Dog standing at edge of water in a bare landscape, sea visible in background

Dogs in the Arctic

By Peter Loovers, Curator of the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate

Publication date: 22 February 2021

Dogs have lived in the Arctic alongside humans for an incredible 17,000 years.

Peter Loovers, curator of the Citi exhibition, Arctic: culture and climate explores the special relationship between Arctic Peoples and 'man's best friend'.

Dogs in the Arctic

'Dogs are man's best friend', King Frederick of Prussia allegedly said in the 18th century. In the Arctic however, dogs are much more than that – they can be guardians, means of transport, ceremonial sacrifices, hunting companions and in some places even providers of fur for clothing.

Man on sled pulled by dogs in heavy snowfall
Kiliii Yuyan (b. 1979), Whiteout Run. Archival inkjet print, 2019. © Kiliii Yuyan. Kristy Berington drives a dog team across the boreal forest in preparation for the Iditarod, a famous Alaskan dog-sledding race.

From wolves to working partners

Arctic Peoples have had dogs for a very long time. In fact, archaeological excavations show canine presence in the Arctic for at least 17,000 years. The general theory is that wolves came closer to human settlements to benefit from being near humans, eating scraps of food they had left. These wolves eventually became domesticated dogs. Humans too realised that these wolf-dogs were useful for different purposes.

As early as 9,000 years ago, Arctic ancestors living in northern Siberia – what is now Zhokov Island – made sleds that could be pulled by dogs. The Zhokov hunters, who were specialised polar bear hunters, bred larger dogs for hunting polar bear while smaller dogs were used for early forms of transport.

Dog skull, slightly eroded, pictured from above
The skull of an old dog missing most of its teeth. Around 7000 BC. Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences. © Pavel Ivanov, Elena Pavlova, Vladimir Pitulko.
Three sled runner fragments pictured next to each other lengthways
Fragments of a sled runner. Around 7000 BC. Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russian Academy of Sciences. © Pavel Ivanov, Elena Pavlova, Vladimir Pitulko.

The presence of dogs in North America is much more recent. We know that 1,500 years ago, dogs were important companions in the Iputiak culture (roughly AD 250–800), who lived along the eastern Chukchi Sea coastline. While there is still uncertainty about the exact role of dogs, Iputiak graveyards show reverence for them as they were buried with humans. The Old Bering Sea culture (AD 250–1400) also kept dogs for ceremonial purposes and food. At this stage, however, dogs were not used for transport in North America.

Close up of the engraving on walrus tusk showing dogs pulling sleds.
Close up of the engraving showing dogs pulling sleds.

Dogs' roles changed significantly with the Thule peoples' expansion (1200–1400) across the American Arctic. Dogs enabled the rapid transcontinental movement of Inuit from Chukotka towards Greenland. The Thule people, ancestors of the Inuit, perfected dog traction (use of dog harnesses and sled hitches) which allowed for larger dog teams to haul heavier sleds.

The Thule people were expert sea mammal hunters and the availability of vast quantities of highly nutritious food enabled larger dog teams to flourish. Technological innovation, such as using sled-hitching technologies for dog sleds made larger dog teams possible while the use of whips transformed human attitudes towards dogs. Companions became work partners.

Coiled whip with handle carved of wood and whip made of heavy strips of leather
Dog whip made of leather. Whip with handle carved of wood and whip made of heavy strips of leather. Hudson Bay, Canada. Before 1920.

Dogs for transport

Snowy landscape of bare trees
Taiga or Boreal forest. Kiliii Yuyan (b. 1979), Boreal Forest Dash. Archival inkjet print, 2019. © Kiliii Yuyan.

Across the Arctic, Indigenous Peoples use different breeds of dogs and types of sleds but there are broadly two styles to 'hitch' (harness), dogs – one in a line formation and one in a fan formation. 

The Khanty people who live in western Siberia, east from the Ural Mountains, have sleds (narti), which, like the image below shows, have runners (so that the sled frame sits above the ground) and are drawn by seven dogs. One dog is at the front and the other six dogs are in pairs behind. The driver of dogs appears to have a stick to direct the dogs.

An ivory model which shows a man standing on a sled pulled by seven dogs, which are all harnessed together. On the sled are goods that are being transported as well as a dog who may be injured or dead.
Ivory model of a dog sled. Mid 19th century. Russia.

Another style of hitching dogs is used by Inuit in eastern Canada and Greenland. The so-called 'fan hitch' spreads out dogs and runs in a line like this model from Hudson's Bay, Canada shows. This style of hitching sled dogs is preferred as it is safer to have a wide spread of dogs when travelling across sea ice. The dogs also have more room to maneuver across rough patches of ice.

Model sledge made of wood, ivory and whalebone, pulled by six dogs made of wood, with harness fanning out
Model sledge made of wood, ivory and whalebone showing the fan hitch. Labrador, Canada. 1850s.
Watercolour depicting tall sailing ships on left and people on land on right, Europeans and indigenous people, dogs and sled
Watercolour illustration by John Sakeouse (1797–1819) from a book showing British expedition to Baffin Island. A sled with a fan hitched dog team can be seen on the right hand side. British Library.

The basic shape of the Inuit sled has not changed much since its invention. Compare the two sleds below – the first collected by John Ross in Greenland in 1818 and the second, a modern Greenlandic sled collected in 1985 by the former British Museum curator Jonathan King.

Sled of a very similar shape to the one pictured above. The sled has a runner on each side, which curves up away from the ground. There is a platform to stand on made of wood. The front of the sled has two vertical pieces on each side, which hold a horizontal bar. The sled is on display in the exhibition in front of a video showing a dog team from the perspective of someone on a sled.
Sled on display in the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate. Sled made of wood, metal, nylon. Greenland. Mid 20th century.

Gwich'in peoples from northern Canada and Alaska have a similar dog team arrangement as the Khanty but use toboggan-style sleds, sleds with a flat bottom, which curl up at the front.

Abraham Stewart Junior, a Teetł'it Gwich'in Elder from Fort McPherson (Northwest Territories, Canada), sheds more insights on dog teams:

'Before the 1980s, dog teams were our main source of transportation to hunt and people moved from camp to camp. Dogs were just used for everything to make a living. Those days, if you didn't have a dog team you were considered to be poor. People with dog teams were considered well off.'

Postcard (black and white with colour) showing a man dressed in fur with a team of dogs pulling a sled in a forest
Postcard showing a dog team pulling a sled. Alberta, Canada. Around 1920.

'Usually in a dog team we have five to seven dogs. Seven Husky dogs makes a strong dog team. These dogs have long hair because of the cold weather – their hair grows long and they stand about 2 to 2.5 feet (60 –75cm). The dogs had broad shoulders and they are really strong and powerful. When we have them in a team we use a harness in a straight line – one after another. We have a lead dog that listens to every command that you are giving. Those days we relied on them because wherever you went they would bring you home regardless. It happened to me once. I came down from Stoney Creek and I was beat tired and I just let them go. Pretty soon I was back in Fort McPherson. That time I said: 'Oh man, no matter what I do, these dogs bring me home'. They did too. I always have respect for dogs, they are pretty smart animals.'

Dogs for hunting

Dogs are not only used for travelling – they're also very important for traditional activities such as hunting. Reflecting on his memories as an Inuk hunter, the artist Parr illustrates events he experienced. In this drawing, Hunters, Dogs, and Walrus, he animates a walrus and polar bear hunt. The two hunters are accompanied by a dog that appears to be chasing a polar bear.

A drawing in black, brown and red marker pen featuring two hunters, two walrus, a dog and another large animal
Parr, Hunters, Dogs and Walrus, 1966. Drawing on paper.
An engraving in Inuit-style of two men with two dogs hunting two walrus. One of the men has thrown a harpoon at the topmost walrus.
Parr, Harpooning Walrus, 1962. Engraving.

Gwich'in people also used dogs while hunting. Abraham Stewart Junior recollects a hunting trip with a renowned Gwich'in Chief:

'Way back in the 1970s, I went out hunting with Chief Johnny Charlie and his son Alfred. We walked up in the mountains to Timber Creek and Chief Johnny took his dogs carrying a pack over their backs. We shot a couple of caribous (wild reindeers) and the Chief cut up the caribou and even took out the bones. He then loaded the same weight of meat on each side of the dog-pack. They are laying there and he knows how to work with them. When it is time to go and the dogs stood up, they rolled right over. About two or three times this happened but then they knew how to carry a pack. They learn very fast, they tumbled over a couple of times but that is it. They got their balance after a little while and pretty soon they were running ahead of us with a big load of meat. It doesn't take too long for a dog to know what is going on.'

Carving of a caribou with its head raised
Carving of a caribou by George Flowers. Wood and bone. 1992. Labrador, Canada.

Dogs as companions

Dogs are not only used for hunting, they are important companions on the land or ice. They have been invaluable for Sámi peoples, accompanying them when reindeer-herding.

Dogs also accompany hunters during ice-fishing trips as Andrew Qappik's drawing There's Another One vividly illustrates. The dog watches how the woman catches fish – fish that will also feed the dog.

Detail of coloured stencil drawing depicting a woman ice fishing with a child in her amauti, sitting next to a dog
Andrew Qappik, There's Another One, 2012. Coloured stencil drawing. © Andrew Qappik.

The dogs are also important guardians. They protect against bears or wolves and there are numerous Arctic Indigenous Peoples' stories where the dogs guard against sickness or evil spirits.

Photo of an Inuit woman with her dog, standing outside, next to two buildings
An Inuit woman with her dog, Baffin Island. Around 1901–1913. Photographed by: Rev Edgar W T Greenshield.

Dogs in a time of climate change

Many Arctic Indigenous People now rely on snowmobiles for travelling and hunting, rather than dogs. However, as climate change has an increasingly profound impact on life in the Arctic, some Arctic Peoples are considering moving back to more traditional forms of transport. I would like to end this blog with Abraham Stewart Junior and his son Richard. During a conversation for this blog, I asked them about the importance of having a dog team in this era of climate change.

Photo of snowmobile on display next to a screen showing snowy landscape
Snowmobile on display in the Citi exhibition: Arctic: culture and climate. Plastic, metal, caribou skin. Canada. Around 1985.

Abraham said:
'We can use [a] dog team to go out on the land to get wood, to hunt caribou, to go fishing. We use [a] dog team for everything. That is one of the reasons to start [a] dog team again. We have one dog who we will get pups from. My son Richard is very interested in driving [a] dog team.'

Photo of snowy landscape, showing man standing behind sled with ten dogs harnessed in line in front, another person alongside the dogs
Photograph of Abe Stewart with his old dog team in 2000 before leaving to attempt to travel for over 200 kilometers across the mountains to Old Crow. © Abraham Stewart.

'The last time I had [a] dog team was 1980, then I went to work and from that time on we started to have this global warming. I remember that. I am still living out on the land and the way things way are going globally it sure don't look too healthy for me. Not only me but some Old People talk about [it]. They say, 'hard times are coming again'. Even way back in the 1960s–70s, I remember our Elders telling us that 'some day you guys are going to have [a] hard time, you young people'. That is something which is happening now. So I talk to my boys about stuff like that and tell them that we need to go back and try getting a dog team again because it will not be easy to find gas for snowmobiles or trucks.'

Two dogs in harnesses, sled in the background in a forest
Two members of Abraham’s previous dog team. Photograph Peter Loovers. © ERC Arctic Domus.

'From the 1980s back, I never saw any change in the weather. I remember because May 1980 was the last time I went out on the land with an Elder and everything [was] normal according to the weather – normal. Right from [the] start of summer, in July, we go out on the land and start fishing in order to make dry fish for the winter to feed the dogs. The weather is just the right weather, it is not too hot nor too cold to dry fish. It rains whenever it has to rain, the sun shines when it has to shine. Then into the fall (autumn), the lakes and rivers start freezing up by mid-September with ice. All that time we are fishing. But now due to global warming, it only starts freezing up late September into October and then there is still a lot of water. In December there are still small creeks that are running with water. The warmer weather also affects fishing. When I caught fish it would immediately freeze and so it does not spoil. But now, when I am fishing for dogs for the winter [food], the fish just get spoilt and I have to throw them away. It is too warm.'

Man and dog looking at each other in a forest
Abraham with his old dog Snowball. Photograph Peter Loovers. © ERC Arctic Domus.

'These are big changes, also when it comes to teaching my children. When I am out on the land I need to know whether the ice is safe or when to hunt. The fish and caribou, too are all on different time – in a different time zone now. It is hard to teach anybody about safety on the land because so much has changed globally.'

Photograph showing a man using a dog team to pull a sled carrying wood
Photograph showing Richard using a dog team to pull a sled carrying wood. © Abraham Stewart.

Richard agrees and told me:

'With all these changes, and the things my father is telling me, I would not mind having a dog team. One time I went for wood with a snowmobile and I broke down. We had a couple of pups from one of my dad's dogs at my dad's cabin. I walked back to our cabin and hooked up those pups to [the] dog sled with [an] old-time harness and they pulled that wood out. That is what my father means by 'relying on'. I always listen to my Elders when they talk about their travels with dog teams. I guess you get to see more of the country than with [a] snowmobile. So I was always thinking about having a dog team too – I always wanted to.

Dogs, therefore, are much more than man's best friend – in the Arctic, they are life.

Explore more content related to the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate.

Our special thanks to Abraham Stewart Junior and Richard for sharing their experience of working with dogs in the Arctic.

Buy your copy of the beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibition, named one of the books of the year by the Times.

Arctic exhibition book cover showing title and prow of boat in icy water

Lead supporter Citi

Supported by

Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald

AKO Foundation