Investment Portal of the Arctic Zone of the Russian Federation

The most friendly mode of transport

Sledge dogs in the Arctic: history and present day

17 march 2023

The Indiga 2023 dog sledge expedition arrived in Naryan-Mar on 13 March, having travelled 700 km in 19 days. NAO 24 writes about it. The mushers (that's what they call the drivers of the furry 'engines') Ilya Aristov, Alexander Budny and Nikolay Kozhevin together with the experienced traveller Albert Severny spent nights in the tundra, talked to the inhabitants of the tundra and remote settlements, took part in events, including the Smelt Festival in the Indiga settlement. The race was organised to mark the 40th anniversary of Soviet Russia's polar expedition, which covered 10,000 km along the coast of the Arctic Ocean from the Chukchi settlement of Uelen to Murmansk.

Already then, in 1982, sledge dogs had all but lost their importance as versatile Arctic transport, giving way to aviation and all-terrain vehicles. Today, dog sledging is mainly found in ethno parks, at sporting events or as a memento of 'heroic times.' Are sledge dogs no longer needed in the Arctic?

Ancient friend of the tundra man

The first sledge dogs appeared around 9–8 thousand AD. This is evidenced by archaeological finds on Zhokhov Island, part of the New Siberian Islands in the Arctic Ocean. The genetic localisation of all sledge dog species also points to a common ancestor somewhere in northern Siberia. Zoologist Oleg Shirokiy, one of the authors of the book Our Nordic Dogs: An Introduction to Laika Science, writes about this in his article. He notes that the ancestors of all modern sledge dogs shared similar traits, including a metabolism adapted to fatty foods, increased permeability of blood vessels, as well as patterns of calcium intake. 

These qualities of endurance, hardiness and strength were inherited from their mating with Pleistocene Siberian wolves, and, together with their ability to find food and survive in the harsh conditions of the Arctic, gave rise to sledge dogs. This way of travelling is characterised by incredible off-road capability and 'fuel independence.' The fact is that reindeer can only travel where there is their food, i.e. the reindeer moss or other forage plants. And dogs can travel safely on the coastal ice or into completely frozen regions like the Bering Strait, feeding them with dried or freshly caught fish.

Sledge dogs were used by the ancestors of the present-day Chukchi and Inuit, spreading to North America and across much of Arctic Siberia and the Far East. Dog sledge dogs were ridden by the Itelmens, Yukaghirs, Chukchi and Inuit, who also bred their own breeds. Today, they also exist, although they have undergone additional selection. Where in the Stone Age they were huge, heavy, wolf-like beasts, now we are greeted by playful and friendly creatures. There are about twenty of them: four Husky breeds (Sakhalin, Siberian, Alaskan, Mackenzie River Husky), Chukchi Sled Dog, Yakut Laika, Samoyed, Kamchatka Sled Dog, Alaskan Malamute, Taimyr Sled Dog and many others. A new breed, the Baikal Sled Dog, has recently been bred.

In the service of civilisation

From the very beginning of Arctic exploration until the 1960s, sledge dogs were practically the only possible way of getting around in the inaccessible areas of the Arctic. According to the 1926–1927 census, the number of furry 'engines' was 54,483, mainly carrying mail. They were used extensively in the army, as well as in rescue operations (such as the rescue of the crew of the Chelyuskin ship in 1936). Then, with the development of aviation, especially small aircraft, helicopters and the advent of all-terrain vehicles along with snowmobiles, sledge dogs were no longer in regular service. There are occasional mentions that dog sledging continues to be used, but this is more the exception than the rule. In 2019, for example, it was announced that a sledge dog kennel would be established in the Russian Northern Fleet's Independent Arctic Motorised Rifle Brigade, and in February 2023, famous traveller Fyodor Konyukhov talked about preparing to cover 2,500 km across the Arctic with a sledge of 16 dogs.

The polar region, however, has not forgotten its favourites. Today, a full-fledged sledge dog racing industry exists and is developing into a full-fledged cultural and sporting phenomenon. There is the Canicross and Sleddog Sports Federation of Russia uniting more than 50 regions of the country, and regional and federal championships are held. Among them are the Arctic regions, dog breeding and breed improvement continue. Many races have become full-fledged festivals, such as the Beringia race. However, they all pass south of the Arctic Circle. In the Arctic today, only enthusiasts and extreme sportsmen, as well as a small number of military personnel, ride dogsleds.

Read more Four-legged polar explorers Why the dog became a faithful companion of man from the very first steps through the Arctic expanses


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