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  Dogs of the Iditarod - The Real Iditarod Champions

Description and Origin of the Alaskan Husky
by Joe Runyan

Husky ready to go 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."

Huskies breaking trail 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."

A team of huskies pulling hard 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.

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