Hi folks, Alex here, welcome to the new Snow Dog Guru training and behaviour series! For those of you who don’t follow us on Facebook, I’m a behaviourist based in Scotland, UK. I recently joined the Snow Dog Guru team to update the website on everything behaviour and training related because a lot has changed in the behaviour and training world since the blog was first started.
As I take the new series forward I’ll be discussing topics like breed genetics; motor patterns; emotions, thoughts and feelings; how dogs learn; training methods; and discussing common behaviour problems such as ‘aggression’; resource guarding; separation issues; multidog households; dominance and pack theory.
For those of you who have working teams, you haven’t been forgotten. I’m putting together a specific series for you that will look at the needs and … ‘quirks’ … of the working sled dog.
I once saw a meme on Instagram that defined Siberian Huskies as something akin to: ‘homicidal muffins with legs that push humans beyond the realms of all sensibilities’1. Frankly, I’ve never known anything more fitting. Personally, I’m a Malamute man. Huskies have a place in my heart, but for me, a moot’s character and temperament can’t be beaten. Whether your preferences lie with Huskies, Malamutes, Samoyeds, Elkhounds or another northern breed, I’m sure we can all agree they’re all special in their own way.
You’re probably reading this, wondering why I am bringing this up, right? Whichever way you choose to define your own dogs, we need to know what a sled dog actually is before understanding their behaviour properly. As closely as they appear to be related, they have distinct differences between huskies and malamutes in their genetics which, naturally, influences behaviour. Those breed differences can have a surprising impact on each breed’s needs and behaviour.
Sled dogs are not wolves.
So what goes into our snow dogs? As a starting point, it’s probably more important to understand what dogs of any breed are not. It’s time to move away from the old ways of thinking – such as, “my dog is descended from wolves and therefore behaves like a wolf”. I’m writing this as my current couch goblin is upside down and twisted, in that special sled dog manner, on the sofa next to me. One look at him tells me that he is not a wolf. As resilient a dog as he is, I know he could not survive, long-term, in the wild on his own. That is one of the major differences between our domesticated companions and their wild cousins.
Sled dogs do have genomic sequences, which can be traced back to Siberian wolves from 27,000 years ago2. These wolves were then domesticated around 23,000 years ago (shown in this new study) but that’s where the comparison should end. Dave Mech is one of the world’s leading voices on wolves and was one of the scientists responsible for originally confirming ‘Alpha Theory’. He later disproved his own work on Alpha Theory after conducting further extensive research over 30+ years3.
One of the reasons that (despite sharing 99.6% of their DNA profile) wolves and dogs are so different is called paedomorphosis. Paedomorphosis means that dogs retain and display juvenile traits (such as whimpering for attention) even after reaching full maturity. Wolves hit adolescence and this behaviour stops.
Ingredients of a sled dog.
So what is in a sled dog? The exact answer depends upon the breed, but Moots were bred 2,000 – 3,000 years ago as multipurpose dogs. They were bred to hunt game of various types, babysit children in the Mahlemut tribes, and, of course, used for freighting. The Malamute was bred to be smarter than other dogs6 and this is a trait that remains today. I sometimes question this intelligence trait in my Moot but he is part husky… It’s important not to over-humanise (properly known as anthropomorphisation) canine behaviour. Malamutes are often labelled as ‘stubborn’, ‘independent’ or that they have their ears painted on. This isn’t the case (I’ll discuss why when I talk about how dogs learn) but the clue to their behaviour lies in their intelligence.
Huskies have a different heritage. The modern Siberian Husky has its origins in earlier breeds whereas the Malamute has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The ancestry of the Siberian Husky is in hunting and killing reindeer7. If you’ve ever wondered why your Husky is so fast over distance – this is why. The Chukchi tribe in Siberia were the masterminds behind the breed and they bred the husky to run down reindeer. They later largely bred the killing instinct out of the breed (allegedly) and trained the dogs to herd the reindeer instead. This hunting ancestry is also part of the reason why huskies have been known to kill livestock and small animals and the desire to run is one of the reasons why huskies are problematic with recall.
Freeze at -20°c.
Homicidal muffins require a special finishing process. Add an excessive amount of fur that sheds only twice a year (December to April and May to November), a place outside in the cold for … well … for as long as the dog is comfortable. Attempts to remove your muffins from the finishing process early will result in vocalisations that will make your neighbours believe a horror story is unfolding in your back yard.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the first post in the new series of behaviour and training. I know for many of you, this will have been an update or refresher. Next time I’ll start discussing what drives behaviour in dogs.
Footnotes and References:
- Husky Rescue KZN
- Ramos-Madrigal, Jazmín et al. “Genomes of Pleistocene Siberian Wolves Uncover Multiple Extinct Wolf Lineages.” Current biology : CB vol. 31,1 (2021): 198-206.e8. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2020.10.002
- Sinding, Mikkel-Holger S et al. “Arctic-adapted dogs emerged at the Pleistocene-Holocene transition.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 368,6498 (2020): 1495-1499. doi:10.1126/science.aaz8599
- Angela R. Perri, Tatiana R. Feuerborn, Laurent A. F. Frantz, Greger Larson, Ripan S. Malhi, David J. Meltzer, Kelsey E. Witt, “Dog domestication and the dual dispersal of people and dogs into the Americas”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Feb 2021, 118 (6) e2010083118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2010083118
- Lorna Coppinger (1977), “The World of Sled Dogs – From Siberia to Sport Racing“, Howell Book House Inc
Disclaimer. This blog is produced as a source of information that may help you understand why your dog is behaving the way it does. It is not a substitute for tailored advice which should be sought wherever you are concerned about your dog’s behaviour. Each dog has an individual background which must be properly assessed by a trained professional to give you appropriate advice. Snow Dog Guru accepts no liability for any loss of any kind should you choose to rely upon the information in this blog for advice.