A brief history of the Siberian Husky
Part One – Siberian Origins
By Mick Brent – Dreamcatcher Siberian Huskies/The Siberian Husky Welfare Association (UK)
(Below – Siberian Sled dogs photographed circa 1901 by Vladimir Jochelson/Dina Brodskava during the Jessup North Pacific Expedition)
The dogs we now know as Siberian Huskies are an amazing example of selective breeding over time to produce a form which perfectly fits the function for which they were developed. Imagine the complex specifications if we tried to produce such a breed today:
We want a breed which will:
- Survive and function effectively at temperatures down to -50°C without any artificial aids;
- Pull a lightly laden sled tirelessly day after day over vast distances in arctic/sub-arctic conditions and enjoy it!
- Survive and thrive on the bare minimum of food;
- Be intelligent enough to take instructions from the sled driver, but also independently minded and analytical enough to be able to ignore such instructions if they are likely to lead the team into danger;
- Survive and function comfortably at temperatures up to 35°C
- Be capable of hunting and catching its own food if necessary;
- Be able to live happily with large numbers of other dogs with minimal friction;
- Love people in general and children in particular so that they can be used in winter to sleep with the children and keep them warm;
- Look absolutely beautiful at all times
- Combine an infinite capacity and appetite for work with an ability to sleep anywhere and everywhere at the drop of a hat;
- Be capable of jumping/climbing high fences
- Be capable of digging holes and escape tunnels worthy of “The Great Escape” or “Colditz”
- Be capable (if given the opportunity) of destroying almost anything in seconds;
- Combine the characteristics of an iron-hard working sled dog with that of the softest lap dog.
The Siberian Husky, which is directly descended from the sled dogs developed over a period of several thousands of years by the Chukchi people of North-East Siberia, fulfils all these “functions” within its beautiful and efficient “form.”
The Chukchi People, whose name was derived either from the Chukchi word “chukcha” meaning “rich in reindeer”, or the Russian “chavchu” meaning “reindeer people,” were primarily a reindeer-herding people living inland on the tundra with their reindeer herds. Like the Saami of Lapland, the nomadic herders used their reindeer products to make tools, clothing, dwellings and, of course, provide the basis of their diet and their transportation.
A smaller section of the Chukchi people – the “maritime: Chukchi – lived in summer coastal villages and hunted seal, walrus and whales for their food and used dog sleds for transportation. The landscape of Chutotka (the Chukchi land) is dominated by tundra interspersed with low mountains, with some areas of taiga in the south and west. The wildlife found in Chukotka includes Caribou (this is in addition to the domestic reindeer that are maintained in herds, wolves, bears (grizzly and polar), arctic fox, walrus, seal, whale, cranes and a variety of arctic birds. Summer temperatures can be very warm while the winters are (literally) arctic. Chukotka has the widest seasonal temperature variation of anywhere in the world.
The maritime Chukchi lived in summer villages of between 10 and 20 tents – twice the size of the reindeer herding Chukchi villages. These was considerable contact and trade between the two groups and indeed, in some areas, both groups lived together and cultivated a lifestyle which included both reindeer herding and coastal hunting.
Their sled dogs were crucial to both the survival of the maritime Chukchi and the viability of their communities. Many of the characteristics still seen in today’s Siberian Husky have their origin in the Chukchi dogs going back several millennia. Their temperament, for example, had to be equable enough for them to coexist peacefully with both humans and other dogs. They could work amicably as part of teams of 20 or more dogs and their temperament was a crucial survival factor – out on the ice in freezing arctic temperatures, a major dog fight could mean tragedy if injured dogs meant that the team and the family froze to death. The Chukchi dogs were also sweet tempered enough to sleep with the children as “doggy duvets.” Night time temperatures were measured by the number of dogs necessary to keep the kids warm – eg three dog night, four dog night etc.
The economic and social importance of the Chukchi’s dogs was also reflected in their place in the Chukchi religion and mythology. A Chukchi legend held that two sled dogs guarded the gates of heaven where they had the power to reject anyone who had been cruel to dogs during their time on earth. Another legend claimed that during a time of famine, both human and dog populations were at risk of being wiped out by hunger. Only two baby puppies still remained alive, but with their mother dead, they had little chance of survival. A Chukchi woman suckled the pups at her breast so ensuring the survival of the breed and the co-dependent nature of the human-dog relationship. Ironically, this situation was to be replicated in reality during the 1860’s when the breed’s survival was again threatened by famine. This time the Chukchi’s sled dogs survived by judicious outcrossing to other local breeds (see below).
The conventional wisdom concerning the origins of the breed, claims that the Chukchi dogs were direct descendants in an unbroken line of pure breeding dating back some 1000, 2000 or 3000 years (depending upon which book/article/website you choose to believe). The reality is somewhat more complex and interesting. Many of the indigenous Siberian peoples have used sled dogs as transportation and have done so for thousands of years. Indeed, the 3000 year benchmark so often used in discussion of Siberian husky history may itself be a serious underestimate. The distinguished Russian archeological researcher N.N.Dikov, found evidence of Laika-type dogs in burials in the Kamchatka peninsular dating back 10,000 years.
(Dog Sledding Way of Life in Kamchatka – B.I. Shiroky – P.A.D.S. Newsletter #5)
In fact, the Siberian Husky and the Alaskan Malamute (along with 12 other breeds) have been identified as amongst 14 “ancient breeds” of domesticated dog whose genetic\lines have been distinct from the wolf for many thousands of years. Interestingly this research shows that the recurrent myth about northern peoples’ interbreeding of dogs and wolves is just that – a myth with no historical or genetic truth to it at all.
(“Genetic Structure of the Purebred Domestic Dog” – Science, Vol 304, May 21st 2004)
It may be that the Koryaks, the Iukagirs, the Chukchi, the Kamchadals and the many other paleo-Siberian peoples, at some time in their history were so geographically, culturally and economically isolated from each other tha
“..a long interchange between the peoples of Siberia and the natives of Alaska did exist from ancient into modern times.”
(John Douglas Tanner Jr. – Alaskan trails, Siberian Dogs pp15)
It is very likely that some interbreeding of their dogs may well have been the occasional result of such interaction. Indeed, an archeological excavation of ancient Ipuitak sites at Point Hope in Alaska in the 1940’s recovered dog remains some 2000 years old, which were positively identified by scientists as those of Siberian dogs,\not local Alaskan breeds.
(John Douglas Tanner Jr. – Alaskan trails, Siberian Dogs pp15)
Further evidence of such possible interbreeding over the millennia can be seen from the fact that the research into “ancient breeds” referred to above, also found that genetically, the Alaskan Malamute and the Siberian Husky were very closely related.:
“In addition, the Alaskan Malamute is shown to be very closely related to the Siberian Husky, and its place of origin is far western Alaska, across the Bering Strait from the homeland of the Siberian Husky’s ancestors.”
(http://www.workingdogweb.com/RSH-2004-2.htm – “New breakthrough in dog genetics”
Much more recently (as mentioned above) a devastating series of famines suffered by the Chukchi people during the 1860’s, resulted in the death of the vast majority of their dogs. Many died of starvation and some were killed and eaten by desperate Chukchi to feed their families.
(Thompson & Foley – The Siberian Husky)
After this devastation, the Chukchi gradually re-established their sled dog stock by breeding their few remaining dogs with other available breeds including\primarily the smaller, red, fox-like Tungus Spitz.
(Thompson & Foley – The Siberian Husky)
Both the dogs above – the shaggier ‘wolflike’ one and the smaller, flatter coated ‘foxlike’ one (photographed in 1904) are Chukchi dogs.
From the middle of the 17th Century, increasing exposure to Russian influence – culturally, politically and economically – began to change aspects of Chukchi life:
“Ethnic Russians first encountered the Chukchi in 1642, when the Cossack Ivan Yerastov met them on the Alazeya river. In the 1640’s, the Russians built two forts on the Kamchatka, and commercial traders, fur trappers and hunters used these forts as a base and established permanent contact with the Chukchi. This contact brought many problems to the Chukchis. Diseases like influenza, mumps, smallpox and so forth spread amongst the population, and alcoholism became a problem as Russian traders often paid with vodka.”
(The Centre for Russian Studies (NUPI) – http://www2.nupi.no/cgi-win//Russland/etnisk_b.exe?Chukchi
Throughout the second half of the 17th and most of the 18th Century, the peoples of Siberia (and particularly the Chukchi – who were known as “the Apache of the north!” because of their fierce resistance to invasion) came under increased military, commercial and cultural pressure from Czarist Russia. The crack Czarist Cossack troops pursued a policy of genocide against the Chukchi, and in a series of skirmishes, the Chukchi with their dog sleds, managed to outrun them and avoid a final showdown. In 1649, Anadyr was established as a fortified outpost city for the Russian empire but over the next 100 years or so it became a huge drain on Russian resources.For the period between 1710 and 1764, the maintenance of the fort at Anadyrsk had cost some 1,380,000 roubles, but the area had returned only 29,150 roubles in taxes. The Russians controlled the land, but not the people and it was costing them dear. The Cossacks were extraordinary warriors, but they did not understand either the terrain or the arctic conditions and suffered terrible losses (due to the inhospitable conditions – not the Chukchi). After a series of brutal military campaigns, Russia decided to try a different tack and tried to control Chukotchka through trade rather than violence. A treaty was made with the Chukchi giving them independence.
Unfortunately for the Chukchi, what defeated them in the end was firstly the consequences of opening Chukotchka to trade, and secondly the bureaucratic “need” of the new communist rulers of Russia (after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution) to control and standardise everything in the name of “proletarian efficiency.” The new Soviet Union initially offered a free trade deal to the Chukchi. The inadvertent side effect of increased trade was the importation of a smallpox epidemic. The Chukchi people were decimated. Having inadvertently weakened the Chukchi with disease, the Soviets removed the velvet glove and deliberately executed all the Chukchi village leaders (who also happened to be the most experienced and successful dog breeders). The Soviets then set up their own dog breeding programmes designed to create the perfect Peoples Sled Dog.
As if this level of bureaucratic control-freakery was not enough, in 1952 the Soviets issued a statement denying that the Chukchi dog had ever existed as a distinct breed and that the “siberian husky” was a US created breed whose origins had nothing to do with Siberia. Amazingly enough, although the Soviet Union is now itself history, many contemporary Russian dog historians still hold to this ‘official’ view. To confirm this, simply browse the website of the Russian “Primitive Aboriginal Dogs” (PADS) organisation – the Siberian Husky is not amongst the aboriginal dogs they recognise.
“It would be appropriate to mention that the Americans have developed and breed sled dog named the Siberian Husky and the term Husky can be translated as ‘Laika.’ However, this breed, in our understanding, does not have any relationship to Siberian dogs as I understand them. The Siberian husky is a cultivated specialised breed, which American cynologists obtained by selective breeding our sled dogs imported from northeastern parts of Chukotka, The Kolyma River and Kamchatka.”
Our Northern Dogs – B.I.Shiroky – in PADS Newsletter #8
Although understandable in one sense – after all, the Siberian Husky may no longer be regarded as a primitive aboriginal breed, it does seem strange to deny its relationship to such dogs – after all, every single Siberian Husky in the world has ancestry going back to the handful of entire dogs/bitches imported into the US in the early part of the 20th Century.
“The entire Siberian Husky breed goes back to the same dozen dogs of the 1930’s: Kreevanka, Tosca, Tserko, Duke, Tanta of Alyeska, Sigrid III of Foxstand, Smokey of Seppala, Sepp III, Smoky, Dushka, Kabloona, Rollinsford Nina of Marilym. There are two or three others none of which would constitute more than one half of one percent of a dog’s pedigree today.”
J.Jeffrey Bragg – http://seppalasleddogs.com/seppala-breeding-5.htm
Unfortunately, as a result of Russian invasion, famine, disease and Soviet politics, the Chukchi dog, as a distinct breed of Siberian ‘Laika’ no longer exists in any meaningful numbers, if at all, in its native land. Having said that, sled dog enthusiasts in Kamchatka are working with the few remaining aboriginal dogs to re-establish the Kamchatka sled dog, and as part of that programme, initiated the Beringia sled dog race – the longest sled race in the world at nearly 2000 kilometers long.The race is run from a village in Kamchatka (eg Esso) through Palana in the Koryak region, to a village in the far north (eg Markovo). The Esso-Markovo route at 1980km is the longest sled dog route in the world and takes three weeks to complete.
The Beringia Race – from http://www.thearctic.is
Ironically, as the breed came under increasing threat to its very existence in its own homeland, it began to gain a foothold in a new continent only a few miles away across the Bering Straits. Sled dogs had been used in Alaska for millennia, just as in Siberia. The influx of thousands of people as a result of the Klindike Gold Rush had led to a massive increase in the need for sled dogs. Thousands of dogs (often totally unsuited to work in arctic/sub-arctic conditions) were brought north f4rom Canada and the US. Jack London’s “Call of the Wild” is a fictionalised tale of one such dog – ‘Buck,’ a St. Bernard cross.
The new population of Alaska, often with money in their pockets, needed R&R after their exertions in the gold fields. Gambling joints, saloons and brothels flourished, as did the new sport of sled dog racing. Probably started by drunken bar-room boasts about who had the better or faster teams, the sport of sled dog racing soon featured organised events. The Nome Kennel Club was formed and organised the biggest of the events – the All Alaska Sweepstakes Race. First run in April 1908, the race was soon to become an annual \event and the showcase for the extraordinary abilities of the “little Siberian rats.”
Copyright – Dreamcatcher Siberian Huskies/The Siberian Husky Welfare Association (UK) 2008