Togo and Seppala

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Dogs, men, and the race against disease

The Disney+ frenzy is still going strong following the streaming service’s release this past fall.

In addition to the holiday season, viewers had something else to look forward to in December — Togo: The Untold True Story, the heroic tale behind a little black-and-white dog who saved a town from a deadly epidemic.

The film features Willem Dafoe mushing a team of sled dogs through the arctic tundra.

Togo, the dog who ran close to 300 miles to deliver medication to the diphtheria-ridden town of Nome, Alaska, is its star.

Dafoe plays the role of Togo’s guardian, Leonhard Seppala.

According to Dafoe, the story is “a connection with humans and nature.” 

The film is bound to be a tear-jerker, because, let’s be honest, a movie involving dogs will have audiences weeping. Even Dafoe was blown away by the sheer tenacity of history’s good boy.

“He [Togo] starts out as an unassuming, mischievous, undersized puppy and he grows into his big-hearted, athletic, still undersized lead dog,” Dafoe said on an interview with Disney. 

But who was Togo? Wasn’t it Balto who saved an Alaskan town from a devastating disease?

What many don’t know is unlike the well-known sled dog Balto, Togo was the real hero behind the diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska, in 1925.

Togo the delinquent canine

Togo the Wonder DogTogo the Wonder Dog
Wynford Morris via Wikimedia Commons

In January of 1925, Nome, Alaska, was plagued with a bout of diphtheria, a throat-affecting illness that causes shortness of breath, paralysis, and death.

Nome was in crisis. And to make matters worse, the town’s only doctor, Curtis Welch, discovered their supply of antitoxin had expired.

Welch notified Washington, D.C., of the epidemic; sparking a national emergency.

The federal government intervened but couldn’t send ships across the frozen Bering Sea, which barricaded the citizens of Nome.

Thankfully, not all was lost — the town of Nenana had enough medication to help its sister town.

Officials agreed that the most efficient way to deliver the medication was via mushers and sled dogs — a trip totaling 674 miles.

Leonhard Seppala was an experienced musher who had the dog for the job, his beloved lead dog, 12-year-old Togo.

Although Seppala would refer to Togo as “Fifty pounds of muscle and fighting heart,” he wasn’t always his favorite pup.

Togo was small compared to his brothers and sisters, and Seppala thought Togo was a weak and troublesome dog. 

Once, the curious pup interrupted Seppala’s sled practice by goading his sled dogs, chasing after them until the sled toppled over along with his guardian. Ah, huskies.

Seppala tried to sell Togo, but the energetic pup knew his place.

In an effort to return to the rest of the pack, Togo crashed through a window of his adopter’s home.

Finally, the musher decided to give his stubborn pup a chance and set him up as a sled dog. As it turned out, Togo was meant to be the lead dog. Seppala referred to his runt-pup as “fifty pounds of muscle and fighting heart.” 

With Togo in his new role, Seppala covered thousands of miles (including 4,000 miles in one year alone). 

The ‘Great Race of Mercy’

This harrowing story was originally captured in 2005, when The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic was published. In much more detailed fashion, this book tells the below account of what happened during the “Great Race of Mercy.”

The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic
The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic
The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, Amazon

When Seppala was called to bring the antitoxin to Nome, he and various teams of mushers stationed themselves throughout the icy expanse, taking shifts to deliver the medicine.

But Seppala and his dogs were different from the other teams.

Togo and his team set out running 300 out of the 674-mile journey, which is twice the average length any of the other teams endured.

With the distance came the danger, including crossing an inlet of the Bering Sea which was frozen with ice blocks prone to breaking apart from the mainland; and a devastating blizzard that plummeted temperatures to 85 degrees below zero.

An inch of exposed skin and the frost would bite deeply, causing necrotic tissue.

Cold and often blinded by snow squalls, Seppala was completely dependent on his dogs.

The race would shake the nation, and soon, the sled run would be forever known as the “Serum Run,” or the “Great Race of Mercy.” 

Hanging on at the end of his rope, Seppala nearly froze halfway through the journey, but with true grit, Seppala was able to push through and finish the distance triumphantly.

He and Togo made the final stretch and handed the medication to Balto’s guardian, Gunnar Kaasen.

When Kaasen delivered the antitoxin to the people of Nome, Kaasen took the credit for enduring the brunt of the harrowing journey.

Compared to the overall 674 miles, Balto ran no more than 55 miles, yet the people of Nome crowned Kaasen and Balto the heroes — leaving Togo to be nearly forgotten. Nearly.

Not only did Togo help save an entire town from diphtheria, but it was also because of Togo that the Siberian husky was inaugurated into the American Kennel Club in 1930 (you’re welcome).

Not only was Togo a good boy, but he was the “best boy.”

 “I never had a better dog than Togo,” Seppala said in his older years. “His stamina, loyalty, and intelligence could not be improved upon. Togo was the best dog that ever traveled the Alaska trail.” 

Thank Togo, not Balto, for those lovable, chatty, and goofy companions.

Today, you can find Togo’s remains in Wasilla, Alaska, where he is a constant reminder of his heroic deeds. So, what can viewers expect from Disney’s newest feel-good film?

Not aimless drama, but the authentic backstory about a man and his good boy. Watch Togo: The Untold True Story, now streaming on Disney+.

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

It’s not just the big breeds that make history.

To be fair, it’s hard to be away from our pets …

Check out these happy pooches!