What Dogs Were Bred to Make a Husky?

On cold nights, three dogs might be needed to keep Chukchi kids cozy.
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After the American Kennel Club formally recognized the Siberian husky in 1930, it praised the Chukchi people for maintaining the purity of their sled dogs. For millennia, the Chukchi had lived in one of the world's harshest climates, relying on dogs for their very survival. Not until a discovery in the 1970s did anyone realize just how long the Chukchi had been perfecting their breeding skills. The husky contains the bloodlines of two other ancient breeds native to Siberia: the laika and a type of spitz.

The Chukchi and Their Sled Dogs

The Chukchi bred dogs to meet their own highly specific needs, writes Mick Brent, secretary of the U.K.'s Siberian Husky Welfare Association. Since 20 or more animals might have worked cooperatively to pull a sled, they had to be team players. They also had to possess extraordinary stamina and be obedient enough to take orders from the sled driver yet intelligent enough to override those orders if obeying might put the team in danger. Not incidentally, they also had to enjoy cuddling, because the Chukchi described temperatures by the number of dogs needed to keep their sleeping kids warm enough -- hence the origin of the expression "three dog night."

An Ancient Lineage

After analyzing the DNA of 85 dog breeds, authors of a study published in the journal "Science" in May 2004 classified the Siberian husky as one of the 14 oldest dogs known. It used to be thought that the history between the Chukchi and their dogs extended back at least 3,000 years, but in the 1970s, discoveries by Russian archeological researcher Nikolai N. Dikov suggest the relationship is much older. The dog burial sites Dikov excavated on Chukchi ancestral land in northeastern Siberia dated back 10,500 years, holding the remains of "laika-type" dogs.

The Laika Group of Dogs

When generic and specific terms overlap, meanings can get confusing, but the laika-type dogs who lived with the Chukchi more than 10 centuries ago are considered to be the ancestors of the Siberian husky. The practice of breeding dogs for characteristics desirable to humans goes back a long time, but subdivisions from general types into the hundreds of breeds we know today are a relatively modern phenomenon. In Russian, laika simply means a dog who barks, but today it also refers to six specific breeds of hunting and herding dogs, all of which can be used to pull sleds. Two breeds in particular, the East and West Siberian laika, both bear a strong resemblance to the modern-day husky and still serve the Chukchi as sled dogs.

A Breed Rescued From the Brink of Extinction

In the 1860s, the Chukchi were devastated by a series of famines. People and dogs starved to death in great numbers, and some dogs were killed for meat. After the ordeal was over, the Chukchi began breeding the few original sled dogs they had left with other regional dogs, mainly the tungus spitz, a smaller dog with red coloring. Today, the spitz family of dogs encompasses many different breeds, but a distinguishing characteristic is a tail that curls over the dog's back. In addition to the Siberian husky, the Canadian Eskimo dog, the Samoyed and the Alaskan malamute are all classified as northern spitz sled breeds.

The Siberian Husky in the United States

In 1908, nine Siberian Chukchi dogs became the first of their kind to set paws on U.S. soil. Their owner, a Russian fur trader, entered them in the 1909 All Alaska Sweepstakes Race. They didn't win then, but they attracted the attention of a man by the name of Fox Maule Ramsay, who was so impressed that he chartered a schooner and sailed to Russia, returning with 70 of the finest dogs his money could buy. In the 1910 race, Ramsay’s three teams placed first, second and fourth, a record that has never been beaten. In 1925, after a team of huskies raced into Nome with diphtheria serum that stopped a deadly epidemic, millions of people lost their hearts to the breed.