So you want to breed your own winning sled dog team?
Luck of the draw is inherent in the genetics of canine reproduction.There are millions of possible combinations from the non- fixed portion of the approximately 19,000 genes (Ostrander and Wayne 2005) in the canine genome. It seems a daunting task to reliably breed sled dogs that can compete at an elite level, but there are breeding strategies and steps that can be taken to stack the odds in your favor.
One of the biggest mistakes that any sled dog owner can make is to let emotion rule decisions about what dogs to breed in their kennel. You like a certain dog and want to have puppies that will be just like that dog. But is that dog good enough to accomplish your mushing goals? First you need to know what your goals are. Are you trying to win the Iditarod? The Open North American? Skijor races? Do you want to perpetuate your trapping, touring, or recreational team? The dogs that excel in these different venues are genetically different (Huson et al., 2010), as mushers have selected sled dogs that excel in these different formats. Distance dogs have been selected to run forever at speeds around 10 mph and slower. Open class sprint dogs have the anatomy and physiology to average 20 mph for 20 miles. Champion skijoring dogs are bigger than most distance and open class sprint dogs, are powerful and fast, but mostly do not have the endurance of the former. Recreational, touring and trapping dogs may be more laid back but are strong and easy travelers.After establishing the goal of the breeding program, the next question to ask is whether there are dogs in the kennel that are good enough to breed. One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was from George Attla who told me that I should only breed dogs that had finished the Fur Rondezvous and Open North American in a top team. These were the races that I was aiming to do well in, but the advice holds for any venue. If you are aiming to win the Iditarod you should breed dogs that have finished the race in a top team. The reason to use dogs from top teams is that they have been proven to have the traits necessary to win. One should also pay attention to whether the dog that you want to breed has parents and littermates that were also in top teams. A dog that has numerous relatives with shared desired characteristics is more apt to pass those traits to its puppies than a dog that came from unknown parents and was the only star in the litter. Prefer a top finishing dog as a parent over using an unproven littermate. They may not have the desirable traits of their more famous relative.
Hardly any dogs are perfect though and even if you are winning races you may wish to improve certain traits in your dogs. Thus it is important to know what traits are important for winning your race and could be improved on by picking the right dog to breed to. Could your pups use a little more fur? Slightly better feet? A little more speed? Better heat tolerance? The list of traits that are important is long and their importance depends on race venue and include: gait type and efficiency, endurance, attitude, coat thickness, foot conformation and toughness, heat and cold tolerance, mental toughness, size, conformation, appetite, demeanor toward other dogs, personality around people, susceptibility to injury and health.
Harris Dunlap, a successful open class sprint musher, developed a list of dog traits he considered important for winning open class races and ranked prospective parents based on those characteristics to pick the optimal combination of parents to enhance any non-optimal traits. Another trait that should be considered is the parents and their ancestors aptitude for leading. Leaders can be made but are usually born. A study I did of dogs running in top Open North American teams (Conn, 1991) showed that leaders bred to other leaders produced nearly three times more leaders than when two top dogs that were not leaders were bred together. Breed leader to leader if you want more leaders.
Importance of male vs female
What is the importance of the male vs female parent? Generally both sexes equally contribute to most characteristics, but females contribute all mitochondrial DNA that is the template for energy production in cells.
“No go” characteristics
Have a list of “no go” characteristics that would take a dog out of parenthood contention. Fighters fall into that category for me. Dogs shouldn’t be bred that have known hereditary defects such as wheezing (laryngeal paresis or paralysis), epilepsy, Alaska Husky Encephalopathy (AHE), autoimmune disease, thyroid disease, and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). There are genetic tests for AHE and PRA that can be used to screen prospective parents. Wheezing is associated with some dog lines with blue eyes and it is not a good idea to breed two blue-eyed dogs together if there are wheezers in the pedigrees.
Breeding and Pedigrees
Breeding parents that are related can increase the chances that desirable traits from a famous parent are passed down to offspring. This is known as inbreeding or linebreeding depending on the closeness of the common ancestor in the pedigree. While this type of breeding can increase the chances of producing offspring like the common ancestor, it increases the chances that a recessive genetic defect will be revealed because offspring are increasingly homozygous for genes. Within a linebreeding program breeders will do an outcross breeding every few generations to a dog that is from a top team but that has no common ancestors within 4 or more generations to bring in more genetic variation, desireable traits, and potentially introduce hybrid vigor. To know whether a potential breeding will result in line breeding or outcrossing, a 4-5 generation pedigree is a minimum requirement. Hopefully breeders of your prospective parents can provide such a pedigree, but if not, it is often feasible to reconstruct pedigrees if you can find out the names and breeders of the potential bitch or stud.
The Web Kennel System (https://www. dogtec.com) , Stamtavla for sledehunder (http://www.stamtavla.no), and Racedogs. org (http://www.racedogs.org/eng/index. php) are online pedigree databases that facilitate searches for parentage. All of these sources should be consulted, as they do not have the same pedigree information.
Stamtavla and Racedogs are especially strong sources for information about Scandinavian pointer crosses and distance dog pedigrees. Mushing Magazine Superdog articles often give information about parents of the main dogs in top kennels. J.P Norris started and I continued The Open North American Pedigrees. These books contain 3-generation pedigree information for dogs running ONAC 1980-2011 (Jeff Conn, jeffconn52@gmail. com). All mushers should consider entering the information, it can only help the sport of mushing by increasing successful breeding.
Tips for choosing breeding parents for racing (Playing the Odds)
• Know what your goals are
• Don’t let emotion rule your decision
• Know the traits and capabilities you desire
• Choose dogs from proven top mushers (consistently wins or
finishes in the top of the biggest races in your category)
• Choose dogs that have run the race you want to win, or similar
races and has finished the whole race on a top team
• Choose leaders to produce leaders
• Choose proven dogs over unproven littermates or relatives
• Choose dogs with many proven littermates as the odds of
desirable traits being passed to puppies is higher
• Free dogs likely won’t have the traits to win races
- I’ve made the mistake of using a free female that was related to a famous dog but had bad feet. Guess what? The puppies had bad feet too. They ran great on a hard trail but didn’t enjoy running on softer trails.
The simple truth about genetics and inheritance is that the offspring tend to share the traits of their parents. Thus if you want to quickly build a top kennel, start with top dogs from your chosen race venue because they are going to have most if not all the characteristics to win races. Yes, it is hard to find those dogs and they are expensive, but in the long run you save money and time. Puppies are expensive to raise and feed. If you try to save money by breeding to dogs that are not top-notch you may spend $1500 per puppy to raise them to two years old and then not have the dogs you wanted. Many well-known mushers will sell older females that ran in their winning teams. Some will sell a top female that has been bred to a top stud in their yard. It is also possible to split a litter with proven genetics with a top musher. In the next two articles I will discuss why and how to determine whether a potential breeding would result in line breeding or outcrossing, with a discussion of the merits and the potential problems of each mating system.
Conn, J.S. 1991. Analysis of pedigree information on the open class North American Sled Dog race, 1980-1991. Highland Kennel PO Box 127, Ester, AK 99725. Huson, H.J., H.G. Parker, J. Runstadler, and E.A. Ostrander. 2010. A genetic dissection of breed composition and performance enhancement in the Alaskan sled dog. BMC Genetics 11: 71Ostrander, E. A., and R. K. Wayne, 2005. The canine genome. Genome Res. 15: 1706–1716