Greenland Dog

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Greenland Dog

Scarcely changed over the past 1000 years, the Greenland Dog is a breed with an ancient history that has been kept and bred to allow Greenland’s native Inuits to survive in the harshest of environments. Its stamina and hardiness have allowed it to join expeditions to both Poles, but it has also found its way into the comfort of people’s homes. The breed exhibits the stoicism and work ethic one would expect, given its background, but it can also be a loyal and obedient pet in the hands of an experienced owner. Without firm, consistent discipline, this primitive breed may attempt to dominate the people in its family, but it is capable of very good manners when properly trained. Having been bred to work as part of a pack, it is generally sociable with other dogs, but smaller pets may be mistaken for prey, even though the Greenland Dog’s more natural quarry include seals and polar bears!

In size, it sits somewhere between the large, powerful Alaskan Malamute and the lighter Siberian Husky, and its frame is made to look larger by its thick double-layered coat, which serves just as well to protect the dog from heat as from cold. It can shed heavily at times during the year, but is generally easy to groom. A harsh process of natural selection has resulted in a virtually non-existent incidence of inherited diseases in the breed, and its endless capacity for exercise makes it the perfect dog for long-distance runners or hikers. Without sufficient exercise, the Greenland Dog is prone to hyperactivity and bouts of excessive howling and barking, something that should be considered by those closely surrounded by neighbours. Average life expectancy for the breed is around 12 to 13 years.

About & History

Like many of the Spitz-type breeds, the Greenland Dog’s history is closely aligned with that of the Thule people. These Siberian adventurers traversed the Arctic ice to arrive in Alaska over 1000 years ago, and rapidly spread across North America, bringing their dogs with them to haul their belongings, aid in hunting, and protect them from the indigenous wildlife. Unlike most of our modern breeds, which are genetically related to the grey wolf, the Greenland Dog, and its cousins, are more closely related to the long-extinct Taimyr wolf, implying they may have been first domesticated thousands of years earlier. On their arrival in Greenland, the Greenland Dog’s ancestors would have encountered other, native breeds, and an equilibrium was eventually established between these two groups through interbreeding.

The Thule’s descendants, the Inuit, have continued to use the Greenland Dog for its original purposes over the intervening millennium, and so valued is the breed that a law is in effect that bans the interbreeding of these dogs with other breeds. It is said that the Inuit are unsentimental about their dogs, and that they are seen primarily as a source of muscle power and labour; however, there has also always been a focus on maintaining the breed’s appearance, and dogs that were temperamentally unsound would not have been tolerated, so despite the Greenland Dog’s utilitarian background, it is a dog that exhibits many of the traits we in the rest of the world would seek in a pet. However, it is in fact seldom seen in Europe, and there are probably fewer than 100 currently registered in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, a large-scale genetic study of many dog breeds carried out in recent years described the Greenland Dog and Canadian Eskimo Dog as being genetically identical, meaning a debate is raging about whether or not these should actually be considered separate breeds.

Appearance

Greenland Dog Large Photo

This is a medium-to-large Spitz breed with a powerful build and a rectangular shape, the back being slightly elongated. It has a large head with an arched skull and an obvious stop, which leads down to a powerful, broad muzzle that tapers slightly. Being an extremely athletic breed, it has a large nose with open nostrils. Its eyes can vary in colour, but are usually dark and slightly slanted, while the small triangular ears are extremely mobile, but usually carried erect and forward-facing.

The neck is short and squat, and the back is strong and compact, with a wide loin. Like the nose, the chest is designed for maximum airflow, and is deep and broad, while the muscular abdomen is very slightly tucked up. The tail is set high, and its bushy length is curled and carried over the back. The limbs are powerful and heavily boned, with strong joints and very large paws, the better for moving over snow and icy rough ground in a tireless, steady trot.

The coat is incredibly thick, with a dense, impenetrable undercoat and an outer layer of hard, straight hair. It may be any colour, although merle is looked upon unfavourably for the health problems it can sometimes be associated with. The breed standard is very flexible about the dog’s size, instead emphasising the need to promote characteristics conducive to working. However, most Greenland Dogs measure around 55 to 60 cm (22 to 24 in) at the withers, and weigh anywhere between 30 and 45 kg (66 to 99 lb).

Character & Temperament

Rather than being a needy and overly affectionate pet, the Greenland Dog is generally quiet and reserved, though friendly towards anyone it meets. In their natural setting, these dogs are generally ignored for much of the day, being expected to exist in the background without creating disturbance. However, new sights and sounds are met with great excitement, and often frenzied vocalisation, as might occur when a pack of dogs are being harnessed for an excursion with the sled.

When made part of the family, the breed tends to behave as it would towards its fellow pack dogs, being loyal, but also often trying to assert its own authority. For this reason, the Greenland Dog needs a firm owner who is capable of assuming the role of alpha dog without resorting to physical discipline; a fine balance that a novice dog owner may be unable to strike. When well trained, the breed is usually very reliable around children, although the two should not be left together unattended.

Trainability

Photo of Greenland Dog puppy
Chmee2 / Wikipedia.org

These are very malleable dogs, and can be trained to a high level; again, by an experienced owner, for they need the motivation of pleasing their pack leader to perform at their best. Obviously, the breed is an excellent choice for anyone looking to compete in sledding or other competitive trials requiring endurance and strength.

Health

Any genetic susceptibility to illness has largely been weeded out over centuries of Arctic living, but the breed may be prone to some problems commonly seen in other large Arctic breeds, for example

  • Diabetes mellitus – Low endogenous insulin production causing high blood sugar levels, weight loss, and insatiable thirst.
  • Gastric dilatation/volvulus – Stomach torsion causing abdominal bloating – and death, if not quickly dealt with.
  • Hip dysplasia – Malformation of the hip joints causing lameness in young, growing dogs.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Greenland Dog is a true athlete, and needs a great deal of exercise – probably more than it can realistically be provided with in most homes. Having been bred and refined for stamina and endurance, it should be provided with a minimum of one-and-a-half to two hours of exercise every day, but in reality, even this is less than ideal, unless the intensity is increased by providing a weighted backpack or a cart to pull. When not exercising, the breed exhibits low energy levels in the home.

Grooming

The thick coat largely takes care of itself, although its constant shedding of hair will prompt most owners to brush it at least once or twice a week. It undergoes two especially heavy moults in the spring and autumn, and may need daily brushing at these times to prevent the home being carpeted in hair. It should be washed very rarely, as the protective oils that are secreted from the follicles can easily be stripped, leaving the coat dry and the skin irritated.

Famous Greenland Dogs

While no individual Greenland Dog has achieved celebrity status, as part of a team, it has achieved great things, being indispensable to the explorations of

  • Fridtjof Nansen shared some of nature’s cruellest conditions with large packs of these dogs
  • Roald Amundsen travelled with them to the Antarctic in 1910

Cross-Breeds

The prohibition on cross-breeding in its homeland, coupled with the low numbers of pedigree dogs abroad, mean that there are no recognised Greenland dog hybrids at the present time.

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