Defining the Inuit Dog
Canis familiaris borealis
by Sue Hamilton
© December 2011, The Fan Hitch, all rights reserved
revised: December 2020
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
A. Ancient history
B. Recent history: The Inuit Dog in service to nations
C. Population decline
A. In the North
B. Below the tree line
A. Inherited diseases
B. Disease prevention and access to veterinary services
A. AppearanceVII. The Inuit Dog in Scientific Research, Films and
D. The big picture
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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B. Recent history: The Inuit Dog in service to nations
Copper Eskimo family travelling with dog sled, Coronation Gulf,
Northwest Territories (Nunavut); photographed during the 1913-1918
Canadian Arctic Expedition lead by Vilhjalmur Stefansson.
Photo: R.M.Anderson; archived as #20288 in the Canadian Museum of History
A. Ancient history
Inuit Migration from Alaska across Canada to Greenland
The earliest evidence of domestic dogs in North America dates to ~10,000 years ago. Until recently, not much was known about how, when, and if domestic dogs were introduced to North America, or if they were domesticated from North American wolves. Ancient DNA and archaeological data from a 2018 study (Leathlobhair et al. 2018) suggests that North American pre-contact dogs (PCD) belonged to a now extinct lineage, are most closely related to ancient Siberian populations, and did not derive from North American wolves. This data suggests that pre-contact dogs were introduced to the Americas by people from Siberia/Beringia, and subsequently went extinct after the introduction of European breeds. Interestingly, this now extinct lineage of pre-contact dogs appears to be closely related to Arctic breeds (Malamutes and Siberian Huskies), however, PCD are not the direct ancestor of these modern breeds. This leads to questions about the origin of Arctic breeds, both modern and ancient.
The North American Arctic was initially colonized by two waves of humans, and their dogs. The first, the Paleo-Inuit, who arrived in the North American Arctic roughly 4,500 years ago from Siberia, and show little evidence for extensive use of dogs. The second wave occurred ~2,000 years ago, with the arrival of the Thule people (ancestors of the Inuit), who heavily utilized dogs for sled traction. The Thule/Inuit culture brought a unique toolkit with it to North America, including the development and widespread usage of the umiak and kayak for sea travel, and the dog sledge for use on land and ice (Mathiassen, 1927; McGhee, 1996; Gulløv HC. 1997). The Thule people translocated this culture out of Alaska eastward to Greenland, and along the coast of subarctic Eastern Canada starting in 1000 BP (McGhee, 2009; Friesen and Arnold, 2008). The rapid expansion of the Inuit is attributed in part to their exploitation of advanced transportation technologies.
Until recently, it had been unclear what the relationship between Paleo-Inuit and Thule dogs, and pre-contact dogs was. Genetic evidence from ancient archaeological dog remains (Ameen, Feuerborn, Brown, Linderholm et al. 2019), suggests that ancient Paleo-Inuit dogs largely shared the same genetic signature as pre-contact dogs. However, the Thule/Inuit dogs did not possess the pre-contact dog and Paleo-Inuit genetic profile. The ancient Thule/Inuit dogs harbored another genetic signature, which was common in ancient Siberian samples, and did not derive from the Paleo-Inuit dogs. Additionally, (Ameen, Feuerborn, Brown, Linderholm et al. 2019) performed morphometric analysis (Geometric Morphometrics; GMM) on mandibles and crania from these specimens. They found that Thule/Inuit dogs tended to be larger, with a more narrow cranium than Paleo-Inuit dogs, suggesting that these populations are morphologically different, supporting the genetic data.
One must not assume the Inuit Sled Dog to be only the aboriginal sledge dog of the circumpolar north based on its name alone, for it possessed other essential skills as well. Many characteristics: scent locating seal breathing holes (aglu) and birthing lairs, tracking and catching prey wounded by hunters, alerting hunters and family encampments to the presence of bears and then keeping these large predators at bay, carrying belongings on their backs in summer and hauling a heavily laden qamutiq (sledge) over snow and ice covered surfaces, used for clothing (wolves as well) and occasionally as food either preferentially, or during periods of famine (Mason-Maclean, McManus-Fry, and Britton, 2019; Ameen, Feuerborn, Brown, Linderholm et al. 2019), along with their legendary resilience to hardships, have credited the Inuit Dog as being the principal reason for the survival of the ancestors of today’s modern Inuit1 This influence has continued into the mid-twentieth century, at which time the lives of these hunters, already affected by the presence of the outside world, began to dramatically change.
Ameen, Carly, Tatiana R. Feuerborn, Sarah K. Brown, Anna Linderholm, Ardern Hulme-Beaman, Ophélie Lebrasseur, Mikkel-Holger S. Sinding et al. "Specialized sledge dogs accompanied Inuit dispersal across the North American Arctic." Proceedings of the Royal Society B 286, no. 1916 (2019): 20191929.
Brown, Sarah K., Christyann M. Darwent, and Benjamin N. Sacks. "Ancient DNA evidence for genetic continuity in arctic dogs." Journal of Archaeological Science 40, no. 2 (2013): 1279-1288.
Leathlobhair, Máire Ní, Angela R. Perri, Evan K. Irving-Pease, Kelsey E. Witt, Anna Linderholm, James Haile, Ophelie Lebrasseur et al. "The evolutionary history of dogs in the Americas."
Science 361, no. 6397 (2018): 81-85.
Masson-Maclean E, McManus-Fry E, Britton K. 2019. The archaeology of dogs at the pre-contact Yup’ik site of Nunalleq, Western Alaska. In Beyond domestication: archaeological investigations into the human-canine connection (eds A Burtt, B Bethke).Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press
McGhee R. 2009. When and why did the Inuit move to the eastern Arctic. In The Northern World, AD900–1400 (eds Herbert Maschner, Owen Mason),pp. 155–164. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press.
Friesen TM, Arnold CD. 2008. The timing of the Thule migration: new dates from the Western Canadian Arctic
Mathiassen T. 1927 Archaeology of the central Eskimos: the Thule culture and its position within the Eskimo culture. Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921–24. Copenhagen, Denmark: Gyldendaslke Boghandel.
McGhee R. 1996 Ancient people of the Arctic. Vancouver, Canada: UBC Press.
Gulløv HC. 1997 From middle ages to colonial times: archaeological and ethnohistorical studies of the Thule Culture in South West Greenland 1300–1800 AD. Copenhagen, Denmark: Dansk Polar Center.
Ed: The Fan Hitch is indebted to evolutionary biologist
Sarah K. Brown, PhD for her contribution to
III. A. Ancient History of the Inuit Dog
Looking for seal pups in a birthing lair
Photo: Doug E. Wilkinson; N-1979-05 /NWT archives;
courtesy of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre
Arctic explorers came to the North eager to gain notoriety and favor by mapping, naming and claiming arctic territory for their homeland’s sovereigns. They also sought to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Others searched for fame as the first to reach the geographic North Pole. Missionaries, as well, came to establish their religious domination. Fur traders, seeking their own version of fortune for themselves and the companies they represented established trading posts to encourage Inuit to bring in as many fox and other pelts as could be trapped. It was through these foreigners, who traveled by dog team, that the legendary strength and endurance of the Inuit Sled Dog was made known to the outside world.
The Hobbits, a British Antarctic Survey dog team, sledging on sea ice
Painting by Mike Skidmore
When polar exploration headed south, the Inuit Dog's reputation made it the choice (although not exclusive to every expedition or nationality) of Australia, New Zealand, France and Great Britain who established Antarctic bases in the early 20th century. Beginning in the 1940s, the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey (FIDS), now called the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), began the golden era of Antarctic exploration and scientific discovery. Much of the early knowledge gained, still invaluable to this day, was made possible thanks to the endurance and stamina of "British Antarctic Huskies" – Inuit Sled Dogs2.
Due to political maneuvering associated with the Madrid Protocol, all non-indigenous life (except human) was banned from the continent as of April 1994. Save for a very few BAS huskies that were "repatriated" to their homeland in Arctic Quebec (Nunavik), the British government ordered the doggy men, many of whom who owed their lives to the dogs, to shoot these loyal companions. The remorse and bitterness over this act has not lessened over time. Nearly fifty years since some of these "Fids", as they are still nostalgically called, sledged across the continent, they still show fierce loyalty and respect for their dogs.3 The British Antarctic Husky Memorial was created to honor these dogs so that their contributions will never be forgotten.
Sadly, the dogs returned to Arctic Quebec died and no animals can be traced back to the BAS dogs, thus losing a valuable and unique genetic population of Inuit Sled Dogs. However, frozen semen from one of the dogs returned to Canada was collected and stored in a sperm bank.4
The original establishment of a British presence in Antarctica was part of the wartime (WWII) effort, Operation Tabarin. But Inuit Dogs were "recruited" with plans to use them in Europe as well. In his article, Sled Dogs in His Majesty's Service: Clark's Eskimo Dogs in World War II, Charles L. Dean, author of Soldiers and Sled Dogs: A History of Military Mushing, describes how in 1942 the British military arranged for the purchase of Inuit Dogs from Ed Clark of Lincoln, New Hampshire. These dogs were sent to both Iceland and Scotland, destined to work in Norway.
In post-war Greenland, with the cold war heating up, the Danish government established a secret military sledge dog patrol, code name "Operation Resolute". Three years later the program was revealed to the public as the now famous Sirius Patrol. Today, from their headquarters in Daneborg on Greenland's east coast, the only military dog sledge patrol in the world sends out five teams of two Danish soldiers and eleven dogs traveling the huge expanse of north and northeast Greenland surveilling Danish sovereignty, conducting military exercises and serving as the civilian police authority. During a typical year, collectively the teams may cover over 11,000 mi (18,000 km).
Sirius Patrol dog man Peter Schmidt Mikkelsen and
his team, from 1000 Days with Sirius by P. Mikkelsen,
Photo: Peter Schmidt Mikkelsen
In April 2010, a Sirius Patrol team was invited to participate in OP Nunalivut 10, a joint operation by the Canadian Forces in Canada's North. It utilizes the unique capabilities of the Canadian Rangers in support of Joint Task Force North (JTFN) operations in the extreme environment of the high Arctic. In an interview at the conclusion of the joint Canadian/Danish exercise, published in the June 2010 issue of The Fan Hitch Journal Captain Neal Whitman, Deputy Commander of 1 Canadian Ranger Patrol Group, stated that the Canadian military had no plans to specifically form a Sirius Patrol-like division. "There is a very unique capability that works very well for the Danish concept of operations where they're patrolling along the north eastern coast of Greenland in a very isolated environment," Whitman explained. "In our context it gets a little bit different though because our area of operations is a lot more heavily populated really than the areas that the Sirius Patrol operates in. We operate directly with the aboriginal communities. Fifty-eight different communities participate in the [annual] program and a total of sixteen hundred Rangers, which is quite different from the twelve that participate in the Sirius Patrol. For our purposes, again we just choose whatever the community wants to use to get out on the land. If they want to use dog sleds then we can support that and if they want to use snowmachines we can support that. So for us it's really tied in to what the community wants to do and what they feel is the way to get around."
C. The population decline
There is no doubt that the numbers of traditional Inuit Dogs working in the Canadian North5 has dwindled precipitously in the last century, leading to Bill Carpenter and John McGrath's efforts to restore their numbers with their creation of the Eskimo Dog Recovery Project (see II B). Some of these reasons were:
Challenges to a vibrant northern population of traditional Inuit Dogs continue with:
Elder Paloosie Koonaloosie was a traditional and very well
respected hunter from Qikiqtarjuaq, Nunavut. After he died,
none of his children wished to continue on with their father's
way of life. Photo: Kevin Slater, Mahoosuc Guide Service
The presence of non-indigenous dogs is now ubiquitous throughout the Canadian North and currently there are no regulatory mechanisms in place to control this influx, either by outright banning or by allowing only altered dogs to accompany their owners north. In Greenland there is a law forbidding non-indigenous breeds into regions where sled dogs are kept as a measure to keep the Greenland Inuit Dog uncontaminated. However it is believed that strict enforcement has not been in place. For example, after a 1986 distemper epidemic, traditional Inuit Dogs from the north Baffin region of Canada were sent into the Thule District of Greenland. Dogs were also sent into this region from other parts of Greenland as well.7
1 The Inuit Dog: Its Provenance, Environment and History; Ian Kenneth MacRury; pg 45, para. 1.
2 See The Contribution of Dogs to Exploration in Antarctica by Peter Gibbs, The Fan Hitch, V5N2, March 2003.
3 Two of the many examples found throughout The Fan Hitch are: How do you say good-bye? by Peter Noble; V10, N4, September 2008 and Brave Little Heart by Ken Pawson, V2 N2, November 1999.
4 Personal communication, Winter 2009.
5 Although it is apparent that there are still authentic Inuit Dogs in Greenland, the status of that population is not clearly known to this author.
6 The RCMP, Qikiqtani Truth Commission and Makivik official reports can be found under "Official reports regarding Canadian Federal Government vis-a-vis Inuit social/cultural issues, including sled dogs" on The Fan Hitch Resources page.
7 Personal communications with people of the Baffin region.