SINCE THE BIRTH OF THE ISSSC in summer of 2002 there has been an almost continuous ferment of discussion about Seppala values, all of it centred around racing performance. Much of the discussion has been led by ISSSC’s theoretician and ideologue, Christen Rose-Anderssen, who once upon a time enjoyed racing success in Norway and bred in a small way under the Finnemarka affix, but has not owned sleddogs since 1991 and never had a Seppala breeding programme. CRA’s perennial text is “breed the best to the best and forget about the rest.” Oddly enough a great deal of the discussion has been quite negative in its assessment of Seppala racing capability, past and present. A recent CRA essay from the ISSSC website asked “How good were our Siberians of the 1960s?”, making reference to Seppala-percentage stock imported to Norway in that decade, and he consistently belittles Seppalas in his articles. Prior to that, the same site published a transcript of an email “breeding discussion” among an in-group of ISSSC members, in which a number of quite valid points were touched upon, although their significance and the logical conclusions to be drawn from them apparently were not appreciated (or at least not accepted) by the participants.
ISSSC’s “Breeding discussion”
The course of the ISSSC breeding discussion (archived on the ISSSC website at www.seppalas.com/breeding.htm) ran more or less in this fashion:
- All the participants accepted the “breed the best to the best and forget about the rest” philosophy, which has been hammered upon relentlessly in various club bulletins and articles.
- One trained biologist among them was aware of the dangers of that philosophy.
- That person pointed out a “tremendous dependence on the Seppalta studs Race and Ruffo."
- He also pointed out the dangers of increasing homozygosity and genetic drift.
- The guru and founder of the club stated that he “totally believed” in “best-to-best” and also “totally believed” in “avoid homozygosity and genetic drift.”
- He pointed out that Alaskan Husky breeders “get away with best-to-best” due to the large size of the AH population.
- The guru went on to say that too much best-to-best would lead to homozygosity and too much “mediocrity to mediocrity” would lead to performance deterioration.
- From that, the guru then concluded that “it appears that we are doomed.”
- Drawing back from the brink of that pessimistic abyss, he then suggested that the only hope was to do “more serious racing” in order to discover more “bests” in the present population, and to “borrow ‘bests’ from the other populations.” (The only other population specifically mentioned was the Alaskan Husky population.)
- The conclusions drawn were that racing is the only adequate venue for the preservation of performance, that salvation lies in developing a “racing system” that would find the next generation of “bests,” and that nobody presently on the horizon, including the ageing guru, seems likely to do that.
- The vexed question of judging performance by finish times within a set percentage of the winning times was once again chewed over; the guru insists that a worthwhile Seppala team should finishing “within 110% of the winner’s time.”
- The discussion concluded with one of the older, wiser heads reminding the rest that racing has changed greatly, that the field now belongs to very big kennels with big budgets, to people who make a living out of racing and not to amateurs; that “really competitive people are unlikely to choose Seppalas” to achieve racing success, and that therefore future development of highly competitive racing Seppala teams might be a shade unlikely.
Funnily enough, all of the most significant elements of the Seppala situation were touched on in that discussion, in a fairly frank and realistic fashion. But the logical conclusions were never drawn. That may largely be due to the fact that the logical conclusions are far too bitter a medicine for any of the participants of that discussion to swallow.
Exploitative sleddog breeding
THE HARD FACT OF THE MATTER is that those who would preserve Seppala lineage and who insist that this must be done using a racing model of performance testing are trying to straddle two horses at once that are not travelling in quite the same direction.
The breeding and selection of racing sleddogs, as it is now done by competitive practitioners of the sport, is basically exploitative in character. It subordinates the welfare, not just of the individual dogs, but also of the population as a whole, to the exigencies of elite level racing competition. There is basically only one way to select dogs for elite racing success, and that is to select only those animals capable of the necessary sustained speed levels (and the complementary endurance capacity) to win the desired races. (That much seems self-evident.)
The trick, of course, is to be able somehow to command a sufficient population base out of which the necessary number of elite high-performance dogs can successfully be selected. There are two ways of doing that: one is to breed best-to-best within a highly-developed strain that is inbred and selected for such levels of speed and endurance. That takes time and considerable resources, and is likely to involve a great deal of inbreeding one way or another, sooner or later. The other way is to avoid the inbreeding and to opt instead for “hybrid vigour” using a succession of performance-selected outcrosses. That, too, takes time and resources, because not all such outcrosses will work out successfully, and generally the breeder in the end is forced to “play the curve,” creaming off the top 3 to 5 percent of a large purpose-bred outcrossed population.
Both strategies are highly exploitative: in the first instance everything must be subordinated to performance breeding (no other characteristics may be considered, including genetic health) and a great deal of culling must be done; in the other instance an enormous amount of culling must be done, and though genetic health may happen to be less affected due to greater heterozygosity, still nothing other than performance can possibly be given any consideration.
Taxi down the runway, then dump your gas…
SINCE THE LIMITATIONS of purebred registries and breeding programmes simply do not allow the successive-outcross mode (which is the more usual procedure among breeders of what used to be called Alaskan Huskies and are now more properly called racing mongrels), the inbreeding/selection methodology is almost invariably the one attempted by those who seek success on the race trail using Siberian Huskies.
No less of a figure than the famous Dr. Roland Lombard was an advocate both of the “breed the best to the best and forget about the rest” philosophy and of extreme inbreeding, including full-sib matings. But Dr. Lombard did his racing and gave his advice about half a century ago, in a time when there was much greater scope for amateur racing success and long before the racing performance bar was raised as high as it is today. Added to which, one must observe that Lombard was never that much of a breeder; most of the “Igloo Pak” stock came from stud-service pups that he took back in compensation for the services of his Siberian male team dogs such as "Tok," "Wing," and "Candy." When, in his own day, the level of competition grew more demanding, he simply changed over to Alaskan Huskies; actually Lombard was in the forefront of that movement, as his acquisition of “Ring” and “Nellie” was a major factor in propelling Alaskan village dogs into the limelight. So one has to wonder why Dr. Lombard continues to be cited as an irrefutable, absolute authority on Siberian sleddog breeding!
Those who advocate “breed the best to the best and forget about the rest” usually follow up that advice with the caution that “best” does not just mean the best of one’s own dogyard. This advice refers really to the top dogs in whichever population group or racing mode is under consideration. The Alaskan Husky world, in the final days before the sudden left turn that brought the Egil Ellis Euro-hounds to the winner’s circle and the breeding pen, demonstrated the application of that principle with the Ross Saunderson stud dog “Victor” and the very closely-related Terry Streeper sire “Hop.” These two males sired just about all of the most competitive front-end ONAC stock at one point, and one could find Victor and Hop progeny from Inuvik to Boston. Obviously breeding to the “best” males available quickly creates some serious downline bottlenecks.
As the “breeding discussion” pointed out, there are just not that many “bests” available. It takes time, patience, skill, money, labour and resources to develop a truly successful world-class racing dog – witness the prices that really elite animals bring when they change hands: fifteen to thirty thousand dollars is not at all unusual. You don’t find under every bush dogs that have taken a couple decades to develop and that represent the final selection of perhaps a thousand or more individuals.
Therefore when your breeding programme finally achieves success, gets where it is going, that’s the end of the road. The breeder/racer finds himself painted into a corner, with nothing left for an encore. The hard-won elite racing dog may even produce progeny that are almost as good as he is (though it certainly isn’t guaranteed), but meanwhile someone else’s crafty long-term planning has paid off and the bar has been raised another notch. That was what happened to the Victor and Hop stock. It was simply replaced by faster dogs of a very different kind, trained and raced in a different way even.
To use a colourful but reasonably accurate analogy, the best-to-best inbreeding/selection paradigm is rather like cranking up your airplane, taxiing down the runway, and dumping your gas so that you can take off! The “gas” in this instance being the population base for sustained future success. You discard all the genetic material that you might need for future selection, for genetic health, for the maintenance of collateral lines that are necessary in order to have something to which one may breed the ultra-elite performers. Everything gets subordinated to a one-pointed vision of elite performance and when that is attained, the process is over and done with, FINISHED.
ISSSC’s theoretician Chris Rose-Anderssen admits that this is exactly what happened to his own line. He states that as things progressed and he gained racing success with his dogs (including Alaskans), that his breeding programme “became shortsighted,” that he got a “lock-in of his Siberian gene pool” and wound up “having one line of closely related Siberians on my team.”
Chris Rose-Anderssen is not the only person to whom that has happened! Doug Willett has had a very similar experience, perhaps not so swift and severe as that of C.R.A. due to his extensive satellite-kennel system and the sheer numbers of dogs he has bred and sold to others over the years. Nevertheless, the same net effect has resulted. Few collateral lines. Painted into a corner. Nowhere to go next in the breeding programme.
Willett is now experimenting with Alaskan Husky crosses. So are several others in the ISSSC orbit. [The biologist who participated in the discussion summarised above has now left Seppalas behind in favour of racing mongrels.] Well, that’s the kind of thing that seems to be necessary if your aim is competitive success in elite dogsled racing events. But it means that you are introducing all sorts of wild cards into your breeding programme and from that point forward your breeding becomes a crapshoot, a game of chance. And, in the end, a numbers game just as Dr. Lombard described it twenty-five years ago. Seppalas + Alaskan Huskies = Alaskan Huskies. At least, that seems to be how most people see it.
The SSSD Project tried one experimental outcross using a world-class Alaskan Husky stud dog, Terry Streeper’s “Hop.” That confirmed for us the “wild-card” theory. We got all sorts of unexpected results, and we felt the progeny were not nearly as good as we felt should be expected from an world-class elite racing sire and our best female Markovo-Seppala lead dog. End of the experiment! That breeding was taken no further.
The logical conclusion
TO US AT SEPPALA KENNELS, the logical conclusion seems obvious, inescapable: if you want elite world-class racing success, then you should acquire dogs that have demonstrated success at those levels. It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap. You get what you pay for. And you still have to breed and train replacements, unless you are wealthy enough to run your team entirely with elite performers purchased from other teams.
The thing that does not make sense is to try to pursue success at serious dogsled racing using Seppalas. That has already been tried over the thirty-year racing career of Doug Willett. His success was limited, achieved by choosing his races very carefully and quite often leaving the dogs in the truck when he felt that conditions were unfavourable. And that limited success was bought at a very heavy price to Seppalas. Far too many collateral lines were discarded, far too many dogs dropped out of the breeding programme because they appeared not to offer what was demanded on the racer’s short-term team horizon.
Now we are faced with a situation in which Willett and others have gradually abandoned the McFaul/Shearer core bloodline. The number of pure Markovo-Seppalas (apart from those that remain at Seppala Kennels) is minuscule by comparison with the “percentage Seppala” or “part-Seppala” population of dogs called Seppalas by their owners that are actually just run-of-the-mill Racing Siberian Huskies. And even that policy of relaxed “Seppala eligibility” has not done the trick; as previously noted, Willett and others are now reduced to experimenting with Alaskan Husky crossbreds.
Raising the bar into the indefinite future
THE TROUBLE WITH DOGSLED RACING these days is that it has become such an attractive icon of robust, macho outdoor winter sport that it attracts major sponsors, German tire manufacturers and Detroit automobile companies. It is now a money game, practiced at its elite level by people who have enough ability, drive, competitive instinct, and resources to make a living at it. That results in a self-perpetuating situation in which each year more eager wannabes enter the sport at a serious level. We have had an excellent example in our own orbit not long ago. Mark Hartum, originally a protégé of Doug Willett, after a few years in local competition with a team of Siberians, some of them Seppalas, decided to enter serious competition: the Fairbanks Open North American Championship and similar speed races. Mark is a very intelligent person and a successful real-estate professional; so he had both the brains and the financial resources to do it right. He quietly sold his Siberians and acquired top-flight Eurohound racing mongrels. And in less time than anyone would have thought possible, he became a major competitor.
Lots of prize money, lots of media exposure, a plentiful supply of new competitors, all add up to a perceptible raising of the competitive performance bar every year. That means that even though a racing driver might manage to improve his finish time from one year to the next, that is no guarantee that his placing in the race results will improve, too.
And yet, there is no particular reason why sleddogs should be expected to run faster each year into the indefinite future. No reason . . . except for our old familiar motivator, human greed, the assumption that “more is better,” that there is no such thing as enough . . . in fact, an ingrained inability even to recognise such a thing as “enough.” Nobody even examines the assumption that faster is better -- and yet, many mushers complain that they don’t enjoy driving Eurohounds and German Shorthaired Pointer crosses! These highly-specialised racing dogs are not always the dogs that one would choose for a pleasant winter’s afternoon of dog driving. It looks like there are unexamined assumptions here.
“Not enough bests,” says Doug Willett. To complain that the entire Seppala population does not afford “enough bests” only serves to condemn his own achievement in breeding Seppalas, as well as casting considerable doubt on the viability of the “best to best” formula. If there are “not enough bests” among Seppalas to support DW’s style and level of racing, whose fault is that? Who has had absolute control and command not only over his own very extensive breeding programme, but effectively over those of his satellite kennels also, for the past thirty years? Why is it, then, that there are “not enough bests”? For some people, perhaps, nothing is ever enough.
Moreover, to say that there are “not enough bests” is simply to demonstrate that the bar is being set too high. It is a symptom of greed, as I said: more is better, faster is better, and today’s Seppalas are just not good enough (although DW insists they are far superior to any Seppalas of the past) to satisfy the rageing ambitions of ISSSC drivers.
I think that those who so glibly declare that present-day Seppalas are not good enough, that there are not enough “bests” in the population ought to be introduced to the ISSSC world-class high jump! Let’s see – I believe the current men’s Olympic high jump record is 2.45 meters, just a bit over eight feet. Well, to be fair about it (and to apply ISSSC standards), we’ll make allowances for the fact that these people might not be Olympians and say that they only have to clear the bar set at 7.25 feet (that’s 90% of the winners’ jump height, a little more liberal than the Willett finish-time percentage) or about 2.2 meters. Okay, step right up, Doug Willett, Tabby and Allen Berge, DiAnna Minor, Lanette Kimball, John Coyne, Frank Caccavo, Pat Kanzler, and the rest of you! There’s the bar. It’s only set at 90% of the winners’ level. Off you go! Jump high, now. Let’s just see how many “bests” there are in the ISSSC membership list.
I suspect the results of that “performance proving” would be pretty predictable. And when it was over they might even understand something about “setting the bar too high.”
SO THAT’S WHAT’S MEANT by exploitative breeding. It is breeding that is directed, not at the long-term welfare of the population or of the individual animals, but at the satisfaction of the driver’s ego. Breed to win, and the devil take the consequences. DW once told me that the Seppala line might eventually fail through genetic problems, but that he “would not care, because while I was around, my Siberians were the best.” Exploitative breeding simply discards whatever “isn’t good enough,” whatever fails to clear the bar no matter how high it is set, and takes no heed of any future beyond the next racing season. That may be just fine if you are breed only racing mongrels, of which there is potentially an infinite supply, which have no past to speak of and no particular collective future. But that is not the way to preserve a historic legacy sleddog breed, and it’s no way to breed Seppalas.
Developmental breeding – what, then, is the right way?
I THINK THE RIGHT WAY to breed Seppalas can be summed up in a single word: sustainability. Seppala strain somehow managed to survive for the better part of a century, in spite of its inclusion in a breed registry (the Siberian Husky) that walked off and left it virtually friendless in the headlong rush during the 1950s and 1960s to re-invent that breed as a group-winning show dog. Therefore to breed Seppalas now in an exploitative way is at best a cruel joke, more realistically a travesty upon their history and origins. If Seppala lineage was worth preserving for nearly a century, it should still be worth preserving today, whether or not some people think that “not enough bests” remain in today’s highly-selected population.
The key to sustainability must be to consider the viability and welfare of the breed population as a whole. To remove Seppalas from the A.K.C./C.K.C. Siberian Husky registry was the proper action to ensure long-term survival, provided that enough breeders will support Seppalas as an independent breed. Some, obviously, will not, because they prefer to hang onto the easy marketability afforded by public recognition of the Siberian Husky name and that breed’s participation in Walt Disney movies and the like. Others will insist on supporting the exploitative breeding norms of ISSSC. At present it is a moot question whether enough people have a clear enough vision of the Seppala Siberian Sleddog as a historic legacy breed to ensure its long-term survival. In any case, there was little choice, as to do nothing would only have seen Seppalas assimilated into the Siberian Husky mainstream, their identity as a distinct bloodline forever lost; the process was already far advanced when the separate breed initiative was undertaken.
What does the Seppala population need now?
THREE OUTSTANDING NEEDS can be identified at the moment in the Seppala Siberian Sleddog population. The first is simple expansion of its numbers and diversification of its geographic centres. The second is relief from the current high levels of forced inbreeding. The third is restoration of its original genetic diversity. Just as important are the things that the breed does not need, things from which it should have protection. Further effects of genetic drift are one such item. Another is excessive artificial selection.
Numbers and Location
At the moment the global authentic-Seppala population is only somewhat better off than it was toward the close of the Markovo Rescue period of 1970–1975. The population of the McFaul/Shearer bloodline, that was reasonably numerous and well-distributed from 1976 through the early 1990s, has abruptly crashed in the USA. Hardly any young Markovo-Seppalas may now be found there. (This may perhaps be largely due to the identification of a large number of part-Seppalas as “100%” Seppala by ISSSC, thus obscuring the actual state of the pure strain population. Then again, deliberate policy could also have been a factor.) The refusal of the Canadian Kennel Club to recognise the new Siberia imports meant that there was no dispersal of the Solovyev import bloodline, either. As a result, the present situation is that probably 90% of the viable authentic-Seppala population is found within the confines of Seppala Kennels in the Yukon. That is not a desirable situation at all, either in terms of numbers (Seppala Kennels cannot support more than some seventy sleddogs at any given time) or of geographic distribution.
Therefore to expand the population and to encourage new population centres in varied geographic locations must now become major priorities. Production of litters at Seppala Kennels is now ongoing at what is, for us, a high rate. A good core group of interested parties has been assembled, most of them impatient to acquire breeding stock. At the moment the most obvious problem is just the time delay between the decision to expand, and the presence on the ground of new young stock of breedable age and quality. The gap is frustrating for all concerned, but can be got through with patience and goodwill.
Relief from Elevated COI
Ten-generation Coefficients of Inbreeding in pure-strain Markovo-Seppala stock have now reached levels that vary between 27% and 38% without any close inbreeding in the nearest three generations of pedigree. That, in and of itself, is another highly undesirable situation. Inbreeding depression is already becoming evident in reduced litter size and longevity, along with the appearance of a variety of genetically-related disorders. For these reasons it is fairly obvious that, even if it is technically feasible, it is probably not in the best interests of the population to attempt to carry the pure McFaul/Shearer bloodline forward indefinitely into future generations without some kind of fresh genetic input.
The use of other “Racing Siberian Husky” bloodlines as a genetic addition to Seppala strain has been exhaustively investigated by a large number of breeders over many decades. There would seem to be little reason to reduplicate those past efforts, if only because a gracious plenty of mixed-lineage Seppala/RSH stock already exists, many multiples of the present Markovo-Seppala population, in fact.
Full use of the available Solovyev/Seppala stock should reduce COI from the 30%+ level to something on the order of 13% to 24% for at least the next two or three generations of Seppala breeding. Perhaps it might be kept at the lower levels for longer, if the population expands sufficiently to allow the formation of distinct substrains. In any event, integration of the Shakal iz Solovyev stock at Seppala Kennels and of the Solovyev/Seppala stock bred by Ramon Rojas in Spain in the 1990s is the single most obvious solution to the immediate need for relief from high COI levels. Thus far very few disadvantages have been noticed resulting from this strategy.
Moreover, the use of new Siberia import stock is “historically correct” for Seppala strain; it is in complete accord with the practices of Seppala, Ricker and Wheeler, and one may be forgiven for thinking that McFaul and Shearer, too, would have unhesitatingly made use of additional Siberia import stock had any such been available after the Iron Curtain s hutdown in the 1930s.
It should be noted that most second-generation Solovyev/Seppala integrated stock being bred now at Seppala Kennels already has a more “generic” appearance reminiscent of the Harry Wheeler dogs, which may well be one indication of increasing dynamic balance of heterozygote genes and restored diversity.
Greater Genetic Diversity
Obviously an increase in genetic diversity will give relief from founder effect, homozygosity and genetic drift, and therefore should result in decreasing levels of genetic problems. It should also be desirable from a standpoint of giving renewed scope for selection and improving general hardiness and vigour. The role of genetic diversity in response to environmental change and stresses is well established.
As previously noted, the Solovyev stock seems to be playing rather well its intended part in bringing a controlled increase in genetic diversity to the McFaul/Shearer strain, as well as bringing relief from forced inbreeding. It is unfortunate that the Solovyev import phenomenon was so transient and short-lived. Much of what little Solovyev stock was imported to Europe was wasted as far as Seppala strain is concerned.
It is imperative that the temporary relief given by integration of the Solovyev line be used well, buying time for the investigation of further sleddog stock from the Anadyr and Kolyma River regions and perhaps even Kamchatka. Any importation of additional unrelated sleddog stock of the right general type and good working qualities could prove greatly beneficial in the future. Additional imports would help to establish the Seppala Siberian Sleddog in a permanent state of enhanced genetic health. It is to be hoped that younger breeders will make some collective or cooperative effort to secure such stock while there is yet some possibility of locating true landrace sleddogs from Siberia.
Protection from Genetic Drift
Any small population such as the SSSD is at maximum risk from the effects of genetic drift and bottlenecking. It makes sense to be aware of those risks and to take positive measures against them. The size of the population itself is an absolute that can be mitigated only by expansion. But within that global constraint it is possible to make breeding decisions that will reduce the effects of drift.
One such decision might be deliberately to ensure that as wide a variety of distinct matings as possible are allowed to contribute to the population. Another might be to make sure that when selection must be applied, it is done within the group of progeny from a given mating, rather than between such progeny groups. In other words, not only should a broad variety of different matings be undertaken, but an effort should be made to see to it that individuals from each of those matings are chosen to contribute to the next generation. Another positive move would be to ensure that progeny are always obtained from more than just the one “best” dog in a litter (or group of litters from the same parents). Certainly it is entirely acceptable to select the “better” individuals for breeding, but it should be realised that the ideal would be for half or more of the individuals in a given progeny group to be used in breeding.
Another way of reducing drift is to refrain from selection favouring homozygotes. An example of such selection would be the decision to breed so as to obtain an all-white Seppala team. Certainly there are presently enough whites around to make that a feasible project, and one hears it mentioned regularly. But white coats are homozygotes; and homozygotes at one locus are likely to be homozygotes at other loci as well. Generally speaking, for a population at high risk from genetic drift, such selection is simply not a good idea.
The final counsel for avoiding drift and bottlenecking is to make sure that, insofar as possible, an equal number of males and females contribute to each generation of progeny. We are constantly hearing the bright idea expressed that “the best males should sire all the progeny.” Such advice is genetic madness, since the use of a small number of males drastically restricts the “effective breeding population.” (This is a well-known problem in purebreds, called the “popular sire effect.”) Granted that it may not be possible to maintain this balance strictly, at all times, but the breeder should always consider and use alternative sires rather than breeding all or most of his bitches to the “best” male of the hour.
Absence of Excessive Artificial Selection
Severe selection of any kind reduces genetic diversity, not just in the traits selected for or against, but in many other traits that may not be considered or monitored. Throughout the “Willett years” the stock that emerged from the Markovo rescue was subjected to severe and unremitting selection for success in heat-style mid-distance dogsled racing. Disastrously unequal and inefficient use was made of the Markovo and Seppineau stock that survived into the post-Markovo period, all in the name of finding the “best” dogs. (Of around 40 Markovo dogs that could and probably should have contributed to future generations, only 4 contributed adequately and another 8 just marginally; the Seppineau figures would be worse yet.) We know, to a certainty, that diversity was greatly reduced both through genetic drift and through high selection pressure throughout the three post-Markovo decades. Now we have entered upon a period of genetic renewal with the integration of the Solovyev stock. Efforts to re-expand the population and to maximise the diversity gained from the new bloodline ought to be given priority over selection for racing traits. Obviously it is still a bad idea to breed from individuals that are obviously maladaptive sleddogs; I do not mean to suggest that working capability should be ignored. It should never be ignored. But it is time for a rest from the unceasing quest for the next “best.”
Now it is time for a slightly more relaxed attitude to variability. Some dogs will be faster than other dogs; that does not mean that this must always be the basis for selection. At Seppala Kennels we have always run a first-string and second-string team, with little prejudice against the slower dogs. Similarly, there should be no selection for coat colours and markings, no discrimination among various coat lengths or eye colours, and no rigid selection for a single physique or body type. In general, the population will benefit most at this stage from unhindered expansion of its numbers with no more selection than is necessary to maintain working mentality and will.
At Seppala Kennels the breeding ideal has been to try to ensure that each dog in every litter is an adequate working sleddog; to that end quite a few litters have been trained as litter-teams. To us, that is much more significant than the search for single elite performers. It comes down to which you would rather have: a population entirely composed of good, versatile working sleddogs, or a handful of elite runners that must always be carefully selected from a large population of mediocrities, many of which will do no one any good at all and must be put down as useless.
Population breeding is the key to SSSD viability
IT SHOULD BE QUITE OBVIOUS that I recommend a modus operandi for SSSD breeding that is very different to that being advised by the ISSSC guru and his theoretician from Norway. Whether we like it or not, we are now in a position in which we must develop Seppalas as an independent breed, completely separated from the AKC/CKC Siberian Husky. It is tempting to describe the operation as the restoration of a Siberian landrace, but that would be vain foolishness. North America is not Siberia and we are not Siberian tribesmen. Such a “restoration” is simply an impossibility in the circumstances. Nevertheless our developmental breeding of the Seppala Siberian Sleddog as a “new” rare breed should lean as far as possible towards original landrace parameters if we hope successfully to restore the classic Seppala dog to permanent viability. It is not Olympian heights of elite performance that are necessary for such restoration, but rather, renewed genetic diversity and a retreat from the 30%-inbreeding levels.
What must always be uppermost in our minds are the needs and the genetic health of the breed population as a whole. Genetic drift must be minimised. Inbreeding must be held to a minimum. Artificial selection should be kept in check, restrained to minimum levels rather than given unbridled rein in a fanatical search for “more bests.” Healthy genetic diversity should be encouraged. The population should be allowed to grow, to branch and to diversify. New geographic centres of SSSD breeding must be established. Breeders must be made familiar with the principles of population genetics as these apply to practical dog breeding.
For so small a population (and such has always been the case for Seppalas) nothing less than a population-breeding approach will suffice. The exploitative-breeding practices espoused by those who seek domination of the racing trails are inherently unsustainable. What we seek for Seppalas, though, is sustainability above all. For far too long they have lived at constant risk of extinction or assimilation into other bloodlines. For far too long have they been subjected to the genetic brutalities of unrestrained inbreeding, severe artificial selection, population bottlenecking and random drift. Surely, since the advent of our new understanding of population genetics as applied to dog-breeding, it should now be possible for this small historic legacy sleddog population to enjoy protection from the worst excesses of the purebred-dog system and from exploitation in the name of jock elitism. We have the opportunity to offer a shining example to the rest of the purebred-dogs community, a pilot project for genetic conservation in rare breeds. I hope that those who interest themselves in the real authentic Seppala Siberian Sleddog will order their breeding programmes in such a way as to fulfil the promise of that opportunity. In that way we should eventually be able to prove to others that as long as basic working character is preserved, responsible developmental breeding need not decrease the options for future performance improvement, but will rather serve to enhance them.