7 key facts about sled dogs in Greenland

Greenland contains the largest population of sled dogs (huskies) in the Arctic and is unique in maintaining its traditional dog sledding culture. Read on to discover 7 key facts about this remarkable animal and its importance to the Greenlandic people.

Greenlandic Sled dogs on the chain near Tasiilaq - winter - Guide to GreenlandGreenlandic sled dogs waiting to go to work in Tasiilaq

The Greenlandic Sled Dog (a type of husky) is a national icon and an important part of the Greenlandic identity. Bought to the island almost 5,000 years ago, they were instrumental in enabling the Inuit to explore and survive in the harsh Arctic environment and continue to play an important role in the daily life of many Greenlanders. 

1. Where are sled dogs found in Greenland?

Greenlandic sled dogs can only be found North of the Arctic Circle and on the East Coast. It is prohibited to bring another breed of dog into these areas and if a Greenlandic sled dog leaves this restricted zone, it is not allowed to return.

Dogsledding in the expansive landscape near Uummannaq - winter - Guide to GreenlandDogsledding past enormous icebergs in the frozen Uummannaq Fjord

The reasons for this are:

  1. the lack of sea ice South of the Arctic Circle during winter. This makes traditional forms of hunting - especially those that use sled dogs - almost impossible

  2. the desire to keep the Greenlandic sled dog race pure and disease-free. By limiting the range of the Greenlandic dog, sheep farmers in South Greenland are able to use border collies and other breeds more suited to working with animals, and many Greenlanders are able to keep other types of dogs as pets.

The only exception to this rule is in Kangerlussuaq, which lies very close to, but just South of the Arctic Circle. 

Close up of the faces of sled dogs pulling a dogsled near Uummannaq - winter - Guide to Greenland

2. How many sled dogs are there in Greenland?

​There are now about 15,000 sled dogs in Greenland. 

While this might sound like a lot (after all, the human population of Greenland is only 56,000), it is almost half the number that existed just 20 years ago. This is partially due to:

  1. climate change. The lack of sea ice (particularly South of the Arctic Circle) means that hunters and fishermen can no longer use dogsleds. They now use boats - even during Winter.

  2. the higher costs of keeping dogs compared to a boat or snowmobile. Dogs must be raised, fed and tended to all year round, while boats and snowmobiles only require fuel and a small amount of maintenance. The cost of dog food has also increased in Greenland, and catching enough meat to feed a team of dogs requires a significant amount of time.

The result is a very uncertain future for this unique breed, but one that is acknowledged and taken very seriously in Greenland.

Dogsledding musher towards Uummannaq - winter - Guide to GreenlandA hunter heading home to Uummannaq

Interesting snippet: The University of Greenland, the Natural History Museum of Denmark and the University of Copenhagen embarked on a large project to research the Greenlandic sled dog. Their aim was to create, encourage and sustain pride in the sled dog culture in Greenland and to help preserve this traditional heritage.  The project is called QIMMEQ, which means “dog” in the Greenlandic Language.

3. Why are Greenlandic sled dogs so special?

The Greenlandic sled dog is a very specific breed of husky found nowhere else in the world. Like all other kinds of sled dogs, they have been bred for stamina, hardiness, and intelligence under Arctic conditions (for example, they are very good at reading ice conditions), and over the millennia of working with humans, they have developed a special relationship with us. Watching a trained musher (dog sled driver) negotiate obstacles with the team is a highlight of any visit to the Arctic. 

Musher guiding his sled dogs over the sea ice near Uummannaq - winter - dogsledding - Guide to GreenlandMusher guiding his sled dogs across the sea ice near Uummannaq in North Greenland

Sled dogs are also the only animal that can outrun a human over long distances, and they can continue to do so for a very long time. Click to watch this short video that explains how they are able to keep running, day after day, while we need to rest after a long journey.

4. What commands are used to control the dogs? 

In Greenland, mushers generally use the words IJU to instruct the dogs to go left and ILI for them to go right. But this isn’t universal. It simply depends on what words the musher uses to train the dogs.

Mushers also use a dogsled whip as a guiding tool, never for punishment. The musher cracks the whip in such a way that the dogs run away from the sound. ie. if the dogs should go left, the musher cracks the whip to the right, and visa versa. This is sometimes much more effective than voice commands.

Dogsledding across the sea ice near Tasiilaq seen from behind - winter - Guide to GreenlandThe musher may stand behind the sled or sit in front. You can see the whip trailing behind

Fun story: A renowned dogsled racer who taught his dogs the words in reverse - ILI for left and IJU for right. He was apparently able to influence the other dogsled teams he was racing against to go the wrong way!

5. Dog sled racing is a national sport

Every year there is a national competition for dog sled racing called Avannaata Qimussersua. It is held in a different town each year, and because the distances between the towns are so large and there are no roads in Greenland, the teams of sled dogs are often flown in with a big Sikorsky helicopter. 

Start of the national dogsledding championship in Ilulissat - winter - Guide to GreenlandStart of the national dogsledding championship in Ilulissat 

Click to watch a short documentary about the sport from the QIMMEQ project where a 13-year old newcomer dreams of winning the championship, encouraged by veteran race legend Ville Siegstad.


Interesting snippet: The Greenlandic sled dog was never bred for racing. It was bred to hunt polar bears and pull heavy sleds on a long hunt. For this reason, when racing against other sled dog breeds, it often doesn’t do well. 

6. Should I go on a dog sled tour in Greenland?

Yes! Dog sledding is a way of life in Greenland and an important part of the cultural heritage. By going on a dog sledding tour, you will help to keep this tradition alive and supplement the income of the musher who finds it more and more difficult to maintain the dogs.

The dogs themselves are bred to run and relish the opportunity to pull. They are not whipped or harmed in any way (the dogsled whip is struck beside the pack, not on it) and it is the best way to experience the silence of the Arctic winter in an authentic way.

People dogsledding across the sea ice with Uummannaq mountain in the background - Guide to GreenlandVisitors on a dogsled tour across the sea ice near Uummannaq

Important fact: You must never approach a Greenlandic sled dog unless given permission by the owner. Although dogs older than 6 months must be chained by law, puppies are allowed to roam freely. If they approach you or follow you, that is fine. But keep your distance from the adult dogs. 

7. Can I go dogsledding during the Summer?

Yes! But, there is only one place in Greenland where you can do this - Disko Island.

High above the settlement of Qeqertarsuaq, is the Lyngmarksbræen (Lyngmark) Glacier. This is “dead glacier” that no longer moves or calves, but is a great place to find snow at any time of the year. It is a fairly steep climb to the top of the 900m tall mountain to arrive at the glacier and the hike can take anywhere between 2 and 4 hours, depending on your fitness and how many photo stops you have. But the effort is totally worth it. 

A dogsled lies in wait near the Lyngmark Glacier near Qeqertarsuaq - Disko Bay - Summer - Guide to GreenlandA dogsled lies in wait near the Lyngmark Glacier

From the top, the views over Disko Bay and its enormous icebergs are incredible, and it is a unique experience to go dogsledding with a proper sled (rather than with wheels underneath) during the Summer.  

There are also 2 very comfortable “huts” near the glacier, and we highly recommend staying overnight if possible.

The uncertain future for the Greenlandic sled dog

Fewer and fewer Greenlanders see dog sledding as a viable means of hunting, so less of the skills and techniques associated with this tradition are being passed down to future generations. 

Sled dog looking out at enormous icebergs in Uummannaq - summer - Guide to GreenlandWhat is the future of the Greenlandic sled dog?

It has now reached a point where some prominent hunters and mushers have called for the government to embed this cornerstone of Greenlandic culture into the education of young people, and it may end up being tourists looking for an authentic Arctic experience who save the sled dog and this heritage.

Thanks to Lasse Inuk Kyed for the original article on which this is based.