Have northerners been breeding the wrong type of sled dog?
An NWT dog runner is calling on northern mushers to return to breeding traditional dogs in order to promote the sport.
Sholto Douglas, president of the Thebacha Dog Mushers Association, believes mushers in the northern part of the territory must return to the sport’s roots and run bigger, thicker breeds of dogs built for northern winters.
“Dogs such as the Canadian Eskimo dog, the Alaskan Malamute, the Mackenzie River husky,” says Douglas. “They were very ideal dogs for the geography that they were in and for the uses that the dogs had.”
In the past, says Douglas, northern families would rely on their dogs in order to hunt, trap, and run supplies from community to community. However, with modern technologies such as snowmobiles and planes making everyday life easier, he argues mushers looked to breed their dogs with one thing in mind: speed.
This meant smaller, lighter dogs that no longer needed to break trails or hunt wild animals.
“A mixture of short-haired pointers, mixed in St Bernards and mastiffs, and everything else, created a dog that was highly energetic,” says Douglas. “People start using their dogs for racing, and at the end of the year they would have a little sled dog contest and the winner would end up with bragging rights.”
While these new breeds allowed for faster races in the territory’s south, they created problems in the north.
To stay competitive, mushers above the Arctic Circle began to follow southern cross-breeding trends – without realizing those new dogs would have trouble living and training in the harsh conditions of northern winters.
“Mushers started thinking these short-haired dogs were going to give them a better kennel, but there are a lot of different genetic traits that have to go into the breeding of these dogs and it takes a long period of time to get the type of dog,” says Douglas.
“A guy that has these dogs then can’t train, can’t run – they come to that realization. But by the time they come to that realization, the dogs are getting older and pretty soon you don’t have a dog team in your kennel.”
Though Douglas suggests these problems are felt more heavily in the Sahtu and Mackenzie Delta, Cai Reid – a musher based in Yellowknife – says there are times when even his cross-bred dogs are forced to take time off.
“I won’t run my dogs when it’s past -30 Celsius,” says Reid. “But if I have to, still only at -31, -32 with the wind.”
If a kennel full of dogs unable to train wasn’t enough, some mushers argue the new dogs are also more expensive to keep, an effect that is harder felt the farther north you travel.
“We have to insulate our dog crates with straw when it’s cold like this, at least once a week,” Cai says.
“No musher is rich,” adds Cai’s wife and fellow musher, Jordee Reid. “This is a sport of passion.”
‘Tourists want to see these dogs’
Douglas says mushing’s future in northern communities now depends on a return to traditional dog breeds that can hunt and trap.
“If we’re going to continue with the sport of dog mushing, we have to go back to the type of sled dogs that were bred for this part of the country and it’s going to take those changes. You can’t be competitive if you can’t train your dogs, when everybody else in southern Canada is racing,” says Douglas.
While breeding short-haired dogs may have had unintended consequences, Jordee says returning to a traditionally bred kennel could have broader benefits.
“We’re already starting to see, with tourism, the return to big, fluffy dogs. Tourists want to see these dogs on the trail,” Jordee says.
Douglas takes his campaign north in March, when he will address Elders about educating future mushers and encouraging a return to traditional kennels.
In the meantime, the 2018 season begins later this month with the first set of races in Fort Chipewyan.