I was born and raised in Alaska, where dogs are a ubiquitous and intrinsic part of life. Of course, I know plenty of people here who love dogs, but the nearly universal attitude that they are a vital part of life isn’t really present. Most people would probably regard this difference in perception as minor, but it’s something that I feel all the time, and just one of the many little things that makes me homesick on occasion. As a kid, everyone on my street was a dog owner. One neighbor even had a dog sled team. In fact, I knew very few people who didn’t own a dog, and I didn’t know anyone who was afraid of dogs.
Alaska’s dog-loving culture can be hard for outsiders to understand. The extent to which Alaskans respect dogs is often underestimated, or misperceived. Humane societies and other groups have criticized the state for allowing dog sledding events, and have compared them to greyhound racing. What most people miss is the co-reliance of dogs and people in Alaska.
Since we don’t have any competitive sports teams, the Iditarod, the world’s most famous dog sled race, is our Superbowl. The race runs from Anchorage to Nome, and commemorates the 1925 lifesaving serum run to Nome, when several teams of dogs delivered vital medicine to the town’s children, who were sick with diphtheria. Many people outside of Alaska have heard of Balto, the lead dog of the team that delivered the serum. In Alaska, he’s an enduring hero. No one remembers the musher.
Rather than being bred to be fast and easily triggered to run, for the purposes of betting, sled dogs are selected for a wide range of natural abilities. They must be able to work as a team, and to love working. Once a winning team crosses the finish line, they become instant celebrities, so the dogs have to be properly socialized with strangers, not isolated. Our neighbors socialized their dogs and puppies by letting us kids play with them daily, and including them in their family-run summer camp every year.
Sled dogs must also be intelligent and able to reason for themselves. Balto famously refused to take his team across a patch of thin ice that the musher hadn’t noticed. If the dog had given in to his master’s commands, the entire team could have been killed. In urban and suburban environments, it’s necessary for a family pet to trust its owners. In the wilds of Alaska, where people are farthest out of their element, it can be just as vital for the owner to be able to trust their dog.
But Alaskans’ special relationship with dogs goes beyond the sled. Avalanches are a huge part of living in the mountains. Every winter, they close main highways, rip out power lines, and take lives. Trained dogs are essential in recovering people trapped under the snow, and no equipment can do what they do.
Furthermore, dogs accompany us hunting, fishing, camping and hiking. My family used to take our golden retriever, Toklat, camping and hiking with us all the time. He would carry a pack like the rest of us, containing his own supplies and a few of the kids’ as well. If an animal were in the area he would alert us. All Alaskans know how to detect the signs that a bear could be nearby, but there’s no substitute for a dog’s nose. Of course, Toke would have rather played with the bears than avoid them, but his excitement was a helpful indicator nonetheless.
Wherever I went as a kid, my dog went with me, and it was the same with my friends and their dogs. For most people, getting eaten by a bear or trampled by a moose is probably a long shot, but up there it happens, even in the cities. Living in the mountains, moose and even bears were frequently sighted in our neighborhood, but like any kids, we wanted to spend our days outside. Our dogs provided a natural deterrent to other animals, and warned us if danger was close by.
Toklat was diagnosed with cancer when he was about twelve. He was such an integral part of our family, that my folks were willing to spend the money on chemo to improve his quality of life. He had two more wonderful and happy years before he started to get sick again, at which point it would have been selfish to prolong his suffering. He was such a joyful, giving presence in my childhood; someone who I didn’t just love, but who I needed every day.
Toklat’s oblivious guardianship of my childhood isn’t the best example of the necessity of dogs in Alaska. Sled dogs and rescue dogs demonstrate it better. However, his story illustrates the way Alaskans rely just a little more on their dogs, even if the dog is just a family pet. I think the difference between dog culture in Alaska and in most other parts of the US is based on the fact that humans don’t really belong in such a harsh, wild environment, and sometimes our animals know more about it than we do: that requires us to trust them in a way not necessary down here. I think it can be best summed up as the difference between loving your friend and respecting your partner.