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Little Chinook History
The Chinook is an American breed of dog developed in the early 1900s by a man in New England named Arthur Walden. I make no claim to be a Chinook historian but here's a short version of their development.
Walden had been a "dog puncher" during the Yukon Gold Rush and he brought an infectious love of dog sledding home with him. He and his wife had what would be considered a Bed & Breakfast these days in Wonalancet, New Hampshire. Originally Walden had numerous Saint Bernard / Collie crosses as pets on the farm and he put them in harness for light hauling. But he bred a litter of three pups, born on January 17, 1917, that weren't his typical Collie x St. Bernard cross. These pups didn't look like their sire, a big dog, possibly a mixed breed or maybe even an early Leonberger named Kim, nor did they look like their dam Ningo, daughter (or possibly granddaughter) of the lead dog from Admiral Peary's North Pole sled team. Instead all three were yellow colored dogs with floppy ears.
The most outstanding of the three pups (originally called Riki, Tiki, and Tavi) was one that Walden began to call "Chinook" after his favorite lead dog during his Yukon Gold Rush days. As an adult, Chinook became Walden's lead dog. Walden bred Chinook to a German Shepherd and numerous other "huskies" (all husky-type dogs were mutts in those days; there were no Alaskan Malamutes or Siberian Huskies like we have now) of that time. All the pups looked like their sire: gold with some masking in either black or buff, and big blocky heads. They were excellent sled dogs, again taking after their sire. Unlike the sled dogs that Walden had known during his Yukon days though, these dogs loved humans and seriously wanted to please their master more than just run for the horizon as fast as they could.
Other people took notice of Walden and his dog-powered transport. Walden eventually started the New England Sled Dog Club with other sledding enthusiasts, a group that is still active today. Charter members included his close friends Milton and Eva "Short" Seeley. Short had her first-ever dog sled ride behind Walden's Chinook and her first sled dog was "Nook, a son of Chinook and a German Shepherd female. Walden and his team of what were then called "Chinook dogs" won the majority of the early races in New England, earning Chinooks the reputation of being solid, steady, and strong sled dogs. Up until this time, most sled dogs were big, similar in size to the Alaskan Malamute of today. People thought they needed a big dog to go fast. After all, they needed big dogs to pull heavy loads so why not for going fast too? Or at least they thought this until Leonard Seppala arrived with a team of Siberian Huskies straight off the boat from Siberia. Finally people began to see that minus a heavy load, the small fifty-pound Siberians could run circles around Walden's bigger Chinooks. The smaller Siberians began to win races.
Meantime, in the mid 1920s Robert Byrd came looking for Walden. He was planning an expedition to fly over the South Pole in a small plane and he was going to need dogs for ground transportation. Walden was put in charge of the dogs and was tasked with assembling teams, the humans to drive them, and all the necessary supplies. They arrived in Antarctica in 1927 . The dog teams included Chinook himself, now an old dog. Chinook died in Antarctica but his offspring returned home where Milton and Short Seeley had been watching over Walden's farm and caring for his wife who had fragile health. Walden was broke and an argument over money led to his giving Chinook Kennels and the name to the Seeleys as payment for a debt. He sold his Chinook breeding stock to Julia Lombard, who took over breeding.
Seeleys and Waldens never resolved their differences though Short continued to be a fan of dog sledding. She went on to be the driving force behind both the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute, leading the development of both into the breeds we have today, including getting them recognized by AKC. Because of the bad blood with Waldens though, she refused to discuss Chinooks in later years, even going as far as sometimes denying that they existed. That must have been one heck of an argument! Because Short turned her focus to these two breeds and ignored the Chinooks, the Sibe and Mal became the popular breeds they are today and the Chinook began a slow drift into near obscurity. Whenever there is a get-together of Chinook breeders, you'll hear us speculate on what the state of the Chinook breed would be today if the Waldens and Seeleys had patched things up or never argued at all. Would the Chinook have become a populous family pet as the Siberian Husky is today?
Walden continued as the Director of Julia Lombard's breeding program. He spoke of wanting to develop, "the gentleman's carriage horse" of sled dogs, a true, all-purpose puller. He saw the need for a dog that could pull weights almost as heavy as the freighters and go almost as quickly as the small, racers. Sadly, Walden died before realizing his dream of building a stable breed. His death was a heroic one though. He rushed into a burning building, saving his wife from a fire. In 1940 Julia Lombard sold her Chinook breeding stock to a well known Maine woodsman, a lumberjack named Perry Greene.
Greene bought twenty Chinooks and equipment for $500.00 dollars and moved them from New Hampshire to Warren, Maine. During February, 1941 Perry and his stepson, Johnny Gephart with seven Chinooks (Walden’s trained team) impressed many by hauling 800 pounds of equipment from Fort Kent to Kittery, Maine. It took them ninety hours to travel 502 miles, the longest sled dog trek ever made entirely within the United States at the time. In 1946 construction of a new facility for the Chinooks was started and finished in January 1947. A log lodge, kennel and store in Waldoboro, Maine was to be the new home of the Chinooks, putting them all under one roof.
Perry Greene was quite the showman and he enjoyed cultivating an air of mystery about the breed. By not selling any females until they were spayed, he held onto his monopoly of the breed though the Chinook was very popular as a family pet. Like Walden, Perry had a unique way of selecting new owners. Before you could purchase a Chinook from him, he insisted that you come and stay at his kennel for at least twenty-four hours. If the dogs didn't like you, you went home empty handed. If you passed this scrutiny, you could take home your Chinook, a male or spayed female, and never more than two. Considering that distemper could have wiped out the breed, he was taking quite a risk!
Several Chinook owners and breeders of today were able to meet Perry Greene before he passed away in 1963. Donna Kirtley Boatwright of Cloudburst Chinooks talks of visits to Perry Greene Kennels as a youngster on her website at CloudburstChinooks.com/History.htm. He was definitely a very colorful character.
Sometimes it easiest to explain to people what a Chinook is NOT than what it is. My stock answer when I’m asked in the park, hardware store, or bookstore is that they are an American breed of sled dog, end of story. That’s about all most people can absorb. They will then go on to tell you about all the sled dogs their friends own, how big they are and how they have such long hair, and so on. The average person knows very little about sled dogs and what they think they know is usually wrong.
The Chinook isn’t an Alaskan Malamute, Alaskan Husky, or Siberian Husky. Yes, Chinooks are a Northern breed and their DNA “fingerprint (Note 1)” shows that they are very close relations of both Malamutes and Siberians. But there are significant differences.
The Siberian and Alaskan Huskies are the racers of the sled dog breeds, along with the newer Eurohound. They were developed to run and to do so as fast as possible and in the case of all but sprint dogs, to keep going for as long as they can. It is common that Siberians have problems with running off. Not because they want to leave home or their owners, just because they want to RUN! And after a day or so it’s easy to forget exactly where home is. Chinooks don’t have this problem. I couldn’t pay my dogs to leave home. Or at least not to leave the dog food bin and my bed (since they like my heated mattress pad).
The Malamute is a freighting dog, built to pull heavy loads of food back to native villages. It was also used for hunting and guarding the children. It’s sometimes said that they were turned loose for the summer and expected to provide their own food. Obviously this would make a dog a bit fractious and cranky. I know I would be.
So where does the Chinook fall on the racing versus freighting continuum? Right in the middle I guess you could say. They were designed to be "the gentleman's carriage horse" of sled dogs. They may not go as fast as a Siberian or Alaskan, nor pull as heavy a weight as a Malamute, but they are very capable of pulling a reasonably heavy load for a long distance at a very good clip. They are the general purpose and middle ground of sled dogs. And when they are done pulling, they are the very best of family pets.
In addition to the Northern breeds in the Chinook background, herding breeds were introduced to make them a more "biddable" breed. (Note 1 again.) Northern breeds are not noted for being the most trainable and responsive to their owners. They need to be very independent as they work perhaps twenty-plus feet in front of the sled driver. But that independence is a challenge when you're not attached to a sled. By introducing genes from the German Shepherd and Belgian Shepherd, the Chinook became more people oriented and more amenable to training. They love to be with their families and are take easily to training when it is handled in a positive fashion. Dog aggression is usually lacking too, even between adult males. I host a picnic every year where we have forty or more Chinooks running loose within a five-acre fenced area here. Where other breeds would be prone to have fights, the Chinooks get along. After all, it’s only home to my personal dogs that are used to having regular visitors and enjoy new dogs to play with.
The classic friendly Chinook temperament is one of the most identifying features of the breed. It’s definitely spurring their growth as a suburban family pet. I often explain them to people as "the Golden Retriever of sled dogs." They love people and love to be with them, which is our biggest problem when training them for drafting sports such as sledding, skijorring, scootering, and so on. (Some think they shouldn’t have to go as far away from their owner as far as is needed to effectively pull.)
Along with friendliness is their adaptability. They are thrilled to live according to your lifestyle and schedule. While building my present home, I lived in an apartment for six months. Though I couldn’t have all five of the dogs with me, I had them two at a time and they took to apartment life better than I did. Instead of having a yard to romp in, they had to be on leash at all times, except when we were visiting the new property and the house construction site. Chinooks are willing to spend the weekdays watching television and hanging out around the house as long as they get a good run in on the weekend. That pretty much describes my lifestyle, which may be why my Chinooks and I have been together for 25 years now.
You'll notice some physical differences between Chinooks and other Northern breeds and this is where people tend to get confused. They have a picture in their minds that says all sled dogs should have pricked ears, blue eyes, a fluffy coat and a curled tail. But that is really the minority of dogs.
First let’s tackle ears since this is a hot topic with Chinooks. Chinook ears are all over the place. You'll see Chinooks with up ears, down ears, one up and one down, and everything in between. No, it's not possible to predict what the ears of a pup will look like until it's about five months old and has finished teething, unless it’s one of the rare ones that has pricked ears at a young age. When you talk to breeders, you really can’t order up ear carriage like you do the flavor of your milkshake.
Personally I love the Chinook ears that are cattywhompus because they are so expressive and each dog looks like an individual. Thunder had ears that are down but when he was happy or excited, especially if he was around a girl dog he liked, he’d throw one mostly up, though still out to the side like an airplane with only one wing. Puppy ears especially can change every day. If your pup's ears go up right away, it will probably have up ears for life but other ear carriages take a little longer to make a final decision. This is all perfectly acceptable and our breed standard simply says, "For aesthetic purposes only, matched is preferred." Yes, a Chinook with one up and one down can look a little comical. But as long as they have two of the right size and shape, attached to the head and not a leg, it really doesn't matter. You don’t want ears that are too big or have ear leather that is too thin since these could freeze too easily in cold weather. But otherwise, as long as the overall shape is correct and it’s plugged in at the right spot, no one will harass you. When your dog grows up and gives you the slitty-eyed, ears-back smile, you’ll be glad they all have such expressive ears. Just wait until you see the guilty look!
Now about fur. Too many people think a sled dog should have tons of long, fluffy fur. They meet a Chinook and think, "That can't be a sled dog, it doesn't have enough hair!" Trust me, Chinooks have enough hair. When your Chinook sheds, you will know that it has more than enough hair. [Rule of thumb: If you are building a new house, make sure your hardwood floors match the color of your dog's hair. I didn't do that. And now my dust bunnies stand out oh so well; a nice honey color against the dark cherry stain.]
like the Malamute, Siberian, and many other breeds, what the Chinook has is a double coat consisting of a coarse outer coat and a soft, woolly undercoat. There are a few reasons that the Chinook coat looks different than other Northern breeds. First, when we’re showing our Chinooks, we don't blow out the coat to make it look fluffier. We tell people we are fans of a natural look but mostly it's because we're too lazy to spend the time foofing with them and they don’t enjoy foofing much anyway. When you see Siberians, Malamutes, Akitas, and other breeds on televised dog shows you’re seeing dogs that have had far more time in the beauty salon than you or I ever dreamed of (and it takes a lot of time to keep mine blonde now that these weird gray things are creeping into my scalp). Like I said, this is the breed that survived Antarctic winters. We take pride in having a natural dog.
Also, one of the reasons that Chinooks make such great pets is that they are adaptable and that includes not developing the heavy undercoat if they live in a warm climate. A Chinook living in Florida won't have as thick an undercoat as one that lives in Maine or Montana. Even here in the northern latitudes of western Washington State, my Chinooks don't develop a very heavy coat unless we are having an exceptionally cold winter, despite spending much of the day outside. Their outer coat also lies flatter to the body than the Siberian and Malamute coats, which naturally stand out from the body and are fluffed out even more when they are formally groomed. (Visualize a dog show where the Chinooks are trash talking the dogs who are stuck up on grooming tables: "Hey buddy, real dogs do do blow dryers!") When your Chinook finally grows up and has its first really shed of a winter coat, you will realize just how much fur they were hiding from you. It may not happen the first winter but it will happen and you too will wish you owned stock in a company that made vacuum bags for that two to three week period. But then they stop and you're lulled into a sense of complacency again until the next time.
Chinooks occasionally crop up with longer than average hair. For those of you who are new to the world of sled dogs, please take note. Sled dogs can have too much hair. Excessively thick hair means the dog can overheat while running. If it has the wrong texture, it might allow snow to collect and clump, a nasty thing if it happens between the pads of their feet. Long coats in Chinooks can be a variety of lengths. Depending on the overall quality of the dog, they still compete in conformation shows and possibly be used for breeding. Other Northern breeds have long coats crop up here and there too. In the Chinook this long coated gene may be from one of the sled dog ancestor breeds or could also come from the German or Belgian Shepherd genes since both have long coated varieties. Though possibly not the ideal, and I don't know of anyone who breeds for the longer coat, there is nothing wrong with it if the Chinook is correct in every other way.
Color is a hot topic that can always cause an argument and even break up friendships. Chinooks are usually various ranges of gold in color, which we call tawny. But other colors happen with regularity too. If a dog is very pale colored, off white with gold overtones, we call it "buff." The two colors don't have a definite demarcation between them other than buff colored dogs don't have black guard hairs and tawny ones do. A buff Chinook can even be darker than a tawny one. Here’s the scoop: Tawny pups are born dark brown, sometimes almost black and buff pups are born almost white. The dark tawny pups will get lighter and the buff colored pups will get darker. They can even pass each other up. There are very dark buff dogs and very light tawny dogs too.
In addition, we occasionally get black and tan or gray and tan pups too. The tan markings will be like those of a Doberman or Rottie. If you look through historical photos of Chinooks you'll see many of these dogs in the early days of the breed. The dam of Chinook himself was a gray or black and tan husky. (Of course I am completely prejudiced after having lived with a gorgeous gray and tan Chinook for nearly fourteen years.)
Color is the basis of the difference between UKC and AKC’s breed standards. UKC considers colors other than tawny to be a fault. AKC completely disqualifies them. I wish that AKC and UKC Standards were the same on this issue but they aren't and I'm not going to be able to change them all by myself. Color is a minor detail for a dog that works. Working ability should be the primary criteria. I don’t know of any breeder that wants to produce black and tan or buff pups but I know some damned nice odd colored Chinooks that have popped up here and there. For now, I have to live with the rules the way they are. That's just how things go.
are a few traits that are common among Chinooks. Mind you, if your dog
of unknown origin has these traits, that doesn't necessarily mean that
it's a Chinook. These are just the fun quirks that we laugh and
commiserate about when we're out and about together at dog shows or
Hurricane Elwa Taigi Rain
Camas proves his lack of neck
bones to Tom Christiansen
Hurricane Cheechako easily bounces higher
than my fence but was far too polite to ever
actually jump over it
If you have any other questions about what it's like to live with a Chinook, don't hesitate to ask. Remember that as wonderful as they are, they are still dogs after all.
Exercise: Be prepared for a dog that has puppy like enthusiasm and energy well into their twilight years. They are not hyper and don't require excessive amounts of exercise, but they are active throughout their whole lives. As far as exercise, Chinooks are willing to pull a sled all day OR hang out and watch television. But the more exercise you give your Chinook, the better behaved they are. A tired dog just doesn't get into trouble. I also believe in giving them mental exercise as well as physical. Thunder thought a Buster Cube was the best indoor exercise possible. To him it was the canine equivalent of a tavern game. Dog class, walks in our neighborhood, rides in the car, and frequent critter hunts -- I love receiving gifts of dead mice -- help keep my gang in shape and mellow.
Grooming: The biggest grooming requirement with Chinooks is keeping their nails trimmed. They have thick, strong nails that need to be trimmed frequently. If you see a Chinook pulling a sled loaded with a heavy weight on an icy surface, you'll understand the purpose of those toenails. They really do use them to dig into the ice and help them get traction. I do have to trim nails at least every two to three weeks. By starting with young pups and trying to make it a happy event (think bribery with food, this is the time for the high value treats, nothing but the best cheese for the day I trim nails), I avoid battles with an 85 pound dog later in life. Granted, they never seem to like it. Dogs who spend more time on asphalt, concrete, sand, or gravel will need less trimming than dogs who spend all their time on dirt.
Otherwise their coat is very good at repelling dirt and odors thanks to its natural lanolin. When my dogs come back inside covered with mud, I let the mud dry then it just falls off them. Nothing really clings to their fur, other than the stinky stuff they find to roll in when we're on walks or worse, when they're on walk-abouts without me! I bathe them very seldom since they stay naturally clean. An occasional brushing seems to take care of things.
As far as "blowing coat," Chinooks don't shed a lot on a daily basis but do shed all their coat at once once or twice a year. That is when you'll realize just how much hair they really do have as your dust bunnies will be the size of a cat. While blowing coat, I brush them daily. The rest of the year their shedding is minimal. The biggest shedders are females who have not been spayed. This would be followed by intact males. Neutered males shed the least. If you are wearing a black wool suit and trying to get out of your house to an important meeting, you will have golden hairs on you when you least desire it though they shed less than many other breeds in general.
Digging: Since they are a northern breed, they do have the instinct to dig a bed in the dirt. They're not prone to as much digging as terrier breeds but be prepared. My Chinooks and I used to have a truce -- I let them dig a two-dog-underground condominium in their pen and they didn't dig in my flower beds. Digging is something a Chinook will do when it's bored. I have never had trouble with my Chinook jumping over my fence but I have had a few who would dig a hole to China that would lead them out of the yard en route. I know some people who have made digging boxes for their Chinooks just like you give a child a sandbox. Bury some toys in in and show the dog that he can dig in this spot and they will soon learn. Now I have enough land for them that they can dig all they want and the chances are that they aren't digging anywhere important. Plus the soil here is pure glacial till, full of so many rocks that I have to use a pick ax to dig even the smallest hole; that has slowed down their urge to dig lately.
Barking: Chinooks are not huge barkers. If mine bark when out in their pen or playing in the yard, (other than to insist I let them back in), they usually have a reason, such as alien invaders from outer space (Murphy the Lab from down the road) or a Communist take-over of the vegetable garden.
Your Chinook is far more likely to look you in the eye and tell you a story about something that happened in his day. You will rarely be in doubt as to what she is telling you as they make their point very clear. You will be amazed at the depth of conversation you can have with a Chinook since instead of barking they will roo and woo and mutter with the occasional small woof thrown in. They are not typically full time sing-at-the-moon huskies but will burst into song with any invitation. Mine will set off a sing at various points throughout the day though probably more often in the house in a "Hail, hail, the gang's all here" song after breakfast or just before bed.
Because they are talkers, it takes a bit of time for pups to learn when they can talk and when they can't. With a young pup, there will be some verbal complaining when they first learn about their dog crates or going to bed at night. By far the most successful means I've had of getting through this is to let them cry it out if need be. Ignoring bad behavior and rewarding the good is one of the better training methods for Chinooks, especially where whining is concerned.
At least weekly if not more often, I get emails and phone calls from people who have dogs they are convinced are Chinooks. These are dogs they got as puppies or adults from friends, ads in papers or Craigslist, or shelters in places all over the country. In almost every case I am able to say right off the bat that their dog isn't a Chinook. Rather it's what we call a Chinook-Alike, a mix of breeds that looks quite like a Chinook but is NOT a purebred Chinook.
Trust me. There are no forgotten litters of Chinooks, no lost Chinooks turned into shelters on remote corners of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, no careless breeders. In fact we keep such careful track of our pups that each breeder can tell you where virtually every pup they have ever produced is up until that pup dies of old age. Owners would be fined up to thousands of dollars should they ever turn a Chinook into a shelter or give it away via an ad on Craigslist.
The traffic of Chinook-Alikes has increased over the last few years what with the introduction of DNA tests that supposedly will tell you what breeds are in your dog's pedigree. I was personally involved in the joint committee of the Chinook Owners Association and Chinook Club of America that provided Mars Wisdom Panel with DNA samples that went into their developing their DNA "fingerprint" of the Chinook breed. They did extensive sampling of the Chinook because we had so many dogs of known generations of cross breeding and they wanted to study the effects of those generations.
The Mars Wisdom Panel is one of the more expensive DNA tests and is the ONLY one of the companies that I know of that even sampled Chinooks. Any other company may have sampled one or two dogs that I haven't heard of but only Mars conducted a true substantial breed sample. Yet even so, the results of their test is such that if your dog has parents that are each purebreds of different breeds, the test will only be accurate 84% of the time. If one parent was a mixed breed, the chance of success declines substantially; if both parents are mixed breeds, the chances of success are even lower. In fact, if you look at the results of DNA testing versus visual identification, I would bet my life that visual identification is far more accurate.
The big question to ask yourself is: What does it matter? If you found out that your dog was a purebred Chinook, it wouldn't change the fact that you love her dearly. He would still be the dog that loves to ride along with you when you drive to your parents. She will still be the dog that warms your feet on cold nights while you're watching TV.
We are a social group of people and we do welcome Chinook-Alike owners to join us at our various events. In fact Chinook-Alikes can even be registered with the UKC if they are spayed/neutered and can compete in the various performance events such as agility, rally, obedience, and weight pull. Many of the members of our club originally had a Chinook-Alike and later added a purebred Chinook to the family. German Shepherd or Lab crosses, Chow crosses, various husky crosses -- the list of mixes that can look like a Chinook are many. In fact, another breed -- the Carolina Dog -- looks amazingly like the Chinook.
There are often dogs that I know darn well are not Chinooks yet I still have a hard time telling them from purebreds after all the years I've been involved with our breed. I used to have a black Lab - Irish Setter cross who was lacking in virtually all dignity and brains. So I told all who asked that she was a Flat Coat Retriever. She needed the dignity. If anyone pushed I would admit the white lie. So if you think your dog needs the dignity of being a purebred Chinook, who am I to sit in judgment? I don't recommend that you waste money on DNA testing. Nor do you need to send me photos. Just love your pup. If you'd like to meet Chinooks in person to compare them to your dog, give me a shout. but it won't change how much you love your dog. Your dog is perfect after all.
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Photos from the top down: the original namesake of the breed, Chinook himself. Next is a Chinook team from the 1920s showing two black and tan dogs. Below that is Arthur Walden with Chinook. In the table of links are first Thunder and below him in harness, my first Chinook Northdown Skykomish, showing some wounds from a skirmish with a raccoon.
Copyright © Ginger Corley, Rain Mountain Chinooks, 1988 to present. No material may be reproduced without permission, though permission is usually granted. Logo by Susan Fletcher, Frontier Chinooks, used here with permission and much appreciation of her great talent.