Why I Still Believe in the Seppala Siberian Sleddog
Thanks to Disney's "Togo" more Siberian breeders are affixing "Seppala" to their pups for profit, making the real thing harder to find. But the ISSSC has the vision to ensure our breed is healthy and robust going in the 21st Century.
Since Disney released the movie “Togo” there has been a massive surge in interest in the Seppala Siberian Sleddog. . Despite this, and despite countless Siberian Husky breeders affixing the title “Seppala” to fetch a higher price, the real Seppala Siberian Sleddog is as near extinction as ever before. We need new energy and real dedication from the next generation coming on, but it has to be a passion born from true understanding. I think back on how hard it was for me, 25 years ago, to earn the trust of the custodians of the breed- Jeffrey Bragg, Doug Willet, and Bob Davis and others. The stewards of the breed then, as now, were hesitant to entrust their rare and valuable breeding stock to just anyone. “Buyer beware.” After doing some recent investigation here in the US, I found countless kennels offering Seppalas. I called a few. And when confronted with real knowledge of the breed, they back peddled and said they are “breeding for the Seppala type” (by which they meant big ears and less uniform markings). There are still Seppalas to be had, but only for those who understand what a Seppala actually is and are committed to their preservation. Ive also seen many serious Seppala mushers give up on having a Seppala Kennel and converting to mainstream racing huskies. Lets be honest, Seppalas are harder to acquire than alaskan huskies. When you can find them they are more expensive than Alaskan Huskies. And in recent decades they have not performed as well as Alaskan Huskies. And lets not forget the politics and infighting of purebred breeding- where everyone seeks to undermine the other guy in some thinly veiled attempt to promote their own dogs. So, while many new enthusiasts are eager to own “a descendant of Togo” many of us who have been plugging away at preserving the breed get discouraged. I know I have, and do. Just this past weekend a good friend of mine that used to run Seppalas, but runs Alaskans now, said to me, “I believe that only a worthy sleddog should be bred.” And I certainly agree. You should avoid breeding a dog with an inheritable genetic problem, no matter how good it’s pedigree. And your much less likely to get a good sleddog by breeding two poor performers than you are by breeding exceptional performers. However, Ive seen just as much linebreeding and inbreeding in the Alaskan Husky world as I have in the purebred world. And, what constitutes a breed “worthy sleddog” varies based on the aims of the musher. For example, I have owned Canadian Inuit (Eskimo) Dogs. They are slow, prone to fighting and eat twice as much as my Seppaa Siberians. But they are strong. And they were the most ideally suited for arctic expeditions by the explorers of the late 19th and early 20th century. Roald Amundsen- the first to attain the south pole- actually ditched his plans to use siberians in favor of the Greenland Dog. This is how Leonhard Seppala came to own Siberians in the first place. They had been initially attained from Siberia for Amundsen. Another example, I managed a dogsled tour business for two years. There were 157 dogs and 7 mushers under my supervision. Our dogs were retired racing huskies and rescues. The racing huskies outnumbered the purebreds in the kennel 3 to 1. But when I had the option, I opted for the Makenzie, Malamutes and Siberians. They were better suited to pulling than their racing mix bred cousins and required far less cold weather care than many of their racing cousins. All that to say, if winning races is your primary mission, Seppalas are not your best bet. Over the past 100 years of cross breeding experimentation, the Alaskan Husky has become harder and harder to beat. They are usually more abundant and less expensive. Mushing encompasses more than just competitive racing, however. Touring, expeditions, running trap lines, all these things require “worthy” dogs. All these things can show the value of the dog. This is not to say that Seppalas cannot win against racing huskies. They did 100 years ago in Seppala’s day. They did during the Doug Willet “Seppalta” decades of the 80’s and 90’s. And they were still placing in the top 5 money during the “Tay Mar” years just as I was getting into the breed two decades ago. And I believe they can again. Let me briefly describe why I feel they arent, and how I feel they could. While I have never achieved such things with my small kennel, I have had long conversations with many champions of mid distance and long distance races. From them Ive learned that, In addition to proper nutrition, proper training and proper genetic stock, there must also be numbers. A winning kennel produces a lot of litters. Building teams full of Michael Jordans requires lots of breeding. And only a fraction of the pups created make the winning team. The rest are sold, given away or (in some sad situations) may be otherwise disposed of. While I dont fault champion kennel for producing so many dogs, I think it is also a credit to the Seppala breed kennels that are committed to the quality of life of every dog bred in their kennel, to either live out its life there, or to find a home with a worthy steward. Someone with the land, inexhaustible resources, drive and knowledge, could, I believe, make a championship Seppala team again. Sadly, I have not been so favored.
I also believe that, while racing brought Seppala Siberians to the fore, race breeding pressure has had a narrowing effect on our breed’s diversity. One look at the large, long coated Foxstand Seppala Kennel of a century ago, and we are forced to acknowledge that the Seppalas of today are much more consistent in their conformation. While there are occasional throwbacks (Freud of Seppalta and Togo of Seppalta and Olaf of Seppala come to mind) today’s Seppalas are typically shorter coated and lighter boned. There were Seppalas of the “racing” conformation back then as well, but they were part of a diverse whole.
Genetic problems often become common in any breed with a closed studbook. But this is what makes the vision of the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club so important.
While many chide our percentage system for determining a dog’s Seppala status, it means that our breed can continue to get small amounts of genetic input from outside over time, as was certainly the case in the indigenous villages of Siberia for thousands of years. Our partnership with the Continental Kennel Club as our breed registry has empowered us to ensure the Seppala Siberian Sleddog is healthy and robust moving into the 21st Century.
It is for these reasons that I am, and will remain committed to the Seppala Siberian Sleddog, and to the vision of the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club and its partnership with the CKC.
If you’d like to join us, we welcome the help. You can find the ISSSC on facebook. Our website is www.seppalas.com Or drop me an email of message. Join the club and get engaged!
Know that it requires patience and perseverance, but I believe together we can plot a vibrant future for this legacy breed we have inherited from those who have passed the torch to this present day.