What Makes a Good Sled Dog? Part 2 of 3

Today’s presentations were all at Larson Elementary! I loved going to this friendly school and speaking to each grade level about what makes a good sled dog. Students were excited to learn a few things about Iditarod sled dogs to add to their knowledge. Almost every student raised their hand when I asked if they had a pet dog. This reminds us of how important dogs are to people, and have been for thousands of years. 

Many students asked, what breed of dog do Iditarod racers use? The exact name of the breed is Alaskan husky. When they hear the term husky, most people think of the iconic grey and white dog with a wide face and a tendency to howl! This is a Siberian husky, a purebred dog originating in Russia. Some Iditarod racers of the past used Siberian huskies. These dogs share important traits that I wrote about yesterday–a passion for running, endurance, and a hearty appetite. 

Sled dogs come in many different colors. Photo: K. Newmyer

The Alaskan husky is a bit different–for one thing, Alaskan huskies come in all colors!  You saw from yesterday’s post that Calvin Dougherty’s dogs were all white.  Many Alaskan huskies are brown, but sled dogs can be black, reddish, spotted black and white, and even light yellow.  I learned that these colors have special names, such as sable, fawn, grizzle, merle, and blue.  (The dogs aren’t actually blue, but the combination of mixed gray fur, like on my cattle dog Gus, appears sort of blue.) 

Today I want to share some interesting physical characteristics of Alaskan huskies that have nothing to do with color. These are important characteristics that help these dogs live and run in the cold. Speaking of cold, did you know that the best temperature for Alaskan huskies to run is -20 degrees Fahrenheit? 

In order to thrive in these cold temperatures, sled dogs have certain adaptations that help them survive. “Adaptations” is a scientific term for special features that enable all animals, from snakes to elephants to dogs, survive in their environment.  The features that I want to highlight today are the double-layer fur coat, long bushy tail, long head shape and tongue, and webbed feet.  Yes, webbed feet! 

A sled dog’s guard hairs ward off snow, while the undercoat keeps it warm. Photo: Terrie Hanke

First, Alaskan husky sled dogs, like many dog breeds, have a double layer of fur. Each hair grows out of a follicle on the dog’s skin, like ours do, but some hairs are long and some are short. The short hair is called the undercoat, and it is closely spaced together. The undercoat gives sled dogs a fluffy appearance, and is what keeps the dog warm. Most dogs shed their undercoat twice a year. The interesting thing about the undercoat is that it also helps keep the dog cool in the summer time. That is the amazing power of insulation!

The outer coat of hair on a sled dog, and many other dog breeds, is called the guard hair.  This layer of hair does exactly what its name implies–guards the sled dog from snow and ice getting next to their skin and making them cold. I learned that these two layers of hair grow at different rates, independently of one another. Just another feature of sled dogs that makes them so amazing! In this photo, you can clearly see how the snowflakes are clinging to the guard hairs, while the undercoat is doing its job of keeping the dog warm and cozy. 

Sled dogs tuck their noses into their long bushy tails to keep them warm. Photo: Terrie Hanke

Sled dogs also have a wonderful adaptation of a long, bushy tail.  When I asked if students knew what this fluffy tail is for, they correctly said it was to keep the dog’s nose warm while they sleep.  Dog noses are incredible–more on that for another post!–and it’s important to take good care of them. Dogs, when they sleep, wrap their tails around their faces and tuck their noses in. You might have seen your own pet dog doing this.

Another necessary feature of Iditarod dogs is their longer head shape and incredibly long tongue! This helps them regulate their body temperature. The term for this is homeostasis, meaning, same status.  Dogs don’t sweat to cool down like humans do. While they are running, dogs open their mouths and stick out their tongues in order to evaporate water from the mucous membranes. This is the same thing as when sweat evaporates off a human’s skin, but the dogs have an internal mechanism.  Sled dogs must consume lots of liquid to stay hydrated and compensate for the the water evaporating from their mouths and tongues.  Dogs with short muzzles and tongues have a harder time regulating their body temperature.

Sled dog feet are adapted to grip the ice and snow. Photo: Iditarod Media

Finally, sled dogs have special webbed feet! Actually, most working dog breeds such as water dogs, retrievers, herding dogs, and northern dog breeds like huskies and malamutes have webbed feet. There is extra skin between the toes that helps the dog grip the ice and snow.  It also helps to have big powerful feet. Students also asked why the dogs are wearing booties on their feet–and the purpose is to protect their feet from ice shards and crystals cutting this sensitive skin. 

Now you know a little more about the adaptations that Alaskan huskies have to help them not just survive but thrive in the cold while they are running the long Iditarod race.  I also want to share with you a teaching technique that will help students remember these characteristics, which is a hand or arm gesture that corresponds to each dog trait or vocabulary word. It’s great for any situation where students need to remember concepts or definitions, and the younger the student, the better this works.  I think it helps students and adults of all ages–it’s just that younger students will be more likely to participate! 

When I talked about the long bushy tail, I showed how you could put your arm over your nose to mimic what a dog’s tail does. For the double layer coat, I hugged myself as if I was putting on a winter jacket.  For the webbed feet, we held out our hands in front of us, fingers spread wide.  For the long face and tongue–we did exactly what you might imagine–we stuck our tongues out! 

I was amazed at how these silly gestures helped the students remember the features of sled dogs.  When I got to the part of my presentation that asked students to review and remember, instead of raising their hands or shouting out the answers, Kindergarten students silently showed me what they knew by acting out the gestures we had practiced. 

I hope you had fun learning more about sled dog adaptations and how to help students remember these details. How will you apply this to your learning? Email me at emailtheteacher.iditarod.com.