The Real Story Behind The Disney+ Alaskan Sled Dog Movie 'Togo': Separating Fact Vs. Fiction

Photo: Disney+
Who Is The Real Togo? The Story Behind The Disney+ Alaskan Sled Dog Movie 'Togo': Separating Fact Vs. Fiction
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Who is the real Togo? We all want to believe that movies "based on a true story" are real, especially when the movie is a feel-good story. We want to believe even more when the movie is a feel-good story and the big hero is a dog. Who doesn't love a tale of a brave doggo? 

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Disney+ has delivered a perfect story of canine bravery with Togo, the story of a lead sled dog who ran over 250 miles to bring medicine to the town of Nome during a diphtheria outbreak in 1925. Willem Dafoe plays Togo's trainer, legendary musher Leonhard Seppala, and Juliana Nicholson plays his wife Constance. The film shows how Seppala underestimated his dog until Togo finally proved himself to be among the great legends of sled dogs. 

What is the real Togo story and how well did Disney+ do in separating fact from fiction? Read on for all the details. 

1. Who is the real Togo?

Yes, there really was a Togo. He was born in a litter of puppies owned by Leonard and Constance Seppala. Though the puppy was the offspring of a former sled team leader Suggen, his early days didn't indicate that he would follow in his father's pawprints. The little husky had a throat infection as a puppy and required one-on-one care from Seppala's wife, Constance, in order to get better.

Once Togo got over that, he recovered his spirits and energy but lacked discipline. His rowdy behavior and small size seemed like he was more suited to being a pet than being a sled dog so Seppala gave him away. 

There is a new movie about Togo. 

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2. Did he really break a window to get back to Seppala? 

He sure did. Togo didn't want to stay at his new home and he busted through a window to get out — as shown in the movie. The then-six-month-old pupper ran several miles back to his beloved owner and the other dogs in his kennel. Seppala, impressed with Togo's determination decided to keep him, though he still didn't hold out a lot of hope for Togo being a sled dog.

Togo felt differently. Whenever Seppala would take his team out for a run, Togo would break out the kennel to run alongside the sled. He was a bit of nuisance, however, and fought with dogs on other teams they passed and sometimes took off to chase reindeer.

Seppala finally got fed up and put him in a harness to keep him from running off. Togo surprised him by not only accepting the harness but by settling right in as a member of the sled team. By the end of the run, Togo was leading the team. 

3. Togo and Seppala worked together for years. 

Seppala ran dogsleds for his job, not simply as a sport. He carried freight across Alaska and Togo was a part of his team. Togo had been running cargo with Seppala for seven years when they were asked to participate in a risky but important mission: to be part of a relay of dog teams that would bring diphtheria medicine from Nenana to Nome during the dead of winter. 

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4. What was the Great Race of Mercy of 1925?

In 1925, there was an outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, Alaska, which is a bacterial infection that "causes a thick covering in the back of the throat. It can lead to difficulty breathing, heart failure, paralysis, and even death." The bacteria actually kills the tissue in the throat and respiratory tract, which leads to the serious complications associated with the illness.

Today, we have a vaccine to prevent the spread of diphtheria, but no such shot existed in 1925. The only cure for it was an antitoxin serum. The people of Nome did not have a supply of the medicine at hand when the outbreak started and the entire population of the town was at risk of contracting the disease.

Authorities managed to get a shipment of the antitoxin from Anchorage to Nenana but getting it to Nome was another story. There were no roads accessible to the remote town in January and air travel wasn't common in Alaska. The best option was for team of dogsleds to relay the medicine across over 600 miles of frozen land to get it to Nome. Seppala and Togo were among the teams who participated in the effort. 

5. How did Togo become a hero?

Togo simply did his job, which was to lead a dogsled team. But he was old for a lead dog, being 12 years old, and the conditions were brutal. At times the temperature dropped to -50 degree Fahrenheit and the winds were blowing at Gale force.

Togo and Seppala traveled from Nome to Seppala and back over three days, a journey of 260 miles. They stopped at an outpost to sleep for a few hours before continuing on their way to meet the next team of mushers and dogs. 

6. Wait: Haven't I heard this story before — only the dog's name was Balto? 

Balto was also part of the relay of sled dog teams that ran the serum back to Nome and there is a movie about him, too. In fact, Balto ran the final leg of the route and delivered the medicine to the town. As a result, he's been considered the big hero of the story and received most of the glory.

But Balto was only one of the dozens of sled-dogs who helped carry lifesaving medicine across Alaska that winter and all of them are hero pups. Balto ran the final 55 miles, which is no small thing, but Togo led his team over 260 miles on his round trip run. Later, when Balto was hailed as the top dog of the story Seppala was heartbroken, recalling in The Cruelest Miles, "It was almost more than I could bear when the newspaper dog Balto received a statue for his 'glorious achievements.'"

7. Did Togo and Seppala really live happily ever after?

Although Disney+ would like this story to end with man and dog living together, in reality, Seppala decided that Togo should get to retire and live somewhere more forgiving than Alaska. He passed Togo along to another dog sledder named Elizabeth Ricker who lived in Maine.

Togo stayed there until his death and even sired puppies in his final years. Togo passed away in 1929 at 16 years old.

You can actually still see Togo today. After his death, he was preserved via taxidermy and now is on display in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Headquarters museum in Wasilla, Alaska. 

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.

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