A Dog’s Tail

Dogs and Antarctica are two of my most favourite things, so in many ways this post was inevitable. Having chaired a panel discussion on this very subject as part of IceFest, I’m now bursting with doggy tales (excuse the pun, but our session was entitled ‘A Dog’s Tail’). These days there are no canines south of the Antarctic convergence, thanks to the environmental protection measures brought in by the Madrid Protocol, but prior to 1994 they played a vital role in making possible the exploration of the great white continent. That exploration, and the ways in which dogs have long been the unsung heroes of southern science and cartography, was addressed by both the polar historian Dr Ursula Rack and the former Antarctic dog handler Frank Graveson. Here’s a taste of what they had to say…

First up, Ursula surprised us all with the revelation that many of the dogs that were carried south with Antarctic explorers suffered terribly from seasickness. Their plight was recorded in the diaries of the explorers who were tasked with caring for the mutts on the way down. Having had a carsick dog before I suppose I should have seen that one coming! Ursula also touched on the psychological importance of having the dogs about. For men in a remote, homosocial environment, the animals provided an outlet for their emotional needs. If someone was missing home during the Heroic Era, it was not really the done thing to cry on a mate’s shoulder, but hugging a puppy was just fine.

Frank, who lived at Scott Base between 1962-64 as a dog handler, agreed that the dogs were a welcome distraction at times. They also allowed base staff to travel beyond the confines of the base itself, and made possible a whole range of scientific projects. Surprisingly, the sledge dogs* only needed to know four commands: go, stop, left, and right. That’s it. Even then, it was the lead dogs that needed to be smart enough to follow those directions. Frank told us how an ideal dog sledge team would have two smart dogs in the lead, and a whole pack of dim animals behind. They were always harnessed into the same positions, and those with back row seats never got a view; they just had to pull.

Screen Shot 2014-10-07 at 8.45.17 AMWe actually had two very special guests in the audience for our discussion who were doing some pulling of their own – along with the 120 odd humans we had two huskies from Husky Rescue. Their harnesses were much more modern than the leather and linen versions that their ancestors would have been used to 100 years ago, but their presence really helped bring the history of the black and white slides to life. They also reminded me of my first experience with sledge dogs, at the Antarctic Society centenary celebration of Amundsen reaching the South Pole, on 14 December 2011. Mark Roberts of Rakaia was there with his racing team, giving rides around the park on a wheeled rig (the summer equivalent of a winter sledge), and I was lucky enough to be taken for a spin. What a way to celebrate the history of a man who is so famous for his efficient use of dogs to reach the South Pole. (You may, however, be glad to hear that we didn’t eat any of the dogs when we were done).

The take-home message from our panel was that the dogs that were used down in Antarctica were not pets, but working beasts of burden. They were there to do a job (usually pulling sledges, although the US programme had a search and rescue dog team), and they did that job well, with little fuss and only the occasional dog fight that resulted in stitches being needed. To find out more about how sledge dogs were used by historical expeditions, head on over to Dr Ursula Rack’s website at arcticandantarctic.wordpress.com to drop her a line, or visit the BAS page on dogs or see Bob McKerrow’s site.

 NB: There has been quite some debate over the use of the adjective that should precede ‘dog’ when talking about the Antarctic variety in their towing capacity. Some say ‘Sled Dogs’, others are adamant it should be ‘Sledge Dogs.’ I know I’m going to get in trouble with one faction or the other no matter which version I choose, so I decided to let my own dog decide, by putting out treats on labelled mats – ‘Sled’ and ‘Sledge.’ Needless to say, she wolfed down both.

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