Who Are These Dogs That Pull Sleds? The Alaskan Husky and Village Dog
By Robert Forto, PhD
Are they purebreds or mongrels? What sets them apart from other dogs and enables them to work with man under brutal weather conditions? What sort of strange dog is it that yammers and yowls to be a part of a team, preferring to work or race than rest in a warm kennel?
Written pedigrees are not required to enter a sled dog race, nor does the dog have to be a northern breed, although a majority of dogs on the racing trail are related to working dogs of the North. These dogs have a strong instinct to pull. These dogs can be everything from an American Kennel Club registered Siberian Husky, a “one-quarter husky” mixed breed, or any variety in between. These dogs can be Irish Setters, Walker Coonhounds or even a Border Collie. In search of an unbeatable dog team, dozens and dozens of cross-breedings, in-breedings and line breedings have been tried. Some breeders work within a recognized breed, seeking to refine that breed’s natural talents; others select the fastest and strongest or whatever dogs come to their attention, caring more about performance than good looks or a fancy pedigree.
Alaskan Husky and Village Dog
Mixed breeds ran the first sled dog races in Nome, Alaska, and today’s best teams are still made up of mixed breeds, although of a vastly different genetic composition. The first racing sled dogs were “working animals first and racers second.” The Eskimos and Indians of Alaska had their natural breeds of sled dogs when the gold “stampeders” arrived in the last years of the 1800’s, but there were not enough dogs to support the thousands of men and women traveling around the territory. As a result, large, strong dogs were brought from the lower 48 states, mixed in with the northern dogs, and the result was mongrel sled dogs like those of Scotty Allan. These were the dogs that won the early All-Alaska Sweepstakes races, but were rapidly replaced by the fast, more intelligent and more eager to please Siberian Huskies on the racing trails. Then as sled dog racing became popular and profitable in Alaska, drivers bred their working stock with the fastest native dogs they could find. These tough hybrids provided a speedy tenacity, and when interbred with the bigger Alaskan Malamute or the Mackenzie River Husky (the biggest of the natural sled dog breeds from Canada) produced a racing sled dog to suit most early competitors.
The most frequent canine winners of sled dog races today are Alaskan Huskies and another indigenous Alaskan marvel called the Village Dog. Neither of these types are purebreds but they are recognized as distinct nevertheless. The Alaskan Husky is essentially a mixture of northern dogs, and would be called simply “husky” in Alaska. The Village or Indian Dog is the chief racing dog in Alaska and has been for many years. Basically a northern dog, but in his background is anything from domestic stock, to wolf, to whatever the interior villages of Alaska had around.
Alaskan Huskies, bred mainly by white men in the north, reveal their dominant arctic genes in their appearance; a nicely marked face, curled tail, pricked ears, and perhaps blue eyes. The larger of this type have been bred from Malamutes or Mackenzie River Huskies or even wolves. The smaller ones reflect their Siberian Husky or Samoyed background. Siberian-Malamute cross-breedings yield the most common Alaskan Huskies, but there can also be Eskimo or Greenland Husky, or any other northern breed mixed in. The average Alaskan Husky stands from 24 to 26 inches high, weighs between 50 and 70 pounds, and can be quite handsome. This breed is taller than the Siberian, lighter and rangier than the Malamute and stronger than almost any other bred on the snowy racing trail.
Ever since the mid-fifties when John Huntington surprised the racing world by winning the Dual Championship with a dog team from Huslia, Alaska, the dogs from that area have been deservedly famous for their racing abilities. Neither Huntington or George Attla can definitely pin down the origin of this village dog, but they are aware of variations from village to village. According to Attla, “the average production of good dogs in Huslia is much higher than any place I have been to. I have gone to a lot of places and gone through a lot of dogs, just buying dogs generally, but I still get my best percentage right in Huslia.” The Huslia strain shared with other Koyukuk River villages of Allakaket and Hughes, contains some hound, collie and Labrador Retriever, since that is what is in the village. They are fast, strong sled dogs and have earned the title of “Huslia Hustler” for several of the local racers.
Efforts to keep track of sled dogs in their own registry are more popular in the lower 48 states than in Alaska. The Alaskan Husky Club provides a registry for the non-pedigreed Alaskan Husky and the International Sled Dog Racing Association has developed guidelines for registering sled dogs. Qualifications for dogs on these registries are based on performance, similar to the Border Collie registries for herding, and not on appearance. A dog’s ancestry becomes significant and valuable only when it can prove itself on the trail or as a producer of other good sled dogs.