I keep promising to start paying more attention to dogs, and so with the 40th anniversary Iditarod under way and a Jack Russell on her way—I pick her up in Maryland next week—it’s a long amazing story I’ll tell later—I figured there is no better time to switch. For now, the journal Cell, one of the most prestigious in the world, has run a news item summarizing the latest research on the genetic make-up of the Alaskan husky by Heather Huson and collaborators. Unfortunately, the Cell article and Mammalian Genome paper, which inspired it, are available only for a fee unless you can gain access through a library or office subscription. A 2010 BMC Genetics article, which contains the most detailed analysis, is open source and available on line, through this link.
Read together they seem to create a reality quiz show called “Pin the Tale on the Husky,” because the distance dogs in the second article seem not to follow the same trail as those studied in 2010. I get the sense that a new generation of distance mushers has become more formulaic and imitative, less adventuresome in their breeding than, sometimes literally, their own families.
I said Alaskan husky, the traditional name, while the papers’ authors insist on Alaskan sled dog. The group is otherwise fairly loose with their naming of things so this insistence is a little strange. I’m thinking it might have something to with the divide between sprint racers and the long runners of the multi-day distance races, but it could as easily be an unexplained conceit of the authors.
The 2010 paper has one of those detailed deconstructions showing the various breeds or types of dogs that have gone into the making of a particular breed. In some cases, little admixture appears, marking a breed that originated from a small group isolated from a much larger usually more widespread landrace. Intensive inbreeding produces a new breed. Based on their apparent lack of mixing with other breeds, these dogs have been declared “Ancient/Asian,” a classification that has always seemed problematic to me. It not only implicitly endorses the idea of Asian origin for dogs, which some of Huson’s collaborators have explicitly rejected in other papers but also carries all manner of built in negative associations of Asian or Asiatic with “ancient” or “primitive” or unrefined and thus not as attractive or biddable as Western dogs.
Even without all of that residual baggage, there are problems with the “ancient” designation since virtually all dogs are of ancient origin by virtue of their membership in the guild of dogs. That’s because in terms of antiquity, it matters little whether your lineage has multiple branches to unrelated families of great and noble history in several different parts of the world or hews closer to home, straight and branchless, except that you are probably healthier with the former. On the other hand, all officially recognized kennel club breeds, which is what the geneticists examine, are of relatively recent origin—within the past 200 years. The question is how they were formed, and that divide would seem the more accurate one than a vague chronological designation.
I think it better to call the Ancient/Asian groups, breeds formed through isolation. I suspect that the high level of inbreeding involved in breed formation serves to eradicate many minor introgressions from another breed. By my analysis, any breed derived from an existing landrace or group of village dogs that has not been extensively admixed since the end of Empire or when Colonialism yielded to Post Colonialism should show up on these surveys as Ancient. I suggested some time ago that the Anatolian and Canaan dogs should do so, and they have. Similarly any Asian breed recognized by the AKC and created from a small number of the same type of dogs would also fall into Ancient/Asian.
Indeed, many of the “ancient” breeds are not Asian at all—Basenji, Anatolian shepherd, various sight hounds and Arctic dogs, which one could call Asian but usually does not. Other groups in this analysis are Mastiff/Terrier, Herding/Sighthounds, Mountain, and Hunting. The breeds examined are all recognized by the AKC except the Alaskan husky.
The Alaskan husky runs right through the scheme, it seems to me, despite the attempt to keep it reined in. Known to be a mash of various native Alaskan dogs and imports, including some mentioned here, like an Irish setter and saluki, the Alaskan husky boldly stands out in the Ancient/Asian group as its own distinctive breed—indeed, one might say breed group or superbreed, since it is clearly divided between sprint dogs and distance racers. The Alaskan husky is in fact more distinct from other breeds than the Chow Chow and Shar-pei or Siberian husky and Alaskan Malamute are from each other. I’ve been making that case for a while. Here it finally comes clear genetic analysis agrees, but the issue is immediately dropped. That’s too bad because it would be worth knowing that Malamute and Siberian were two sizes of the same dog cleaved by breed clubs. But it wouldn’t be convenient for a study intent on examining contributions of AKC recognized breeds to the mutt of the North.
In this telling, the 2010 model of the Alaskan husky was predominately a local sled dog with an overlay that was for distance racers largely Malamute, Siberian husky, German shorthaired pointer, Anatolian shepherd dog, and sight hound—Saluki or Borzoi. The pointer, which could have been an English pointer, we are told, and sight hound were mixed in for speed. The Anatolian provided the “work ethic.” And with those pronouncements, the whole thing began to drift free of its moorings and head for the ozone—and that’s before sprint dogs get their turn. For now I’ll say only that my Puritan forebears would be glad to learn that “work ethic” was a heritable since they were never too certain that it passed through the blood to the next generation. Maybe one introgression from the big guarding dog was enough to influence generations of huskies to come. The pointer was not so potent. Despite repeated crosses, it remains unclear whether it the pointer promoted speed or something else.
I don’t know the source of the Anatolian, but I was told by several mushers familiar with the event that the success in the mid-1990s of German shorthaired pointer-Siberian husky crosses in the Alpirod, a multi-day sled-dog stage race in Europe had inspired a number of Alaskan Iditarod mushers to try their own crosses. Meanwhile, liberated from rules mandating purebred racers, crossed German shorthaired pointers with Alaskan huskies to create the Eurohound, a fast race winner who became the darling of sprint mushers because it won races. But was it speed and trainability they wanted or the pointer’s hyperkinetic exuberance, its desire to run?
Martin Buser had pioneered the use of sprint dogs in the Iditarod in the early 1990s and so mushers were turning from the big slow and steady freighters favored by Susan Butcher and other old line competitors. Success bred excessive copycatism, which included mixing pointers into the Alaskan husky genetic soup.
The style began to change again around 2004 with the first of a string of Norwegian victories with larger, slower dogs trained to trot along at a steady pace for longer periods than had been the norm between rest stops. That switch would lead mushers to seek out the larger, Malamute style dogs they had just fully jettisoned.
Whether any were left in the villages or whether as the genetic analysis indicates they turned to purebred Malamutes is unclear. My guess is that the village dogs from which Malamutes were derived have vanished.
I investigated the Alaskan husky’s history in 1995-96 for Natural History. By every telling Athabascan village dogs along the Yukon from Tanana to Galena, with a side trip to Huslia, home of George Atta, an Athabascan and the most successful sprint racer in history, were crucial to development of distance dogs. Atta told me that he regularly sold his slow sprinters to Iditarod mushers.
The nature of those dogs is unclear, but what evidence does exist would indicate that they were Siberian or Siberian crosses. If that is so, I assume they would show up on surveys as Siberian huskies. The same might be said of the larger freight dogs from whom the Malamute was consolidated. Dogs derived from the purebred dog derived from them have replaced them.
The geneticists believe they can tell when a cross occurred and how frequently it was repeated, but I'm not convinced their genomic clocks are that finally calibrated. These studies increase my skepticism. The dog situation in Alaska before the Gold Rush is not well understood but there was by all accounts a divide between the dogs of the Athabascan who tended to live in the interior along rivers and the Yupik and Inupiat on the coast. That world was tossed on its head with the Gold Rush. Demand for dogs was so high that boat loads of stolen animals were shipped to Alaska to meet demand. Those who survived reproduced a canine stew, with a preference for large freight dogs.
In 1908, a Russian trader brought a team of huskies from the Chukchi Peninsula, to race and within five years, the Siberian husky ruled the world of sled-dog racing. The big Alaskan freighters could not compete. Siberians became the dog of choice of racers.
From the big haulers came the Malamute. Nowhere do they figure into the history of sprint dogs, although some Iditarod mushers favored them.
These two are at the root of the Alaskan husky. The only way I can get the Malamute there is for it to be a distillation of coastal sled dogs in Alaska, and thus the base to which others were bred.
Combining history with these apparently contradictory papers, I glean that the Alaskan husky has split into two distinct breeds, and that the constituent breeds of the distance racer might have changed. In the most recent of these papers and in the Cell news item, Alaskan huskies are portrayed as a mix of Alaskan Malamutes, Siberian huskies, German shorthaired pointers and/or English pointers, and borzois. The northern dogs, especially the larger Malamutes are dominant among distance dogs while the pointer rules the sprints. The change from 2010 to 2012 remains unexplained, except that it reflects the use of different measures and resolutions.
The researchers sought the genes behind endurance, speed, "work ethic,"and heat tolerance. Finding some genes associated with heat tolerance, the researchers that they might account for performance differences between successful and unsuccessful sprint dogs and distance and sprint dogs in general. They did not find genes for “work ethic.”
I wish they had included information on the village dogs of the coasts and the interior and how they relate to the Alaskan husky, as well as to the AKC Siberian husky and Alaskan malamute. That would be an interesting study. It would help if the geneticists understood that they are engaged not only in deconstructing the genomes of these animals but also in reassembling that material into a narrative, a tale of the dog, but if they are to do that properly they have to improve their knowledge of history and of the behavior and culture of dogs and people.
For example, although it is true that the Alaskan husky is a dog bred for performance, it is not quite true that appearance doesn't matter. The Iditarod banned a team of standard poodles from the race several decades ago, saying it feared the dogs would perish. Since then it has specified that dogs be of the Northern phenotype, including double-coated with tough feet. Above all the dog must be physically sound.
Then, too, it is tough to see how a type of dog with such high levels of admixture that didn't even exist 100 years ago can be adjudged Ancient. Certainly there are dogs like the venerable Labrador retriever who might be less admixed than the Alaskan husky. If the categorization persists, it might become fair to ask that the classification system be looked at anew, at least to refine what is meant by that term, Ancient, and to see what effect renaming it would have on the other categories. My objections might amount to nothing. We shall see.