History of Dog Sledding

snowy-owl-tours-55Recent archaeological evidence suggests humans in Arctic regions have had working relationships with dogs for at least 4,000 years. Clearly, human habitation in the vast north may not have been possible without canine assistance.

The Canadian Indian and Inuit were the foremost peoples to use huskies in an interdependent relationship. Unlike the iconic western horse, a Spanish import of only 400 years, the dog has been the “beast of burden” ten times longer in North America – and most likely all around the globe in Arctic regions as well.

Our vast Canadian panorama was explored and charted using huskies originally belonging to the natives. By 1873, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were using sled dogs for transportation and patrol.

The Yukon gold discovery of 1898 added great popularity to sled dogs after thousands of Canadians, Americans and Europeans briefly streamed into far north-western Canada. These men quickly came to realize the necessity of having a strong dog team. Many chose to bring some of their four-legged companions back home upon their return to their respective countries.

In the frequent and famous first explorations of the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions sled dogs were essential for explorations such as Richard Byrd, Robert Peary and Ronald Amundsen. This brought even more notoriety to the husky breeds. These numerous expeditions gained more attention and renown to the endurance of the husky breeds.

The lore of the sled dog of the far north reached a climax a decade later when American, Jack London’s stories like “White Fang” and “Call of the Wild” made him the bestselling author in the world for nearly a decade.

The main reason that these northern breed were chosen for pulling sleds was that other breeds could not withstand the harsh climate and terrain. There emerged several breeds of dogs specifically adapted to snow conditions sub-degree temperatures. The Canadian Eskimo Dogs, for example, have distinct, inherent characteristics differing from other huskies relating to their sense of wildlife detection and ice conditions.

At Snowy Owl we are still breeding and using these bloodlines based on their unique abilities.

The History of Sled Dog Racing

The first documented sled dog race was in 1850 from Winnipeg, Manitoba to St. Paul, Minnesota. The Disney movie “Iron Will” features the 1917 version of that remarkable race, which was won by Alberta Campbell, a Métis from Pas, Manitoba.

In 1917 as well, the first established sled dog race was begun in the “lower 48″ in Ashton, Idaho, west of Yellowstone Park.

The famous sled dog race beginning in Nome, Alaska began in 1908, but became a celebrated story when in 1925 Leonhard Seppala made the critical trip to deliver much needed medicine to allay a deadly diphtheria outbreak. A statue exists in New York City to commemorate the lead dog, Balto, with the inscription “Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence”.

Of course America’s most famous sled dog race, Iditarod, has proven the worthiness of women as competitors having been won the most times by American, Susan Butcher.

Sled Dog Racing in Canada

Competition is part of our character and obviously common in animal nature as well. The fusion of humans with animals gives rise to such events as Alberta’s famous “International Sled Dog Classic” which was cofounded in 1983 by Snowy Owl owner, Connie Arsenault.

There are notable sled dog competitions yearly in Falkland, British Columbia, Pas, Manitoba and Minden, Ontario, as well as Canmore, Alberta. Contact your local tourism office for more information about these competitions, or give Snowy Owl a call and we’ll endeavour to lead you in the right direction.

In the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympic Games, Snowy Owl’s Connie Arsenault had the distinguished honour of presenting the sled dog sport to the world.

A unique feature in Canadian racing is that men, women and children can and do compete together. Qualifications to race professionally need only be that the competitor is able to control their dog team in the starting chute.

At Canmore’s annual “Kids ‘N Mutt” race, Snowy Owl has helped create a special competition for children 4 to 10 years old, for the purpose of encouraging interest in this sport from younger people. If children do not own a dog, Snowy Owl has matched them with dogs from its kennel.

Snowy Owl also has a free program to introduce preschoolers to sled dogs and sled riding. As a result, there has been a surge of young people from Alberta working toward the goal of recreational or professional dog sledding. “Mush On Kids!”

Connie Arsenault is a founder and past President of the Alberta International Dog Sled Association.

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