There are several different breeds that fall into the category of sled dogs. It is interesting to note that many of the spitz types of dogs, while not traditionally used solely as sled dogs can make perfect racing and working sled dogs. It seems that a lot of the characteristics within these types are the same, and they all have the stamina, endurance and love of work that makes them a perfect match for this type of activity.
In most areas the sled dog breeds are the northern dog and spitz types with the longer, dense, water repellent double coat, curled tail that arches or tightly curls over the back as well the very wolf-like appearance. Each of these characteristic is important in creating a great sledding dog, even if it isn't a purebred. In reality a great number of the sled dog teams used in racing both now and in the past have not been purebred teams. Mixed breed dogs are also still commonly used in the relatively small number of working sled dog teams, although their geographical isolation in many cases helps to keep the lineage rather stable with regards to breeds used.
One very common feature in all sled dog breeds and hybrids is that the structure of their feet are different than with other dogs. The feet are wider than normal, allowing a greater weight distribution across the surface of the ground. This prevents as much damage to the feet going through the snow and also helps to protect the pads from building up snow and causing painful irritations. Their feet are also incredibly hard and durable. The legs are always well boned and solid, with the body weight evenly distributed along the frame. Leggy dogs or those with very short legs will have more difficult in getting traction or moving heavy loads through the snow.
Unlike most common legends, stories and myths, there are few sled dogs that are actual wolf-dog hybrids. Wolves rarely come into civilized areas or around camps to breed with females, and females in heat are not typically taken out on the trail as they are a considerable hindrance. This is because the other dogs on the team respond to the females and it can cause fighting within the team and distractions. Neither of these options are going to help either in transportation or racing.
The basic breeds most commonly seen on either working or racing teams of sled dogs include the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamutes, Chinooks, Greenland Dogs, Eurohounds, Samoyed, Mackenzie River Huskies and Canadian Eskimo Dogs, also known as Canadian Inuit Dogs or Qimmiq in the Inuit language. Other less common breeds include the Utonagan dog breed in the United Kingdom, as well as the Tamaskan Dog and the Greyster.
There are some notable differences in the general type of the sled dog in the breeds listed above. The Mackenzie River Husky is generally a much heavier breed, longer though the body as well as the heavier in overall skeletal size. The breed was developed by crossing North American husky breeds with larger dogs such as the St. Bernard and the Newfoundland. These dogs are often used for hauling freight and for recreational sledding and are not as common in racing teams.
The Eurohound is almost exclusively used as a sprint sled racing dog due to its physical characteristics. The is a hybrid breed developed by crossing an Alaskan husky type, which can be any sledding breed of the wolf-like group, with a short haired Pointer. This unique and rather unusual cross results in an extremely athletic yet shorter haired dog. Since they cannot tolerate the cold on the trail with longer races, they are typically only seen in sprint events, which may be over 25 miles in one day.
The Greyster is a very unique breed that was developed in Norway particularly for fast racing and pulling humans on skis, a sport of Scandinavian countries known as skijoring. This breed is a combination of three very specific breeds of dogs including the Pointer, Alaskan Husky and the Greyhound. From the Pointer the breed gets both speed and endurance, the Husky provides the endurance, physical strength and size as well as coat and from the Greyhound the sprinting ability of a lure coursing breed. Depending on the generation of breeding back to the original breeds, this dog can more closely resemble a taller, finer boned Eurohound or a true Alaskan husky type.
In general most of the breeds listed above have several physical traits in common. These dogs have an amazing level of endurance that is bred right into the animals. They are not dogs that enjoy sitting around a house or apartment, regardless of their lineage or if they have ever pulled a sled or not. They need a constant opportunity for long, sustained exercise and are perfect for those that love walking, jogging or hiking. Without the proper amount of exercise any of these breeds can become highly destructive and true escape artists, able to jump out, tunnel under or simply chew through almost any type of fence or enclosure.
These dogs, when trained as racing sled dogs, may travel up to 80 miles per day, pulling a sled at up to 10 or more miles per hour over some of the most difficult and inhospitable terrain known to man. In addition the racing dogs may have bursts of speeds of up to 20 miles per hour for distances of as long as 25 miles over flat terrain and excellent snow conditions. This means these dogs have to have special metabolic systems as well with significant ability to conserve body energy, heat and moisture loss over the difficult and icy cold trails.
Sled dogs also have slightly oily and coarser outer coats than many other breeds. This coat is necessary for survival in the cold and sometimes wet conditions found in the northern areas of the world. This coat needs little care but these dogs are profuse shedders in the spring and fall. Bathing a northern type of dog is not recommended as any stripping of the oil from the hair can cause coat problems and skin irritations.