The Survival of Historic Sleddog Breeds

Small and rare breed populations

When it comes to long-term survival, somehow it seems that the deck is stacked against small breed populations. In the end, population survival (and population genetics) is favoured by the existence of large numbers and broad geographic distribution. A population confined to one small region is highly vulnerable. A population consisting of only a few hundred individuals or fewer is highly vulnerable. There is no getting around the fact that numbers are the best defense against survival risks such as viral disease, social change, natural disasters, war and famine, etc.

Yet in the world of purebred dogs we associate large numbers with negative values and questionable breeder ethics, and rightly so. The most "popular" dog breeds with the greatest number of litter registrations per annum are also those most plagued by puppy-mill breeding, genetic disease, constant "rescue" situations and similar ills. So for breeders of rare breeds or breeds in development, there is a constant excruciating tension between desires to breed sparingly and to screen buyers rigidly, and the knowledge that breed survival is best served by increasing numbers and geographic distribution. There is no easy answer to this dilemma and it is difficult for responsible breeders to know how to balance their desire to maintain control over the quality and development of their breed and the need to ensure long-term survival through population growth.

Purpose breeding and survival

Purpose-bred populations are particularly vulnerable. Once the original, urgent purpose that brought a breed into existence disappears, it seems to be the beginning of the end, even though it may be a long drawn-out end. Show and pet breeding almost invariably destroy working purpose and ability. Unique breed characteristics are degraded through breeding by unknowledgeable backyard breeders and judging by all-breed judges who lack specialised knowledge.

Until breed purpose becomes obsolescent through social and/or environmental change, there is no problem. As long as a breed purpose continues to enjoy a healthy existence and to promote a continuous demand, that purpose itself dictates a certain level of breeding and a certain size population overall. As soon as that changes, though, the purpose-bred population becomes a legacy population that is maintained -- if it is maintained at all -- through nostalgia and respect for the legends of a bygone era. Perhaps in time new purposes may be found for the legacy population. Perhaps the old purpose can be continued on a reduced scale as a recreational pursuit.

In the case of historic sleddog breeds, all three options have combined to offer a chance of long-term survival. The Alaskan Malamute, finding no more freight to haul, became a show dog. The Siberian Husky, embracing the new purpose of trotting around a ring on rubber matting and being a family pet of striking appearance, has managed to increase its population to a very comfortable level for long-term survival, largely at the cost of its working ability. The "Alaskan village dog" for awhile found a new purpose in dogsled speed racing and a new genetic identity, crossbred with other breeds, as the Alaskan Husky. (Even that identity is now failing as the sprint racing fancy turns to German Shorthaired Pointer crosses for greater speed and drive.) The Greenland Dog and Canadian Eskimo Dog have been less successful, enduring the show ring as an alternate purpose but failing to increase numbers greatly; they continue to serve as sleddogs in various niche applications such as mountain dogsled excursions.

It should be emphasised that dogsled racing in its modern form is a new alternative purpose for historic sleddog breeds. Racing is no longer conducted as it was eighty years ago. Racing modes are different. Trails are less demanding, while average speeds are much higher. Hypernutrition and advanced veterinary support are part and parcel of the new dogsled sport. Breeding of large numbers of young stock which are then boiled down to a tenth or less of the original number through culling on the curve results in a very different kind of population.

It is no good, therefore, to insist simple-mindedly that dogsled racing is the natural fate and purpose of historic sleddog breeds. Nobody in his senses expects today to win races with a team of Chinooks. Some do expect to win in restricted competition with Seppalas, but at the cost of changing the Seppala dog into something very different from the original version.

Comparison with specialised wild species

The situation of small purpose-bred dog populations is similar to that of highly specialised wild species, or those with very limited geographic distribution, or those that occupy unique narrow ecological niches. Once the environment changes, extinction is only a matter of time. The less specialised can adapt, the highly specialised seldom manage. So then with dog breeds, the large populations of general-purpose show/pet breeds have less to lose and greater redundancy, whilst the legacy sleddog breeds are as vulnerable as Everglades Kites or Laysan Island (flightless) Rails. The specialised wild species can continue to exist as long as its environmental niche enjoys protection, assuring its continued existence and stability.

The specialised legacy sleddog breed, similarly, can continue to exist -- provided that its fanciers are willing to show reasonable respect for its original form and intended purpose, and to provide equivalent outlets for that purpose.

Is racing the answer?

It would hardly seem that modern racing offers such an equivalent. Chinooks, for example, were at their best in situations involving hauling heavy loads in extreme conditions. They are unlikely to have sufficient average speed to win even regional limit-class races. This is not to say that a Chinook owner cannot enjoy racing. Recreational racing can be very enjoyable both for dogs and driver, just as long as winning in demanding competition is not seen as the goal.

In the case of the Seppala dog, a greater speed potential exists, and therein lies a certain threat to the breed. Through selective breeding and adaptation, as well as through crossbreeding, it is possible to come up with a team of "Seppalas" capable of placing highly in regional competition. Thus far nobody has tested the limits of this kind of adaptation by taking a Seppala team trained for shorter-end mid-distance racing to the Open North American Championship at Fairbanks, which the mileage structure of 20 miles, 20 miles and 30 miles on three successive days would suggest as a possible proving-ground. But the deck is stacked against such an attempt. The money and resources now expended in ONAC competition are far beyond the means of most Seppala owners, while the limited Seppala population would not be sufficient to support the necessary selection on the performance curve.

As long as our concern is the long-term survival of legacy breeds, then, racing is not the answer. For as long as winning races is considered to be the objective, then it is virtually guaranteed that any population consistently subjected to that selection regime will become adapted and considerably changed from the original type, in the service of that objective. It is survival of a sort, but not the kind of survival that we seek for Seppalas and Chinooks.

Dogsled transport today

Until the fossil fuels run out, there isn't very much scope for serious dogsled transport today. It still exists as a luxury niche market, in the form of dogsled excursions and tours. However, most such enterprises must look vigilantly to their bottom line in order to survive economically. A lot of them employ varieties of dogs that are a lot more numerous, and therefore cheaper, than either Seppalas or Chinooks. The use of sleddogs to provide a practical means of winter transport is still marginally possible today, but it isn't likely to provide major support for either breed.

The recreational musher

In the end, I think it falls to the lot of the recreational musher to provide support for historic legacy sleddog breeds, for the sheer joy of the thing and as an act of homage to the values of a bygone era. It seems a pity that so many recreational drivers should be trying to enjoy dogsled sport with showdog breeds that have already lost most of their purpose-bred sleddog behaviour patterns, when dogs like Seppalas exist that can just about teach the novice musher how it's supposed to be done.

The unremitting and remorseless emphasis on mid-distance racing by several prominent breeders of part-Seppalas, together with these people's denigration of the recreational driver, has been bad marketing strategy, as well as damaging to the original Seppala type. Recreational drivers ought to be the major market for Seppalas, since the dogs are ideally suited to their needs. Chinook people have actually done a much better job here. Knowing that their breed is unlikely to be competitive in major racing events, they have unashamedly promoted it as a family dog well-suited for winter dogsled fun.


The preservation for long-term survival of legacy sleddog breeds like Seppalas and Chinooks is essentially a labour of love and an act of homage to past traditions. Purpose-bred sleddog breeds can only continue to enjoy a full and meaningful existence when their original purpose is preserved, along with their bred-in working ability. Although recreational racing offers an outlet and a proving-ground for these breeds, serious racing causes inexorable change, encourages a short-term outlook by racer-breeders, and offers little security. Until and unless socioeconomic change brought about by the exhaustion of fossil fuels causes a renewed demand for utility dogsled transport, the best potential haven for legacy sleddogs is the recreational dog driver. Breed associations should give serious consideration to promoting their breeds for recreational mushing rather than sponsoring races, "Racing Crown" competitions and "race testing" rules and regulations.