Dogs in Antarctica - Huskies

"The departure of the last remaining huskies from Antarctica marks the end of an era . . . . . It will always be difficult for those who have not shared the experience to understand the pure delight of driving behind dogs and being utterly dependent on them for life itself . . . ."

Foreword to the book "Of Dogs and Men" by Kevin Walton and Rick Atkinson, by HRH the Prince of Wales:

New Zealand dog team at Scott base Antarctica 1978, picture courtesy NOAA Dogs first arrived in Antarctica on the 17th of February 1899 when 75 were landed by the ship Antarctic of the British Antarctic Expedition of 1898 - 1900 at Cape Adare in the Ross Sea area. The landing was followed by a four day blizzard which trapped seven men ashore, they had a large tent and survived by bringing all of the dogs in to lie on top of them to keep them warm, dogs in Antarctica proved their worth from the outset. In April, one of the dogs was thought lost when it was blown out to sea on an ice floe, it turned up in good condition and spirits ten weeks later demonstrating the ability of dogs to survive in Antarctica. Ole Must and Persen Savio, two Norwegian Laplanders of 22 and 21 years respectively were the first two people to drive dog teams in Antarctica.

The last dogs were taken from Antarctica on Feb 22nd 1994, a consequence of an environmental clause in the Antarctic Treaty that required non-native species to be removed. In the case of dogs, specifically because distemper (a disease of dogs) could potentially spread from the dogs to the native seals of Antarctica.

Sled dog
Two dog teams each pulling a sledge camps for the night, Antarctica 1970's.

In between these times dogs usually huskies brought from Greenland or other places in the Arctic were an integral part of life in Antarctica. They were used sometimes well and sometimes badly, they played a fundamental part in the exploration of the continent and in the science that was carried out in Antarctica when the scientific age took over from the Heroic Age. Men and dogs relied on each other for survival and many of these loyal workers and companions paid the price with their lives.

Sled dog They were there for the practical purpose of transportation by pulling sledges before reliable mechanized transportation was available. Reliable mechanized transport came quite late to Antarctica, much later than in the rest of the world due to the particular challenges posed by cold temperatures and rugged terrain.. Dog teams were used as the reliable transportation of choice by many nations through the 1960's and into the 1970's. After this time they were retained on many bases as a back-up to mechanized transport or for "ecreational purposes.

Dogs and sleds are quick, flexible and able to traverse most of the terrain that Antarctica has to offer, there are no roads or even trails in Antarctica thanks to ever moving snow and ice. Inevitably in time dogs were replaced by snowmobiles, though initially dog teams were more reliable. As technology and operating techniques progressed so the mechanical pullers of sleds outperformed the canine. There is also the fact that unused skidoos just sit awaiting the time when they are used whereas dogs need year-round feeding and care. From the 1960's on dogs were kept in Antarctica at an ever decreasing number of bases,  Many generations of Antarctic personnel on scientific bases regarded their experiences in Antarctica as being greatly enhanced by the presence of the dogs and the possibility of recreational sledging trips with them.

  Dogs in the Heroic Age 1900-1922

    Antarctica and the Southern Ocean
  • The first significant sledging journey made in Antarctica was by Ole Jonassen, Otto Nordenskjold and Jose Sobral in 1902 during the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904. The three men made a 380 mile round trip in 33 days from Snow Hill Island at the Eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. It was the first fully recorded dog sledge journey and for many years, the longest undertaken. Like many of the expeditions of the Heroic Age lessons were learned the hard way including the dogs finding the bag of the men's food which they promptly ate along with part of the sack.

  • Many of the expeditions of the Heroic Age at least experimented with dog teams. Early on Scott and Shackleton tried ponies too though they were found to be far less successful as they sank deep into soft snow, were more likely to break through crevasse bridges and very difficult to get out again if they did. Ponies need bulky food which had to be transported to Antarctica with no local source of supply. Dogs on the other hand could be fed on seals and penguins and if push came to shove (as it sometimes did) they could eat each other or provide food for the men who used them. Early experiments with the then fledgling technology of internal combustion engine powered tractor sleds were unsuccessful due to very poor reliability.

  • Roald Amundsen and his dog team at the South Pole
  • The best demonstration of the effectiveness of dog teams for transport is from Roald Amundsen's Norwegian Antarctic Expedition whereby Amundsen led a team of five men to become the first to reach the South Pole in 1911. The use of dogs for transport was a vital part of Amundsen's success with rival Robert Scott's team of five reaching the pole though all dying on the way back from the effects of starvation, hypothermia and probably vitamin deficiency and dehydration. Amundsen's team all returned in good condition having actually put weight on during their trip. What is less well known however is that Amundsen set off with 52 dogs and returned with 11. The remainder were killed at stages along the way and were eaten by men and dogs alike (pictured at the South Pole, men pose, dog looks nonchalant). They covered 1,860 miles in 89 days going to and from the pole, 10 days less than they had scheduled for.

  • The eleven dogs that returned with Amundsen from the pole were given to the expedition of Australian Douglas Mawson in Hobart on Amundsen's return from the pole. These were taken down to Antarctica on the Aurora, Mawson and most of his people were already in Antarctica, it was the middle summer of a 2 winter and three summer expedition and the Aurora had sailed back to Australia for provisions and to escape the Antarctic winter. On return from the pole therefore, those dogs had sailed to Australia and back to Antarctica once again for a further winter.

  • The dogs that were used in Antarctica were working animals, while they were given names by the men who cared for and used them for sledge travel, they should not thought of as pets, they were frequently described as being closer to their ancestral wolf than to what we think of as a domesticated dog as this passage demonstrates.

    On May 23 (1913) Lassie, one of the dogs, was badly wounded in a fight and had to be shot. Quarrels amongst the dogs had to be quelled immediately, otherwise they would probably mean the death of some unfortunate animal which happened to be thrown down amongst the pack. Whenever a dog was down, it was the way of these brutes to attack him irrespective of whether they were friends or foes.
    Home of the Blizzard - Douglas Mawson

    Fights were very common and cannibalism not unknown if no-one was there to break up a fight.

  • Ernest Shackleton having learned the lessons from the use of ponies and dogs in Antarctica had intended to cross the continent from coast to coast via the pole in his 1914-1917 expedition. While his ship was beset by ice and later crushed and sunk, the dogs were valuably used in hauling men, lifeboats, equipment and stores across the ice of the Weddell Sea as the expedition tried to reach land and safety. Sadly for the dogs, they could not be taken in the lifeboats and were shot as the sea ice began to decay and open water was reached (along with the ships cat).

Sled dog

  Dogs in the Scientific Age

Sled dog The Scientific Age in Antarctica is the period following what was called the Heroic Age of exploration in Antarctica. This is when efforts were made to explore the less obvious geographic features and to discover more about what Antarctica is like, how it is the way it is and how it fits in with the rest of the world.

Dogs proved themselves and lessons were learned about how they should be treated with dog handlers training in the Arctic with experienced people about how to handle them and get the best from them before going to Antarctica. Techniques were perfected, the amount of work that could be done was understood and the amount of food needed by man and dog calculated to optimize health and work rate.

Dogs were used by many nationalities in all parts of Antarctica, they were the transportation method of choice as well as being invaluable for helping with morale at many bases for long after they were replaced by mechanical forms of transport. The British Antarctic Survey and Australian Antarctic Survey used dogs for longer than other nations and to good effect still even when some nations had gone exclusively over to mechanized transport. Dogs were still considered to be the most effective form of transport in mountainous areas into the 1960's when they were supported by aircraft which would land food to re-supply the teams in the field and take geological samples out with them.

  The Science of the Sledge Dog

Sled dog In the 1950's the scientific method began to be applied to sledge dogs and sledging, especially nutrition. A scientist from Cambridge was appointed as a dog physiologist to the British Antarctic Survey base at Hope Bay. He found that a smaller more sturdily built dog could out-pull a heavier dog and came up with an "optimal" sledge dog:

  • Height at shoulder - 23" (58.5cm)
  • Nose to tail - 60" (152.5cm)
  • Width at shoulder - 10" (25.5cm)
  • Width at hip - 8" (20cm)
  • Weight, around: 90lb (41kg)

A sledge load of 120 lb (54.5kg) per dog was considered to be a fair maximum, this was confirmed with strain gauges measuring the pull a dog could exert, though this could vary by 50% from day to day dependent on a number of factors such as temperature, diet, snow surface and even the mental effects of a long monotonous journey on the dog.

A dog team would usually consist of nine dogs often led by a bitch. Lighter dogs went at the front and heavier workers to the rear. The dogs gave the appearance of enjoying human company and attention and enjoyed their jobs pulling sledges. The center trace was most commonly used, though at other times a fan trace would be used to good effect. In good conditions a team on the Antarctic Peninsula might average 16 miles (26 km  day).

Investigations into nutritional requirements were also made. Sledge dog food requirements were found to vary quite widely from dog to dog, an average requirement was around 2,500 kcal per day when idle and at least 5,000 kcal per day when actively hauling heavy sledges over long distances. These amounts are about 75% of that required by a human under similar conditions. The requirement for active sledging is about the same for a human and dog at 5,000 kcal per day each, though the men of course don't continually pull the sledge under those conditions, they do however frequently ski alongside or in front of the sledge and will get off and push the sledge through especially difficult terrain such as broken up ice and soft snow. Sledging with dogs is not the restful pursuit that may be imagined!

Where possible dogs were fed with seal meat which was found to be the best overall food, given with blubber and skin in the winter and when working and with less blubber in the summer months when less energy is needed to maintain body temperature. Both dogs and men would often lose weight and condition when out in the field travelling and camping daily. Each dog would be fed 7lb (3.18kg) of seal meat and blubber on alternate days in the winter months, that averages out to the equivalent of about 2 x 8oz. steaks + 5 x 8oz. blocks of butter per day.

Sled dog When travelling dogs would be given pemmican (dried ground meat with fat and other additives) at a rate of 1.25 lb (0.57 kg) per day which when supplemented with seal meat kept them in good condition. Dogs would not need as much food in the summer as they did to stay warm in the winter months. Pemmican was not such a good diet for the dogs, often leading to diarrhoea, up to 30% of the food was passed directly out in the faeces without being absorbed (measuring that was a project I'm glad I wasn't involved in!). Dog pemmican based on what humans would eat was replaced by a more dog-friendly version called "Nutrican" (a trade name) which itself underwent improvement with experience. Seal meat, fresh or frozen remained the optimal diet, though there is a difficulty in making sure that meals are uniform in terms of the size of the helping and relative amounts of meat, offal, blubber and skin.

Composition Seal meat
with blubber
Lean seal
Pemmican Nutrican Improved
Halibut* Stockfish*
Protein % 18 27 63 29 21 23 32
Fat % 39 <1 28 42 40 4 1
Carbohydrate % 0 0 0 11 23 0 0
Energy kcal / lb 1973 510 2352 2520 2456 590 640
Water % 45 72 6 9 5 70 65

*Halibut and stockfish are often used as a diet for dogs in the Arctic - total % adds up to less than 100, the difference is ash and minerals.

Experiments from 1932 on treadmills showed that enough food could increase a dogs work rate by a factor of three. In one experiment a dog ran for 17 hours with a 5 minute rest each hour, covering 82 miles (132 km) and climbing the equivalent of 14 miles (22.4 km). With low external temperatures to prevent overheating and sufficient water and food, dogs could run virtually tirelessly when exercising aerobically. Poorly fed dogs in the field that were losing weight would often be reported to become more difficult to drive, to lay down exhausted at halts and more difficult to rouse at the start of the day.

Occupational osteoarthritis was found to be a major problem amongst sledge dogs which limited their useful working life to about 7-8 years. The result of continuous work led to erosion of cushioning cartilage pads in the hips and shoulder joints of the dogs from continuous exercise under the pressure placed by the sledge harness.

  Antarctic and Arctic Sledge Dogs

  • Antarctic Sledge dogs were slightly larger and stockier than those of the Arctic, they were required to pull heavier loads over more uneven terrain rather than at speed over flatter ice and snow as in the Arctic. Antarctic dogs were anecdotally more friendly and more docile due to a breeding out of the wolf traits which are more prized in the North.

  • Weights differ substantially  between individual dogs with some up to 125 lbs being reported, In the Arctic, typically sledge dogs are 75-85lbs, in the Antarctic, they averaged around 95lbs (bitches were 10-20 lbs smaller), weights under 80lb or over 100lb were considered indicative of over or under feeding.

  • Antarctica is colder and windier than the Arctic, being larger gives a lower surface area to volume ratio and helped the dogs stay warm in extreme cold temperatures. Antarctic sledge dogs had long tails with thick fur that they could curl around themselves in particular to protect their face and muzzle. When the wind blew, snow would pile up around a sleeping or resting dog which helped protect it from the wind and snow, they could be very reluctant to stir themselves and destroy this hard won protective layer.

  • Some smaller Arctic bred dogs, Samoyeds used to smoother snow surfaces and warmer temperatures were taken to Antarctica by Robert Scott in 1911, they were not used well and their feed (dried fish brought with the ship to Antarctica) had started to rot so they were not used on the South Pole trip, though were used successfully from the base with lighter loads. Their tails were not long enough to protect them sufficiently when at rest and their paws bled on the cold hard surfaces that they were not used to or bred for.

  The story of an Antarctic Sledge Dog - Boo Boo

Sled dog
    1961 - Born at Halley Bay base in Antarctica, the most southerly base run by the British Antarctic Survey 75°35' South.
    1962 - Ran 409 miles.
    1963 - Ran 765 miles.
    1964 - Ran 1,900 miles.
    1965 - Ran 2,000 miles.
    1966 - Ran 1,260 miles.
    1967 - Ran 1,800 miles.
    1968 - Ran 1,290 miles.
    1970 - Ran 560 miles.

By 1971, Boo Boo's total mileage was 10,474 on foot (paw). He pulled sledges of over 1,000 lbs accounting for 4,675 tons of supplies moved of which his own contribution was 500 tons. By 1971 Boo Boo was retired, rarely chained up and allowed to wander around the base at will. Much of the summer of 1971 was spent taking pieces from the seal pile to his various "girlfriends", some of whom ended up with significant piles of meat.

The men of the base unofficially named a mountain after Boo Boo whose location remains secret, it is remembered as "Boo Boo's Lost Mountain".

*In the picture Boo Boo is played by a stunt double.

  Antarctic Sledge Dog Memorial, BAS Headquarters, Cambridge, England

A bronze sculpture of a husky sledge dog of the type used by the British Antarctic Survey in Antarctica between 1945 and 1993 made by sculptor David Cemmick was unveiled on the 4th of July 2009. It stands outside the entrance to BAS headquarters in Cambridge England. Hwfa Jones, Graham Wright and Dick Harbour, all men who had lived and worked with dogs in Antarctica began the project and raised the funds to pay for the statue.

We would like to thank all the people from around the world who have donated to the Fund to ensure this monument has been created. Still so fresh in the minds of those who sledged with dogs, the monument represents a thousand personal stories; most of which will never be told in any official documents. These dogs made possible almost all the overland journeys in the 20th century and shared in the discovery of the continent from which they are now forever banned.
Hwfa Jones

"Dogs shall not be introduced onto land or ice shelves
and dogs currently in those areas shall be removed by April 1 1994".

Huskies were first used for transport in Antarctica during the Southern Cross expedition
under Carsten Borchgrevink 1898 -1900
The last dogs were removed from Antarctica on Feb 22nd 1994

Dogs were first used by Australians in Antarctica in 1954 when Mawson base was established, they were removed in 1993.

The last British Antarctic Dog Team - Rothera winter 1993

Picture credits, copyright pictures used by courtesy of: NOAA, Corel corporation, Drummond Small


Jones, H. 2006 - The Doggy Men
Walton, K. and Atkinson, R, 1996 - Of Dogs and Men
Orr 1959 - Food Requirements of Dogs on Antarctic Expeditions,
Bellars 1969 - Veterinary studies on the British Antarctic Survey's sledge dogs,
Bellars and Godsal 1969  - Veterinary studies on the British Antarctic Survey's sledge dogs II, occupational osteoarthritis