One of the most common comments from people meeting the dogs for the first time is that they're not as big as expected. I've heard people speculate that they must be puppies, even Frankie and Ishka who both have considerable grey hairs, and I'm greeted with surprise when I tell people that they're all over five years old. I was really puzzled by this insistent idea, that huskies are bigger dogs. To my mind, they're big enough - I spent 16 years living with a Pekingese X who fitted in my handbag!
When I asked J about this common misconception, he pointed out that a lot of people are confused about the differences between Huskies and Malamutes, and lots of people don't even know there's a difference between Alaskan and Siberian huskies. So here is my beginners guide to these three types of dogs.
The Alaskan Malamute is the biggest of the three dog types and is an American Kennel Club recognised breed. According to the AKC, the desired size is 58 cm tall for females, and 64 cm for males. They can weigh up to 45 kg, compared to 25 for huskies. Mallies have the same double coat as a husky, and often have the same kind of markings, leading to a lot of confusion in the public about these two breeds. Mallies often have extremely fluffy coats, with extraordinary curled and plumed tails, contributing to an appearance of a big fluffy teddy bear. They have brown eyes but not the blue eyes seen in the husky.
The Malamute is bred for power and endurance, and can generally pull heavier loads or travel for longer distances than huskies. Like huskies, they are bred to be independent, able to take charge in a blizzard when their musher can't see the details of the trail, or able to survive in the wild if they are separated from the rest of the dog team. This can make them difficult to train and they require a lot of intellectual stimulation in ordinary households. They also have a high prey drive, which can be dangerous for pet rabbits and cats in the same household. Like huskies, mallies are highly sociable with people, but have a reputation for being a little more aggressive towards other dogs than huskies. It is common for people to have a pair of opposite genders to minimise competition between them.
The name Malamute comes from the indigenous Alaskan Mahlemut peoples of the upper west, one of the Inupiat groups, who used them for hunting animals as large as bears, finding seal blow holes in the ice and assisting the people in living above the Arctic Circle. Genetic studies have identified Mallies as one of the oldest distinct breeds of dogs, having lived in Alaska for 2-3,000 years.
I have been delighted to get to know beautiful Mallies owned by KA and S&S of NVSDR.
Siberian huskies are generally smaller than Mallies, standing around 53-60 cm tall. When they were entered in the All-Alaskan Sweepstakes by Russian William Goosak in 1908, they were derided as "Siberian Rats" and odds were 100 to 1 against them. They took out third place, and rumours abounded that they'd been paid off by gamblers to avoid first, rather than break the bank of Nome, paying off winning bets.
Huskies have a similar double coats, and similar markings to the Alaskan Malamutes, but come with a wider range of eye colours, including brown, blue, parti- and bi-eyed. Their tails are not as plumed and curled, and their ears are closer set.
The husky was bred in the far east part of Siberia, just across the Bering Strait from their cousins, the Alaskan Malamutes. In the Alaskan gold rush, they were seen as faster and more enduring than the larger dogs being used for freighting. They are extremely efficient in terms of their use of calories, requiring minimal food for the amount of work done. They became widely used in Alaska and Canada during the gold rush of the 1920s. The name "husky" is believed to be a corruption of "Esky", the nickname applied to Eskimo and other indigenous peoples.
In Russia, the husky was a companion dog to the Chukchi people (another possible source for the name?) where their tasks included looking after children. They make great family pets and respond well to positive reinforcement and consistent training. They are terrible watch dogs due to their sociable nature. In 1930, the Soviet government closed the borders of Siberia to external trade, and most dogs in the Americas and Canada are descended from dogs imported between 1908 and 1930.
Huskies have been especially important in Australia due to their participation in Antarctic exploration. They were first used in the Antarctic by the British Antarctic Expedition of 1898-1900, and became an essential part of the Australian permanent station at Mawson, established in 1954. They were great favourites with those who participated in Antarctic missions to Mawson and the wider Australian public. When the last huskies were removed from Mawson and the Australian Antarctic Territory in 1993, as part of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, the dogs brought to Hobart, Tasmania received a warm welcome.
Alaskan huskies are not a pure breed as recognised by the AKC. They originally developed from the Village dog brought to the interior north of the North American continent with paleolithic peoples, and were leggier, rangier and taller dogs than those favoured by the indigenous people of the Alaskan coast. They have subsequently been crossed with Siberian huskies, German Shorthaired Pointers (GSPs) and other hounds and gun dogs. Hounds are valued for their speed, toughness and endurance. The resulting Alaskan huskies are leaner and faster than Siberians. In fact, Alaskans are usually bred for speed above almost all other considerations.
Like Sibes, eye and coat colour differ greatly amongst Alaskan huskies. Their double coats are almost always short to medium in length, less dense, which allows them to cool their bodies efficiently while racing. (This is good news in an Australian summer.) In the Great White North Alaskans are more likely to need dog booties to protect their feet and dog coats or blankets in very cold conditions, than Sibes and Mallies. Alaskans are reputed to need more calories for their size, similar to their hound relatives, with a higher metabolism contributing to their speed. They vary greatly in size and shape, depending on the intended purpose of the breeder who developed the different bloodlines. They are often just as independent as Siberians, and capable of being intelligent escape artists if they are bored and lack exercise.
The varieties of Alaskans can include a range of personality types - my friend K at Alpison Kennels describes her lone Alaskan, Chena, as being more skittish and wary of people than her Siberians. Breeders often concentrate on a high level of sociability towards other dogs, so dogs can cuddle up to each other in the snow and work happily alongside each other in harness. Mac, the husky X we briefly fostered for the NVSDR, was also skittish, although, at the time, we put that down to his time in the pound. Both Mac and Chena are highly affectionate, and eager to please, not quite as independent as Sibes.
The majority of Iditarod competitors race with Alaskan huskies, who generally live in large kennels. Alaskans may be the least appropriate of these dogs for suburban households, due to their exercise needs, but if people are prepared to understand the breed they are living with, anything is possible. They are all beautiful, loving animals.