The North Greenland Dog
by Fridtjof Nansen, 1897
One hundred years - in Egypt, or China, or even western Europe, just a scratch on the surface of 'recorded' history.
But in the Arctic regions, there are a few people still alive today who remember when they saw their first white person, their first rifle, their first book.
The changes in the past 40 years have been astounding, and even in the past 10 years revolutionary changes have occurred in Arctic transportation and communication.
Today I'd like to take you back just over a century, and head for Greenland, where
Fridtjof Nansen was discovering places where no white man had been before. Crucial to
his success was the assistance of the Eskimo people, and their dogs. The article that follows shows the importance of the dogs, and the high esteem in which they
were held by the Eskimo, and by Nansen's party.
Nordic dogs have changed little over the centuries - current owners of what are broadly referred to as
Huskies will immediately recognize in their own dogs
Nansen's descriptions of the Eskimo dogs and their characteristics.
The North Greenland Dog
The qualities of hardiness and endurance which are so pronounced in the Eskimo of North Greenland are even more conspicuous in his faithful dog.
In fact, the extent to which this animal can endure hardship, exposure, and suffering is almost inconceivable.
The North Greenland dogs are of different colors, but the ones most commonly seen are gray, spotted white, and black haired. Not infrequently
there is a round light spot over each eye. Dogs that are entrely white are also found in considerable numbers. The latter can hardly be distinguished from the white Arctic wolf
that is chiefly found on the islands north of the continent of America. As a rule the Eskimo dog carries his bushy tail neatly curled up on his back, but there are some which let
it hang down like the wolf. There can hardly be a doubt that the species of dogs which the Eskimo now has in subjection once lived in the northern temperate and Arctic regions and
was identical with the present species of wolves. It also appears certain that, while its size has diminished since it was domesticated, there has not been any admixture of foreign
The close physical resemblance to the wolf which these dogs, after a long period of domestication, continue to bear is doubtless owing to the fact
that they subsist upon the same kind of food and have almost as wild a life as did their ancestors. They are fed upon raw meat and blood, blubber, walrus-skin, and the entrails of all
kinds of animals that their master kills. Water they have only in the short summer season, when they can help themselves from the streams which flow from among the rocks. In winter,
even after the most fatiguing work, they must be content to quench their thirst as best they may with the snow on the ground.
The dogs are not fed regularly each day, but on an average they get something to eat every other day. If for a time the colony happens to have an
abundance of meat, the dogs are allowed to help themselves. But at other periods, especially in winter and during long sledge journeys, they are sometimes obliged to go without food
for three or four days. They do not seem to suffer nearly as much from these irregularities of feeding as would naturally be expected. Apparently they are able to eat enough at a
single meal to last them for several days. With the exception of the first few weeks after their birth, they spend their whole lives under the open sky. Even in the severest cold or
the most violent storms this exposure does not often seem to annoy or injure them.
Notwithstanding the wild and irregular life which he leads, the Eskimo dog exhibits many of the traits of the more thoroughly domesticated house dog
of warmer climates. He is affectionate, obedient, and faithful to his master. In return the Eskimo cherishes a deep love for his dogs, though he seldom manifests this feeling toward
them by caresses or kindly words. On the contrary, a stranger seeing him start on a sledge journey would get the impression that he used the whip with far too great a degree of severity,
though he would soon learn that the frequent use of the lash is just as necessary in managing a team of dogs as is the use of reins and whip in driving horses.
When the dogs pull a sledge they are fastened to the front of it by seal-skin straps which diverge from a common centre in such a way that the animals
can run side by side. Although this harness is exceedingly simple, it serves its purpose remarkably well. Usually the fleetest of the dogs has a little longer strap than any of the others,
in order that by running just ahead of its companions it may encourage them to greater exertions. The leader of the team seems to have a clear understanding of the honor and responsibility
of his position.
The Eskimo dog is not at all lacking in intelligence. This fact is clearly indicated by the skilful manner in which it perpetuates its frequent thefts.
These stealings are confined to eatables; but as this term includes their own harness, their master's tent, trousers, kamiks (boots), and shirts, the straps on sledges, and many other
things made of skin, they take a pretty wide range. Such thefts would naturally be somewhat trying to the patience, but the Eskimos regard them with comparative indifference. I have seen an
Eskimo wake up and find the hair of his reindeer coat all over the outside of his tent and most of the garment eaten, but his anger against the dog that had done the mischief did not go any
farther than to say, "Naav ajotupilalek sjo sjo - Sinapadujo - takko!" or something like, "Well, did you ever see such a miserable fool!" Then he would tie the "miserable fool" to the stone
from which it had broken loose and say no more about the affair. In contrast with this I have seen two men belonging to a highly civilized race wake up and find their fur gloves torn and half
eaten on the snow near their hut. One chose a well-known method of venting his wrath, and cursed until his companions could almost smell sulphur in the air. The other, who was too good to be
profane, caught the dog that he considered the culprit and beat it until the whip-handle was broken. In the treatment of animals the men of enlightened nations would often be put to shame by
comparison with the kind-hearted Eskimo.
I once suggested to a native that he should punish his dog for having stolen, from right before her face, the last piece of blubber that his wife had in the
hut. I shall never forget his answer. It was to the effect that punishment ought to fall upon himself, as he had not had food for his dogs for several days. As the dogs do not steal when they
have enough to eat, it does seem hard to punish them for trying to procure food when no one offers to supply them.
The dogs often eat their reins; and as these are very tough to bite, they are usually swallowed in pieces of cnosiderable length. A member of the expedition
once discovered one of the thirty dogs which we then had engaged in eating his bridle. Thinking that he might save the small piece that was protruding from the dog's mouth, he started to take it
away. Great was his surprise to obtain a strap nearly ten feet in length, which, although it had been chewed a good deal, was still fit for use.
When many hungry dogs are together it is necessary to keep a close watch over them, even if they are well fastened, in order to avoid being shamefully plundered.
If under such circumstances you lie down to sleep, there seems to be a sharp competition, especially among the smaller female dogs, to see which one can get loose first and steal the most. But
there are always some dogs. But there are always some dogs, especially among the males, that will never condescend to attempt to get loose, but which will become extremely indignant when they see
their less honest comrades appropriate the master's property. The howl and growl uninterruptedly in a singularly short and noisy way that can never be mistaken once it has once been heard.
In addition to the noise made by the dogs that remain tied, there is not infrequently a deafening racket in consequene of violent fights among the thieves when
one or another feels that he has not been allowed a fair opportunity to obtain his share of the plunder. This betrays their wrong-doing; and if the sleepy owner will get up and attend to them at
once, he may prevent any very serious damage. But if the dogs are allowed to continue their depredations they will not be satisfied with trifles. And they seem to surmount nearly all obstacles.
The stones of the meat stores they upset with their noeses; they open boxes that have been well nailed by attacking the weaker places with their teeth; steel wires they tear to pieces; ropes they
gnaw; and to almost every kind of package or material they are as destructive as is many a human robber. They only hesitate when they come to a barrel of hard-tack. Although they devour boot-soles
and the entrails of all kinds of animals with great relish, they do not stoop so low as to attempt to eat one of the hard and dry things that are called shipsbread and are eaten by men.
Dogs of Northern Greenland
In the civilized world the prolonged howling of a dog in what should be the still hours of the night is regarded as a certain indication that he is troubled or
distressed. In North Greenland the situation is altogether different. At our last winter quarters, where we often had about one hundred dogs at a time, we had the plainest proof that their howls in
the night were caused by joy, and that in purpose, at least, they took the place of song in human beings. They particularly excelled as chorus singers; and when they were unusually happy, as when
they had finished an excellent meal or had enjoyed a good night's rest, they always treated us to a concert.
To make the whole chorus take part in the concert it was only necessary that a single one of the number sing a long "O-au-o-au-o-au-o-au!" But it was imperative
that this be done by one of the older and more dignified members of the party. If one of the younger and less prominent ones attempted to start the performance, it was generally an utter failure. He
emitted a few faint howls, but the others did not respond, and with a very foolish look upon his face he ceased his efforts to provide a musical entertainment.
To hear a chorus of half a hundred dogs with well-trained voices makes a powerful impression even upon people who have no ear for music. But to persons of musical
ability and cultured taste the performance seems so ridiculous that they can hardly refrain from laughing in the solemn face of the leader. The entertaiment is certainly a fine as well as an original
It is quite amusing to see the Eskimo feed his dogs. He cuts the meat in pieces as large as his fist, piles them on a board, stands directly in front of the place
where the animals are tied, and when they have all become quiet, with their eyes fixed upon the meat, he can begin the feeding. This is the only way in which he is able to control them so that the weaker
as well as the stronger ones can get their share. Piece after piece of the meat is thrown by the master and dexterously caught by the dogs until all is gone. If all the dogs in the team are old
acquaintances, and in the habit of being fed together, the feeding-time is likely to pass without distrurbance; but if there are any strangers among them the whole meal may be a violent and continuous
The Eskimo dog is naturally very much inclined to fight. Good friends actually fight for pleasure. They sportively snap a few tufts of hair from each other's skin,
howl and bark for a while, and the whole thing is over. But it is very different when strange dog teams are carelessly allowed to come within reach of each other. Then the fur will not only fly, but the
snow between the fighters will soon be crimson with their blood.
Another characteristic of this race of animals is that each team of dogs has its own king. He may not be the strongest, but he is the most fearless and skilful fighter
among them, and not one of them dares to oppose his tyrannical rule. When two strange lots of these dogs are thrown together a very important fight will immediately be commenced by the kings of the two
teams. At the same time there will be a general battle between the other dogs of the teams to settle their relative rank for the future. When these fights have been finished, and not till then, the
equilibrium of of the little society is fully established. But the vanquished king is utterly broken in spirit. His tail, formerly carried proudly curled on his back, now hangs limp and drooping, and the
head that was so erect is now held down, while the half-closed eyes follow every move of the victor, who pompously stalks around his subjects, and seems almost bursting with pride.
There is a peculiar epidemic disease that every year destroys a large number of these dogs, and which the natives say has sometimes been so severe as to threaten the
extinction of the breed. When attacked by this disease the dog loses its appetite, becomes cross, sometimes will even bite its own master, and at length develops all the symptoms of madness in its advnced
stage. On one certainly knows the cause of the disease, but as it occurs only in the severest weather and during the long night of the year, it is probable that cold and darkness are the principal factors
in its production. The foxes also in this region are said to be subject to this disease.
It was only natual that the appearance of the disease, of which there were several cases among the dogs at Redcliffe House, caused the members of the expedition a great
deal of anxiety. Its close resemblance to hydrophobia was a sufficient cause for alrm; but we were greatly relieved to find, and to have our observations confirmed by the natives, that the bite of an
affected animal was not dangerous to man.
As the success of future polar expeditions may very largely depend on the use of Eskimo dogs, it seems to be a great importance to prevent an outbreak of this disease. I am
convinced that this can be done by having electric lights in winter, furnishing the dogs a moderate degree of protection during storms and periods of severe cold, serving their meat warm instead of frozen,
and supplying them with a sufficient quantity of water to drink.
In North Greenland the dogs often mate for life. If young are expected in the cold season, a bed is prepared on one of the side benches in the hut, near the lamps, and here
the mother remains with her pups until the winter is over, though to quench her thirst she is often obliged to go out in the cold and darkess to lick the snow. Hardly anywhere are pups more kindly treated or
more dearly loved than they are in the hut of the poor Eskimo. The father of the household plays with them and names them, the mother sews nice white collars of bear-skin for all the dark-haired ones, while
the children caress and pet them all day long.
A group of pups
In the spring the pups may be large enough for their owner to commence their training. Some fine day he furnishes each with a small harness and, with some of the older
animals, takes one or two at a time for a short drive. It does not take much time for them to become familiar with the meaning of the whip and of the fifferent calls, and when this stage is reached their
education is completed.