Get to know your sled dogs

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

To many people, sled dogs are a symbol of Alaska life. They have been an important part of this state's past, such as their 1925 emergency delivery of diphtheria serum to Nome.

They continue to be important to our northern culture even in present times and are enjoyed by many in numerous annual races across the state.

Sled dogs aren't just for racing, though, and can make wonderful companion animals.

However, for many people, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about sled dogs, with the most common query being malamute or husky, which is which?

Many aren't sure what the difference is between these two breeds or how to positively identify one from the other.

There are four northern breeds of sled dogs: the Alaskan malamute, Siberian husky, Samoyed and the Eskimo dog, although the latter is no longer recognized as a distinct breed by the American Kennel Club (AKC).

Of these, the two most common, and most commonly confused, are the malamute and husky. This mix-up between the breeds is easy to understand since they both share many similar physical features and have traditionally served an almost identical role to their human care givers.

Both dogs were bred to pull sleds, but by different people and under different circumstances.

Malamutes are one of the oldest Arctic sled dogs despite their late recognition by AKC registration in 1935. They are said to be named for the Native Inuit tribe called Mahlemuts, who settled along the shores of the upper western part of Alaska, near Kotzebue Sound.

Malamutes were bred for smaller teams with the ability to carry heavy loads over long distances at slower speeds.

The Siberian husky, on the other hand, is native to Siberia where the Chukchi people of northeastern Asia originated it. Huskies were brought to Alaska in 1909 where their first appearance was in the All Alaskan Sweepstakes Race.

Huskies, developed for speed as well as for endurance, were used in larger teams to pull lighter loads for shorter distances at a more moderate rate. The first recognition of the husky by the AKC was granted in 1930.

The differences in the sled-pulling duties of malamutes and huskies has stemmed from the contrast of their size and weight. When comparing these two breeds, the analogy of draft horse versus race horse often is used.

Malamutes are heavy-boned, powerful dogs that typically weigh between 75 and 100 pounds. The muzzle is bulky and the head is broad with the ears set wide apart. Eye color in all malamutes is always brown. The tail is plume-like and carried up and over the back. A lifespan of 10 to 12 years is the norm.

Huskies are dissimilar to malamutes in that they are medium-sized, smaller-boned dogs that typically only weigh 35 to 70 pounds. The head and muzzle are medium-sized with the ears set high on the head and closer together. Eye color can be brown, blue, one of each, or partly colored (one eye with two colors). The tail is described as more of a fox-brush and is carried in a sickle curve or may trail behind the dog. Huskies generally live for 12 to 15 years.

If there are so many contrasts between the two breeds, why are they so often mistaken for each other? The answer may be that there are just as many similarities between the two breeds as there are differences.

As already stated, they are both utilized as sled dogs. Both malamutes and huskies are domesticated purebred dogs and neither are part wolf, as is the common misconception since both breeds often portray wolves in movies and on television.

There are no significant differences in coat color or pattern. Both breeds can have coats with colors of black, white, gray, sable, or red. Both breeds only shed their undercoats twice per year.

In addition, both breeds are pack oriented, although malamutes can on occasion display aggression towards dogs of the same sex.

Both dogs require a lot of exercise and are extremely intelligent working breeds. This has led to a reputation for being both mischievous and difficult to train. In reality, both breeds are so clever that they may be bored or under-stimulated easily. Dogs that don't respond to training may know what is being asked, but are bored or too poorly challenged to respond.

Lonely or bored dogs may also become avid diggers or, in the case of huskies, accomplished fence jumpers.

Malamutes and huskies have a passion for running, but should be kept under control at all times. It is common for dogs of either breed to continue running and not stop or come back once released from a leash. Both breeds are prey-driven and may go after small animals such as cats, squirrels or birds.

Both breeds are commonly seen around Alaska, and many sled dog racing teams are made up of at least one or the other, or in part by mixing breeds. Both breeds are friendly and gentle dogs as well, and make wonderful companions to the responsible pet owner. They both typically value company from people and other dogs.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at

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