History Of The Yakutian Laika
For centuries, dog sledding was most important part of way of life of peoples of the north. Specialists believe that dog sledding is considerably older then reindeer sledding. In Neolithic, on the Northeastern shore line of Asia, what no is a part of Yakutia, dogs were used for transportation and hunting. This is explained by the fact, that in the tundra zone and in the polar desert zone, there were no other animals suitable for using as transportation, but there was an opportunity to obtain enough food for dogs for the whole winter period.
In early 90th of XX century, on Zhokhov Island (the Novosibirsk Archipelago, Yakutia), a hunters archeological site was found. It was investigated by an archeologist from Sanct-Petersburg, Vladimir Pitulko. He found remains of sleds, harness and well preserved bones of dog. Radiocarbon method showed that time of these finds was between 7 800-8 000 years. This is the oldest find in high Arctic.
Ethnographers M. G. Levin (1946), A. V. Smolyak (1978) and others wrote that since ancient time and until present, for aboriginal people of the north, sled dogs served as universal animals: they were draft animals, , they were eaten, their pelts were used for making clothing and for cult rituals; the dogs were sacrificed and used for other religious ceremonies.
Whereas technique of dog sledding of North America remained rather primitive, people of Siberia and of the Far East went considerably further in sledding technique and controlling the dogs. R. Amundsen, in 1920, visited Koren Yukhan, on the Kolyma River (Russian Ustye, Pokhodsk and Nizhnekolymsk). He wrote: “…in the dog sledding these Russians and Yakuts are better, then anyone I could see.”
Northeaster narta (sleds) is a particular achievement. It is called Kolyma sleds. It is light, built without a single nail, only with belts, strong and resilient and is better then any other sleds for riding on uneven terrain covered with rocks and ice. It is believed that this type of sleds was invented still in Neolithic and remained unchanged until present. There are two versions of it, one for shipping heavy loads and one for fast riding.
Many geographic discoveries in the Arctic were possible, because of the sled dogs. Both Earth poles were discovered with help of sled dogs; in 1907, F. Cook and in 1909 R. Piry reached the Northern Pole. In 1911, Amundsen put a Norwegian flag in the South Pole. Under hard conditions, he made 2980 km in 99 days on sled dogs. Amundsen made all his polar expeditions by using our Kolyma Laikas, despite their delivery was difficult and expensive. Samoyed dogs also took part in these expeditions.
American explorers of the Arctic, until 20th of XX century, imported dogs from the Kolyma River region. “Give me winter and a dog team, and take all the rest” – words of the famous traveler of the north Knut Rasmussen, who accomplished the longest trip in dog sleds. This Dutch ethnographer, with his team made 18 000 kilometers from Hudson Gulf to the Chukotka Peninsula. He wrote about this travel: “I feel deep gratitude to our patient and undemanding dogs. We worked as hard as living creatures can work, until exhaustion together with the dogs, helping each other. ..”
In Russia, starting from the Great Polar Expedition sent by Piter I and until 70th of the past century, no one northern traveler could do without dogs. They were used also during more recent time, despite contemporary technological achievements.
The first writing record of dogs on Yakutian territory was made in 1633, when the first travel by sea was made from the Lena River. Ilia Perfiliev was the head of the group of traders and kozaks from Yenissey and Tobolsk regions. As a result of this trip, several geographic discoveries were made: the Olenek, the Yana and the Indigirka Rivers were found and two forts were bult, Zashiversk and Russkoye Ustye. This was the beginning of population and development of Indigirka-Kolyma territories.
The next step of sea travels in the Arctic was made in 1642. Dmitry Zyrtan (Yarilo), Mikhail Stadukhin and Semyon Dezhnev with teams of kazaks (Russian Polar Travels of traders and kazaks in XVII-XIX centuries). In 1643, the seafarers reached mouth of the Kolyma River. They proceeded upstream and built a winter fort named Kolymsky.
In documents of that time, the Olenek River, the Yana River and the Kolyma River are named “Dog Rivers”. In Siberia, rivers are divided into “dog rivers” and “deer rivers”. On rivers rich with fish, it was easy to catch and store enough fish (dried fish – yukola) to feed the dogs and this is why they were called dog rivers. Where no fish, it was hard to use dogs for the transportation and reindeer were used; these are reindeer rivers. Life along dog rivers was more difficult, because of the constant need of fishing and hunting to obtain enough food for the dogs.
French polar explorer, Pol-Emil Victor, in his book “Sled Dogs – Friends in Risk” states that Mc Clintok was he first who used a sled dog team in polar expeditions. This is not true. In 1742, a Russian seaman Semen Ivanovich Chelyuskin made 4000 vest in dog pulled sleds from Yakutain land to Taimyr Peninsula. He was the first who reached northern end of Asia named to day Chelyuskin Cape. His friends, Khariton Laptev and Nikifor Chekin (Lena-Yenissei team, 1735-1742) made thousands of verst in dog sleds.
In 1843, the first part of “Manual to Geography of Russian Empire” by Ivan Yakovlevich Pavlovsky was published. In this book, he described the Yakutian Laika as a special breed, which “is a necessary domesticated animal used for sledding and hunting”. In this book he reports that Yakutian Laikas were used for postal service. In 1839, in Yakutian Province, up to twenty dog sleds were used for communications between Okhotsk and Kamchatka, “which were used for shipping heavy loads. One sled was pulled by 10 dogs, a pair of dogs in the rows attached to one cord and the eleventh dog in the front. Because they pulled heavy loads of 25-35 puds, making 80 verst per day; at the light riding, the same dogs made up to 140 verst.”
According to ethnographer V. Tugolukov, who wrote about Kolyma-Indigirka dog teams of the middle XIX century, average speed in the road less country over long distances was 10 km per hour, on tracks 200-250 km, average speed was 15-17 km per hour. Light sleds could be pulled over 250 km in 15 hours, and 750 km in three days. If the road conditions are good, a team of 12-14 dogs could pull one ton load unlimited time, but on the bad road not more then 500 kg.
The first record of number of Yakutian Laikas can be found in a book “Statistical Tables of the Russian Empire” published by Ministry of Inner Affairs of Russian Emipre, 1856, editor A. Bushchev: “In Yakutian Province, 15 157 dogs are recorded, which are used there for transportation”.
In 1862, Imperial Geographic Society published “Geographic Statistical Dictionary of Russian Empire, Volume 1st of which was put together by Peter Semenov . According to this publication, in Verkhoyansk Ulus, “Dogs belong to very important domesticated animals of local people, which keep them in great numbers. They use them for transportation in tundra and for hunting. Total number of dogs is up to 4 000”.
The first description of keeping and using of Yakutian Laikas can be found in “Review of Economical Statre and Statistics of Russian Empire, 1849” put together by G. Gorlov, “Yakuts use dogs for riding and shipping loads. Dogs live outside a year around; in the summer they dig pits in the dirt for staying cool, or they lay in water, trying to get rid off mosquitoes. In winter, they seek for shelter, hiding under snow, lay in pits dug in the snow, covering muzzle with tail.
Only males are raised, but females are discarded. Feeding and training dogs for transportation is a major occupation of fishermen population. Fastest and most intelligent dogs are hitched in the front. Traveling in vast tundra, in dark and foggy nights, or in blizzard, when trqaveller can see nothing and there is a danger to die in the snow, well trained lead dog saved form eminent death by taking the traveler to the shelter, where it had been at least one time. This alone makes dogs necessary; their sense of smell and instinct in polar deserts replace compass.”
“In 1821, disease exterminated most of the dogs” “On the river banks of Lena, Indigirka and Kolyma, in some families with 20 dogs, only two puppies survived: the woman of the household fed them up with her breast along with her own child. This is how much the dogs are needed. This is how two puppies became ancestors of numerous progeny”.
The first researcher, who had described the Yakutian Laika in details was Vladimir Iliych Yokhelson. In 1894-1900, his first publications associated with this expedition were published. They were a result of extensive and diverse investigations by V. I. Yokhelson in life of Yukagir, Chukchi, Chuvans, Yakuts, Evens, Evenks and Russians.
Yokhelson put together Russian-Yukagir and Yukagir-Russian Dictionaries; presented several samples of Yukagir texts with his translations and grammar analysis, Yukagir letters and drawings on birch bark, archive excerpts and about 100 archive documents, ethnographic collection and travel notes. He collected materials on folklore, linguistic, anthropology, family life, religion, customs, material culture and economics of Yukagir people. In the book by Yokhelson we read: “Domesticated animal of Yakuts is horse; nomadic Yakuts keep reindeer and river Yakuts as well as settled ones, keep only dogs. All these animals are adapted to serve people at the hunting. By the way, dogs, which follow people at all latitudes, it is necessary to add that it is most reliable friend during hunting. Whereas horse and reindeer are passive, unconscious and involuntary assistants, the dog, being clever predator, is active and conscious worker, which sometimes even leads another predator – the human.”
Yokhelson writes: “Sleddog is working livestock of not only reindeer less nomads and settled river dwellers, but also of Russians and russified minorities and of majority of livestock keeping Yakuts. Excluding southwestern part of the territory, every Yakut yurta (house) has 3-4 dogs, which ship firewood, ice and do other work. Polar dogs are not big, 50-60 cm at shoulder. They can be bigger, but many of Yakutian dogs are surprisingly small. Small size of working dogs can be explained by the same reasons why our peasants have small horses; five-six months old puppies of poor people are not fed well, but used for shipping water and firewood. Rich owners take better care of their dogs and those dogs are always bigger.
In the appearance, local sled dog with its prick ears, slanted set eyes, thick coat, broad and relatively big head, pointed muzzle and bushy low kept, when not in a good mood, tail is very similar to wolf.”
Vladimir Ilyich Mikhelson was the first who described the Yakutian Laika and distinguished it from other dogs of northeastern Asia.
Predominant coat color of the Kolyma dog, according to Yokhelson, is “gray, gray-red, spotted, in other words, with white or black spots. Legs are relatively thick and short; chest, which is used to pull sleds, is well developed; neck is thick and short. Face is extraordinary shrewd, with melancholic or aloof expression”.
According to Yokhelson, the same dog is used for sledding and for hunting, with well developed sense of smell, but with even better hearing and vision. They live tethered almost a year around, but when on the loose, they find food for themselves in a form of mice, partridges, ducks and other birds and small mammals. When groups, they can kill a reindeer, a cow and, if hungry will attack a horse.”
Interesting that during sledding, Kolyma dog become vicious and become dangerous even to humans. As to the hunting, they are worthless for hunting birds: they frighten all forest and swamp birds.”
“By the way, hunting birds there is very different from bird hunting in our country and dogs are never used for this purpose. Nobody is teaching these dogs. A good hunting dog is a natural talent. Any of local dogs can chase and find animals by tracks, but not each of them has enough courage and determination to finish the job”.
M. G. Dmitrieva-Sulima made a particular contribution in the description of the Yakutian Laika in her book “Laika and Hunting with Laika”, 1911: “This dog, by its qualities, belongs to breed of northern dogs. It is living in the Kolyma Teritory, north of the Kolyma River with its tributaries. It is known that for 300-400 years this dog is forced to work as a draft animal, which did not kill its hunting instincts. Without being developed and maintained by training, they still remain strong enough to classify it as a hunting breed. Small number of them can hunt big game, they all are treeing squirrels, most of them can catch red foxes and polar foxes; shortly all those animals, which are hunted in that country by local people. In this country the northern dog became what people wanted it to be.”
Until 1960th sled dog teams were important and sometimes the only one available form of winter transportation in northern regions of Russia. They were used not only by local people, but also by the government agencies, including border troops, postal service and scientific expeditions. According to archival data, in late 50th of XX century, in northern uluses of Yakutia, total number of dogs was 33 000. Decline of dog sledding in Russia began during recent 30 years of XX century. Snowmobiles, decline of fur industry and local fishing led to extinction of sled dogs.
In 1993, Government Commission of the Russian Federation for preservation of genetic achievements included the Yakutian Laika in the Government’s roster of useful animals under Number 9358072 as a hunting and working (sled) dog.
In 1998, a group of enthusiasts, V. Z. Dyachkov, G. P. Arbugaev, S. V. Gorodilov and L. I. Sidorova decided to reclaim the Yakutian Laika breed. They brought first dogs, which became a foundation stock of the Yakutian Laika in Yakutia. Jointly with the Yakutian Republican Association of Dog breeding, during several years they bred dogs and put together the breed standard.
In 2004, Russian Cynological Federation (RKF) examined the breed standard and accepted it as a basic breed standard.