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Posts Tagged ‘Alaskan husky’

alaskan sled dogs

Row B: Sprint dogs. Row C: Distance or Endurance sled dogs.

Chris has a very good post up at BorderWars.

It highlights a false claim that is often promoted in border collie circles:  That border collies are bred just like Alaskan huskies. They just breed them for performance, pedigree doesn’t matter.

The Alaskan husky is what Chris calls an “ad hoc” breed. It’s really a type of dog that has developed for sled dog racing, and in order to do so, the sled dog racers have crossed in different things.

There are two types of racer with sled dogs, and both have different strains and breeding systems. Endurance races require dogs with a lot  more Siberian husky, malamute, and even Anatolian shepherd ancestry, while sprint races incorporate things like pointer or saluki bloodlines.

According to the 2010 study Chris quotes, sprint sled dogs are much more outcrossed than the endurance dog, but both are more genetically diverse than purebred dogs, including border collies.

Chris goes on to quote a member of the American Border Collie Association who claims that the only difference between border collies and Alaskan huskies in how they are bred is that border collies have a registry.

Chris explains:

Border Collies aren’t like either of the Sled Dog sub-populations. Even though the Distance [endurance]dogs have higher F(IS) values, they are still highly heterozygous and have a greater abundance of allele diversity. In other words, Distance dogs are being pushed genetically towards homozygosity faster than the Border Collie is being pushed, but the Distance dogs are starting from a more diverse and less inbred position.

The Sprint dogs not only have a greater abundance of allele diversity and a greater level of Observed Heterozygosity, they are also being actively and continually outcrossed. This simply isn’t the case with Border Collies.

Border Collies have a virtually closed breeding pool of dogs that go back to a few hundred founding dogs a century ago. Their effective gene pool is now equivalent to the genome of only 8 dogs. The number and impact of new blood (typically in the form of Registration on Merit) is negligible. The contribution of other breeds (like Kelpie and Bearded Collie) is highly limited, mostly ancient (a century ago), and not ongoing. The last documented non-Border Collie to enter the gene pool is almost 30 years ago with one Bearded Collie (Turnbull’s Blue) ROM’d within the ISDS.

The last time a Husky was improved with fresh blood was probably yesterday.

The truth is border collies are more like performance-bred bird dogs.

A fairer comparison is that border collies are more like Llewellin setters.

A Llewellin setter, for those of you not in North America, is a setter that is bred solely for hunting and trial work.

There is some debate in dog circles about whether to call these dogs a strain of English setter or to call them their own distinct breed.

They are much smaller than typical show strain English setters, though they do derive from that stock.

They have been bred solely for performance for decade after decade. They are very good at what they do.

But their registry is closed. I don’t think there is any significant gene flow between Llewellins and other English setters, though I could be wrong.

Llewellins are a working dog, but they are being bred just like any other purebred. It’s just they are being selected for performance only.

And that’s exactly what’s going on with border collies.

If border collies were that much like Alaskan huskies, you’d see extreme type divergence . Honestly, in border collies, you see about as much variation as one sees in Labrador retrievers.  There are big ones and little ones, but they are all variations on the same theme.

What I find interesting about Llewellins and border colies is how hard it is to find out about what health problems exist in both breeds.

Google doesn’t help– and is contradictory.

The truth is that in both of these performance breeds there is a culture that just assumes the dogs are fine because they are worked, but compared to fancy breeds, there isn’t as much of desire or effort to find out what health problems actually exist.

And one way to deny it is to say that border collies are just like Alaskan huskies, then provide no evidence.

The truth is that whenever any organism with an evolutionary history of low inbreeding tolerance is bred in system that rewards greater homozygosity and tighter gene pools, health problems are just that much more likely to occur.

It matters not that the animals are worked and trialed and that people write romantic novels about them.

Performance bred dogs that are in these sorts of registries are ultimately in the same boat as the show dogs.

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Interesting question

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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.

 

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