The story of Balto and Togo

Here is Seppala and Balto, who was only a scrub dog, but was lead dog on the last leg.

and this is Togo, the lead sled dog for most of the way, and the dog credited for being a powerhouse during this long run. Seppala said: I never had a better dog than Togo. His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.

Togo was a whopping 12 years of age when he did the Race of Mercy, and he has a very interesting story:

As a puppy, Togo suffered from health problems, and Seppala saw no use for the undersized, seemingly unfit dog. However, after being given away to a neighbor, Togo flung himself through a glass window and escaped back home. It seemed to Seppala that he was stuck with the incorrigible pup.

As Togo grew, he became captivated by the working sled dogs surrounding him. Still too young for a harness, he often got loose to run alongside teams training with Seppala, much to his owner’s anguish. His penchant for mischief led to a mauling when he ran up on a team of much larger Malamutes. Exasperated, Seppala decided to do what he did best with his dogs. He put a harness on the 8-month-old Togo and hooked him into the team. Togo ultimately ran 75 miles that day and worked his way up to lead on his first-ever time in a harness. Unwittingly, Seppala had found himself the perfect lead dog for which he had always yearned.

Over the years, Togo became known across Alaska for his tenacity, strength, endurance, and intelligence as Seppala’s prized lead dog. Togo led Seppala’s team in races and excursions long and short, and dog and man became inseparable. During this time, Seppala himself won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes in 1915, 1916, and 1917.

By the time the diphtheria outbreak struck in 1925, Togo was 12 years old and Seppala 47, both seemingly past their primes. However, with the fate of Nome in the balance, locals knew the aging yet experienced duo was their last, best hope. As deaths from the disease mounted, the decision to act was made. A multi-team dog sled relay was arranged to deliver 300,000 units of serum, already en route to Nenana by rail, the remaining 674 miles to Nome. On January 29th, Seppala and his 20 best Siberians set out from Nome with trusty Togo at the helm, to meet the westbound relay and retrieve the vital serum. Among those not selected by Seppala was Balto, whom the musher felt was yet unprepared to lead a team.

Read more about Seppala, Balto, and Togo here. Disney even made a movie about Togo


I have always loved watching the Iditarod and learning about the dog dynamics and how they define the order in which the dogs are harnessed each day. The mood and relationship between the dogs changes all the time and this affects where they are positioned each day. As Erik Larsen says:

Each set of dogs has a specific role within the team. The two dogs directly in front of the sled are called ‘wheel’ dogs and are generally the biggest and strongest dogs. The two in front of them are called ‘team’ dogs and are the steady pullers. This is also where I often place younger dogs to gain experience. Depending on the race, mushers will add extra sections of gangline to increase the number of dogs running at any given time. For example, in the Iditarod, mushers will start with 16 dogs in each team. Right behind the leaders are the ‘point’ dogs and these are dogs that may be leaders at some point (because they are becoming more responsible) or are already leaders, but are not running out front at the moment. Lastly, the ‘lead’ dogs are the smartest and usually fastest dogs in the team and have a wide variety of responsibilities from keeping the gangline stretched out to understanding the commands for right ‘gee’ and left ‘haw’, among many others. The dogs, like people, have good and bad days and I was always intrigued to see how each of the dogs’ personalities complemented or clashed depending on their position, running mate, day, trail or situation. Rarely did I return to the kennel with the same ‘line up’ that I had left with.

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

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