Lets talk about something I now know a lot more about! The dogs, more specifically the Alaskan Husky.
This remarkable mutt breed is a special blend of everything designed to pull a sled. They have big lungs, big hearts, lean bodies, tough feet and most importantly a crazy drive to run and pull!
How about we start from the very beginning. Dogs as we know them, Canis Familiaris, evolved not exactly from a wolf but from an ancestor of the wolf. Similar to we did not evolve from now day Chimps but we have the same common ancestor which has now extinct. This is the same for dogs, wolves, coyotes and all other canid breeds. They share the same common ancestors to which they evolved differently for different reasons. For the purpose of this I will refer to it as the ‘wolf’ as it is very similar to the common day wolf.
Canis Familiaris or shall I say domesticated dogs as we know them are believed to have a very unique evolution. There is a fair amount of evidence of this evolution from feral ‘wolf’ to the Prototype Dog. Prototype Dog is a small link between ‘wolf’ and dog. Prototype Dog is the original Domestic dog. This Prototype dog has smaller skeletal structure than the ‘wolf’, smaller skull suggesting smaller brains, and smaller teeth. Basically a little bit dumber and a bit smaller. This was more effective for Prototype dog for survival.
Though many people think this, it is very, very, very unlikely man domesticated the wolf and turned it into a dog. This would be a very remarkable feat. However the common belief of biologists and those who study ancient dogs is that prototype dog actually domesticated itself from the ‘wolf’.
As ancient people lived with their ‘nomad’ lifestyle. Travelling from small settlement/ camp to another depending on season and hunting and what was necessary for their survival they began to leave their waste in places. Most of this was the food in which they could not use, scraps from a hunt or from their dinners. Or even their own physical waste. All of these things are food to a canid. This attracted the ‘wolves’. ‘Wolves’ who were less afraid of people got more food. They would follow the people and eat their scraps.
The less afraid ‘wolves’ would then breed with others who were less afraid of people therefore self selecting to breed for tameness. When breeding for a specific genetic trait like tameness after just a few generations this can become very prominent and also effect many other characteristics. Coat, colour, tail and ear shape. A proof of this is the domestication of foxes in Russia.
These ‘wolves’ also became smaller, with smaller teeth and smaller skulls. There was no survival need for these animals to be as big as ‘wolves’. They were not hunting for their food, they did not need the stamina and strength to run down an animal. They did not need to be as smart either, hunting down other animals takes a lot of pack smarts. They also did not need such big teeth to tear a whole animal apart. They are now scavengers, being smaller is now more beneficial for survival. Smaller means needing less food for the individual to survive and therefore more food for the whole pack to survive. All of a sudden this new… Prototype dog is thriving in it’s new scavenger environment.
Believe me this is me trying to give you the shortened version but I just find this so interesting that I want to share it with you. It will help you to understand and appreciate your dogs now.
So, these prototype dogs would follow around the nomadic people scavenging on their left overs. They would be very protective of their food source, when other ‘wolves’ or animals would come into their environment, threatening their food and survival they would protect their lifestyle. This also protected their people. The people then realised that it was beneficial to have the dogs around and would being to interact with them more, leave more scraps for them, even take some of the ‘cute’ puppies and keep them closer as ‘pets’. Now we have officially the original domesticated dog.
If you have ever been anywhere and seen something which is referred to as the village dog, this is the most closely resembling and probably related to the domestic dog. So originally dogs were domesticated as guarding dogs, both for people and the herds of animals they would move around with them. This was dogs original purpose. Then as the bond between man and dog became closer dogs would show us more and more of what they were capable of. They showed us how they were able to herd our animals for us and then boomed the farming industry. They showed us their instincts and helped us to hunt. They also showed us their strength and helped us to more our things around with us.
As I said earlier, dogs had a very unique evolution. They evolved themselves into domestication but would not have evolved if it were for humans. Humans would have not evolved they way we have either if it were not for dogs, we could still be nomadic people following our flocks and herds hunting what we could if it were not for dogs to help us begin farming. Farming is what allowed us to settle in places for good then creating towns and cities and life as we now know it. They evolution of man and dog go hand in hand we both would not exist in the way we are today if it were not for each other.
This completely fascinates me and makes me love animals even more. Dogs are and should be an animal with a purpose. They are not useless, they are not our children, they are smart, useful and determined. They should be challenged and appreciated for the amazing animals they are.
So now that we know a little background of dogs in general, lets jump forward some many years to the evolution of the Alaskan Husky.
This breed, as it’s name suggests originated in Alaska. It really came into it’s own in the klondike gold rush days on the turn of the 20th century. Inuit people had been living in Alaska for generations using their tough village dogs to help them carry their gear around. When people moved up for the gold rush many of them took everything with them, including their families and dogs. When they got to Alaska they realised that their horses were not great at working in the snow so they did as the locals did and hooked up their dogs to a sled and got them to carry their gear around.
The dogs who were better at it were breed with the other dogs who were good at it and so on and so forth until all of a sudden you have a breed specifically designed and bred to pull a sled.
Alaskan Huskies are still classed as a mutt breed. This means that they are not registered by any kennel clubs. This is mostly by the choice of those of us who work with them. They are still a working breed and one of the last great pure working breeds in my mind. This is because they are only breed for performance. Once a dog becomes a registered pure breed they then have a breed standard, this means they have to look a certain way, have a specific size, shape, coat and colour. These are all things that in no way help performance and encourage inbreeding.
Alaskan huskies are all sorts of shapes, sizes, colours and personalities but they all have one thing in common. They are amazing at pulling sleds. This is what they are designed to do, and this is what they want to do. They are also a very healthy breed, commonly living to 16 or more years of age and with no pre-disposed health conditions, like the very common hip dysplasia. This is because any health issues that do come up in a dog are obviously not good for performance, so these dogs are not bred. Therefore the health issue does not continue. Because there is no breed standard there is no specific look that is required so there is a very diverse gene pool in the Alaskan Husky.
Alaskan Huskies were a dying breed until the early 1970’s when Joe Redington had the vision to start the Iditarod. (I won’t go into Iditarod details today or this novel will never end)!! The greatest race of all races in the distance racing world. He wanted to do this to promote and save his beloved breed. And that is exactly what he did. He would never have imagined that the race could have become what it is today but now people all over they world know what an Alaskan Husky is thanks to him.
After the Iditarod was started people stopped just breeding a dog that could pull a sled and started breeding even more specifically for a competitive racing dog. This was a dog with an overwhelming drive to run and pull a sled. It has big lungs and a big heart. It has incredible stamina and endurance. It is fast. It has tough feet to withstand running in the harsh Alaskan conditions. It has tough tendions and ligaments. It is pack oriented, loyal and much to many peoples surprise it has an amazingly friendly demeanor. The more original Alaskan huskies, who were much like the original Alaskan village dogs were cross bred with other breeds for specific traits, Most commonly they are bred with german shorthaired pointer. This is the fastest combination but it lacks in the necessary winter toughness for a distance race. These ‘houndy’ dogs are used for sprint mushing.
After the boom in cross breeding Alaska huskies and now mostly just bred with
other Alaska huskies refining the attributes that were bred in during the cross breeding process and not loosing too much of what made this breed itself in the first place. Alaskan Huskies are sled dogs. They are what are competitive and win all the races. When most people hear husky they think Siberian Husky. These are not the sled dogs they used to be, though they are still raced, they do not win. Siberian Huskies are now mostly glorified pets.
The Alaskan Husky is a lean mean running machine. In the dog world Greyhounds win in sprints. In the animal kingdom Cheetahs win in sprints. But the Alaskan husky wins in distance. It is the fastest land mammal over distance. Even a sprint for the Alaskan Husky is a distance race for us, 20-50 miles. The distances races range anywhere from 300 to the 1050 of the Iditarod.
This is due to some very special qualities that these dogs have developed to help the efficiently pull sleds. After the Iditarod boom a lot of interest was drawn to these incredible athletes. One person in particular was very interested in them, Dr. Mike Davis. He was so amazed at what these dogs could do that he dedicated his time to study and research into them.
He found out, and is still finding out some very remarkable things. Here are a few of these things.
One is the VO2 Max levels found in Alaskan Huskies. This is the amount of oxygen travelling in the blood of the animal that the animal can use. This is measured in Millilitres of oxygen per Kilogram of body weight per minute. The average person like you or I would be sitting at around 40. Most people can reach up to 50 or 60 if you really train hard. There are a few elite people in the prime such as Lance Armstrong who had a reading of 85 and Bjorn Daehlie who achieved a reading of 90. These are both very remarkable human beings. Race Horses have been recorded at 180. Sled dogs have been recorded at 240. This really is amazing. They really can run all day and not really get tired.
Another amazing thing that Mike Davis found out from studying the Alaskan Husky is the way in which they process their food. Sled dogs consume a silly amount of calories. A dog racing the Iditarod can easily consume around 10000 calories in a day of very high fat and high protein food. Though they process energy in the same way that we do, taking the necessary nutrients from the food and storing it in their muscles as glucose then when they need it using the glucose reserves. They can also process their energy in a different way. They can turn fats straight into energy. They don’t need to go through the storage process. Dogs on a race will get feed regularly through out a race. From big meals at rest stops when they have time to process everything to little fatty snacks on a quick stop. They only need about 15 minutes to be ready to use the energy.
Because of these things sled dogs don’t fatigue like we do and don’t get those sore lactic muscles like we do either. They don’t need much time to recover from running and are ready for the next trip. They are truly incredible athletes and are great at what they do!
Here at Kingmik Dogsled Tours we love our furry little four legged friends. We breed some dogs in our kennels and also adopt dogs from other kennels. Some who have finished their racing career and others who were just never going to make the teams. We take our dogs all very seriously and know all of their individual personalities and needs.
We have a range of different looking dogs, from short and round to tall and lanky but all of these dogs can bring something special to the table. A small and agile female can make a great lead dog, then a big chunky male can bring some good power into the team in the slower times.
A lot of people judge sled dogs and especially the Alaskan Husky as the are expecting to see Siberian huskies and Malamutes pulling their sleds. People who do not know often comment that these dogs are too small, too skinny and they can’t pull a sled. I know a lot of these people either don’t have dogs or they have rather obese couch potatoes. I encourage everyone who has a dog or who likes dogs to do a little research at what a healthy dog actually looks like.
We teach all our new staff using the Purina Body Conditioning chart. These are propping up in vets all over the place too as they give great advice of what a dogs general condition should be. You can check out more information about it here.
Just as with people when dogs are not at the correct weight it can bring on a lot of unnecessary health issues. We take care to make sure all our dogs stay in the best shape they can.
Some people even think that only the males can pull the sled. So to prove a point one day I put together an eight dog team of the smallest dogs in the kennel, all females. We were flying down the trail and I was on my breaks so much, these girls are tough! Never underestimate girl power.
Another common judgement is that people think that these athletes simply can’t do it because their dog couldn’t do it. To which I usually reply, I’m sure your dog couldn’t as it has not been specifically bred, trained and conditioned all of it’s life to do this. However I assure you that these dogs definitely can do it and they do it very well.
Alaskan Huskies love their jobs, they love running and they love pulling. That is why it is so hard to train a pulling breed not to pull on a leash. These guys just naturally want to pull. When we hook up the teams it is a fantastic sight, dogs lunging forward in their harnesses, some even leaping all four feet of the ground and the noise is defining. These guys want to go! Once we set off within seconds, heads are down, back feet are digging in and a blissful silence takes over. Usually all that is heard is the excited squeaks of Nunchuck (one of the dogs) as he sets his sights on the trail in front.
Alaskan Huskies are a high energy dog. As they are bred to run and are designed beautifully for it, they need a lot of exercise. Over the summer we are making sure our dogs get at least a three-four mile run (run, not walk) every other day. Every day for the younger ones who are just full of beans.
Come winter it is working time and these guys will be working hard on short runs of 10 miles. They will do this up to twice a day about five days a week. They need their days off just like we do, not that they are happy with it sometimes. This distance is perfectly do-able for these guys. They are capable of running over 100 miles in a day though they can’t keep that up over an entire winter season. So we ask our dogs to do enough to keep them happy and exercised but not leave them exhausted come April.
We do our best to do the best for all of our dogs too, which includes when they stop working. We implement a retirement plan. For some that means they hang around the summer kennels and supervise for the rest of their days. Usually these are the antisocial dogs who just wouldn’t do well in another environment, or there are some we just love and don’t want to part with. For those that are eligible we try to find them appropriate homes. Most of these guys make fantastic pets so we try to match them up with the best family possible. At the end of this coming season one special furry girl is going to make her way across to NZ with me and John. She was my girl from the first week I arrived and she still is… Zip..
Sled dogs will retire for all sorts of different reasons and at all different ages. For some dogs they will retire due to injuries, this is unfortunate as it usually happens to the hardest working dogs. Other dogs will retire because they are simply too old to handle our trail, and some will retire because they just don’t want to do it any more. All of these are fair and valid reasons for retirement. Some can be re-homed into other kennels, there are lots of tour companies who look to take dogs and all with different trails. This is great for some of our dogs who are just bored of running the same trail all the time. Something new and exciting is all they need.
Well if you have made it this far then well done!!! Thanks for reading.