There's a lady at the local dog club who I've chatted to a bit over the summer whose daughter is working the Canadian snow fields at the moment. I'm not sure where, but a ski resort where dog sledding is part of the tourist attractions on offer. Her mum, back here in Australia, was delighted and excited to meet our huskies, but quickly noted one big difference between our dogs and the ones her daughter has been sending photos of. Our dogs look a lot more like people's expectations of huskies than the dogs in Canada.
This is one of those conversations we have semi regularly with Joe Public. And it stems from the simple fact that our dogs are Siberian huskies, when many of the working kennels in North America use Alaskan huskies instead. Alaskan huskies are not a recognised breed, but a constantly adjusted mix of husky and hound. They are bred for their ability to run, and lack the heavy coats and efficient metabolism of the Siberian huskies, as well as the pointy ears. Better than anything else, they reflect the divide within the husky loving community: form versus function - the Alaskan huskies are the overwhelming majority and the top competitors, with their superb function and physiology, but the most common publicity shots for sled dog racing feature Siberian huskies with their beautiful faces and fluffy coats.
This year, the 2015 Yukon Quest featured three teams of Siberians, as well as one mixed team of Alaskan and Chukchi dogs and 22 teams running Alaskans. The race was run in extremely challenging conditions - what you might call classic climate change era - starting out very very cold in the Canadian interior and then hitting warmer temperatures later in the race. John Schandelmeier, two-time Yukon Quest champion, commented on the impact of the cold on the teams in the early phase of the race in the News Miner. He pointed out that the top five teams leaving the Pelly Crossing checkpoint were largely unaffected by the cold, with the exception of Joar Ulsom's team of Alaskans and Chukchi dogs, who had been training out of Willow, where conditions had been unseasonably warm. The second group of five teams to come through Pelly Crossing dropped some 15 dogs between them.
There's obviously a myriad of factors (training, conditioning, musher experience probably being the top three) that affect whether a dog is able to complete a gruelling 1,000 mile race, but John felt that cold, stiff dogs, who had rested out on the trail without a decent straw bedding, were far more likely to develop shoulder and wrist lameness. Minor injuries that a dog can recuperate from with a couple of days rest, and with every dog on the trail checked over by a veterinary team at every checkpoint, quickly detected by vets and the mushers who know their teams inside and out. Those dogs were then transferred (usually by small plane) back to a pick up point and sent home to their own kennels. Pelly Crossing, the third checkpoint on the trail, some 240 miles from the start, was the last checkpoint before the teams started to climb the first of the enormous mountains that make the Yukon Quest such an extraordinary challenge, so it was an important location for any team in doubt to assess their race. In the end, nine teams scratched, five before or just after Pelly Crossing.
So, the question then arises, did the three Siberian teams cope better with the extreme cold than the Alaskan husky teams? With such a small sample size, and so many related factors, it is impossible to conclude one way or the other. Tony Angelo, of Bella Huskies Kennel, scratched at the second checkpoint, Carmacks, after he was forced to drop down to ten dogs. Tony has a small kennel (only 20 dogs), and mushes for the love of his dogs, rather than real competitive drive. Rob Cooke, of Shaytaan Siberians, made it all the way to the finish in Fairbanks, after 13 days on the trail. He left Carmacks with 11 dogs, and dropped one more in Pelly Crossing, taking out the Red Lantern in Fairbanks with his remaining team of ten. Rob is also running in the Iditarod this year, and may have kept this in mind with his race strategy, to avoid overtaxing his team. The third Siberian team was Mike Ellis's Tsuga Siberians, who completed the race in some 11 days. Mike's team was probably the most exciting of the three to watch, with only one dog dropped in Carmacks. However, by the time he reached the ninth checkpoint, Mile 101, Mike was also down to ten dogs. Mike finished tenth overall.
What does this mean for us in Australia? Despite far warmer temperatures than those in Alaska and Canada, the Australian sled dog racing scene is dominated by Siberian huskies, and Alaskan malamutes. With a very limited (but growing!) calendar of snow races, we can hardly claim that we need to maintain the arctic breeds for their cold weather endurance. Instead, I think the key factor is the size of the kennels. In North America, a racing kennel like Tony Angelo's, with 20 dogs, is pretty small. The 2015 Yukon Quest winner, Brent Sass, has nearly 60; second place winner, Allen Moore, has 51; third place winner, Ed Hopkins, has 50+. Those kennels enjoy months of snow, and can support their racing careers with tourism. Here in Australia, very few can maintain a kennel more than 20 dogs, due to space and finances. I would also suggest that few feel that they can breed and keep the two or three litters a year required to maintain numbers, with so many back yard bred huskies ending up in pounds and shelters. By sticking to Siberian huskies, smaller breeders have access to a large, well documented gene pool, whereas Alaskan huskies, being less well known in this country, risk needing to rely on expensive imports to maintain a decent gene pool.
Or maybe, we, like Joe Public, just love the look and feel of our fluffy dogs, and their darling pointed ears?