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Eskimo Dogs of Labrador

Originally published in Labrador: The Country and the People
Chapter X, "The Dogs"
by Wilfred T. Grenfell, C.M.G., M.R.C.S., M.D. (Oxon.) and Others
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909



Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it.

    Human life in Labrador has been so largely dependent on dogs that a brief chapter devoted to them is almost essential.

Eskimo Dogs in Labrador - click to enlarge it     The real Labrador dog is a very slightly modified wolf. A good specimen stands two feet six inches, or even two feet eight inches high at the shoulder, measures over six feet six inches from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail, and will scale a hundred pounds. The hair is thick and straight; on the neck it may be six inches in length. The ears are pointed and stand directly up. The appearance generally is that of a magnified Pomeranian. The legs look short, compared with the massive body. The eyes are Japanese, and give the animal a foxy look about the face. The large, bushy tail curves completely over on to the back, and is always carried erect. The colour is generally tawny, like that of a gray wolf, with no distinctive markings, but a beautiful black and white breed has grown up, and furnishes the handsomest dogs. The general resemblance to wolves is so great that at Davis Inlet, where wolves come out frequently in winter, the factor has seen his team mixed with a pack of wolves on the beach in front of the door, and yet could not shoot, being unable to distinguish one from the other. Settlers have succeeded in getting good skins by pegging out a female dog in heat, and shooting the wolves that come down after her.

    The wolves themselves are larger than the dogs. They may measure in length as much as seven feet eight inches, from nose to tail. They are very bold ; on one occasion wolves lurked around a solitary house in Big Bay till they had carried off the four dogs, one by one, and left only after capturing the cat. The dogs retain these same ancestral habits. Some summer settlers at Batteau have goats at their small shacks. About ten miles away at Red Point lived a hungry team of dogs. One night a goat was missing. The crime was traced to the dogs. Men with guns waited their return, with no result except much loss of time. The dogs never came near the settlement by day. Yet, before the people left, the dogs had successfully carried off every goat without suffering any losses.

    On another occasion my own leading dog, a black bitch from Cape Chidley, ran away from the hospital in early spring. She was seen near a neighbouring village, killing sheep. Three had been slaughtered by her on land, and she had driven two more out on to a rocky island, where she swam off and slew them. With a long shot the sheep-owner wounded her, and she fled into the woods, but still did not return home. He hauled the carcass near the edge of the woods, and sat up for her. True to her wolfish instinct, she returned to her quarry by night, and so met her fate.

    Our dogs know little or no fear, and, unlike the wolves, will unhesitatingly attack even the largest polar bear. On one occasion a manís dogs, travelling along smooth sea ice, scented a white bear and started off like the wind. They suddenly turned a point and ran right into him, so that the traces tangled round the bear before the astonished driver had time to unlash his gun. As soon as he could, he cut the traces, but even in harness the dogs kept Bruin at bay. Though the bear stood up to fight on his hind legs, the dogs managed to get in some goad bites without being hurt. On another occasion a man brought me a specially valued dog that a bear had squeezed. The bear had been sighted some distance off on the ice-floe, and the dogs were slipped to hold him up for the hunter. By the time he arrived on the spot, they had the bear practically killed. But two had been damaged by him, one clawed and one squeezed.

Eskimo Dogs in Labrador - click to enlarge it

    The Labrador wolf has never been known to kill a man. Yet on several occasions single men have fallen in with them. One man told me that a pack followed him almost to his own door, that they stopped when he stopped, and came as close as ten yards. He had no gun and no means of defence, yet they never touched him. The Labrador dog has much the same respect for man. He is, moreover, affectionate and playful. You can easily make a pet of him, if you treat him well. He is generally harmless to children when he is decently looked after, but a team of dogs together, however quiet, are never safe to strangers. Even a single dog, if kicked about, badly fed, and left to be worried by the neighbouring dogs every day of his life, cannot be trusted.

    The wolf will track a deer day after day till he captures it. Again and again our trappers have seen evidence of the indefatigable zeal and indomitable resolution of a single wolf in following a caribou herd ; and observers all agree that each time the track spells the shadow of death. A settler told me the story of a doe caribou which, in the early summer of 1906, he saw brought to bay on the middle of a pond by a single wolf. The ice had thawed out, and it was necessary for the wolf to swim off to get at the deer. The wolf, after long hesitation in taking to the water, which it apparently hates, swam off, fought the caribou, and though repeatedly knocked down by her fore hoofs, at last pulled her down.

    Our dogs, taking the scent of a caribou trail, even when in harness, will forget all discipline, and they will almost tear a komatik and driver to pieces in their eagerness to give chase. I have known of a team that thus ran away, and some of them never came back. In all probability they had been killed, for an Eskimo dog never loses his way.

Eskimo Dogs in Labrador - click to enlarge it     The dogs very seldom perish for want of food, and then only under circumstances of an extraordinary nature, such as being adrift on the floe-ice. The Eskimo dog takes kindly to the water in summer. He will go in fearlessly after fish. When the caplin run ashore, the dogs, half starved after the winter (like most of the other animals), almost live in the water, eating their fill till they are like ambulatory barrels. I have watched them patiently hunting flatfish in shallow water. They dive their heads under water when they feel the fish wriggle under their feet. Twice I have had half-breed dogs who would dive to the bottom in two to two and a half fathoms of water, and bring up stones wrapped in white paper. This accomplishment served me well on one occasion. From the edge of the shore ice I had shot a seal swimming in the open water alongside. My leading dog, which I unharnessed, dived to the bottom, and brought the seal to the surface by the flipper. I am inclined to think the half-breed dogs are the cleverest also in memorizing. In 1907 I was driving a distance of seventy miles across country. The path was untravelled for the winter, and was only a direction, not being cut and blazed. The leading dog had been once across the previous year with the doctor. The "going" had then been very bad; with snow and fog, the journey had taken three days. A large part of the journey lay across wide lakes, and then through woods. As neither I nor my friends on the other komatiks had been that way before, we had to leave it to the dog. He went so quickly and so confidently that it grew almost weird to sit behind him. Several times I called a halt to examine the direction and leads. Without a single fault, as far as we knew, he took us across, and we accomplished the whole journey in twelve hours, including one and a half hours for rest and lunch.

    No amount of dry cold seems to affect the dogs. They sleep out on the coldest nights, frequently choosing the most exposed places, and apparently disdaining any shelter. I have almost had to dig them out from new snow in the mornings. They will stay in the water any length of time in summer when the water is from 40 to 43į F. I have seen a dog mistake the buoy on a net for a stick thrown by his master. He swam out, seized it, and tried to pull it ashore. We went in and had tea, and when we came out again, the dog was still pulling at the buoy. Yet, in winter, the dogs dread the water, and it is very difficult to drive them through it. They seem also to have an instinct telling them when ice cannot be depended on, and it is rare that they fall through, unless being urged on by a driver.

Eskimo Dogs in Labrador - click to enlarge it     In training a leader, a female is generally chosen as less likely to be damaged by the others fighting with her, - an accident which, at certain times, would cost a man his life. The ideal team is a clever mother followed by a dozen of her own pups. Mixed teams, however powerful, are never so good. The dogs soon learn to turn at the word of command. The whole team will sometimes learn to "turn" without waiting for the leader; but that is rare. The dogs get to know their own places in a team, and, if allowed to run loose for any cause, such as an accident or sickness, will nearly always come and run in their places. I have had so much trouble with a dog doing that and getting repeatedly run over for his pains, that I have had to lash him on the komatik to save his life.

    There can be no question that the dogs love to be driven. They go perfectly wild with excitement when they are in harness. The komatik must be lashed to a stump or stone, and the line cut only when the driver is ready to go. The team then shoots off like an arrow from a bow.

    They are, of course, flesh eaters, and, by nature, purely carnivorous, only touching meal and farinaceous foods when compelled by dire hunger. During my years in Labrador they have killed two children and one man, and eaten another. In the case of the second man the evidence went to show that he was not killed by the dogs, though his dead body was devoured by them. In that case (winter of 1906), a man, his wife, and son got lost. Their bodies were found only when the snow melted away during the following summer. Of the owner of the dogs only the bones were discovered. As the dogs returned in good condition after a fortnightís absence, all of them were shot. The other man killed (also in 1906) was driving home, and had badly fed, savage dogs. He was apparently beating them, when they fell on him and nearly tore him to pieces. Each of the two children fell down in the midst of a pack that had begun fighting.

    The dogs will kill almost any kind of domestic animal quite naturally. I was passing a house one day into which an elderly lady was driving a goat. I heard a shout and noticed my leading dog was calmly proceeding on the way, dragging the unfortunate goat in his mouth by the hind leg. Our traces, harness, and all fastenings are made of sealskin, and these the dogs love to eat, but most will readily learn not to do so. I have had dogs which would not eat their skin shoes that we put on them to save their feet against the cutting of the ice crust. At the same time my sealskin whip has often been eaten, a deed which one scarcely knew whether to attribute to bad taste or to great sagacity.

    There is nothing an Eskimo dog likes more than a fight. The moment the noise of a fight breaks the silence, every dog in hearing will fly off at full speed to the spot and "chip in." Members of one team will, as a rule, stick together; a whole team will saunter out, and try to lure passers-by into a mÍlťe. As a rule, however, all dogs will bite the first to fall, and if one has the misfortune to be thrown on his back, it is nearly certain his fate is sealed. It is marvellous how soon they can kill the enemy. I have known it done in two minutes, a great fang finding a billet in the carotid artery. I had purchased a fine dog for a leader one year, and on the first trip left him tied with the team in harness while I went to pay a visit. He was dead and partly eaten when I returned.

    The natives always use great whips with a lash as long as thirty feet. With that the driver can strike any dog he wishes, even at full gallop. The length of the handle is immaterial. Indeed, I have known an Eskimo kill many partridges (or spruce grouse) by flicking them with a whip which had no handle at all. Any good hand with a whip will drive nails into a post with it, and will cut a hole almost through a door-panel.

    For endurance, few animals can equal our dogs. As I have said before, cold seems absolutely immaterial. At 50° F. below zero, a dog will lie out on the ice and sleep without danger of frost-bite. He may climb out of the sea with ice forming all over his fur, but he seems not to mind one iota. I have seen his breath freeze so over his face that he had to rub the coating off his eyes with his paws to enable him to see the track. I have driven him from daylight to dark on bright spring days when a couple of hours of such exposure would blind the unprotected eyes of most men. I have never yet known a dogís eyes to suffer at all.

    No dog is fed more than once a day, and one might almost say no dog is ever given all he wants to eat. Yet a team will, when unavoidable, go two and three days without food on a journey, and yet show scarcely a sign of fatigue. To feed its puppies, a dog will vomit the food it has eaten itself.

Eskimo Dogs in Labrador - click to enlarge it     For speed and endurance it is difficult to surpass these wonderful animals. An old friend, a Hudsonís Bay factor at Moose Factory, in a letter describing a journey he recently made with ten dogs, and nearly a thousand poundsí weight on the komatik, says: "We covered the one hundred and eighty miles of distance in two and a half days, and the dogs showed no signs of slacking when we drew up." With a half-breed team of only seven dogs, I have myself travelled seventy miles a day over a hilly country, but there were only two hundred and fifty pounds on the komatik. On this journey there was time allowed for midday rest for lunch and the boiling of the kettle.

    The Eskimo dog never barks. But he howls exactly like a wolf, in sitting posture with the head upturned. One dog will start every dog in ear-shot. This keeps a traveller awake, and so the people have invented many charms, one of which consists in seizing the band of your shirt in your teeth and chewing it till the noise stops.

    During twenty years we have known of no cases of hydatid cysts due to the dangerous form of tapeworm such as is transmitted by dogs in Greenland. Indeed, even distemper and mange are very rare among Eskimo dogs. Though every family keeps half a dozen at least, not a single case of hydrophobia has been known.

    The great beauty of a dog-team is that it seems to banish all conventionalities. You can go anywhere and everywhere with no roads, no hedges, no walls, no restrictions but your own will; and that will, without rein or bridle, you make your dogís will. Dogs can carry you up almost the steepest snow slope and down again in safety. They do not slip or sink in, and if they fall over even a high cliff in the winter, they are very rarely hurt. They seem to understand what you say, and so form a far better companion than a horse. They are automobiles which need no handling of their machinery. They enjoy travelling almost more than their masters enjoy it. They learn to love you as only a dog will, and if it were not for their occasional outbreaks of wickedness, they would make the best of companions. As it is, I know of no greater pleasure possible than a large, strong team, a good leader, a brisk, bright spring day, and a really long journey to go.



To Communications in Labrador, 1909

To Map of Labrador, 1909



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