Mark Derr, who has been covering sled dogs for decades, has posted an analysis of two papers that have examined the genetics of racing sled dogs.
There are very real methodological problems with how these studies choose to group these dogs. There has been a tendency to group any breeds that don’t have a lot of Western influence as “Ancient/Asian,” because at the time of these initial studies the dominant paradigm was that dog originated from single domestication event in East Asia. These particular studies have tended to group any dogs that are not derived from Western breed dogs or Anatolian shepherds in this group.
Because much the evidence behind the East Asian origins hypothesis has been called into question– especially in light of very good genome-wide analyses– the grouping of these dogs needs to change.
Instead of calling them “Asian/Ancient,” Derr thinks it might be better to think of these animals as “breeds formed in isolation.”
Even without all of that residual baggage, there are problems with the “ancient” designation since virtually all dogs are of ancient origin by virtue of their membership in the guild of dogs. That’s because in terms of antiquity, it matters little whether your lineage has multiple branches to unrelated families of great and noble history in several different parts of the world or hews closer to home, straight and branchless, except that you are probably healthier with the former. On the other hand, all officially recognized kennel club breeds, which is what the geneticists examine, are of relatively recent origin—within the past 200 years. The question is how they were formed, and that divide would seem the more accurate one than a vague chronological designation.
I think it better to call the Ancient/Asian groups, breeds formed through isolation. I suspect that the high level of inbreeding involved in breed formation [in modern Western dogs] serves to eradicate many minor introgressions from another breed. By my analysis, any breed derived from an existing landrace or group of village dogs that has not been extensively admixed since the end of Empire or when Colonialism yielded to Post Colonialism should show up on these surveys as Ancient. I suggested some time ago that the Anatolian and Canaan dogs should do so, and they have. Similarly any Asian breed recognized by the AKC and created from a small number of the same type of dogs would also fall into Ancient/Asian.
Indeed, many of the “ancient” breeds are not Asian at all—Basenji, Anatolian shepherd, various sight hounds and Arctic dogs, which one could call Asian but usually does not. Other groups in this analysis are Mastiff/Terrier, Herding/Sighthounds, Mountain, and Hunting. The breeds examined are all recognized by the AKC except the Alaskan husky.
These sled dogs have changed very much over the past hundred or so years.
Prior to the development of the dog racing circuit, the majority of these dogs were local sled dog landraces. They were “pure” in that the didn’t have a lot of Western dog ancestry.
When sprint and endurance racing became more and more popular, racers would cross in some Western dog that had the desired traits.
Because of this crossbreeding, there may not be any “pure” Alaskan sled dogs around anymore. In fact, their purity likely started to go downhill during the Gold Rush, when all sorts of Western dogs were brought to Alaska to augment sled dog teams.
Derr doesn’t think any of the “pure dogs” exist anymore, and he offers at least some skeptical that these animals automatically became Alaskan malamutes. It is true that Alaskans originally preferred freighting dogs that could haul heavy loads at relatively low speeds, but when the Siberian huskies were brought over, they found themselves the preferred racing dog.
At least for a time.
It is possible that the modern show husky and malamute might have even been selected from the same interbreeding landrace. The malamute was just selected for greater size and brute strength, while the husky was selected for greater speed.
To answer, all of these questions, Derr thinks these studies need to include dogs from those two kennel club breeds, as well as sled dogs from Alaskan villages, which might contain dogs that have some of the “original” ancestry.
There might be a trend back toward the larger freighting dog in certain races, which now favor dogs that can go long and hard at relatively low speeds.
Which means that malamutes could be crossed back into these lines again. I think that’s why the Anatolian shepherd has become so prominent in recent years.
The truth is that these Alaskan husky sled dogs confound methodologies. They are performance bred mongrels that include dogs from Western breed dogs and from indigenous and imported working dogs that we used to think of as “ancient.”
Maybe the landrace that gave us the malamute is extinct. Or maybe it’s just split apart.
These studies don’t answer these questions.
Instead, they raise a whole series of questions that cannot be answered so long as the current methodological distinctions are used.