Understanding The Working ‘Spitz’ Dogs

working spitz dogs

This series is a discussion about the natural tension that exists between how we view show dogs, field/working dogs and dual-purpose (show and work/field) dogs. The dog grouping last discussed was the multi-sense hounds. This month, we will explore those questions for several functional groupings within the AKC Working Group. How does the evolved morphological form relate to past and/or current function? How and why is it that some breeds have developed different types for field/work and show? What are the actual or perceived similarities and differences between the purebred show dog and field/work dog? What have breeders done to breed dogs that can do the job for which they were intended, if it still exists, and if not, what simulations exist that are as close to the original intent as possible?

Before standards were written for the Working Group breeds we recognize today, dogs were already being used and selectively bred to perform certain work. Multiple factors impacted the development of these breeds and their continued evolution, including geography, climate and terrain, culture and customs, as well as type of work to be performed. Within this Group, we find breeds that serve as flock/livestock guardians, human/property guardians, farm dog/draft dog/watchdog, sled dogs, and other purposefully evolved dog breeds working in various jobs via snow, water, or big game hunting. In so many cases, the original purpose of the breed has been supplanted by technology and machinery, enabling man to do the dogs’ work faster and more efficiently at times. Still, there are dedicated breeders who continue to breed quality specimens that demonstrate the individual breed’s working abilities where the actual work, or a simulation, exists.

The Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) has divided this grouping of dogs—all found in the AKC Working Group—mainly into two distinct groups: Spitz (FCI Group 5); and Molossian (FCI Group 2). Two of the breeds, Komondor and Kuvasz, fall into FCI Group 1 (Herding, Sheepdogs). The Portuguese Water Dog falls into FCI Group 8 (Retrievers, Flushing, Water dogs). Neither the Chinook nor the Boerboel are classified or recognized by the FCI. Five of these breeds (Cane Corso, Doberman Pinscher, Giant Schnauzer, Rottweiler, and Boxer) are subject to working trials. For these breeds, their working ability is commonly demonstrated via IPO/ Schutzhund. Internationale Prüfungs-Ordnung (IPO) is the FCI name for sport Schutzhund titles. Within the Working Group, the Black Russian Terrier, not named in FCI as subject to working trials, also participates in IPO/Schutzhund. The purpose of Schutzhund is to identify dogs that have or do not have the character traits required for these demanding jobs. Some of those traits are a strong desire to work, courage, intelligence, trainability, a strong bond with the handler, perseverance, protective instinct, and a good sense of smell. The various levels of Schutzhund working trials encompass tracking, obedience, and protection. There are various Schutzhund associations within the United States, some focusing on one or multiple eligible breeds.

In this installment of the series, the Spitz type dogs (Akita, Alaskan Malamute, Samoyed, Siberian Husky) will be explored.

Originating from native dogs of the Japanese Akita prefecture, the Akita was known as far back as 1,000 years ago. During the 17th century, the breed was used in dogfighting, and from the 17th through the 19th centuries as a companion to samurai (Japanese military nobility).

The Akita, as recognized by the AKC and in the US, is a variant of the original Japanese Akita. The FCI and Japan Kennel Club recognize them as two different breeds; the American Akita and the Akita (also known as Japanese Akita, Akita Inu), whereas the AKC recognizes them as one breed. There is a noticeable difference between the two, however, especially in size, substance, acceptable coloration, and type properties. This is due in part to a steep decline in numbers in Japan in the early 20th century and its cross-breeding with German Shepherd Dogs, St. Bernards, and Mastiffs. This caused a loss of the spitz type characteristics. A native Japanese dog, the Matagi, along with the Hokkaido Inu, were used to breed back into the Akita and regain its Spitz type characteristics and restore the breed. In 1931, before the outbreak of World War II, the Akita Inu was declared a Japanese National Monument. World War II dealt yet another blow to the breed, as the wartime government had ordered the culling of all non-military dogs. Without adequate food for themselves or their dogs, concerned owners turned their Akita Inu loose in remote mountainous areas to fend for themselves, rather than be killed. There they crossed back with their ancestors, the Matagi. During this wartime, some American soldiers returned from duty with Akita Inu. During the occupation, the breed began to thrive again. It is thought that the American Akita descends from the pre-restoration efforts as well as these later imports.

The post-World War II era brought a divergence in type between the Japanese Akita and the American Akita. The Americans who brought back Akitas focused on the larger, more substantial and intimidating dog, while the Japanese were dedicated to restoring the Akita Inu with its finer features and fox-like head to national monument status. The Akita Inu’s acceptable colors are white, red, or brindle and no mask, whereas the American Akita is allowed to be white, brindle or pinto, as well as having a black mask.

Today, the Akita can be found participating in many canine performance events, although none is type or breed-specific. It has been hundreds of years since Akitas were used as a fighting dog; however, it still remains the faithful and watchful companion of its family members, much as it was with samurai. Since the AKC allows the different types of Akita (Japanese and American variants), fanciers and adjudicators must be aware of these differences in their considerations. In FCI countries, the two are bred and judged as separate breeds, with obvious differences in type.

Three Spitz breeds in the Working Group are considered Nordic sledge dogs; the Alaskan Malamute, the Samoyed, and the Siberian Husky.

Originally bred for their strength, endurance, and to pull the heavy, packed-up camp materials over snow and ice, the Alaskan Malamute helped its nomadic owners move between hunting and fishing grounds around the Norton and Kotzebue Sounds of Alaska’s coast. The breed predates the emergence of modern breeds in the 19th century. The progenitors were known almost 1,000 years ago and the breed is thought to have been bred by the indigenous Malamuit people of the Norton Sound and the Inuit of the Kotzebue Sound regions of Alaska.

The parent club in the United States recognizes various levels of breed-specific competition encompassing sledding work, including working lead dog, pack dog or team dog, and weight pull. The breed is known for its ability to pull heavier loads at a slower pace over long distances. The breed is still in use as a recreational sled dog as well as being used in skijoring, bikejoring, carting (dryland), and packing.

The drafting of sled dogs by the United States Army during World War II had an impact on the number of dogs remaining in the breed. In addition to the original Kotzebue strain, two additional strains (M’Loot and Hinman) were admitted to the studbook in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Between these additions (and the natural differences in leg lengths and coats due to geographical separations among the nomadic Inuit of the Arctic area) there is some drift in type styles, but not in working ability.

Differences in appearance between show dogs and working dogs are driven primarily by coat presentation. The working dogs, be it for pleasure, competition, or actual work, are not bathed and forcefully dried as frequently as the show dog. These dogs usually have thick, woolly, and sometimes oilier undercoats while having the coarse outer guard hair coat. Too often the show dogs have coats that are blown dry and open, losing their protective lay. The full, plume-like tail is also protective, shielding the face and nose from blowing snow when staked out. Feet should be snowshoe-shaped to enable greater displacement of body weight through the snow.

Another breed that predates the emergence of modern breeds in the 19th century is the Samoyed. Siberian in origin, the Samoyed was originally used for hunting, herding reindeer, and hauling the sleds of the nomadic Samoyede peoples. The herding of reindeer was primarily achieved through tending and driving; however, the breed has not been purposefully used for this in over 100 years. Today, the breed as a whole does not exhibit a consistent desire or interest in herding.

Despite being “prettied” for the show ring, the Samoyed retains the type of its ancestors as well as the general hobby use of its working abilities. Trimming is verboten in the breed; however, trimmed/shaped specimens do enter show rings and are easily discernible to the learned eye.

The parent club recognizes various breed-specific working categories, including sled and cart racing, excursion sledding or carting, weight pull, packing, skijoring, and herding. It also awards progressively more difficult working Samoyed titles that encompass one or more of these disciplines, with the highest level having to succeed in at least four of the disciplines.

Originally bred over a period of almost 3,000 years by the Chukchi people of Northeast Asia to guard, pull sleds, herd reindeer, and provide companionship, the Siberian Husky was well adapted to life in the harsh, cold Siberian Arctic environment. During the summer, the dogs were released to hunt in packs and fend for themselves. As winter approached and food became scarce, the dogs returned to the villages for sustenance (their own) and to assist the Chukchi with their needs. The breed retains a primitive hunting instinct.

The Chukchi dogs were brought to Alaska as sled dogs in 1908-09 by a Russian fur trader during the Nome gold rush. Leonhard Seppala, famous for his Siberian Husky team’s 340-mile diphtheria “serum run” in 1925, demonstrated the speed and endurance inherent in the working aspects of the breed. Thereafter, Seppala became active in sled dog racing in the Northeastern US. Some direct imports from Siberia in 1930, plus Seppala’s dogs, sowed the seeds of the modern Siberian Husky. Today’s Siberian Husky most closely resembles those imports from 1930. However, emphasis on the show ring has brought about a stronger focus on greater consistency of type, markings, and furnishings. Needless to say, the forced air blow-drying of coats renders them plush, open, and non-protective.

“Rather than selecting for size and strength as the Inuit always had, the Chukchi dogs were chosen for obedience and endurance. They would run at only moderate speed, but for long distances. They would be small—and hence easy for families to provide for—and each dog would have an amiable disposition that would make them ideal for working as part of a larger team.”1

Presumed to have gone extinct as a working dog, the Chukchi dog was found in 2001 when Benedict Allen traveled to the Chukchi peninsula and northernmost reaches of the Bering Strait. There he found the breed still being used for its intended purpose. The demise of the Soviet Union had curtailed the government handouts to the people of the region and, once again, the indigenous sledding/herding dogs enabled their people to endure.

The parent club in the United States maintains a working program in order to perpetuate the breed’s working and performance capabilities. There are various award levels within the sled dog program. It is interesting to note that a “sprint” race is considered to be four miles. For distance races, the minimum distances are 8 to 10 times the number of dogs in the hitch, i.e., 8 x 6 dogs in hitch = 48 miles, 10 x 12 dogs in hitch = 120 miles! There are individuals who actively exhibit in the breed ring and participate in hobby sledding and carting as well as competitive sledding. This writer recently became aware of a well-awarded Siberian Husky bitch whose winters are devoted to sledding with her owner/musher.

Are we paying attention to the original intent of the breed when observing it? How conscious are we of these real and perceived differences when we make our judging decisions, be they in the show ring, working trials, sledding work, or in breeding? Is there is a divergence in type or morphology? What are we doing, as breeders and judges, to close the gap?

I’ll look forward to your commentary and questions on this article, as well as the ones that follow in this series. Feel free to post your comments below or directly to me at jollytimehounds@northstate.net.

1 “An iceman’s best friend”. Benedict Allen in Geographical, December 2006.

  • Celeste M. Gonzalez is a graduate of the University of Florida, majoring in Animal Science and is also a Registered Quality Assurance Professional - Good Clinical Practices, Certified Clinical Research Professional, and a Certified Veterinary Technician. She works in the medical device field in clinical research and development after a long period of service in animal health, both in clinic and research. Celeste began showing dogs in 1975, while still in college, with the purchase of her first Basset Hound and began coursing and showing sight hounds with the purchase of her first Saluki the same year. She finished her first champion, a Saluki, in 1976. Participation in lure field coursing during the infancy and development of ASFA garnered her Salukis their ASFA FCh. One of her owner-trained-handled Salukis also obtained a C.D. in obedience. Salukis remained a part of her life until 1989 and she continues to be active in Basset Hounds to this day as an owner, breeder, and exhibitor. She continued to show her Bassets through her college career and began to breed in 1980. Her Jolly Time Hounds kennel has produced numerous Basset champions from a very small breeding program, including Best In Show dogs. Celeste has dabbled in tracking and field work with her Bassets and is proud of the accomplishments of her dogs that have gone to hunting and field trial homes. She is also very involved in Basset Hound health and her dogs are genetically tested for hereditary familial thrombopathia, MPS1, and primary open angle glaucoma. Celeste has judged Basset Hound and other Hound and Terrier breed specialties across the United States, including the BHCA National Specialty, and judged the Basset Hound Club of Spain national specialty in 2009. She is approved to judge the Hound and Terrier Groups.

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