Alaskan Husky

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Alaskan Husky

The Alaskan Husky is a type, rather than a breed, of dog. These peerless Arctic adventurers were first developed by settlers of Canada and the northern United States hundreds of years ago. Unconstrained by breed standards, Arctic Huskies vary widely in appearance, and can excel at many different tasks. They tend to be lighter and leaner than the Siberian Husky and Malamute, and are therefore more fleet of foot, regularly outclassing the other breeds at competitive sledding events. Top-class racing dogs can be extremely valuable, and Alaskan Huskies are seldom encountered as pet dogs due to the demand for their talents as working and competitive animals.

When kept as pets, they are affectionate and gentle family members, although they have vast reserves of energy which need to be exhausted to prevent undesirable behaviours caused by boredom. Alaskan Huskies vary quite considerable in character, as well as appearance, and some possess strong hunting instincts, meaning they may not be suitable for homes with small pets. As they have not been developed from a limited pedigree gene pool, they tend to be quite healthy dogs, although some of the more common illnesses seen in other Arctic breeds may also be encountered. They have an average life expectancy of 12–14 years.

About & History

The exact details of the Alaskan Husky’s origin are somewhat unclear, although it is known that the first domesticated dogs were introduced by Siberian migrants to North America around 4500 years ago. Genetic studies have proven a close relationship between the Alaskan Husky, Siberian Husky, and Alaskan Malamute. The Alaskan Husky, however, shows more evidence of cross-breeding with dogs which were later imported to the continent by European settlers. Other breeds implicated in its development include the Greyhound, Saluki and German Shorthaired Pointer, which may go some way toward explaining the slender profile and generally low proportion of body fat in the Alaskan when compared with the other Arctic breeds.

The Alaskan Husky developed along distinct lines, bred for different features; some for strength, but most for speed and endurance. Because of their lean physique, they are known to require more care and attention than other, similar breeds, but their superior athleticism ensured that Alaskans remained the preferred choice of many ‘mushers’, frontiersmen who relied on their dogs not just to earn a living, but for their survival. Today’s mushers are generally competitive sledders, although the Alaskan Husky is still employed to haul freight in some Northern communities. It is not recognised by any of the kennel clubs because of the wide variation in its appearance and other characteristics, but its future nonetheless appears assured by its continued popularity as a working dog.

Appearance

Alaskan Husky Large Photo

As described above, the absence of a strict breed standard has allowed these dogs to develop along many distinct lines, and Alaskan Huskies vary enormously in appearance. In general terms, they are a medium-sized dog, with some resembling a small, lean Siberian Husky. Despite their Arctic origin, they have quite a light coat, which can be any colour. The coat is described as being self-cleaning, as the oils which are naturally produced in the skin tend to help clear any debris which is trapped. Although some may resemble Siberian Huskies in their markings, others are solid in colouration, and the influence of the German Shorthaired Pointer may equally be seen as irregular speckling.

Facial features are variable, although most have reasonably large, erect ears which are mobile and forward-facing. Most Alaskans have dark eyes, in contrast to the light colours normally seen in the other Arctic breeds. The shape of the head ranges from the broad wedge of the Siberian Husky to a more elongated shape that can be reminiscent of the Border Collie in some individuals. The limbs are long and muscular, as are the neck and back, and many Alaskan Huskies have a Spitz-like curl in their tail, as well as a pronounced abdominal ‘tuck’. Again, however, all of these features are variable, and dogs which have been developed for hauling heavy freight rather than for speed may be more heavy-set and stocky in appearance.

On average, males measure around 64 cm (25 in) at the withers and weigh 18–27 kg (40–60 lb), while females average 59 cm (23 in), and tend to be quite a bit lighter at 16–22 kg (35–48 lb).

Character & Temperament

Alaskan Huskies are usually very affectionate dogs, loyal to their owners. Because of their cold-weather background and unusually light coat, they are inclined to be unusually ‘cuddly’ at home. They have been developed as a pack dog, and so do not tolerate isolation well. A neglected Alaskan Husky, expected to entertain himself, is likely to howl, dig, chew and generally cause all sorts of trouble. Excessive vocalisation is a common behavioural complaint and they are very ‘talkative’ even in their owner’s company.

Some are very gentle with smaller pets, but a proportion are more inclined to chase and hunt anything small and furry that runs in the opposite direction. Alaskans will usually mix well with other dogs. They have boundless energy, and have a tendency to jump on people of excitement. For these reasons, they are not a good choice for the elderly, infirm, or those with young children. Their personality is really as variable as their other features, but it is also fair to say that most are mischievous, and life with an Alaskan Husky is much less frustrating when they are kept in close proximity at all times.

Trainability

Photo of Alaskan Husky puppy

This is not a dog for owners wanting to go to the top of the puppy training class! Alaskan Huskies can be difficult to train; unless, that is, they are being trained to pull a sled over snow and ice. They require a firm and persistent approach with correction when appropriate. Housetraining can take quite a long time, and crate training should be considered almost essential. Much of the challenge in training is that Alaskans really just want to be constantly active rather than sitting still and paying attention. Recall training is extremely difficult, and owners must never exercise their Alaskan Husky off-lead, as they are more likely to turn up in the next town rather than on the owner’s doorstep.

Socialisation problems are rare – Alaskan Huskies are usually very outgoing and more than willing to meet new people. However, it is important for any dog to be adequately socialised when young, particularly in the key ‘socialisation window’ that exists between around 8 and 14 weeks of age, when they are particularly receptive to new experiences and forming new relationships. Puppy classes are a useful setting in which pups can play and mingle in a controlled setting, but it is critical that they complete a full initial vaccination course before attending.

Health

Alaskan Huskies are generally very healthy. As with many other working dogs, genetic illnesses have not been propagated through the breeding stock, as any physical or medical defects would seriously detract from the dog’s value. However, some of the problems encountered in the other Arctic breeds do occasionally crop up in Alaskans.

  • Cataract – This ocular condition, which can cause visual impairment, is reasonably common in older dogs, but can also arise in some Alaskan puppies as a congenital disorder. It may be observed as a pale or crystalline inclusion within the dark lens at the centre of the eye.
  • Hip Dysplasia – This is a developmental abnormality of one or both hip joints. It is first seen in young, rapidly growing dogs between 6 and 12 months of age, often as difficulty in getting out of bed after rest, or possibly as a ‘bunny hopping’ gait when running. Although it is often inherited in many other breeds, in the Alaskan Husky, it more often arises by chance as a genetic mutation.
  • Hypothyroidism – A reduction in thyroid function, caused by autoimmune thyroiditis, is a common complaint in middle-aged and older dogs. Clinical signs can vary, and diagnosing the condition can sometimes be challenging. However, most affected dogs exhibit unexplained weight gain and coat changes (e.g. hair loss, skin crusting, recurrent ear infections). After confirming the diagnosis through laboratory testing, treatment consists of thyroid hormone supplements, which are usually inexpensive and very effective.
  • Laryngeal Dysplasia – A popular subject amongst the Alaskan racing fraternity, this developmental defect in the larynx (the ‘voice box’) can result in varying degrees of respiratory distress when exercising. Most dogs with this problem are exercise intolerant in comparison with their companion dogs, and produce a characteristic noise when breathing heavily. For this reason, they are commonly called ‘wheezers’. The condition is untreatable, and although it is a major reason for Alaskan Huskies being surrendered to rescues or rehomed, is not a problem which should have a serious impact on their quality of life as pet dogs.
  • Obesity – Alaskan Huskies have voracious appetites, which is easily understood in the context of a pack dog needing to ensure it eats enough to sustain it on a long trek. However, should the same dog find itself in a comfortable home, with calorie-rich food and potentially too little exercise, it may rapidly gain weight. Alaskans need a lot of vigorous exercise to maintain health (see below), and when kept as pets, many will need to be fed a satiating, calorie-reduced food to manage both their weight and appetite.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – Probably the most common hereditary disorder in Alaskans, in which degeneration of the light-sensing cells of the retina, which lines the back of the eye, leads to progressive loss of vision from as early as 4–5 years of age.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Outside of being used as a working sled dog, it is almost impossible to satisfy an Alaskan Husky’s desire and need for exercise. These dogs have been bred and selected for speed, strength, and endurance, and they are not suitable for most people needing to hold down a day job. At a minimum, they need around two hours of vigorous exercise daily to satisfy their physical and inherited behavioural needs.

They are ideal companions for committed triathletes or marathon/ultra-marathon runners, as they will happily keep pace with their owners for hours, whether the owner is running or cycling. Without sufficient exercise, they are very prone to weight gain, destructive behaviour, and excessive vocalisation.

Grooming

Alaskans do not require much grooming. When not active, they spend much of their time cleaning themselves, and if kept with other dogs, will indulge in mutual grooming, as they would with their pack. The coat is said to be self-cleaning, as dirt and dust does not usually cling to it for any length of time. For most of the year, shedding of the light coat is minimal; however, they undergo a very heavy moult twice a year, at which times coming and brushing frequently will help prevent a build-up of dead hair.

If not exercised on paved surfaces, most Alaskan Huskies will need their nails clipped every few weeks. Introducing this routine to them when puppies minimises stress, for both dog and owner, when they are older and able to put up a fight, should they so wish. Good dental hygiene is every bit as important for dogs as for humans, and once daily brushing with an appropriate brush and toothpaste is an excellent habit to develop in pups to prevent dental disease and tooth loss in older dogs.

Famous Alaskan Huskies

There’s no ‘I’ in team; nor is there in ‘Alaskan Husky’! Even the most successful of these amazing athletes rarely make the headlines, as they work in teams while competing in the most arduous sled racing events, including the following:

  • Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
  • Open North American Championship
  • Hudson Bay Quest
  • All-Alaska Sweepstakes

Cross-Breeds

As Alaskan Huskies are, in theory, cross-breeds themselves, they are not widely used for crossbreeding with pedigrees, however, some recognised crosses are occasionally encountered.

  • Alaskan Amerindian Husky – Cross between Alaskan and Siberian Huskies
  • Eurohound – Cross between an Alaskan Husky and German Shorthaired Pointer
  • Pitsky – Cross between an American Pit Bull and Alaskan Husky

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