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Tracking the genetic background of Sasha the Husky

November 20, 2008 |  2:31 pm

Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch continues his chronicle of Sasha, a husky he encountered on a street in downtown Los Angeles. Hirsch brought Sasha home, only to discover that she liked to wander -- and that healthcare for animals who like to roam is expensive. Look for periodic updates on Sasha in the weeks to come on L.A. Unleashed.

Sasha_iiSasha the Siberian Husky has a story, but she’s never going to tell. Lacking any knowledge of what befell Sasha before I rescued her from Spring Street near my office a few months ago, I decided to learn about her breed.

Nearly every inquiry pointed me to a May 2004, issue of the journal Science, in which researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle reported the first extensive genetic comparison of domestic dog breeds.

The Siberian Husky is one of the ancient breeds that are genetically closest to the gray wolf, thought to be the ancestor of canines. Of the 14, the Husky is a member of a group of seven with some of the oldest genetic patterns.

But while Sasha’s genetic pool is closer to a wolf than other dogs, that doesn’t mean she acts like a wolf. Huskies will moan and howl, but that’s about as far as it goes. The breed likes to hang out with people, not hunt them. The Chukchi tribes of Siberia, the source of the Husky name, used the animals to pull sleds and had the animals sleep with their children to help keep them warm. After feeling Sasha’s lush coat — she’s a living Cashmere sweater — I can see why.

Huskies are not particularly aggressive with humans or canines. But they will bolt unexpectedly, which is why you never let them off leash, ever! They are sometimes aloof, following commands at their pleasure, not yours. While at times irritating, none of this is wolfish. They don’t even make good guard dogs.

The genetic cluster of ancient dogs that include Sasha can be viewed as outcasts, pushed with migratory peoples thousands of years ago to what at the time where the remote outposts of the world.

There is the Basenji of Central Africa; the Saluki and Afghan Hound from the Middle East; the Tibetan Terrier and Lhasa Apso of Tibet; the Chow Chow, Shar Pei, Shih Tzu and Pekingese of China; the Akita and Shiba Inu of Japan and finally the closely related Arctic dogs: Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute and Samoyed.

The ancestors to these dogs probably came from Asia and migrated with nomadic groups south to Africa and north to the Arctic, the Science authors said.

There are more than 400 breeds of dog, most developed in only the last 300 years. Sasha and her fellow Arctic dogs, so isolated from other breeds, kept the closest resemblance to mother wolf.

Read earlier installments of Sasha's story here.

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