuit Dog teams are picketed when not working, their behavioral traits are well retained. Two of the most compelling problems are a picketed team's inability to establish and maintain its social order, which will result in the need of the boss dog to be more confrontational in order to "remind" the lower ranking dogs who (outside of the human owner) is in charge. The other issue may be lack of sufficient human socialization. However, in defense of the picketed dogs and their responsible ownership, unfortunate tragedies have been the result of transgressions, both intentional and unintentional, into the space occupied by a span of picketed working sled dogs by unfamiliar irresponsible and/or naïve humans.
This is the working animal of the circumpolar North, where its behavior is well known and understood, and where the dog has evolved, where it needs to be fine-tuned by nature and work, to survive as an aboriginal dog. Renee Wissink, who, with four other men and 46 Inuit Dogs, recreated the 1832 migration of the shaman Qitdlarssuaq, traveling 1800 miles in about three months from Igluliq in the central Canadian High Arctic to the northwest coast of Greenland, described the Inuit Dog from its point of view: "If you can't eat it, or screw it, then piss on it!"

This landrace exists below the tree line, too, found on recreational teams as well as those of commercial outfitters who understand, value and respect them. Owners who keep and or use cultured breeds of sled dogs who are only vaguely familiar with the Inuit Dog often describe them as "alligators with fur". These people, and the outside-of the-arctic dog owning population at large, have no understanding or appreciation of the nature of aboriginal dogs. Mushers who use other breeds (and mixes) of sled dogs have openly questioned the "need" for Inuit Dogs to retain their "aggressive tendencies", observing, "They don't hunt polar bears or fend for themselves anymore." This uninformed attitude, this desire to dissect out parts of a dog's profile as a matter of convenience to suit the desires of a foreign culture in a foreign land is the mind-set of what has transformed so many formerly functional working dogs into scores of useless cultured breeds, a practice begun in earnest in Victorian England. With attitudes like these, the responsible ownership and use of Inuit Dogs outside their native habitat can be challenging.

Mother (l) explodes in fury at something her
son (r) did to offend her.     Photo: Hamilton

Considering the Inuit Dog's history, it is most important to remember the following quote from Bill Carpenter, co-founder of the Eskimo Dog Recovery Project (see II B):
"The Inuit Dog demonstrates an exaggerated response to all stimuli."
C. Performance

A team of dogs, disconnected from the qamutiq by the hunter,
surround and harass this bear while the hunter rushes to join them.
                                                          Photo: courtesy of Ivar Silis

Around the world the Inuit Dog is thought of only as a sled dog, as one of its common designations (Inuit Sled Dog) implies. But historically there was a period of time (See III A) when the dogs of ancient Inuit were not used principally as sledge haulers. Prior to the end of the nomadic society (mid-20th century), the complete, fully functioning Inuit Dog was still a pack animal, a hunting partner using both sight and smell, capable of cornering and attacking wounded polar bear and musk ox or locating seal breathing holes and pup dens, often invisible underneath snow covered sea ice.

Spence Bay, 1951
                            Photo: Richard Harrington
                                  from Face of the Arctic

In harness, the dogs are able to work under extraordinarily difficult conditions of dangerous weather, able to avoid treacherously thin ice, find the way back to camp in blinding whiteouts, sometimes doing all of this on very little food. Physiologically and anatomically the dogs are able to survive at extremely low temperatures and have the remarkable ability to perform well when fed on an irregular basis, which was and still is not uncommon. They also quickly recovered from those periods of starvation once food was plentiful.  Recently physiologists studied the Greenland Dog to learn why they could so quickly return to high performance levels after long periods of inactivity4

Family Travel
block print by Ekootak
from I, Nuligak

For outsiders who came to the North to explore and claim real estate for their homelands, dogs of the Inuit were the only choice for travel. However, the aboriginal Inuit Dog has been the preferred choice of more recent polar explorer/ adventures as well. And at the other end of the Earth when Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders began to establish Antarctic bases, once again Inuit Dogs from Greenland and eastern Canada were preferred over other breeds because of the Inuit Dog's legendary reputation for its skills in harness: its endurance, willingness to traverse endless fields of pack ice, hauling heavily laden qamutiit (sledges) up and over towering slabs of pressure ridges, on the move hour after hour, day after day sometimes on less than ideal rations. These dog drivers may have complained about the dogs' belligerent displays, but they also all put their faith and their survival in their Inuit Dogs.

Setting out from Point Barrow. Painting by Sir Wally Herbert
depicting the 1968 beginning of his British Trans-Arctic
Expedition: four men and forty Inuit Dogs crossing the sea ice
via the North Pole in sixteen months, from Barrow, Alaska to Svalbard.
                                                           Courtesy of Kari Herbert, Polarworld
D. The big picture
The Inuit Dog is defined in ways mere words can't adequately quantify!

The aboriginal Inuit Dog is characterized less by outward appearance than by a host of other functional attributes, including some driven by cellular biology, which have enabled this landrace to survive and thrive as a valued and essential partner to human endeavors in one of the most extreme and violent natural environments on Earth. Thousands of years in the circumpolar north have created an animal that is the sum of many parts.

Courtesy Matty McNair
                                   NorthWinds Expeditions
Today few arctic Inuit Dogs live as their ancestors did - packing, hauling and hunting for most days of the polar year. The transition was from a free ranging life in traditional seasonally relocating outpost camps to picket lines within settlements. An increasing dependence on a wage earning economy meant a greater reliance on snow machines to quickly take families out on the land to hunt and fish during the limited non-work time.

This shift from dependence on the Inuit Dog for daily survival to the precipitous reduction in its population over a good portion of the past century has resulted in serious challenges to the existence of the authentic aboriginal dog in the circumpoler north. And although their role in service to humans may be evolving, polar life will continue to select the best traits this landrace has stored within its DNA as it has for thousands of years.
                            Photo: courtesy Nunavut Tourism

1 Based on a total of 499 dogs from Canada and Alaska; from The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History by Ian Kenneth MacRury; Featured Inuit Dog Owner: Ken MacRury, The Fan Hitch, V5N4, September 2003; personal communication with Mr. MacRury.

2 “In most area of the Eastern Arctic, around Baffin Island and into Hudson Bay, firearms were introduced to the Inuit in the mid to late 1800s by the whalers. However due to the uncertainty of ammunition supply the widespread use of firearms was not until the trading posts were established. That mostly happened in the early 1900s. Places like Cape Dorset and Pond Inlet had permanent trading posts by about 1910 while some others like Igloolik were not established until the 1930s. In the central arctic the regular use of firearms was even later, likely not until the 1940s in some of the more isolated areas.” Personal communication with Ken MacRury.

3"Boss Dogs and Lead Dogs: Are They Born or Made?" by Ken MacRury; The Fan Hitch, V12N1, December 2009

4 Muscle plasticity of Inuit sled dogs in Greenland; Nadine Gerth, Steffen Sum, Sue Jackson and J. Matthias Starck; The Journal of Experimental Biology 212, 1131-1139, 2009