There is sometimes some confusion between Eurohounds, Alaskan huskies, Siberian huskies and Malamutes. However, they can all be referred to, quite accurately, as sleddogs. They are just good at slightly different things in the sleddog world!
When most people think of a ‘sleddog’, their first thought is of the kind of dog used in Hollywood films. In other words, a large fluffy Malamutes or a large Siberian with blue eyes. This, therefore, has become the stereotypical image of the sled dog for most people. However the vast majority of safari companies, for instance, use, rather, so-called ‘Alaskan’ huskies which may in fact be quite far from this ‘typical’ Holywood husky in appearance. Similarly, the vast majority of racing huskies are either Alaskan huskies or Eurohounds (with the super short-haired Eurohounds being used primarily in the sprint-distances races).
At Hetta Huskies, we are happy to have a wide-range of breeds and types of sleddog, even if the majority are ‘so-called’ Alaskan huskies, since we also offer a wide-range of tours. Visitors love having their picture taken with the picture-perfect Siberians, Taimyrs or Malamutes, for instance, whilst at the same time, they enjoy the speed involved with running with the faster Alaskans.
The ‘Alaskan Husky’ is essentially a mixed breed sled dog that is defined by its job and performance and not its appearance. Appearance wise, Alaskan Huskies are usually leaner in build than Siberians with a more pronounced tuck-up. Both Alaskans and Siberians can have the Hollywood blue or blue / brown eyes although contrary to expectation, in reality only about 20% of huskies have blue eyes and a further 20% have mixed colouration eyes (eg, one blue and one brown or eyes flecked with both colours). The remainder simply have brown eyes as normal.
The Alaskan Husky is a dog type bred solely for working ability, not appearance rather than a specific breed, and not recognized by any kennel club. Breeders did not, traditionally, care what he looked like as long as he could pull his weight, so Alaskan Huskies are varied in their appearance. For hundreds of years Inuit people and mushers bred dogs with other canines found in Alaskan Husky villages, and there is no specific breed standard that dictates breeding practices. They needed a dog that was smart and could run hard and fast with the strength to pull heavy loads. Crosses between the Alaskan Husky and the Siberian Husky are called Alaskan Amerindian Huskies. Alaskan huskies often have Siberian husky in their blood but they have usually been crossed to enhance characteristics like speed.
Some of our Alaskans could easily be mistaken for typical Siberians – and we have a few Siberians in there too. We even have a few Malamutes…one of which was a rescue (eg Tala, pictured (including in a painting by Rose luiselli)) and two of which came to stay with their owner, from New Zealand, for a while. Malamutes are not so commonly encountered In the safari world, since they are not so suited to short-distance safaris and can be a little more aggressive (but they are very pretty!).
A few of the dogs we have are more ‘Eurohound-like’ in appearance, having come from sprint farms. These are great for the faster, shorter tours, but we have to take special care of them in the colder temperatures.
When it comes to the coats of the dogs, Siberians tend to have thicker fur than Alaskans since many Alaskans have been bred with racing in mind and, therefore, have more ‘hound-like’ coats. Siberians can generally, therefore, withstand colder temperatures and are ideal for the longer safaris where they may have to sleep outdoors without shelter. It is normal for them to be good endurance athletes, to be durable and steady and they are plenty fast enough for tourist-related safaris although they are maybe less suited to fast, short, loops since they tend to get bored quickly if asked to do the same route many times over.
Alaskans tend to be skinnier than Siberians and since the also have thinner fur, they generally have to eat more to stay warm. They often share a kennel for warmth and wear coats when on breaks between running loops. On the positive side, Alaskans tend to run faster than Siberians (at least over the shorter distances) and do not mind so much, running the same loops time and again with tourists, since they have a very strong desire to run. It is no surprise, therefore, that they are the breed that tends to excel in the modern sled-dog races, particularly the speed-racing events where there is no reason for dogs to sleep outside. The Fairbanks (Alaska) Open North American Championship and the Anchorage Fur Rendezvous, for instance, are invariably won by teams either of Alaskan huskies or of Alaskans crossed with hounds or gundogs. Winning speeds often average more than 19 miles per hour over three days’ racing at 20 to 30 miles each day. On the rare occasion when purebred teams are entered in such races, they nearly always finish last.
We also have two distinct gropus of so-called ‘fluffies’ which need much more brushing than any of our other dogs because of the length of their coats. One of these litters are Taimyrs – a pure breed from Russia (eg KGB & Patapov). The others are a cross between a Taimyr and a Laika from the Nenet region of Siberia. In other words, they are called Nenet-Laika-Taimyr Crosses (eg Nakat / Tog) but they are technically, also, Alaskan Huskies.
The Taimyr dog was traditionally bred by the (N)ganassans (from the Samoyed’s group) living in Siberia (in the region of Taïmyr). The dogs are good sled dogs, and their thick fleece was prized and valued for clothes’ making. Today it just challenging to keep it brushed!
The Taïmyr is a long-furred dog which is more athletic than you might expect from its size. 45 Kg is not uncommon. Its thick fur makes it very good for putting up with the coldest part of winter in the high Arctic. Marco POLO remarked that these dogs were “tall as donkeys” and AMUNDSEN used them during his passage to the Northern-West.
The Taïmyr is the strongest and arguably the most docile among the sled dogs. Loving and affectionate, sociable and obedient, they are ideal expedition dogs.
The Nenet Laika-Taimyr Mixes (Aknil, Elting, Tog, Koukoun, Eden etc) were originally reindeer herding dogs used by Nenets peoples (from the Samoyeds group) – whose origins are from the European Russian Artic and western Siberian areas. Although traditionally not a sled dog, these dogs adapt themselves perfectly to working with the sleds because they are intelligent, with a fiery temperament and good stamina for the hardest and coldest parts of winter. They are modest-bodied dog of between 25kg and 35kg, with a thick coat and tail which are more or less constantly matted despite our best efforts!
The development of new ‘types’ of husky continues to this day as certain people vary one trait over another. Finland, for instance, developed its own crossbreed called the Tamaskan dogs, specifically designed to morphologically resemble a wolfdog. This is a very young breed and the foundation stock consisted of seven dogs imported from Lapland, seven dogs from Blustag Kennel, four dogs from the UK and two dogs from the US. Two additional foundation dogs were added in 2006, one in 2008 and two more in 2009.
In our farm, we have a particularly diverse range of huskies given that we are also a rescue centre. Shown here, left to right are, therefore, Patapov & KGB (Taimyrs), Olive, our smallest female Alaskan Husky (who repeats often across the group, for a size comparison), Timon (a non-pure breed Siberian male), Samson…a male dog that is in-between a typical Alaskan husky and Eurohound, Tengri (classic male Alaskan husky), Bono, (a typical non-pure Siberian male), Olive again, then Chocolate, a very short-haired Alaskan male, Trouble, a typical Alaskan female, Olive again, and again, then Jupi, a large Alaskan and Tala, a female short-haired working line Malamute, Koukoun a female Nenet-Laika-Taimyr mix and Princess a female non-pure-breed Siberian.
They are all working sled-dogs and can all be loosely defined as ‘huskies’, even if some of them are very far from the client’s initial perception of what a sleddog is.
The Bearhill Husky website has a great extract about the description and origin of Alaskan Huskies by Joe Runyan that I have, in turn, ‘borrowed’ for those of you interested in learning more.
The “Alaskan husky” is a term so widely used by mushers and dog fanciers to describe a racing sled dog typically found in the northern dog yards of Alaska and Canada that I presumed it would be an easy job to journalize the development and description of this unregistered breed of working dog. However, I soon discovered that the ideas we take so much for granted around our peers and colleagues may seem strange and convoluted to others with a different viewpoint. While we may talk in exactly the same terms, for example, about the Alaskan husky with sled dog enthusiasts around the world it is very possible that we mean two different things.
I first needed to discover how my fellow Alaskan mushers thought and viewed the world of working animals, and more specifically, the Alaskan husky. To help crystallize my thoughts, I called Tim White, president of the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports, Ric Swenson, five time winner of the Iditarod sled dog race, Bill Cotter, a successful mushing competitor in long distance races, Joe Reddington, winner of the Fur Rendezvous and North American sprint dog championships, Dee Jonrowe, one of the most famous and successful woman mushers racing the Iditarod, Doug Swingley, winner of the 1999 Iditarod, and the redoubtable George Attla, the winner of so many sprint races over four decades of racing that he stands alone as a mushing legend. I found a surprising consistency of thought and opinion amongst these experts.
While so many Alaskan mushers freely refer to a dog as an “Alaskan husky,” they are unaware that their concept or definition of a “breed of dog” is philosophically at odds with the accepted norm in other cultures and regions. So, to get started, let’s talk about the way the owners of Alaskan Huskies think. Then you can understand what it is that defines the breed.
To an Alaskan musher it is quite reasonable to define a dog by the standards of performance rather than by the standards of mechanics. To an Alaskan musher, a sled dog is a canine that “pulls hard and runs fast.” An Alaskan husky is expected to have a modicum of physical traits to accompany this model, which include a thick coat for protection in arctic weather, durable feet, a physiology adapted to high calorie intakes of food, a willingness to travel and pull, and an ability to comfortable change gaits from a walk, trot, and lope.
An Alaskan musher would be reluctant to describe an Alaskan husky purely in terms of physical descriptions because it is counter to his or her cultural mind set. While a conscientious reporter could visit a number of dog yards and observe that many Alaskan Huskies have blue eyes, weigh fifty pounds, and have sharp ears, this does not define the breed. It is only coincidentally correlated to the performance of the animal.
In fact, to an Alaska musher it would be silly and absurd to define a work animal such as the Alaska husky in purely mechanical and descriptive terms. How could you guarantee that an animal of this build or that description would be a good sled dog?
For example, if one were to approach a group of nomads in Syria and inquire if they owned Salukis, an Alaskan musher would automatically assume that they would show you a dog that ran and caught game. If it didn’t, how could a pragmatic people call this a saluki?
In the same way, Alaskan mushers automatically assume an Alaskan husky is a genuine draft animal. All other dogs, even if they “look” like an Alaskan husky, are not accepted as an “Alaskan.”
This dichotomy of thinking has interesting cultural consequences in the present. For example, Sled Dog Federations in Germany, England, Poland, United States, France, Australia and other countries have disallowed “Alaskan Huskies” from races and competitions because they did not conform to a breed standard such as the ones maintained by Siberian and Malamute registries.
Even though the Alaskan husky is clearly faster and more competitive than their well-bred sled-pulling cousins, the officially registered Siberian and Malamute, they are not allowed to race. Some Germans, for example, believe it is logical to define the breed by physical standards that can be measured. The Alaskan mushers think it is logical to define the breed by performance.
The intellectual impasse remains and Alaskan mushers are baffled, frustrated, and irritated by the difference of opinion. In my mind, this is a classic example of a cultural misunderstanding. Of course, as an admirer of Alaskan Huskies and part of the Alaskan musher “culture”, I also find it inconceivable that anyone would want to intentionally own and maintain a line of sled dogs that was not the best. Have I fanned the flames higher?
Having said that, I would be quick to point out that there are many Germans, Norwegians, French and other nationalities who consider themselves Alaskan mushers. Some have done it without realizing why they actually disagree with their fellow countrymen. In hindsight, we can see that they have embraced performance as their standard and rejected mechanics.
When I pointed out this difference of outlook to my North American colleagues and owners of Alaskan Huskies, they were quick to tell me it all made perfect sense to them. By constantly working to improve the breed, innovation, spontaneity, and discovery were encouraged. The Alaskan husky is a concept and a way of thinking. Tim White told me, “We can accept no one else’s limitations from years ago under different circumstances. Imposed standards are a useless constraint. The Alaskan husky breed is constantly improved by experimentation and adapted to new performance expectations. If we are open minded, we will all agree that diversity is fundamental to genetic health.”
I would go further and ask the rhetorical question, “If there is a pedigreed dog that can run faster and pull harder than the Alaskan husky, where is it?”
Historically, the origin and refinement of the Alaskan husky began some 10,000 years ago when it is theorized the first dogs crossed the Bering land bridge with a wave of humans occupying North America.
One of the first western encounters with North American natives using sled dogs was recorded by Martin Forbisher in 1577. This is a verifiable date, but some researchers believe the dog has been used as a draft animal for three thousand years in North America, a number I actually find inconceivable. Why wouldn’t dogs be used to pull in the North from the time of domestication? I have watched six-year-olds, without any prompting, spontaneously use a pet Labrador as a draft animal to pull a sled. Well, this remains a debated question.
My panel of experts agrees that the evolution of the Alaskan husky, as they know it, began in earnest during the 1890’s gold rush to Alaska. Native dogs were used in teams to supply the mining camps but it soon became evident that there was a shortage of dogs. A trade in suitably sized dogs of all breeds developed, and soon a steady number of dogs left Seattle in the holds of ships destined for service in the gold fields of Alaska. Jack London’s fictitious canine character Buck, for example, was hijacked from his California home by an unscrupulous trader and was one of these dogs in the novel Call of the Wild.
As mining towns became established, sled dog racing spontaneously became a feature of Northern life. The Nome Kennel Club, for example, hosted the 400-mile All Alaska Sweepstakes from 1908 to 1917 and offered large prizes to the contestants.
Early heroes of the sport, including Iron Man Johnson, Scotty Allen and Leonhard Seppala were retained by the large businesses and mining concerns of the region and were paid to assemble race teams. The development of the modern Alaskan husky used for racing had seriously begun.
Competition motivated mushers to selectively breed dogs for racing. Some of the mushers even ventured to Russia and negotiated with Eskimos for carefully chosen “Siberian” sled dogs, the possible genetic source of the blue eyes characteristically seen in the modern Alaskan husky. Invariably these were crossed with other dogs in hopes of improving performance. (Conversely, the first Siberian registry established in the United States consisted of a pool of forty related dogs. Of these, five were considered the essential foundation.)
Mary Mogg, an Eskimo from Diomede Island, Alaska told me that her husband Sammy Mogg used his nine best dogs to transport Muktuk Marston over two thousand miles from village to village in a World War II effort to organize the Eskimos. Marston delegated the Bering Sea coast villages into a defense line of National Guard Units. She matter of factly told me the dogs were crosses between an English setter and a village sled dog. This is another anecdotal piece of evidence which demonstrates the wide acceptance of experimental breeding in the development of the Alaskan husky.
Doug Swingley, the 1999 Iditarod winner, explained, “The Alaskan husky is a continuous experiment in breeding and really nothing more than a successful mixed breed mutt. The diverse gene pool is an advantage because it allows mushers to very quickly develop dogs for specific traits.”
The dogs developed for racing were also prized as utilitarian work animals for freighting, delivering the mail, and on the trapline. The Alaskan husky experiment has never stopped.
By the 1930’s, however, the dog team was being gradually replaced by the airplane and more reliable delivery of supplies by ship. The Superintendent of McKinley Park reported in November 1936:
“Previous to the airplane mail contracts which went into effect a few years ago, huskies were plentiful in Alaska. However, the mail delivery by dog team in most sections have been discontinued and consequently dogs have become scarce and are difficult to purchase.”
After World War II, the Alaskan husky had almost disappeared from the Alaska landscape as a work animal and was maintained only as a recreational diversion in most areas. Fortunately, natives of a few villages along the Yukon River and its tributary the Koyukuk supported small populations of Alaskan Huskies for racing, and also for trapping. One of the most famous reservoirs of quality Alaskan huskies was maintained in the small village of Huslia, also the birthplace of the legendary native musher George Attla.
I called up George Attla, a household name in Alaska and the Yukon Territories, and asked him how a small remote village of 150 Athabascan Indians managed to maintain kennels of such excellence. All of the experts on my panel referred to Huslia as the foundation origin of the superior modern Alaskan husky.
George told me about his post WWII childhood, “It was a very interesting time for me growing up in Huslia. I don’t know the reason, but the people always wanted the best in everything they did. They were very motivated people. The families of the village always tried to breed the fastest and hardest working sled dogs. The dogs were used mostly on the trapline, but the people still found pleasure in a dog that could race and could travel fast. They were never satisfied with average performance. When I was young and became interested in racing, I used to study the dog yards of the different families and try to understand what made their dogs.”
Out of that diminutive village, seven mushers beside George Attla became dominant sled dog racing champions, which is incredible. The most famous foundation stud dogs were Attla’s Scotty and Lingo. These dogs are found in the lineage of almost every successful kennel of the 1980’s and 90’s.
George Attla and his competitors raised dogs to compete in races from ten to thirty miles. The most regarded races, like the Fur Rendezvous in Anchorage and the North American Championship in Fairbanks, feature three days of racing with twenty to thirty mile heats.
In l973, however, Joe Reddington, Sr., organized a 1200 mile race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska which was to become known worldwide as the “Last Great Race.” The Iditarod Sled Dog Race induced mushers to redefine the Alaskan husky used for “sprint mushing” into a travelling machine which could cover 150 miles a day, endure severe weather, and possessed remarkable physiological resilience.
Mushers found that many Alaskan Huskies used for sprint races were also ideal for distance racing. Still, the grand experiment continues.
Five time Iditarod Champ, Ric Swenson, who is well known for his curiosity and innovative breeding programs, told me, “I think of an Alaskan husky as a dog that can show three generations of running sled dog pedigree. At this moment (1999) I would say only about one third of the dogs in my kennel are in this category. The rest are one or two generation attempts to make the Alaskan husky even better. I am always looking to the future and know that I must continually experiment or I will not be competitive.”
Clearly, Swenson thinks of the Alaskan husky as a concept of excellence and performance, not a breed defined by static descriptions.
Still, I was interested in asking my panel of experts how they would define the breed known so widely as the Alaskan husky in 1999. This is the consensus:
Ideally, the females should be 45 to 50 pounds, and the males between 50 to 55 pounds. It is important that they are no heavier than 55 lbs. because that seriously compromises their speed, resilience, and endurance.
The Alaskan husky is willing to please, has a strong instinct to pull, even in adverse conditions, and is easily trained.
Presently, the Alaskan husky is expected to travel at over 20mph in a lope for distances to thirty miles. At distances of fifty to sixty miles, average speeds of 15 to 17 mph can be expected. In long races, such as the Iditarod, the Alaskan husky is capable of covering 150 miles per day for ten days or more by alternatively loping and trotting.
The dog has a coat sufficient to counter extreme weather. The feet are durable and resist abrasion and damage from rough trail and icy conditions. The dog is able to rest comfortably on the top of snow.
Physiologically the dog is capable of consuming and utilizing up to 10,000kcal per day while exercising. In addition, recuperation from exercise is a prime consideration. Dogs should be able to travel 12 hours per day for extended periods of time at a slow lope or fast trot. Or, lope at fast speeds for twenty to thirty miles, for days in a row.
Capable of exercising in either warm or cold weather. This is an important physiological adaptation. Generally, mushers discover that an exercising dog capable of physiologically dealing with extreme heat can also handle an extreme in the other direction.
Contemplating the breeding history of the Alaskan husky, my panel of experts agreed that three contemporary stud dogs have been notably influential in defining the breed. These include George Attla’s Scotty, Ross Saunderson’s Victor, and Larry Tolman’s Sailor.
I asked Dee Jonrowe, a very successful Iditarod musher, how many miles her Alaskan Huskies would travel in a year.
“Including racing and training, my dogs will easily cover 3,000 miles in a year. What is amazing is that I have many dogs in the kennel that have done this year after year without any athletic injury.”
Knowing that many mushers consider her kennel to be a prototypical assemblage of Alaskan Huskies, I asked her if she considered her dogs as typical and representative Alaskan Huskies.
“Yes, all of mine I would say are Alaskan huskies. Well, wait a minute, two of them aren’t. I bought them recently and thought they looked like huskies but they just can’t perform on the same level as the other dogs.”
There it is. Did the reader catch the qualifier? It is a philosophical and cultural perspective. Definition of the Alaskan husky is based on performance, not looks. Now you have the idea and are ready to become an owner of an Alaskan husky with the proper mind set.
Finally, I asked my panel of experts to look forward to the Millenium and the future of the Alaskan husky. In 1999, Swedish born mushers Egil Ellis and Helen Lundberg campaigned a team of Sailor bred Alaskan huskies crossed with English Pointer and German Shorthair, and so thoroughly dominated the major North American sprint racing circuit, that it appears inevitable the Alaskan husky has once again been redefined.
Ric Swenson has been experimenting for several years with crosses to a Forstehr shorthair he purchased in Norway, while Doug Swingley has contacted his friends in the American Field Trial circuit for a suitable American bred All-Age English Pointer.
George Attla, one of the most successful and innovative caretakers of the Alaskan husky in sled dog racing history, had this final cogent observation.
“It is true that the pointer-Alaskan husky cross was a very successful project in 1999. However, I have seen success like this in the past. Sometimes, chemistry develops within a team that is hard to explain. Usually, even the musher doesn’t realize how it happened. Sometimes the magic lasts just for one year.
It will take of couple of years for us to see how these crosses work. In the meantime, someone else might be developing a team that’s better.”
The Alaskan husky may have a different look in the next century, but you can bet one thing will remain the same. The Alaskan husky pulls harder and runs faster than any dog in the world.