Day 17: 17 January 2019. 

I was doing a bit of bonding with one of the AUV techies from Texas the other day.  We were talking about our kids, home-improvements we were making, and so forth, and, because the conversation was starting to flag a bit, I asked him if he missed his wife.  It was a throw-away question which he surprised me by taking seriously.   He furrowed his brow, pursed his lips and arched his fingers, he then extend his arms across the table towards me, spread his hands and studied his cuticles.  ‘Nah’, he said at last, ‘but I sure miss my dog’.

All of which got me to thinking about the relationship between man and dog on the Endurance.  I am not a dog person myself so I find all that went on with them quite interesting but a bit puzzling.  They were, however, the back bone of Shackleton’s planned crossing of Antarctica,  and in tribute there is actually a bronze statue of one of them on the forecourt of the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge.

Sources disagree on the original number. All from the Canada Arctic where they were bred to be strong which, of course, they had to be if they were to pull loaded sledges 15 – 20 miles a day across Antarctica.  Hussey, who was one of the designated dog handlers, or so-called ‘dog Wallas’, described them thus:

‘They were big sturdy animals, chosen for endurance and strength, and if they were as keen to pull the sledges as they were to fight one another all would be well … They were by nature, fierce and dangerous brutes.  Any sign of insubordination had to be put down at once, for any weakness might well have meant the loss of a man’s life … Exercise was very necessary for the health of the dogs.  On board ship it was impossible, but early in January we were able to get them out on to a floe.  Their excitement was intense.  Several managed to fall into the water, and the muzzles they were wearing did not prevent some hot fights.  Two dogs who had managed to slip off their muzzles fought so savagely that they both fell into the icy water and were pulled out still locked in a grapple.’

Once the Endurance became beset Shackleton decided to get the dogs of the ship and into special quarters on the ice.  This was a big relief for the crew for not only did it get rid of  the noise they made but also the smell of their excrement.  At first they used the kennels from the ship but soon they found it was better to make small igloos, or dogloos, for them from blocks of ice cut from around the stern.   Once the walls were up they were roofed over with boards and frozen seal skins, snow was then packed over the top and then everything was cemented into place with a couple of buckets of water which froze solid in seconds.    

Although still tethered the dogs seemed delighted with life on the ice, preferring even to sleep outside rather than take advantage of the shelters with which they had been provided.  During blizzards they would curl up into tight balls to better retain heat and when the snow had built up in drifts over them, they stood up, shook it all off, barked a bit, and then settled down to sleep once more.

By now, however, it was apparent that many of the dogs were suffering from  worms.  On the 3rd March, 1915, one the more dominant dogs in the group, Saint, died from what McNish called a ‘stoppage in the bowels’, four more had then to be shot as they were, as McNish put it, ‘dying with worms.’   Wordie gave a contrasting account of the death of Saint:

One of the heaviest dogs - Saint – was found in a stiff and numb condition; it was brought into the wardroom and revived considerably; cold cannot have been the reason; its breathing showed some internal trouble.  The dog died during the night and a post mortem showed appendicitis.  The number of dogs is now reduced to 62 and 4 pups.

Whether or not this was a correct diagnosis can be argued, but certainly most of the deaths that followed were because of intestinal parasites.  Machlin and Mcllroy performed post-mortems on the dogs finding that most of them suffered from red worms some of which were over a foot long.  They had forgotten to bring worm powder, or as Shackleton explained:  ‘Worm powders were to have been provided by the expert Canadian dog-driver I had engaged before sailing for the South, and when this man did not join the expedition the matter was overlooked.’

Throughout March and April the general condition of the dogs continued to deteriorate from worm infestation.  On the 24th March two more had to be shot, which brought  their number to below 60, but 15 more were in poor health.  During the last week of the month work began on an especially large igloo for sick animals.  Numbers, however, were raised when one of the dogs that was thought to be ill suddenly produced a litter of puppies.  McNish recalled what happened in his diary:  ‘I and Dr Macklin were watchmen last night and I went to have a look at the dogs and found Susie had pups which we took on board, we had a busy night.’

Once beset the training and exercising of the dogs occupied most of the expedition’s time.  At first the process was made difficult by fighting and unruly behaviour, but by the middle of March, the team, and indeed the drivers, had become highly efficient.  Each team consisted of nine dogs, one of which was the leader.  The choice of leader was often made by the dogs themselves, the dominant dog nearly always being the one that displayed most fighting spirit during the interminable squabbles that went on within the pack.  Savagery and strength were always rewarded.  The orders shouted by the drivers were Mush (Go, or, Go faster), Gee (right), Haw (left) and Whoa (stop), terms which were used by sledge-team drivers in the Canadian out-backs.  Within the dog teams any skulking or disobedience was punished by the leader of the pack and, in general, the driver only intervened when it was necessary to avoid a fatality.  Every day, weather permitting, the team drivers would take out their dogs and harness them for runs with weighted sledges.  As for the drivers themselves, they could sit on the sledge if they wished, but because of the prevailing below-zero temperatures, they usually preferred to walk or jog along beside their team.

For Shackleton the  welfare of the dogs was a priority.   ‘The care of the teams,’ wrote Shackleton, ‘was our heaviest responsibility in these days … [their] condition and training seemed essential, whatever fate might be in store for us.’  For this reason it was decided to feed the dogs as well as they were able without touching their sledge rations which the teams would need for the crossing.  Around the middle of April, 1915, they began feeding the dogs pemican but the main part of their meals consisted of whatever wildlife came within sight of the ship.  In fact the area around the kennels was a grizzly sight with lumps of blubber, seals’ heads and half eaten penguins everywhere.