Although commonly referred to as a breed, the Alaskan Husky is in fact a type or category of dog that is defined only by the purpose for which it serves- that of a durable and highly efficient sled dog. It fails to meet the requirements necessary to be considered a breed as there is no standard and no restriction as to ancestry. During the last half of the 20th century a number of specializations in type were developed in the category of Alaskan Husky to include freighting dogs (Mackenzie River husky, Malamute), sprint Alaskans (Eurohound), and distance Alaskans.
The history of the Alaskan Husky starts with the numerous native village dogs of North America present in the region well prior to the arrival of the Europeans and Russians. During the Pre-Columbian period, before Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyages, archeology has proven that there were a wide variety of dogs present in North America. The Innu people, the indigenous inhabitants of modern day northeastern Quebec and Labrador, lived on those lands as hunter-gatherers for several thousand years and had Canoe Hunting Dogs. There were Salish Wool dogs, bred by the native peoples of what is now Washington State and British Columbia, specifically for their wool to make blankets and clothing. The Talhtan Indians of the Pacific Northwest territories of Canada had the Tahltan Bear Dog. This was a small dog that was typically carried in a moose hide backpack and used for hunting. In addition to these there were numerous other common Indian or village dogs throughout the North and South American Continents. It is from these early village dogs, more specifically the Coastal Eskimo Dog and the most northerly village dog of the time the Alaskan Interior Village dog, that the Alaskan Husky was derived.
Both the Coastal Eskimo Dog and the Alaskan Interior Village Dog descended from the ancient dogs of nomadic hunter gathers that used the Bering Land Bridge to migrate across the Bering Strait into Alaska over 14,000 years ago. According to recent DNA analysis these early dogs descended from the East or Central Asian wolves. Recovered artifacts show that they were fully domesticated at the time of the migration.
For the early tribal groups of North America, these dogs were a crucial part of survival and fulfilled a variety of roles. Dogs were used to hunt and track game for food, as companions, and as guardians of the home. They were also used for carrying loads in the summer and dragging supplies on the snow in the winter as the early nomadic people of Alaska migrated from one area to another. It is theorized that early sledding technology or the advent thereof played an important role in and had the most significant influence on the development of the modern day Alaskan Husky. With the sled, came the ability to harness the power and stamina of these early dogs to assist with hunting, trapping and fishing. The advent of the sled also led to small village competitions as local tribesman wanted to know who had the fastest and most durable dog. They began to breed these early sled dogs purposely for strength, endurance, and speed, as well as hunting ability.
The appearance of the early Coastal Eskimo Dog tended to vary from region to region with some areas producing larger, stronger dogs, and other areas producing smaller, faster, more leggy or rangy animals. One common denominator in their appearance, regardless of their locale was that they were all well furred, had tightly curled tails, large heads and looked like huskies, without the fox like attributes of the modern Siberian Husky. These Coastal Village or Eskimo dogs were a hardy, heavy boned dog that could survive on very little food and water. As with many of the ancient breeds natural selection played an important role in the development of the Alaskan Husky. Due to scarcities in food; as most every meat product the villagers consumed had to be hunted, many dogs were only fed in the winter and were expected to care for themselves during the summer. It was also not uncommon to maroon these dogs on an island during the summer while providing only occasional feedings- again leaving them to fend for themselves the majority of the time. This practice of ‘only the strong will survive’ created a strain of dog that was and is to this day capable of unbelievable feats of strength. For example one task was to be able to haul large chunks of whale inland across the sea ice to be further butchered. These were the dogs witnessed by English seaman and explorer Martin Forbisher in 1577, and later in 1897 by the Norwegian explorer, Fridtjof Nansen.
Alaskan Interior Village Dogs on the other hand, sometimes had short half or broom tails and were typically more slender-bodied and rangier in appearance than Coastal Eskimo Dogs. Unlike the Coastal Eskimo Dog which was preserved in the modern day Inuit sled dog, Canadian Eskimo dog, and Greenlander, the Interior Village dog was completely diluted by imported European and Siberian breeds and is a thing of the past. The demise of the Alaskan Interior Village dog began with the Klondike Gold Rush which was fueled by the August 16th, 1896 discovery of rich gold deposits in Bonanza (Rabbit) Creek, Yukon by Skookum Jim Mason. The ensuing frenzy of gold rush immigration into Alaska also brought imported dog breeds that were crossed with the native Alaskan Interior Village Dogs to create hardier sled dogs.
Miners even tried to replicate the physical attributes and abilities of the Coastal Eskimo Dog by breeding captured wolves with the St. Bernard and Newfoundland. This unfortunately did not create the ultimate sled dog as they had hoped. Instead, these new hybrids were more interested in fighting amongst themselves than working as a cohesive sled dog team. As more and more prospectors and settlers came to the area hoping to strike it rich, any large dog that could pull a heavy load was added to the breeding mix. Government services such as mail had to be upgraded to support this population explosion as well. This further increased the demand for strong, durable sled dogs capable of pulling upwards of 700 lbs. of mail many miles over rough terrain from one mail post to another.
Leonard Seppala, a Norwegian born American Sled dog racer, was responsible for further dilution and replacement of the Alaskan Interior Village dog, by mixing in his imported Siberian Huskies. These new dogs were considerably faster than the larger slower Eskimo dogs and other large mixed breed dogs in use at the time. Renowned for their hardiness, happy nature and hard work ethic, numerous Siberian Huskies were taken to rural villages and mixed with the native village dogs creating Alaskans [The forbearer of the Alaskan Husky] . Other breeds such as hounds, pointers, and Irish Setters would later be added to increase various attributes such as speed, endurance and stamina. A good example of one of these early mixed breed husky-hound or pointer racing dogs is the famous ‘Balto’. He was the lead sled dog on the final leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome in which diphtheria antitoxin was transported from Nenana, Alaska, to Nome by dog sled to combat an outbreak of the disease. This run is commemorated today by the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The popularity of long distance racing during the 1970’s also led to Greyhound being added into the Alaskan Husky gene pool.
Some modern racing kennels have even added Pointers and Salukis to the mix creating the specialized ‘Eurohounds’. Although still technically an Alaskan Husky, it is in actuality a cross between an Alaskan Husky and German Short haired Pointer. The Eurohound is considered by many to be the most formidable sprint racing dog in the world. It is a dog that combines centuries of honed sledding ability from the Alaskan Husky with the enthusiasm and athleticism of the German Shorthaired Pointer. The modern day Alaskan Husky or Alaskan is a mixture of all of these dogs. “The Alaskan Husky is a mixture of the best” as stated in the following excerpt on the history of the Alaskan Husky by Linda Spurlin the founder of the Alaskan Klee Kai breed:
“For those of you who are not familiar with the Alaskan Husky, you should know that this sled dog is an important part of the history and legend of Alaska. Their endurance, speed, and heart make them some of the best racing sled dogs in the world.
They are not the fictional husky of the famous Jack London books, and they are not the beautiful Siberian Huskies which the Russians imported from the Kamchatka Peninsula in the 18th century to haul their sled loads of fur. [..] Instead, the ancestors of the Alaskan Husky were a scruffy little Indian dog used by the people of interior Alaska. It is suspected that the whalebone dog sleds discovered in Savoonga, which anthropologists "guesstimate" to be nearly 5000 years old, were pulled by the great ancestors of today's Alaskan Husky.
However, this little Indian dog did not gain much respect in the dog world until the last fifty years or so. During the first half of the century the Siberian Husky, for the most part, reigned supreme as leaders in the racing world. Then in the late 1940's, when dog sled racing began to become a profitable occupation, the tides turned and Alaskan mushers began in earnest to develop the little village Indian dog into the Alaskan Husky as we know it today. […] The Alaskan Husky is a mixture of the best”
The Alaskan Huskies, also referred to as Alaskans, are not bound by a breed standard so their appearance will vary from dog to dog and kennel to kennel. In general those used for racing are medium large to large sized dogs that weigh 40-60lbs. Colors and markings mean nothing to racing drivers and Alaskans may be any possible canine color, pattern or combination thereof. Most Alaskan Huskies will have pointy ears and a tail that curls over the back, meaning they are in fact classified as a spitz-type dog. The coats are almost always short to medium in length, to provide effective heat dissipation during racing.
Unlike, Siberian Huskies who are naturally hardy and weatherproof, the modern Alaskan needs “dog coats”, belly protectors, or specialized “dog booties” to protect them from the elements in cold conditions or rough terrain. Selective breeding with an emphasis on speed has created a dog that is faster but requires considerably more care and attention to survive the harsh environmental conditions common to sled dog racing.
Personality like appearance will vary widely between Alaskan Huskies depending upon what traits have been bred into them. Generally speaking they are a vocal and affectionate dog, with a natural inclination towards cuddling with other dogs and people. It is not unusual for Alaskan Husky puppies to walk up to a strange dog and attempt to instigate a round of cuddling. The Alaskan Husky is known as an exceptionally athletic, high energy dog with amazing endurance that will never seem to get tired. As such they are not suitable for urban apartment life, or small homes. This is a breed that requires a lot of space and a lot of exercise.
Like Siberian Huskies they are prone to wandering off. A very fast and independent breed they should not be allowed off leash as they will go where they choose to go. As an adventurous dog they do seem to be comfortable with riding in the car and exploring new things. Jumping up on people as a sign of affection, not dominance seems to be another common trait within this type of dog. Natural escape artists, no fence is too high as they have been known to jump a 6 foot fence with ease, and if they are unable to jump a fence, they will climb it or dig under it to escape and explore. Digging is second nature to this type of dog and leaving one outside in the yard will generally result in a yard full of holes. Not known for their exceptional intelligence, cleverness will tend to vary from litter to litter depending upon the individual genetic makeup of the dog.
Due to the inclusion of Greyhounds into the breeding program they do have exceptionally good eyesight and are avid hunters of small game. This is another reason that they should not be allowed off lead, as they will give immediate chase when the opportunity presents itself. This type of dog is also known to be extremely food motivated and a voracious eater. This is something that can be used during the training process to motivate the dog to perform the required task. The Alaskan Husky like many other types of dogs has been bred to fulfill a specific purpose which may not make it the wisest choice for conversion into a house pet.
Overall, the Alaskan Husky is a healthy type of dog. However, congenital health issues common to many purebred dogs such as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), hypothyroidism and cryptorchidism have been reported in some strains. Another uncommon but occasionally observed condition is dogs born with a congenital deformation of the larynx, termed “wheezers”. Believed to be a genetically linked defect, dogs affected with this condition typically make a wheezing noise when breathing. The Alaskan Husky was also bred by Mushers to be very accepting of anything edible, which means that in a home setting they are prone to eating garbage which can cause a number of health related issues.