What is a Good Definition for a Seppala?

by Doug Willett

At the risk of boring some of you who have witnessed the discussions over the years between J. J. Bragg and myself about the way to define Seppala Siberian, I believe that it is appropriate to begin a publication devoted to the so-called Seppala Siberian Sleddog by defining precisely what it is that we are devoted to. One way to define a Seppala is to require that all the lines in the pedigree pass back to a dog owned by LEONARD SEPPALA or a direct import from Siberia. This is Bragg's definition. It is quite useless since little history is know about the preregistered Siberians and it is probably true that most of them or their ancestors did pass through Leonard Seppala's hands at one time or another. Thus, all contemporary Siberian Huskies could be called Seppalas.

My feeling is that the Seppala dog of today is what he is because of the breeding done since the inception of the registration. Here is a recorded history visible to anyone that cares to look. How accurate their history is and what you want to believe of it is each individual's choice. Today's Seppala dogs are at least in the paper the direct descendents of the dogs that were owned and bred by Harry Wheeler and Donnie McFaul, who operated during the period 1930 - 1963 and were called Seppala Kennels. All their Siberians carried the suffix "...of Seppala" in their registered names.

To better understand the situation we need to begin by looking at the origins of the registered Siberian Husky. The original dogs registered by the AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB were for the most part from the Seppala-Ricker Kennel and were registered in the early 1930's. Besides these, only two other animals, the males Duke and Tuck (through the bitch Toto) survive to any measurable extent in today's pedigrees. About one fourth of the pedigree lines in a contemporary show Siberian will have it's lines pass back to Duke and Tuck.

In the late 1920's, Leonard Seppala, in what has been purported to be from romantic trysts, built up a healthy bill at Harry Wheeler's inn at St. Jovite, Quebec. Apparently to even the financial score, Wheeler took nine of the Seppala-Ricker dogs and later added one more bitch, Nanna, in a trade with Alex Belford. Wheeler used these dogs and their descendents to give rides to guests at the Inn and to race. Some to the descendents became the first Siberian to be CKC registered in the late 1930's.

Wheeler bred until 1950 without ever introducing further animals into his group. He thus developed his own unique animal quite distinct from the general Siberian Husky population. You can imagine the resentment towards Wheeler probably held by many of the other breeders of that time. Resentment and hostility that seems to still exist today. Wheeler did supply racing and breeding stock to others, most notably the kennels of Belford (Alex & Charlie Belford), Gatineau (Donnie McFaul), Foxstand (Bill Shearer) and Cold River (Marie Frothingham and Millie Turner). Donnie McFaul told me personally that Wheeler was committed to preserving the mental and physical nature of his original dogs, which included the two direct Siberian imports Tserko and Kreevanka. Wheeler apparently thought that the New England breeders, notably Eva Seeley and Lorna Demidoff, were changing the Siberian Husky, and so he had great disdain for bringing any of their animals into his program even though their pedigrees often showed then to be three-quarters or more from his dogs. Seeley and Demidoff were too much concerned with cosmetics to suite Wheeler. Demidoff, herself, confesses in her book that there was a great rivalry between Seeley and herself to see who could produce the first BLUE EYED, BLACK AND WHITE AKC CHAMPION. Demidoff won with Ch. Panda of Monadock, the primary forerunner of today's show Siberians.

Wheeler's original animals were Kreevanka, Tserko, Pearl, Nanna, Bonzo, Tosca, Daska, Kengeak, and Molinka:

If one replaces the latter six by their ancestors, Harry, Kolyma, Nauuk, Togo, Nome and Smokey, then the subsequent set

S=*Kreevanka, Tserko, Pearl, Harry, Kolyma, Nauub, Togo, Nome, Smokey*

of nine animals is distinct in the sense that two animals have known immediate common ancestors. In other words, they at least have the possibility of being genetically quite different, which is important for the general vitality of the strain in the long term. With one exception, ALL the breeding done by Wheeler and his successor McFaul, which covered the period form 1930 to 1963 and whose offspring carried the "...of Seppala" designation, totally stems from the set "S". The one exception was Zirka of Gatineau x Sila of Seppala which produced the bitch Neva of Seppala who has 95.3% of her lines back to the set "S". Neva was a foundation bitch for the Little Alaska racing line.

So the first step in defining the Seppala Siberian should be to court the pedigree lines that end with a dog form the set "S". This is not as difficult as it may first appear because as soon as a line meets a Wheeler or McFaul "...of Seppala" dog (with the exception of Neva of Seppala) or a Belford, Foxstand or Cold River designated dog, one can stop because all lines back from those animals are 100% based in the set "S". Ideally one would like to say a Seppala or pure Seppala is a dog that stems 100% from the set "S". However, this is not practical for two reasons. First, 37 years have passed since McFaul sold out and very few, if any, 100 percenter's still exist. Second, the Seppala's were broadly dispersed and those of us who picked up the breeding since McFaul have had to scrape, scratch and dig to obtain suitable animals with the result that genetic diversity was compromised. Therefore, to maintain general mental and physical soundness as well as regain genetic diversity, I have personally used 95% as the cutoff for what I call Seppala. I will say more about this in succeeding paragraphs.

There is another problem with simply using lives back to the set "S" to decide whether a given dog is or is not a Seppala. Dogs have a wonderfully plastic genetic structure and can be rapidly molded into many different shapes and temperaments through selective breeding. Simply witness the different breeds to see what man has done over the long period of time-from Chihuahuas to Great Danes. Closer to our discussion, look at the modern stubby legged, pig bodied show Siberians and the lean long legged racing Siberian. Both are around 75% based upon the same nine dogs (the "S" set) just 70 years ago. Breeders can make their dogs just about anything that they want in a relatively short amount of time. So even though a line in a pedigree may go back to the set "S", that does not guarantee that the desires (picture) that notwated Seppala, Wheeler and McFaul were carried on by all the other breeders along that line. A true Seppala line should not only have the correct base but should also preserve and improve upon the working sinse the characteristics of the original dogs in the set "S" at every generation along the way. Therefore, I formulate the following definition:

A line in a pedigree is a SEPPALA LINE provided it stems from a dog in the set "S" and does not pass through three consecutive generations of non-work motivated breeding.

A PURE SEPPALA is any registered Siberian Husky with at least 95% Seppala lines in its pedigree.

At this junction I can see the reader utter a loud: "Wow, what is non-work?" The facts in this regard are going to be subjective but nevertheless not that difficult to determine in a useful was. Most of us who have been in the racing game for awhile know the names of the past and present kennels who have bred or are breeding for working purposes. Most kennels put their kennel names in the dogs that they breed. So when we see names like Gatineau, White Water Lake, Little Alaska, Igloo Pak, Anaadyr, Notomak, Artic Trail, etc. we can be confident that the performance characteristics that were the crux of the Wheeler-McFaul dogs probably have been reasonably preserved at that point in the pedigree. For other kennels, especially those that have concentrated on cosmetic breeding, or when in doubt, call them "non-working" and be safe.
The three generation non-work suppressant reduces the number of Seppala lines in a pedigree, but in the other direction over definition of a pure Seppala requires only 95% of the lines be Seppala. I believe both are necessary. We do not want to compromise our base too much and we need access to the general racing Siberian Husky population, about which I will discuss more later. I would never favor lowering the cut off from 95%, because the cut off number becomes the limiting number for the population over a long period of time. In other words, after a long time, say 100 years, no animals with Seppala content over 95.1% will likely exist in a population with a 95% cut off criteria. For the truly conservative Seppala advocate and faint-of-heart, perhaps 97%, the measurement of the Sepsequel litter so important in the Markovo bottleneck of the late 1960's, would be a more appropriate cut off. After all, if 97% was allowed as pure Seppala by the purist J. J. Bragg in 1967, why not in 2000?

What does the 95% requirement allow the pure Seppala breeder? It allows him access to many more animals from which he can diversify and improve hopefully without losing the basic Wheeler-McFaul mental and physical type. J.J. Bragg in the issues of the defunct "Seppala Network" made much ado about the lack of diversity in all of the Siberian Husky population and that it was time to go outside or be faced forever with an inferior and continually deteriorating animal. I have a hard time accepting his basic premise that the general registered Siberian Husky population lacks diversity, or that the lack of diversity in the era around 1930 (basically 11 animals) was insufficient to create a sound population in 2000. Problems do exist but that is only natural and will continue even if new outside animals are introduced. I think that time creates change or newness through mutations and naturally in that as many genes combine in each breeding that the possible outcomes are almost endless. Biologists say that there is evidence that all human beings stem from the same female, but there surely is not a lack of variety in the human species. How did all the difference occur? If a species stems from just one entity (individual?), then in the backwards end eventually all base positions became constant. How for back do we have to go in order that constancy isn't a problem in a contemporary population? <CHECK> Bragg's research shows that at some time in the 1920's the all male and all female lines of the contemporary Seppalas each stems from just one animal, that they are thereafter constant in the backward direction. <ENDCHECK> But the 1920's is about 10 generations back from the present population. Is 10 generations enough time to make irrelevant the effect of the two constant base positions? Furthermore how can two base positions in the 10th generation back be considered significant regarding the overall soundness and abilities of contemporary animals and what they are able to produce, given that there are 1022 (2^10 - 2) other base positions, all, or most, quite likely having large variability at this junction? That biologists can associate the all-male and all-female lines with some simple characteristics does not mean the whole animal is jeopardized. No animal is ever perfect.

Therefore, I do not place much stock in the proposition that the present Siberian Husky gene pool is doomed because lack of diversity in 2 out of 1024 base points about 10 generations back. The deficiency in the Siberian Husky world today is numbers and a lack of commitment in the people who breed and own the dogs. The mental and physical characteristics necessary to win at any kind of racing, except possibly short-distance sprinting, against all competition, is still present and healthy in the Seppala Sleddog.

Most of the suitable Seppala outcross animals today come from racing lines with a strong Gatineau base, namely Anadyr and the New England dogs, most notably Igloo Pak. Gatineau was Donnie McFaul's kennel before he acquired Seppala kennels from Wheeler in 1950. After McFaul acquired the Wheeler dogs, he sold all his Gatineau dogs to other racers, and these were for the most part the foundation animals for the non-Seppala racing lines of today. Most of the Gatineau dogs, which were bred with the same philosophy as Wheeler had, were already 90% or more based on Wheeler's Seppalas. So the biggest piece of the base behind today's non-Seppala racing Siberians was Seppala, and therefore, should not constitute a gross corruption of what we are trying to preserve. An outcross to a modern racing non-Seppala and then one or two generations of breeding back to the 97 - 100% Seppala usually will bring the last set of offspring back into the greater than 95% group.

Please feel free to comment on any of the above. Maybe we can keep the long hot summer from getting too boring.

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