Paws Along the Trail with Wolves or Dogs?
Wolves, ghosts, pumpkins…these are all things we think about on Halloween. Though I hid as a child when hearing the wolf score from “Peter and the Wolf,” now I find wolves intriguing. They are close kin with dogs, and occasionally show up along the Iditarod Trail.
Some people assume that sled dogs are “wolf dogs,” half breeds of dogs and wolves. Call of the Wild by Jack London and the movie, Balto, contribute to that belief. If you research wolf dogs, the consistent thread that emerges is that wolves crossed with dogs produce the worst traits of each breed. According to The Cruelest Miles, by Gay and Laney Salisbury, wolves hunted, but did not pull. “Wolf dogs tend to be intractable, aggressive, and territorial, and would have posed a danger in a team.” Wolves run as a pack to chase something. Sled dogs run because other dogs are running. [pgs. 141 – 143 footnote] In addition, “Although some Alaskan Huskies are known to be part wolf, which increases their endurance, these wolfdogs are generally disliked since they have a reputation of being difficult to control.” [en.wikipedia.org “Sled Dogs”]
So if not half wolf, half dog, what are the sled dogs of today? Most mushers would say their dogs are mongrels. According to Dr. Stu Nelson, DVM, head veterinarian for the Iditarod, the Alaskan Husky averages 55 pounds. Their origin is from native stock mixed with hound, setter, even Border collie. Most mushers race Alaskan Huskies, though Siberians are preferred by a few. Personally, when I visited my first sled dog kennel, I expected big, fluffy, stocky, aloof dogs. Instead, I met lean, strong, energetic, friendly athletes! My expectation was for football players, when in reality, they were lithe marathon runners. Within sprint racing sled dogs who compete in shorter, faster races, even some greyhound ancestry can be detected.
Size is a difference. Though the Alaskan Husky averages 55 pounds, Alaska Fish and Wildlife News states that an Alaskan adult male wolf averages 100 – 110 pounds. [March 2011]
What about sled dogs howling? Doesn’t that bring wolves to mind, especially at night? Wolves howl to signal to pack members their location, to come together, and to warn other wolf packs to stay away. [howstuffworks.org Cristen Conger] Sled dogs, according to Amy Robinson, dog expert for Sniff & Barkens’, use howling for other purposes:
“Siberian huskies, malamutes, and any sled dog mix love to exercise their vocal chords. Their howls are musical rather than sorrowful. These working dogs have the adventurous trait of wanting to see what is over that next hill, and since they often live in groups with other like-minded dogs, howling becomes a bonding activity between them.”
As my students have studied in science, animals are classified into many groups by their physical characteristics. Dogs and wolves definitely have some similarities in genetic makeup and some belong to the same genus, Canis, Latin for dog. The classification chain ends with:
wolves (canis lupus)
coyotes (canis latrans)
domestic dogs (canis familiaris)
In conclusion, there are definite similarities between dogs and wolves. Alaskan huskies are a mixed breed, and could have some wolf mixed in, though it’s unlikely. So this Halloween, if you hear howling in the dark streets, check it out at your own risk!
One activity for your students is to pose the question, how closely are dogs related to wolves? It can enrich their understanding of the classification of living things to look up the flow chart classifying dogs and wolves from general to specific.
Another activity lesson plan is below which allows students to compare and contrast sled dogs and wolves from this article.
Other Iditarod Teacher News!
Each year at the Mushers’ Banquet, centerpieces grace the tables, created by school children around the world. Does your class have an idea to submit? Read over the Musher Banquet Table Top Contest and send in your idea! It must be received by November 15.