Don't be afraid of the dark

Siberians of a Different Color

The following is an article that Susan wrote for the Summer 2008 edition of the Siberian Quarterly.

Ingve/Wielheesen Collection. Sled Dog Image Archives.

It was the 2001/2002 sled dog racing season and a Colorado musher named JD Bothum was retiring at the end of the season and selling his entire team.  My husband, Mike, had already agreed to purchase his 2 white leaders.  Mike was most impressed with a dark faced wheel dog on the 8 dog team - a team whose performance was so impressive that Ann Stead from Northome offered to buy the entire team!  This wheel dog had a color pattern that hailed back to the original imports and that, although still present in racing lines, has virtually been eliminated from show lines.   BUT, not only was there  “no more room at the inn”, but another musher had already expressed an interest in obtaining this one particular dog.

Montana (left wheel), Dillon (right wheel) - doing what
they love best.

Several weeks after racing season was over, my husband contacted JD to make arrangements to pick up the two white leaders.  JD informed him that the musher who originally wanted the dark faced wheel dog from his 8 dog team had changed her mind, and he had decided to offer the dog to us.  Once we overcame the obstacles of figuring out how we were going to fit him into our kennel and dog box, Montana of Copper Creek came into our lives.

Little did I know at the time how Montana would change forever the direction of our breeding program.  In the early ‘80s I had first formed my “goal” of one day breeding a bitch from show lines to a dog from racing lines.  David and Sheila Qualls (Indigo) had done just that when they bred one of their bitches to a Yeso Pac dog.  The puppy they kept was adorable and I fell in love with him - a dirty faced grey/white boy, but David and Sheila would not part with him.  So, I would have to do my own show/racing cross.  BUT...I needed to find the right bitch and the right dog!  It took two decades for me to find that combination.

 Sno-Magic's Tundra Sunrise, "Sunny," a dark faced
red/white Siberian.  Owners Jim & Tamyra Lyon.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that Montana was a VERY special dog.  He was a strikingly handsome dog, but more impressive was his work ethic.  When you put a harness on him and hooked him up to a sled, he became an amazing powerhouse.  Yet he was also the most gentlemanly dog we have ever owned.  Montana came into our dog yard as an intact male, and was instantly “challenged” by the 3 intact show dogs already in residence.  However, the boys soon learned that it was to no avail, as it was beneath Montana’s incredible dignity to show any reaction at all to those challenges.  He was amazingly gentle with every dog and human that came into contact with him.
So....could THIS be the dog I had been looking for?  The one that might mesh well with my show lines?   We loved Montana’s temperament and he was built “to the standard”.  At the time we also had a lovely little black and white Khovaki bitch from Joni Barnhardt.  Despite her demure stature, Fly was a very good little sled dog.  She had also produced two litters, the first of which consisted of two dogs and a bitch who all finished their championships rather easily.  I decided to finally do what I had been wanting to do for the past 20 years - breed a dog from racing lines with a dog from show lines.  I had NO IDEA what to expect!

When that first racing/show combination litter started popping out, I was amazed!  Out of 5 puppies, only one was traditionally marked (red/white).  I ended up with 4 dark faced dogs - 3 wolf grey, and one jet black.

Three generations of dark faces. Left to right (youngest to oldest): Sno-Magic's Torrey's Prak of Iceberg, Torrey,co-owned with Chuck and Cheri Cubbison; Sno-Magic's Smokin' Gun SD, "Dillon" co-owned with Cheri Cubbison; Montana of Copper Creek SD, "Montana"

This litter totally changed the way I look at the Siberian Husky.  Each person who owns a puppy out of this litter (each of which is a long time Siberian Husky breeder/exhibitor) is in agreement - the temperament and work ethic of these dogs is “different” - in a VERY good way!  So far, the two dogs in racing/showing homes out of this litter, both of whom stayed in Colorado (Sno-Magic’s Smokin’ Gun SD (Dillon ) and Sno-Magic’s Going to the Sun SD (Sky)) have obtained their Sled Dog Degrees and have begun working on their SDX degrees.  The obedience star in the litter went to Pennsylvania (Tshaji’s Sno-Magic Two Socks, CDX, RE, owned by Sharon and Jim Wendelgass - Tshaji Siberians).  Two Socks not only earned his CD and CDX, but also was awarded High in Trial at the Siberian Husky Club of Greater Chicago (2006), and has obtained his Rally Novice, Rally Advanced, Rally Excellent and Musical Freestyle Beginner and Novice titles.  Joni Barnhardt’s bitch,  Sno-Magic’s Khovaki Moonshadow (Libby) has finished her Working Pack Dog requirements, and by the time this article is published, should have her WPD degree and begun working on her WPDX degree.

The wolf-grey dark faces at the 2006 National Specialty in Rockford, IL. Left to right; Iceberg's Monarch Pass SD,, co-owned with Chuck & Cheri Cubbison; Torrey; Dillon; Sno-Magic's Shot in the Dark, "Cody.

So, what has been our experience in the conformation ring?  There was a time when showing a white or a piebald dog was very unusual and the color barrier needed to be challenged.  While those colors are not prevalent in the show ring, they certainly are accepted nowadays.  However,  dark faced, wolf grey dogs are relatively rare in the show ring (although they are not so unusual on the trail!).  And, like the experiences of the early piebald and white Siberian exhibitors, “all breed” judges are not generally accepting of these dogs.  In fact, at one early show (a specialty) the all breed judge stopped me after my class and said “when I saw your dog I knew I had to be very careful - I am not sure if it is his head or his color, but he looks like a Belgian Tervuren!”  I wish he had just silently handed me my last place ribbon rather than making that comment!  I appreciate Phyllis Brayton’s insistence that these dogs be used during her tenure as Chair of the Judges Education Program at the Greenville, SC and Topeka, KS National Specialties. 

The question often arises - what kind of dog is that, and what color is it?

It is interesting to note that the first question most often comes from adults.  Is it a Belgian Tervuren?  Is it a Norwegian Elkhound?  Is it part wolf?   Kids seem to instantly recognize that these, indeed, are Siberian Huskies!  With adults, I often reference the most famous Siberian Husky - Seppala’s Togo (thanks to the film Balto, most folks have heard of the Serum Run!).  Our darker colored Siberians are throwbacks to many of Seppala’s dogs.

Sno-Magic's Dark N' Stormy, "Stormy".

The answer to the color question is a question itself!   In the book, The International Siberian Husky Club Inc. Presents The Siberian Husky,  Ginny Emrich Rice states in the chapter on Color Genetics that these dogs do not technically qualify as agouti.  However, most folks do consider them agouti.  Some of them are registered as agouti.  Others are not.  The agouti color description specifically says that the guard hairs are banded, with “black at the root and the tip and yellow in the center band”.  These dogs’ guard hairs are black thru the tip, with a bit of beige at the root.  Their undercoat is tan (or cream), and they have very little white on their stomachs and legs.   I believe that they come closest to the description of “wolf grey” (and they do indeed resemble a wolf!).  According to the SHCA Coat Color Identification Guidelines, wolf grey is a sub-category under grey/white, so most of these dogs that are being shown are registered as grey/white.  However, my concern (which is shared by the other owners of these dogs), is that in future generations when folks do pedigree research, the pedigree will give no indication of the unusual color that perhaps is showing up again in their litters.   I do wish the SHCA would re-examine their color descriptions and come up with something that is more descriptive.  I have consulted with numerous long-time breeders, some of which are very expert in color descriptions, asking their opinions on the color of these dogs.  I have gotten responses ranging from “grey/white”, to “agouti”, to “I have NO IDEA - there is no color name to describe them!” (this latter response echoes my own, and came from Alice Watt who maintains a website devoted to the colors of the Siberian Husky! (LINK).

Sno-Magic's Khovaki Moonshadow, "Libby."  Owners Harold & Joni Barnhardt.

It has been an interesting journey watching the dominance of this color gene and the dark faces, and musing over the genetics that may be involved.  Both Montana, Dillon and Libby (all dark face wolf greys) have been bred several times - each time to a traditionally marked bitch (or dog) from show lines.  Out of a total of 34 puppies produced, 21 were dark faced puppies.  Twelve of these were wolf grey, 2 were jet black, and 7 were dark faced reds!  Experience is sure holding true to what Ann Cook told me at the Dallas Specialty - “this color spreads like kudzu in your kennel”.   In the spring of 2009 we plan to breed Sno-Magic’s Torrey’s Peak of Iceberg (Dillon’s wolf grey daughter) back to her grandsire, Montana.  We are very anxious to see what the color outcome will be of breeding a wolf grey to a wolf grey!

It has been grand fun owning, showing and racing these dark faced dogs.  Spectators at races invariably come up and comment on their striking looks.  As far as the conformation show ring, I primarily show them at specialties where I have the opportunity of exhibiting to breeder judges.  The reaction from exhibitors, spectators and breeder judges alike has been overwhelmingly positive.

First place brace, 2007 National Specialty. Left to right: judge Carol Nash; Susan Lavin, owner/handler; Monarch and Dillon.

At the Siberian Husky Club of Metropolitan Dallas (2005) Michael Jennings awarded Sno-Magic’s Smokin’ Gun SD (Dillon) Winners Dog for 4 points.   Since that time we have had other notable wins - Dillon has also been awarded Winners Dog (4 points) by breeder judge Danny Brand at the Hutchinson (KS) Kennel Club (2007).  At the 2006 National Specialty in Chicago, IL, Natalie Norris awarded Iceberg’s Monarch Pass SD (another wolf grey Montana son, bred and owned by Chuck and Cheri Cubbison - Iceberg Siberians) first place in the Sled Dog class, and later that day breeder judge Bobbie Palmer selected him for an Award of Merit.  Monarch also has two 3 point majors under his harness - his first under breeder judge Ann Cook at the Siberian Husky Club of Metropolitan Dallas (2007) and the other under Bobbie Palmer at the Camino Real Siberian Husky Club Specialty (2007).  Dillon’s daughter, Sno-Magic’s Torrey’s Peak of Iceberg, was also awarded Reserve Winners Bitch at the Dallas Specialty under Ann Cook, as well as Reserve Winners Bitch at the Camino Real Specialty under breeder judge Noreen Rosi.  Probably the most fun I have had in the show ring was at both the Chicago National Specialty (2006) and the Northern California National Specialty (2007) when Sno-Magic’s Smokin’ Gun SD and Iceberg’s Monarch Pass SD placed FIRST in the brace class (under judge Joy Messinger in Chicago and under judge Carol Nash in California).  We are BREAKING down the color barrier!

Sno-Magic N Jo-Kar Mountain Aire, "Denver."  Breeders, Mike & Susan Lavin.  Owner, Karen Potts (Jo-Kar).

Watch out, as this unusual color pattern is being spread to other parts of the country!  Look for Montana, Dillon and Libby’s dark faced offspring in the show ring in Virginia (Krystal Wolf - Anne Hennessey and Mac Thompson); in Ohio (Jo-Kar - Karen Potts); in Nebraska (Roberta Wendel); in North Carolina (Khovaki - Joni and Harold Barnhardt); and of course right here in Colorado, owned and proudly exhibited by Susan Lavin (Sno-Magic) and Cheri Cubbison (Iceberg).  Come up and talk to any of us - we would love to show off our “dogs of a different color”!

© 2008, Susan Lavin, all rights reserved, may not be reprinted in any manner without permission of the author.  Susan and her husband, Mike, have been showing, racing and breeding Siberian Huskies since 1982.