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Dog Spotlight: Sled Dogs & The Iditarod

January 03, 2020

While the cold and snow makes most people (and their dogs!) prefer to curl up next to the fireplace with hot cocoa instead of being outside, for sled dogs it’s the best time of year. These dogs are built for the snow and one of winter’s most interesting sports – dog sledding!

What is dog sledding?

Dog sledding is an activity where a group of dogs pulls a sled over ice and snow. In cold regions like Alaska, Canada, and Siberia where there’s snow throughout the year, dog sledding was a main mode of transportation for supplies, mail, and medicine. It became widely popular during the Klondike gold rush in the late 19th century.

Dog sledding, also known as “mushing,” transformed into a winter sport in 1908 in Alaska. Planes began to replace sled dogs as the preferred method of transportation, but sled dog racing has continued for recreation and winter fun. Today, the most famous dog sledding race takes place in Alaska – the Iditarod.

What is the Iditarod?

The Iditarod is the most popular sporting event in Alaska and is the most well-known dog sledding race in the world. The Iditarod is a 938-mile trek from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska that first started in 1973. The race itself is a reconstruction of the freight route between the two cities to commemorate the importance of sled dogs to Alaska’s history.

The race is named after the ghost town of Iditarod, an old mining town that was deserted after the gold rush. Today, men and women from all over compete in the race lasting anywhere from 8-15 days. Each sled is pulled by a team of 14 dogs. The Iditarod is unique because there are two trails: the northern route, run on even years, and the southern route, run on odd years.

What breeds make the best sled dogs?

The most well-known sled dogs are purebred breeds like Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian Huskies, Samoyeds, and Chinooks. These dog breeds all have thick, warm coats designed to keep them warm in the cold without getting overheated. They are also muscular with tough paws that can withstand long races in the snow.

Today, the most popular sled dog breed is the Alaskan Husky. The Alaskan Husky isn’t a purebred, but a mix between the Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, and other breeds like Greyhounds, Border Collies, and Hounds. These dogs are bred to make fast and enthusiastic sled dogs.

Sled dogs aren’t the biggest dogs, with most racing dogs weighing between 40-60 pounds. The key is dogs that are fast and have a high endurance without too much bulk to slow them down. Good sled dogs also need to know how to work together as a team within their harnesses.

Balto – the most famous sled dog

You might already be familiar with one of the most famous sled dogs in history – Balto. Whether you’ve seen the animated movie or his statue in Central Park, Balto’s heroic story is emblematic of the importance of sled dogs in Alaska’s history.

In January 1925, Nome, Alaska experienced an outbreak of a deadly infection called diphtheria. The closest lifesaving serum was located in Anchorage, over 500 miles away. The weather was so bad that planes could not fly, leaving dog sledding as the only option. The 650-mile freight route known as the Iditarod Trail would take a team of sled dogs over a month to complete, which was too slow to fight the epidemic. A relay of dog sledders was the only hope to get the serum as fast as possible.

Twenty “mushers” volunteered for the “Great Race of Mercy,” with Balto’s sled anchoring the relay and bringing the serum to Nome. The relay was faster than anyone could have hoped – about five days, saving many people from diphtheria. Though he was just 3 years old, Balto became emblematic as he and the other sled dogs risked their lives to save many other lives.

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