The Chinook was developed as a sled dog by American explorer Arthur Treadwell Walden. In 1896, Walden left his small town at the foot of New Hampshire’s White Mountains and headed to the gold fields of Alaska. He worked an assortment of odd jobs, but his favorite was "dog punching," which involved hauling freight by dogsled. In 1898, Walden acquired and outstanding lead dog, a Husky cross that he named “Chinook” after the warm winter winds. He returned to New Hampshire in the early 1900s, and disappointed by American sled dog quality, decided to develop a new breed. To start his breeding program, Walden looked for a Husky-type dog with strength, speed, stamina and a friendly disposition.
He acquired a well-bred Greenland Husky female that descended from Polaris, Admiral Peary’s lead sled dog from the first trip to the North Pole. Walden her to a Mastiff cross and in January 1917, three tawny puppies were born, named Rikki, Tikki and Tavi. Walden kept Rikki and renamed him “Chinook” in tribute to his former favorite. Chinook grew to be a large dog with a thick golden coat, drop ears and a dark muzzle. He became a terrific sled dog, earning widespread acclaim for his racing victories throughout New England and beyond. All of today’s Chinooks trace back to this foundation sire.
During the 1920s, Walden continued perfecting his breed and in 1922 he convinced a New Hampshire paper company to sponsor the first Eastern International Dog Derby. Competition in this 123-mile race was keen, but Walden, with Chinook in lead, won handily. Walden began breeding Chinook to smaller, more refined females, in order to get lighter-boned, swifter offspring with Chinook's intelligence, gentle nature and trademark color. Unfortunately, in 1923, a distemper outbreak in the Chinook Kennel killed Walden’s entire racing team, except for Chinook. Walden took two years off to rebuild a competitive sled team and reentered the racing world in 1925. Walden and Chinook lead the first dog sled team to the summit of Mount Washington in 1926.
In 1927, at age 56, Walden applied to join Admiral Byrd's Antarctica Expedition. He was designated as the lead driver and trainer of all dogs used on that expedition. Walden and his sixteen dogs, led by Chinook at nearly 12 years of age, were the backbone of the expedition’s transport. Unfortunately, Chinook was lost on the Antarctica expedition. Although his body was never located, reports of Chinook's death spread quickly, as dog lovers and sledding enthusiasts mourned the loss of one of the greatest sled dogs of all time. At Walden's request, Route 113A in New Hampshire was renamed the "Chinook Trail" in his honor.
Walden returned to New Hampshire in 1930. Faced with mounting debts, he sold his remaining dogs to his kennel managers, Milton and Eva Seeley. The Seeleys soon became interested in breeding Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes and stopped breeding Chinooks. Fortunately, Walden had given one of his neighbors, Julia Lombard, a few choice puppies to raise for him over the years. Before he left for Antarctica, he gave her two sons and one daughter of Chinook. With these dogs, Lombard founded the Wonalancet-Hubbard Kennel and made Walden her kennel director. Lombard promoted Chinooks as recreational sled dogs, emphasizing their terrific temperaments as much as their working talents.
In 1940, Perry Greene and his wife purchased the remaining 20 Chinooks from Lombard and they became the sole breeder of this increasingly rare dog, because they only sold males or spayed females and never let one person own more than 2 Chinooks at the same time. By 1965, the Guinness Book of World Records reported - for the first of 3 times - that the Chinook was the rarest of all dog breeds in the world. Only 125 were living, and their numbers continued to decline.
By 1966, the Chinook population reportedly was down to 60 and by the early 80's the population was less than 30.
In 1986, Harry and Katy Gray developed a respected Chinook breeding program. In November 1988, Gray took his Chinooks to Alaska to train for the Iditarod sled race. Unfortunately, he and his dogs were caught in one of the worst Alaskan winters in memory. Up to 212 inches of snow marooned them at their training camp. Running out of supplies, Gray called Stan Victor of Victors Chinooks for emergency help. Victor financed the rescue of Gray and his Chinooks, with Bob Johnson coordinating rescue efforts from Talkeetna. Johnson provided a place for the dogs to stay while they recovered from their ordeal. They didn’t leave Alaska until June of 1989. Almost every modern foundation Chinook was saved by these three men. Without their efforts, the breed probably would not have recovered.
In 1989, the Chinook Owners Association was reinvigorated. The First Chinook Round Up took place in Dayton, Ohio in 1990, attended by almost 50 people and 30 Chinooks from across the United States. In 1991, the United Kennel Club recognized the Chinook. Chinooks were also recognized by the American Rare Breed Association. Chinooks Worldwide, a national breed club, formed in 1993. It later changed its name to The Chinook Club of America and is the official AKC parent club of the breed. Although their popularity has spread outside of the United States, most Chinooks remain in New England. The breed is not yet fully recognized by the American Kennel Club. However, in 2001 the Chinook was added to the AKC's Foundation Stock Service and subsequently was admitted to the AKC Miscellaneous Class, with a Working Group designation.
With dedication and careful breeding, Chinook numbers have been steadily climbing. In 2007, there were approximately 500 living purebred Chinooks. The Chinook seems to have returned from the brink of extinction. They have regained the size, speed, stamina, temperament and type of Walden’s beloved breed. In June 2009, after vigorous lobbying by middle school students, Governor John Lynch signed a bill designating the Chinook as the official State Dog of New Hampshire. The modern Chinook is a hard-working dog that excels in sledding, packing, skijoring, obedience, agility and herding. But above all else, the Chinook is cherished as a family companion.
Chinooks are a fairly healthy breed, with an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years. Breed health predispositions may include cryptorchidism, epilepsy, hip dysplasia, vitreous degeneration and paroxysmal dyskinesia. Vitreous degeneration is a potentially serious eye condition which can predispose the eye to retinal detachment and blindness. Paroxysmal dyskinesia involves episodes of abnormal involuntary muscle movements that differ from epileptic seizures in terms of what they look like and the fact that affected dogs don’t lose consciousness.