The breed belongs to the Spitz genetic family. It is recognizable by its thickly furred double coat, erect triangular ears, and distinctive markings.
The original Siberian Huskies were bred by the Chukchi people — whose hunter-gatherer culture relied on their help. It is an active, energetic, resilient breed, whose ancestors lived in the extremely cold and harsh environment of the Siberian Arctic. William Goosak, a Russian fur trader, introduced them to Nome, Alaska during the Nome Gold Rush, initially as sled dogs. The people of Nome referred to the Siberian Huskies as “Siberian Rats” due to size and weighing 40 to 50 pounds when compared to the Malamute dogs.
The first dogs arrived in the Americas 12,000 years ago; however, people and their dogs did not settle in the Arctic until the Paleo-Eskimo people 4,500 years ago and then the Thule people 1,000 years ago, both originating from Siberia. The Siberian Husky was originally developed by the Chukchi people of the Chukchi Peninsula in eastern Siberia. They were brought to Nome, Alaska, in 1908 for sled-dog racing.
In 1989, a study was made of ancient canid remains dated to the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene that had been uncovered by miners decades earlier around Fairbanks, Alaska. These were identified as Canis lupus and described as “short-faced wolves”. The collection was separated into those specimens that looked more wolf-like (i.e. the Beringian wolf), and those that looked more dog-like and in comparison to the skulls of Eskimo dogs from both Greenland and Siberia thought to be their forerunners.
In 2015, a study using a number of genetic markers indicated that the Siberian Husky, the Alaskan Malamute and the Alaskan husky share a close genetic relationship between each other and were related to Chukotka sled dogs from Siberia. They were separate to the two Inuit dogs, the Canadian Eskimo Dog and the Greenland dog. In North America, the Siberian Husky and the Malamute both had maintained their Siberian lineage and had contributed significantly to the Alaskan husky, which showed evidence of crossing with European breeds that was consistent with this breed being created in post-colonial North America.
Nearly all dog breeds’ genetic closeness to the gray wolf is due to admixture. However, several Arctic dog breeds show a genetic closeness with the now-extinct Taymyr wolf of North Asia due to admixture. These breeds are associated with high latitudes – the Siberian husky and Greenland dog that are also associated with arctic human populations, and to a lesser extent the Shar Pei and Finnish spitz. An admixture graph of the Greenland dog indicates a best-fit of 3.5% shared material, however an ancestry proportion ranging between 1.4% and 27.3% is consistent with the data. This indicates admixture between the Taymyr wolf population and the ancestral dog population of these 4 high-latitude breeds. This introgression could have provided early dogs living in high latitudes with phenotypic variation beneficial for adaption to a new and challenging environment. It also indicates the ancestry of present-day dog breeds descends from more than one region.
A Siberian Husky’s coat is thicker than that of most other dog breeds, comprising two layers: a dense undercoat and a longer topcoat of short, straight guard hairs. It protects the dogs effectively against harsh Arctic winters, but the coat also reflects heat in the summer. It is able to withstand temperatures as low as −50 to −60 °C (−58 to −76 °F). The undercoat is often absent during shedding. Their thick coats require weekly grooming.
Siberian Huskies come in a variety of colors and patterns, usually with white paws and legs, facial markings, and tail tip. The most common coats are black and white, then less common copper-red and white, grey and white, pure white, and the rare “agouti” coat, though many individuals have blondish or piebald spotting. Striking masks, spectacles, and other facial markings occur in wide variety. Merle coat patterns are not allowed. The Kennel Club allows all coat colors from black to pure white.
The Kennel Club describes the Siberian Husky’s eyes as “an almond shape, moderately spaced and set slightly obliquely.” The breed standard is that eyes may be brown or blue; one of each or Particoloured are acceptable (complete is heterochromia). These eye-color combinations are considered acceptable by the Kennel Club. The parti-color does not affect the vision of the dog.
Show-quality dogs are preferred to have neither pointed nor square noses. The nose is black in gray dogs, tan in black dogs, liver in copper-colored dogs, and may be light tan in white dogs. In some instances, Siberian Huskies can exhibit what is called “snow nose” or “winter nose.” This condition is called hypopigmentation in animals. “Snow nose” is acceptable in the show ring.
Siberian Husky tails are heavily furred; these dogs will often curl up with their tails over their faces and noses in order to provide additional warmth. When curled up to sleep the Siberian Husky will cover its nose for warmth, often referred to as the “Siberian Swirl”. The tail should be expressive, held low when the dog is relaxed, and curved upward in a “sickle” shape when excited or interested in something. It should be symmetrical, and not curved or deviated to the side; the tail can curl enough to touch the back.
The breed standard indicates that the males of the breed are ideally between 21 and 24 inches (53 and 61 cm) tall at the withers and weighing between 45 and 60 pounds (20 and 27 kg). Females are smaller, growing to between 20 to 22 inches (51 to 56 cm) tall at the withers and weighing between 35 to 50 pounds (16 to 23 kg).
The Husky howls rather than barks. They have been described as escape artists, which can include digging under, chewing through, or even jumping over fences.
Because the Siberian Husky had been raised in a family setting by the Chukchi and not left to fend for themselves they could be trusted with children. The RSPCA classifies the breed as good with children. It also states they exhibit high energy indoors, have special exercise needs, and may be destructive “without proper care”.
Siberian Huskies have a high prey drive due to the Chukchi allowing them to roam free in the summer. The dogs hunted in pack and preyed on wild cats, birds, and squirrels, but with training can be trusted with other small animals. They would only return to the Chukchi villages when the snow returned and food became scarce. Their hunting instincts can still be found in the breed today.
A 6 ft (1.83 m) fence is recommended for this breed as a pet, although some have been known to overcome fences as high as 8 ft (2.44 m). Electric pet fencing may not be effective. They need the frequent companionship of people and other dogs, and their need to feel as part of a pack is very strong.
A fifteen-minute daily obedience training class has been shown to serve well for Siberian Huskies. Siberians need consistent training and do well with a positive reinforcement training program.
The average life span of the Siberian Husky as 12 to 14 years. Health issues in the breed are mainly genetic, such as seizures and defects of the eye (juvenile cataracts, corneal dystrophy, canine glaucoma and progressive retinal atrophy) and congenital laryngeal paralysis. Hip dysplasia is not often found in this breed; however, as with many medium or larger-sized canines, it can occur. Testing is advised.
Siberian Huskies used for sled racing may also be prone to other ailments, such as gastric disease, bronchitis or bronchopulmonary ailments (“ski asthma”), and gastric erosions or ulcerations.
The Siberian Husky, Samoyed, and Alaskan Malamute are all breeds directly descended from the original sled dog. It is thought that the term “husky” is a corruption of the nickname “Esky” once applied to the Eskimo and subsequently to their dogs.
Breeds descending from the Eskimo dog or Qimmiq were once found throughout the Northern Hemisphere from Siberia to Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Labrador, and Baffin Island.
With the help of Siberian Huskies, entire tribes of people were able not only to survive, but to push forth into terra incognita. Admiral Robert Peary of the United States Navy was aided by this breed during his expeditions in search of the North Pole.
Dogs from the Anadyr River and surrounding regions were imported into Alaska from 1908 (and for the next two decades) during the gold rush for use as sled dogs, especially in the “All-Alaska Sweepstakes,” a 408-mile (657-km) distance dog sled race from Nome, to Candle, and back. Smaller, faster and more enduring than the 100- to 120-pound (45- to 54-kg) freighting dogs then in general use, they immediately dominated the Nome Sweepstakes. Leonhard Seppala, the foremost breeder of Siberian Huskies of the time, participated in competitions from 1909 to the mid-1920s.
On February 3, 1925, Gunnar Kaasen was first in the 1925 serum run to Nome to deliver diphtheria serum from Nenana, over 600 miles to Nome. This was a group effort by several sled-dog teams and mushers, with the longest (91 miles or 146 km) and most dangerous segment of the run covered by Leonhard Seppala. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates this famous delivery. The event is also loosely depicted in the 1995 animated film Balto, as the name of Gunnar Kaasen’s lead dog in his sled team was Balto, although unlike the real dog, Balto the character was portrayed as half wolf in the film. In honor of this lead dog, a bronze statue was erected at Central Park in New York City. The plaque upon it is inscribed,
Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925. Endurance · Fidelity · Intelligence
In 1930, exportation of the dogs from Siberia was halted. The same year saw recognition of the Siberian Husky by the American Kennel Club. Nine years later, the breed was first registered in Canada. The United Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1938 as the “Arctic Husky,” changing the name to Siberian Husky in 1991. Seppala owned a kennel in Nenana before moving to New England, where he became partners with Elizabeth Ricker. The two co-owned the Poland Springs kennel and began to race and exhibit their dogs all over the Northeast.
As the breed was beginning to come to prominence, in 1933 Navy Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd brought about 50 Siberian Huskies with him on an expedition in which he hoped to journey around the 16,000-mile coast of Antarctica. Many of the dogs were trained at Chinook Kennels in New Hampshire. Called Operation Highjump, the historic trek proved the worth of the Siberian Husky due to its compact size and greater speeds. Siberian Huskies also served in the United States Army’s Arctic Search and Rescue Unit of the Air Transport Command during World War II. Their popularity was sustained into the 21st century.
The original sled dogs bred and kept by the Chukchi were thought to have gone extinct, but Benedict Allen, writing for Geographical magazine in 2006 after visiting the region, reported their survival. His description of the breeding practiced by the Chukchi mentions selection for obedience, endurance, amiable disposition, and sizing that enabled families to support them without undue difficulty.
Siberians gained in popularity with the story of the “Great Race of Mercy,” the 1925 serum run to Nome, featuring Balto and Togo. Although Balto is considered the more famous, being the dog that delivered the serum to Nome after running the final 53-mile leg, it was Togo who made the longest run of the relay, guiding his musher Leonhard Seppala on a 91-mile journey that included crossing the deadly Norton Sound to Golovin.
The bronze statue of Balto that has been displayed in New York City’s Central Park since 1925, is one of its enduringly popular features.