The Alaska Dog Team

From the 1922 Rand McNally Guide to Alaska and the Yukon: "The dog team will always be a part, in fact, the greatest factor in transportation in the northern country."

The dog team will always be a part, in fact, the greatest factor in transportation in the northern country. In winter as soon as a person leaves the railroad, or the automobile roads, he is in need of the dog team as much as before the coming railroads, automobiles, or the horse. Many times when the country is struck with storms all other means of transportation are tied up. 

Traveling in the interior after October 15th is by dog team, which can be hired for about $25 per day, this amount covering charge for driver and his board, and food for the dogs en route. The equipment includes dogs, harness, sled kettles, and pans for feeding; snowshoes for driver, robe for sled, tarpaulin and charcoal foot-warmer, in fact, all the traveler needs for his comfort except his personal clothing. Such a team should, when trails are well broken, make from 25 to 35 miles a day and haul 600 or 700 pounds. 

A team may consist of from 5 to 25 dogs, 7 being a sufficient number for the average purpose. When undertaking a journey the traveler should see for himself that the following emergency articles are in the sled bag:

Dog moccasins for use should sore feet develop; a bottle of turpentine; a can of vaseline, a large bottle of castor oil, and some powdered areca nut; also a can containing woolen cloths well soaked in kerosene, these for use should the traveler get wet feet.

In such an event, get to timber quick and build a fire, using the rags for starting the fire. Put in the sled-bag a piece of gunnysack to dry off the dogs’ feet instantly when they get wet. This is to prevent freezing, the possible loss of nails and skin from ball of foot; maiming them for the season at least, and causing tender feet permanently. 

Rivers running in the direction of the trail are used as part of the route, and it is by driving into an unexpected “overflow” that there is danger to both men and dogs from getting wet. 

An “overflow” is water flowing on top of the ice, and easily seen in time to be avoided, except when absorbed by falling snow and then presenting the appearance of snow only. 

A warning to those who may travel in the North: A white man’s team will not bother or bite a person, neither will an Indian’s team bother Indians; but a white person should always keep clear of the natives’ dogs and vice versa, especially where the teams are not used to towns, and where the Indian teams do not see much of the white man. This holds good when approaching an Indian camp where dogs are liable to be loose. If attacked, never show fear; put on a bold front. Do not turn your back and run, for such dogs are cowards like their wild ancestor, the wolf. 

A driver must learn the traits of his dogs, each one of which has his peculiarities. Some will shirk until properly looked after by the driver; others are high strung and easily excited, and at times will try to pull the whole load. Try to match teams of dogs as to weight, gait, and speed. 

As little punishment as possible should be administered while driving a team. Cheer them along and if any of them cannot or will not keep up and work without beating and nagging, thereby demoralizing the whole team, get rid of them. 

Purchasing dog teams. Good work dogs can be bought in the interior at from $20 to $40. The same care in buying should be observed as in purchasing horses in the States and some one who knows the dog as a work animal is indispensable to the transaction. All dogs should be tried out before purchase; as it is not always the fine looking dog that is the worker. 

The lead dog is half the team, and securing a good leader is a most important proposition. The leader guides the team at the driver’s command of “gee,” “haw,” “whoa,” or “mush.” One that has had proper training will respond to these commands as fast as spoken (regardless of any excitement on the part of the others of the team “who know nothing but to pull and work”) and will always obey. A properly trained leader will not pull on the load but be in readiness to use his strength to guide the team. 

Dogs from two to six years old, weighing 80 to 100 pounds, are best for general work. They will not break through a new snowshoe trail which heavy dogs will do. When fifteen lightweight dogs are hitched to a sleigh (sleighs range from the racer of 8 feet to those of 16 or more feet) they are faster and better for speed with a light load. 

Buy only dogs whose tails have not been cut. The large, bushy tail is necessary to the dog while resting, to keep warm the parts that are not covered by the wooly growth beneath the hair. If dogs are properly cared for, they carry their tails high over their backs and do not interfere with the dogs hitched behind them. 

Where better accomodations can not be had, the native dog will curl up on a bit of brush and with his nose buried in his bushy tail put in a good night’s rest. 

In winter, care must be taken that the dogs’ nails do not protrude too long and they should be looked after regularly. 

Some dogs have large quantities of hair between the toes, causing the feet to ball up in soft weather and often causing freezing of the feet. The driver should remove this surplus hair by singeing. 

Care of dogs. The native dog knows what work is, and when well treated likes it. He is given one meal a day, consisting of either dried salmon, or rice or corn meal cooked with tallow or bacon and dried salmon, cooked feed being considered the best in the long run. 

When feeding dried salmon they should be watered within an hour after feeding, and should always be well watered in the morning before a start is made, first taking the chill out of the water. When having used dried feed, do not shift to cooked rations. A team that is not watered before starting will be stopping all along the route snatching snow; will refuse to drink water at the proper time, and with the snow habit the entire team will not all be pulling at any one time. 

Good dogs kept tied up and properly cared for become almost unmanageable when they see the sled and harness being put in readiness for a trip. It is then necessary to have a stout rope (long enough to connect with the main tow-line) tied to some object that will hold the team until all are in harness and everything is ready to go. This rope must be fastened that it can be easily released. There is need for a very strong brake for the ride will be fast until the team settles down to steady work for the day.

In summer when the snow is gone dogs are place in fish camps where salmon is being caught and dried for dog feed for the coming winter for which the charge is $4 to $5 per month for each dog, the feed being the offal from the salmon. This is cooked and keeps them in good condition. 

Dogs should be kept where there is shelter from the rains and the hot sun. They have a heavy wool under their hair, and this becoming wet either from rain or sweat causes them to steam and become sick. Combing the dogs in June, July, and August, at which period the dogs generally shed their old wool, is the proper thing to do. 

Dogs should always be left so they can reach water during the summer. A high bank of a river where the wind can strike them is the best place for dogs. Here they have some rest from the mosquitoes who punish them severely. 

Dogs are often used as pack animals in summer by prospectors and by those living in the hills. The average pack dog will pack from 20 to 40 pounds. A prospector who has his dogs with him and has to care for them himself can make use of them to good advantage. Five dogs will pack enough at one time to keep a prospector going for a month along with the wild meat he kills. Another service the dog will render in the summer is to assist his master to “line” his boat up rivers which have long gravel bars. In this they are of great assistance and will line a boat all day. Their strength is not to be overlooked. On a sled in winter he pulls more than a man can. 

1922 Rand McNalley Guide

Sled Dog History

Iditarod Trail History

Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance