Togo – The True Hero

Togo – A Capsule History

Above: Togo, immediately after completion
of the 1925 Nome Serum Run.

Named after Heihachiro Togo, a Japanese Admiral who fought in the war between Russia and Japan (1904-5) as well as other conflicts.

Born: Estimated to be 1913, according to many reliable quotes, including from Leonhard Seppala himself, which place his age at 12 years in 1925, the year of the serum run (exact date not specifically known, or not a matter of public record)

Died: December 5th, 1929

Owner: Norwegian Leonhard Seppala (pronounced LEH-nerd SEP-luh), a breeder and racer of Siberian dogs from the Chukchi Inuit stock of Siberia. He also trained dogs and mushers. Was employed by Norwegian Jafet Lindeberg’s (pronounced YAH-feht LIN-deh-berg) Pioneer Gold Mining Company (Jafet Lindeberg was one of the “Three Lucky Swedes” who discovered gold at Anvil Creek in 1898, near Nome).

Sire (father): Suggen (a half Siberian husky, half Alaskan Malamute, and one of Leonhard Seppala’s other great lead dogs before the days of the serum run).

Above: Togo and some other dogs owned by Leonhard Seppala, prior to
1925.  This photo shows the dogs working on one of the claims of the Pioneer Gold
Mining Company, for which Leonhard Seppala worked (before and after the
serum run).  This company was later bought out by the Hammon Consolidated
Gold Fields, for which Seppala continued working.  At the left of the photo is Togo’s
sire (father), Suggen, who was Seppala’s racing team leader before World War I.  He led
Sepp’s team to victory in a few of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes races.

Dam (mother)Dolly (a Siberian husky imported to Alaska, from Siberia, to Leonhard Seppala’s kennels…one of the original group).

Offspring: Togo (II), Kingeak (most likely named after young Eskimo Theodore Kingeak, who assisted Seppala in 1926/7, when he visited the U.S. on tour with 44 of his dogs, including his serum run team, as a dog and equipment handler), Paddy, Bilka (and others).

Breed: Dark brown (w/cream, black and gray markings) Siberian husky (of the Chukchi Inuit Siberian tribe’s stock). Eyes were ice blue. He was small for his breed, only topping out at about forty-eight pounds (Seppala liked to referred to Togo, in his racing days, as “fifty pounds of muscle and fighting heart”).

Above: Leonhard Seppala with Togo, after the
serum run.

Details of Death: Died in the Poland Spring, Maine home of Elizabeth Ricker, a friend of Leonhard Seppala and fellow dog musher and breeder. Seppala left Togo, with great sadness, with Ricker to retire in comfort in 1927 (Seppala remembered it as one of the saddest moments in his life.  He was quoted as saying “It was sad parting on a cold gray March morning when Togo raised a small paw to my knee as if questioning why he was not going along with me.”)  In 1960, in his old age, Seppala recalled “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 sired some offspring during that time, and then died of old age in 1929 (Seppala had him “put to sleep” to ease his passing).

– Togo was 12 years old in 1925…that’s pretty advanced in age for a sled dog, let alone a lead dog (most of them are retired by that age)! However, it also demonstrates just how much Seppala trusted Togo, and speaks volumes about the amount of experience the dog had.

Above: Togo, taken after the serum run.

– As far as coloration, Togo’s coat was what is known as “agouti” ( and His colors were mostly gray, brown, black and creamy white.

– One CLEAR way of identifying Togo out of a line-up of other Siberians (with the same coat pattern) in a photograph (or even assuring that a photo of a dog is or ISN’T Togo) is to look for Togo’s damaged right ear. There is no mention in the historical record of how this happened. It could have been a birth defect, or it’s just as likely (and probably more so) that it is the result of damage from an argument or fight with another dog. Sometimes ear damage just doesn’t heal right. Of course, there is a mention in his history that, while still a puppy, he ventured too close to a trail-hardened team of Alaskan Malamutes, and must have upset one of the dogs, which mauled him. Togo was saved and attended to medically, of course, but that too could have been the cause of this injury.

– Togo’s father was a dog named “Suggen”, a half-Siberian husky/half Alaskan Malamute, whom Seppala had also used as a lead dog (and in whom Seppala had a great deal of faith and trust)…especially during his racing days prior to World War I. Both Suggen and Togo worked on Seppala’s racing teams, and did much to earn him the many trophies in his personal collection.

– Togo, as a puppy, had developed a painful throat disorder which at first caused Seppala to lose interest in him, and even give him up for adoption. But Togo was a persistent puppy, and wouldn’t be parted from Seppala and his teams. After a few short weeks, he escaped from the adoptee’s home by jumping through a window, and meticulously working his way back to Seppala’s home (a good distance away from where he was living at the time). In some pictures, you can see the effects of this if you look at Togo’s neck. The disorder was treated of course, and Togo turned into a remarkable sled dog in spite of it.

– Unlike Balto, whom Seppala had neutered at six months of age, Togo sired many litters of puppies for Sepp’s breeding program, and today is widely considered one of the fathers of the modern Siberian Husky breed (as well as a strong contributor to the much older “Seppala Siberian Sled Dog” breed…the genetic forerunner of the modern Siberian Husky, and the breed which was once called “Siberian husky”).

– Togo also worked for a living, helping Seppala’s freighting teams in his employ with the Pioneer Gold Mining Company.

– Togo and his team ran nearly five times as far, during the Serum Run, as any of the other nineteen teams which participated (a grand total of 261 miles/420 kilometers). Due to changes made after Seppala left Nome with his team, and the inability to get word to him on the trail, Seppala ran the team much farther than was actually necessary.

– After Seppala arrived at the roadhouse at Golovin, thus completing his leg of the serum run, he rested and then started out for a leisurely return home to Nome.  On the return, the team picked up the scent of a reindeer on the trail, and both Togo and another dog broke free of their leads, and went running off after the deer.  Seppala had to remain to restrain the rest of the team, and in doing so lost sight of Togo and the other dog.  He continued on into Nome without them, worried that Togo, especially (whom he had a great fondness for, and a strong bond with), would be mistaken for a wolf and shot by a hunter or other local citizen, or that one or both of the dogs might get their feet caught in a fox trap, which apparently was a fairly common occurrence for sled dogs at the time.  Some days later, however, the two dogs wandered back to Seppala’s kennels, and were happily reunited with their worried owner.

Above:  Togo’s stuffed and mounted body, displayed at the
Iditarod Trail Headquarters Museum in Wasilla, Alaska.  Note the poor
condition of the mount.  This is due to previous ownership by the
Shelburne Museum of Shelburne, Vermont, where it was displayed out in
the open.  There, people could approach it closely and touch it (exposing it
to body oils and moisture, and pulling the fur out of the dead
skin when they would touch and pet it).  The museum had purchased it
from Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, which had
it on display prior to that time.  (Togo’s skeleton is mounted separately,
and  still in possession of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where
it is occasionally displayed.)  This is an older photo.  Please see the
Monuments & Mounts article on this site for more recent pictures.

Born To Lead
As a puppy (the only one in his mother Dolly’s litter at the time, or perhaps the only survivor), Togo’s great future was not immediately apparent. He ran a bit small, and he had developed a painful disorder which caused his throat to swell. He spent his early days in the arms of Constance (Leonhard Seppala’s wife), who applied hot rags to his throat to ease the pain.

And yet, in spite of the disorder, Togo became a troublesome and mischievous pup. Whenever Seppala would be out in the kennel yards, harnessing up a team, Togo would dash around nipping at the dogs, frustrating and distracting them. One reporter once wrote that Togo was “showing all the signs of becoming a canine delinquent“.

When he reached six months of age, Seppala decided he’d had enough of the puppy’s mischief, and gave him away to a woman who was looking for a house pet. Togo, however, did not take to the domestic life of a pet, and even though the woman spoiled him, he because worse and worse. In a matter of weeks, Togo had escaped from the woman’s house by leaping through a windowpane and working his way meticulously back to Seppala’s kennels. Amazed, Sepp took him back, later saying of him that “a dog so devoted to his first friends deserved to be accepted“.

However, Togo had not ceased to be a problem. He continued to harrass Sepp’s teams whenever they hit the trail. Whenever Togo got free of the kennel, and met a returning team, he’d dart up to its leader and jump at him. Doing this almost cost him his life once (noted in the previous post), when he ran up to a team of trail-hardened malamutes and was mauled. Togo had him rushed by dogsled to his kennels for medical attention. However, this experience would actually help to make him a better racing dog, as one of the hardest things to teach an inexperienced lead dog is how to pass another team without getting distracted and possibly being lured into a fight (or starting one). Togo never pestered another team again, always giving an approaching team a wide berth. When he would “pass by” another team going in the same direction, he would dig in, pull on the harness, yelp and rush on ahead. Sepp said that “…like a lot of humans, Togo had learned the hard way“.

He was about eight months old when he finally got the chance to show his quality as a sled dog and a potential lead dog. Sepp had to rush out with a team to a mining camp outside of Nome. A prospector had hired Sepp to take him up to Dime Creek, where there was word of a new gold strike. It was 160 miles away. Sepp had tied Togo up, leaving instructions that he be kept secure for two days after his departure, because he didn’t want Togo chasing after the team and then harassing the dogs in the rush they were in. Togo hated being tied up, and the same night that Sepp left, Togo broke free from his tether and jumped the seven-foot-high fence of the kennel, but got one of his hind legs caught in the wire mesh at the top of the fence. Squealing and yelping, he caught the attention of a kennel assistant, who came out and cut the mesh to free him. Togo dropped to the ground, rolled over, and immediately set off after Sepp and the team.

Togo ran through the night, following Sepp’s trail all the way to the roadhouse at Solomon, and rested quietly outside for the remainder of the night. The next morning, Sepp noticed that his team was off to a rather quick start. He assumed they had caught the scent of a reindeer ahead on the trail. When he looked ahead, and saw a dog running loose far off ahead of them, he figured it out. It was Togo up to his usual mischief. He darted about at the team, nipping playfully at the leader’s ears, and then occasionally charging off after reindeer. When Sepp finally caught him, he felt he had no choice but to put him where he could keep an eye on him…back in one of the wheel positions directly in front of the sled. The moment he slipped the harness around Togo’s head and neck, the dog became serious and resolute. The tugline went taut and he focused on the trail. This amazed Sepp, who discerned that what Togo wanted all along was to be a member of Sepp’s team.

Throughout the day, Sepp kept moving Togo up the line until, at the end of the day, he was sharing the lead position with the lead dog (named “Russky”). Togo had logged seventy-five miles on his first day in harness, which was unheard of for an inexperienced young sled dog, especially a puppy. Seppala called him an “infant prodigy”. And later added that “I had found a natural-born leader, something I had tried for years to breed“.

Above: Leonhard Seppala with Togo, after the serum run.  This
photo clearly demonstrates Togo’s small size (under-sized for a
more typical Siberian husky of the time period…as noted above).
Seppala himself was only 5’4″ tall.

4 Comments on “Togo – The True Hero

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