Border Collies Bred Like Alaskan Sled Dogs?

Some Alaskan Huskies are Inbred.

Alaskan sled dogs (often called huskies) are unique in that they are an ad hoc breed–some say type–bred to pull sleds over snow, sans registry, that still exist entirely outside of the conformation show system. This is an attractive breed for Border Collie folks who envision their ideal herding dog in much the same light: purpose bred and free from the fancy.

The implication is that Border Collies (at least those outside the AKC) are free from the unintentional corruptions of the closed registry system, the inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity, the popular sires, the kennel blindness.  Perhaps even that Border Collies are a recent and ongoing amalgam of numerous breeds and strains of dog, a little of this and that to keep the gene pool fresh.  Genetic research, however, shows that Border Collies are not like either of the two styles of Alaskan sled dog, and the comparison fails.

A 2010 study looked into Alaskan sled dog genetics and offers the following reason why they are an attractive dog for study and a wishful analogy for Border Collie elitists:

The Alaskan sled dog offers a rare opportunity to investigate the development of a dog breed based solely on performance, rather than appearance, thus setting the breed apart from most others. Several established breeds, many of which are recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC), have been introduced into the sled dog population to enhance racing performance. We have used molecular methods to ascertain the constitutive breeds used to develop successful sled dog lines, and in doing so, determined the breed origins of specific performance-related behaviors.

The first revelation of the study is that even Alaskan sled dogs aren’t “bred like Alaskan sled dogs,” as there are two identifiable strains that are bred quite differently: Sprint Sled Dogs and Distance Sled Dogs.

We observe that the Alaskan sled dog has a unique molecular signature and that the genetic profile is sufficient for identifying dogs bred for sprint versus distance. When evaluating contributions of existing breeds we find that the Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky contributions are associated with enhanced endurance; Pointer and Saluki are associated with enhanced speed and the Anatolian Shepherd demonstrates a positive influence on work ethic.

Sprint and distance sled dog racing are vastly different in terms of the distance traversed during a race and the speed at which this is accomplished. Long distance racing includes races of several hundred miles lasting multiple days, such as the Yukon Quest and Iditarod of over 1,000 miles in the subarctic winter. Sprint racing is more analogous to track and field with multiple competition events defined by the size of the dog team. The extreme differences in these racing styles, ranging from 30 miles in one day to 1,000 miles in less than ten days has lead to a divergence within the Alaskan sled dog population based on the essential physiological athletic attributes of endurance and/or speed as well as “work ethic,” which encapsulates an animals’ desire to perform.

It has been claimed by several sheeple that Border Collies are very much like Alaskan Huskies.  Eileen Stein is the current President of the American Border Collie Association and has served on the Health & Genetics committee for several years, she should be in the know about BC genetics and she feels that the Alaskan Husky is an appropriate analogy for the Border Collie in how they are bred.

Eileen Stein’s views on Border Collie genetics

Eileen Stein – 9/22/2010 I think border collies ARE a breed like Alaskan Huskies. They are like Alaskan Huskies in that they are bred to a working standard rather than an appearance standard, and they are a breed rather than a type in that they have been bred to that working standard long enough that they almost always meet that workiing standard better than any other kind of dog. I don’t really understand why you think dogs must be bred for aesthetics, or must have no significant variation conformation-wise, in order to be a breed.

Alaskan Huskies don’t have a registry and border collies do — that’s the only significant difference. And probably that’s the only thing that has kept the AKC from going after them.

So how are Alaskan Sled Dogs bred?  What do the numbers say?

First, Alaskan Sled dogs as a whole benefit from having two sub-populations under the same mental model of the breed.  The Distance sub-population boasts a mean 2.9 alleles per locus and the Sprint sub-population has 3.1 alleles per locus and these alleles are mutually unique, as taken together the entire population has a mean alleles per locus of ~5.7.  A combined set of 141 purebred populations, including Border Collies, showed only 2.6 alleles per locus.

Second, both Alaskan Sled dog types show a diversity in genotypes as well.  The Observed Heterozygosity (Ho) for the Distance dogs was 55.9% and 61.1% for the Sprint dogs.  Purebred dogs managed only 43%.

Third, the Alaskan Sled dog population shows a divergence in inbreeding.  The F(IS) statistic is a type of inbreeding coefficient that ranges from -1 (highly outbred) to +1 (highly inbred).  Negative values indicate recent outcrossing (a diversity of alleles that are trapped in a few individuals versus being evenly spread across the population) and if the assumptions of Hardy Weinberg equilibrium are met, it is expected that heterozygosity would increase with random mating.

Positive values indicate recent inbreeding (which can include close mating according to pedigree, non-random mating of like individuals, reduced genetic diversity due to population structure like subdivision or bottlenecks, etc.).  Positive F(IS) values indicate that heterozygosity will decrease in the future, negative values indicate that future offspring will be more heterozygous.

Inbred or Outcrossed? Bars that extend to the left indicate excess heterozygosity compared to the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium (red line), suggesting active selection for heterozygosity (i.e. outcrossing).

Inbred or Outcrossed? Bars that extend to the left indicate excess heterozygosity compared to the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium (red line), suggesting active selection for heterozygosity (i.e. outcrossing).

As you can see from the above diagram, the Sprint Sled Dogs (purple) have an excess of heterozygosity representing active outcrossing and an influx of genetic material.  The Distance Sled Dogs are more typical of other breeds, showing continued selection for conformity.  Border Collies, unlike their relative the Collies and the Cardigan Corgis, have a positive F(IS) value indicating ongoing  inbreeding.

Border Collies aren’t like either of the Sled Dog sub-populations.  Even though the Distance 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 genetic analysis of the Sled Dogs indicated 21 domestic breeds that contributed to the Sled Dog breed with a population score of ≥ 0.3.

The 21 “related breeds” included the Alaskan Malamute and Siberian Husky, which were expected based on historical information, and the Pointer, which has recently and repetitively been bred into the population. The Samoyed, Chow Chow, and Akita also have historical roots as northern draft dogs. Other breeds included in the “related breeds” group were the Saluki, Afghan Hound, and Borzoi, which are well known for their speed, the Great Pyrenees and the Anatolian Shepherd, both of whom are northern climate guard dogs, and the Weimaraner, a hunting breed of shared ancestral heritage to the Pointer. Additional related breeds were the Japanese Chin, Shar-Pei, Shiba Inu, Shih Tzu, Pekingese, Lhasa Apso, Basenji, Tibetan Spaniel, and Tibetan Terrier, most of whom share an Asian heritage with the exception of the Basenji.

Thus, it is folly to suggest that the Border Collie gene pool and community breeding ethic is substantially similar to the culture of breeding working Huskies.  This isn’t true.  Huskies are an ad hoc landrace where registry politics and breed purity don’t matter.  If you want to outcross your dog to an entirely different breed, you can, for any reason at any time without any ROM hoops to jump through and clearly racers do.

If Border Collies are substantially similar to this breeding ethic, find me one trial champion dog from any country that has a non-Border Collie in the last 3 generations.  Heck, find me a dozen.

The interesting question is not so declarative, simple, and overstated as “Border Collies and Sled Dogs are both bred to a performance standard.”  Yawn. You can make that statement without a comparison, so if we are to compare we have to ask more than just distilled philosophy and slogans.  The question is HOW are they bred and what is the genomic situation in the breeds.

The answer to that question doesn’t provide an impressive comparison which elevates the Border Collie vis-a-vis the sled dog.

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About Christopher

Christopher Landauer is a fifth generation Colorado native and second generation Border Collie enthusiast. Border Collies have been the Landauer family dogs since the 1960s and Christopher got his first one as a toddler. He began his own modest breeding program with the purchase of Dublin and Celeste in 2006 and currently shares his home with their children Mercury and Gemma as well. His interest in genetics began in AP Chemistry and AP Biology and was honed at Stanford University.