The history of dogs in North America is slightly different depending on which breeds you are considering. There are many breeds which have been imported since the colonization of the United States and Canada, however there were also breeds here long before the Europeans arrived. These dogs, now commonly known as Inuit Sled Dogs or Canadian Sled Dogs but correctly known as Qimmiq, are an interesting breed with a very important role in the survival of the Inuit people.
Originally the Qimmiq or Inuit Sled Dog first developed in the area that is now Mongolia. It is believed that the people, known as the Thule Civilization, brought these dogs with them as pack and sled dogs when the crossed the ice bridges and frozen waters of the Bering Strait up to 1100 AD. These movements or migrations of people provided opportunities for tribes or groups to become established in Northern Canada, the Arctic as well as Greenland and other northern countries.
These dogs were used for a variety of necessary tasks. They were avid hunters, being able to smell game under the snow and alert hunters to the presence of seal breathing holes that may have been covered with a layer of snow. They were also capable of hunting larger game such as elk, caribou and musk ox, likely hunting in large packs and keeping the animals surrounded and at bay until the hunters arrived. These dogs were rewarded with the scrapes and carcasses from the kill, so a working relationship between the nomadic people and their working dogs was well established.
These Qimmiq dogs were not pets. They lived outside in all weather conditions and were able to dig into the snow banks to build dens that would keep them warm and protected. The dogs had thick coats, wide, broad chests and a moderate body size. Their metabolisms were designed to work on very little nutrition, storing up all the fat, protein and minerals from the limited amount of food they could find in the frozen north areas. They also, because of their limited variety of diet, were less dependent on foods other than meat to stay healthy and fit.
There are very few purebred Qimmiq dogs left, even in the very remote areas of the north. A Qimmiq is not the same as an Alaskan Malamute or Husky and is not the same dog as a Siberian Husky. One major difference is that the Qimmiq does not have blue eyes, they only have brown eyes with a very noticeable almond shape.
Another dog that was brought over to the northern parts of Canada, Alaska and into Greenland was the Siberian Husky. This heavier breed was more wolf-like in appearance than the smaller Qimmiq, plus it also had the possibility of having blue eyes, hazel or amber eyes as well as parti-colored eyes. The same was true for the other historic northern breed, the Alaskan Malamute. The all white Samoyed was also bred in Russia, specifically in Siberia, and was brought over to northern Canada and Alaska by early explorers and hunters as well as nomadic groups of people.
From this relatively isolated group of Qimmiq dogs and other northern breeds comes many of the northern types of dogs known collectively as the Alaskan Husky. It is important to note that this is not a specific breed, rather a type of dog that is wolf-like and spitz-like in physical appearance with a true sled dog temperament and working ability. The development of this now popular Alaska Husky type all started with the discovery of gold.
In the mid part of the 1800's gold was discovered in the Yukon, resulting in a huge influx of southern prospectors looking for a way to get rich quick. Since the terrain was so difficult they needed sled dogs and teams to be able to get to the mining locations as there was simply no other option. This resulted in a massive number of larger, heavier coated breeds been bought, stolen or borrowed to work as sled dogs in the north.
This use of different breeds of dogs was often disastrous for the dogs. The larger dogs such as the St. Bernards and Newfoundlands were unable to adjust to the grueling physical demands of the mushers, the name for the sled drivers, and they often did not survive more than a few months. However, these larger breeds crossed with the smaller Qimmiq, Malamutes and Siberian Huskies to produce a very viable hybrid that became known as the Alaskan Husky. Shorter haired breeds such as Foxhounds and even Pointers were also successfully cross bred to produce outstanding sled dogs, but dogs that were different than the original northern breeds.
Sled dogs were not just used by explorers, gold miners, Inuit and the Native People of different areas, they were also used as transportation and freight as well as for policing. These dogs were responsible for bringing supplies into northern areas and even providing emergency delivery of medicines and doctors. The Iditarod dog sled race is an annual event to commemorate one such medical emergency that was avoided by a team of dogs and their musher in 1925.
The relatively uncontrolled breeding between these outside dogs and the northern dogs resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of true or pure lineage northern dogs. The true Qimmiq became almost extinct, and without a few selective Inuit, Alaskan and Canadian breeders it is likely that the breed would have been lost to outbreeding. There are a small yet growing number of purebred Qimmiq dogs still used for sledding and some are even being used as pets, although they are not a good breed for indoor or city living.
From the days of the gold rush to the modern use of airplanes, vehicles and snow machines have decreased the need for sled dogs in the northern areas of the world. Most sled dogs are now kept as pets or with people that compete in sled races. While not all sled dogs are excellent house dogs, several breeds have made a wonderful adjustment.