Whether it is the 1,000 mile Iditarod race through Alaskan blizzards, or an amateur fund-raiser in northern Montana, sled dog events are intense, competitive, and demanding. Though its mushers are arguably among the hardiest and most durable of athletes, it is certainly the canines that endure the bulk of the workload and decide the fate of the team.
To ensure success, not any Rover or Fido will make a worthy addition to a sled dog team. The team member must be remarkably strong, in order to pull hundreds of pounds of weight on the sled behind. The dog must have keen instincts, especially if in the lead position, in order to intuitively find the best route over the snow and make subtle choices that can have a profound impact. The canine must also be fast, in order for the dog-driver to have any chance at victorious triumph. These are not characteristics to be sought lightly, considering these animals are often expected to travel 80 miles a day, with sprint speeds reaching 20 miles per hour during portions of the trail.
In the era of the Gold Rush in the Yukon, mongrel teams were the standard, with no set preferences yet to gain prominence. However, with the passage of time and taste, several breeds have emerged as driver favorites, sporting unique combinations of traits that make them suitable for the grueling races. Three of the more popular or noteworthy breeds chosen are the Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, and Mackenzie River Husky.
The Alaskan Malamute is the hometown favorite. Featuring a standard range of size mandated by the American Kennel Club as a grown height between from 23 to 26 inches and a weight of 75 to 85 pounds, the Malamute is renowned for its pulling power. Their heavy bone structure grants strong resistance to stress fractures and other injuries, while their compact body type is seemingly tailored for team sled dog racing and nothing else. Despite a loyal and obedient temperament that also makes them a popular pet, their weakness that prevents more widespread use is a slower speed over long ranges in comparison to other breeds.
The Siberian Husky has a very similar appearance to the Alaskan Malamute, as both as in the Spitz genetic family, but boasts a few specific differences. The Husky’s biggest asset is its remarkable coat; it actually has two layers, a soft outer coat and a thick inner coat. This notable characteristic allows the species to endure remarkably temperature extremes, as low as the -60 degree Fahrenheit range. With such a tolerance for bitterly cold weather, drivers can eke out extra miles from a Siberian Husky team every day. This stubborn, dominant breed is a significant factor in any contest on the trails.
The Mackenzie River Husky is a much rarer breed, but notorious in sled dog circles. Restricted to teams in inner Alaska, or from regions such as Old Crow and Porcupine River, this Husky is noted for its longer hair, resulting in a shaggier appearance. They are rangy, deep-chested, and long-legged, built for heavy pulling in single file through deep snowfall. Certain people, such as Donna Dowling, have historically been known to use them exclusively with some measure of success. Although their limited availability prevents further renown, they have effectively established a niche in the sled dog community.
Despite the efforts to introduce more diversity into the field, such as the running of a team comprised of Standard Poodles in the 1991 Iditarod, the storied mythos of sled dog racing has, if nothing else, proven one thing: It takes a special dog to run such a special race.