At the end of the last Ice age (15,000 years before present), the wolf (Canis lupus) was the dominant social predator across the northern hemisphere. The complex social structure of the animal allows domestication as well as crossbreeding with other canids such as the coyote.
Genetics research has shown that the domesticated dog has no direct link with the wolf, but rather results from several levels of domestication and crossbreeding.
Domestication is the result of a close relationship between animal and human. In exchange for protection, food and care, the animal provides motive power, reciprocal protection and companionship. In its relationship with dogs, man also receives assistance in hunting as well as prey recovery.
After the Ice age, harsh climatic conditions allowed the wolf to develop characteristics which were essential to its survival. The pack’s social structure allowed synchronized hunting of big game as well as the protection of pups.
Some hypotheses suggest that humans have harvested puppies for domestication. Others believe that the wolf would have initiated pre-domestication by settling near humans in order to collect food scraps. Eventually, the canid would have followed man during the hunt and contributed to the expedition’s success.
In the northern regions, humans would have bred dogs for their motive power. The Dorset people (2,500 to 600 years BP) bred stronger dogs with wider jaws and compressed spines. They were also used for hunting, protection and transportation of material directly strapped to the animals.
The invention of the dogsled, combined with the eventual arrival of firearm, led to a transformation of the dog’s role. Previously a hunting animal, it became a draft animal. As more game was caught, people were able to maintain larger dog teams, which in turn led to increased mobility. Depending on the availability of resources, the average team increased from three dogs to ten, and sometimes even fifteen.
Historically, the Qimmiit (Inuit dog / Canis familiaris borealis) played an important role in the traditional life of Nunavik. The animal, typically the basis of year-round mobility, was equally useful for hunting and protection. Today, snowmobiling has supplanted dog sledding as a means of transportation, although many Nunavimmiut maintain dog teams, preserving the tradition of Qimmiit, an essential partner throughout Inuit history.
One of the Qimmiit’s most notable characteristics is its pelage, consisting of a thick undercoat of insulating fur covered with an outer coat of longer hairs. This pelage protects the animal from cold and dampness, and, being particularly heavy around its neck and head, limits injuries suffered in dogfights. The Qimmiit’s fur is especially imposing in appearance during the mating season.
The characteristics that distinguish the Qimmiit’s behaviour from that of other domestic dogs can be attributed to the Arctic environment and the role played by the dog in society. For example, enthusiasm for pulling is observed in puppies from the age of four months. It is essential for puppies to be socialized as they are raised, to ensure that they are more responsive to humans and less likely to be aggressive.
The animal’s size is a very important aspect of its working role. A dog that is too big requires more resources than its contribution would be worth. However, it has to be large enough to pull a sled efficiently. The Qimmiit is a carnivore but, when food is lacking, it can survive for long periods on a reduced diet without too much negative effect on its health.