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Why Are Sled Dogs So Small?

Now that the Iditarod race is over, the question again arises: Why are sled dogs so small? Bigger and stronger would seem, to the uninitiated, to be a better choice. After all, those among us who have read Jack London's Call of the Wild, recall that Buck, John Thornton's 150 pound St. Bernard-Scotch Terrier mix, won a memorable bet for his boss by pulling half-a-ton over a hundred-yard course.

But bulk isn't all of the story, apparently. Larry "Cowboy" Smith dropped five of his strongest dogs after he crossed the Alaska Range on this year's Iditarod in the interest of picking up speed. To non-mushers, that strategy may seem baffling, but actually the reasoning is sound.

I contacted George Attla, perhaps Alaska's premier musher, and asked why racers preferred smaller dogs. His answer was that the type of dog used depended upon the service to be performed. There are freight dogs and there are racing dogs.

To broadly categorize, the best freight dogs are Malemutes, which can weigh upwards of 100 pounds, while the dog most suited to racing is the Alaskan Husky, which averages around 50 pounds. The smallest racing dogs weigh only about 35 pounds.

Freight dogs can pull enormous loads for short distances, but they tire quickly and are not a good bet for a long haul in a hurry. In addition, the larger dogs sink into the snow to a greater depth than do the Huskies.

Clearly, dog team racing is a case where smaller is better.