2022 Canine Health Summit

Alaskan Sled Dogs, the Genetics and Selection of Elite Canine Athletes

Thurs, April 28, 2022 | 3:00 PM ET


Heather Huson, PhD

Associate Professor of Animal Genetics, Cornell University Department of Animal Sciences

Endurance, and mental and physical fortitude. They were originally developed as working dogs to haul cargo-laden sleds and served as humans’ primary means of transportation, protection, and companionship in arctic regions. With the advent of modern machinery, Alaskan sled dogs transitioned into elite canine athletes, with one subpopulation capable of sprinting 20mph for nearly 30 miles and another subpopulation able to traverse over 1,000 miles of harsh arctic terrain in just 8 days. They are a recognized breed of working / sporting dogs selected solely on performance, rather than appearance, thus setting the breed apart from most others. They have a complex history of crossbreeding and performance selection making them more genetically diverse and hardier than many other dogs. These factors make the Alaskan sled dog a unique model to study the genetics of ancestry, adaptation, and athletic performance. To date, my research has provided insight as to the historical and recent ancestry of modern Alaskan sled dogs and how that ancestry influences performance. We’ve determined the frequency of genetic health variants and identified regions of the genome associated with two distinctive diseases in Alaskan sled dogs. Our current work is aimed at understanding the genetics of various performance measures and the selection of Alaskan sled dogs for sprinting (<30 miles) or endurance (hundreds of miles). With this information, we aim to implement genetic prediction of health and performance traits in Alaskan sled dogs to inform management and breeding programs of sled dogs. This work will in turn establish a foundation to similarly study and implement genetic selection of other working and sporting dogs in the future.

About the Speaker

Dr. Heather Jay Huson is an Associate Professor of Animal Genetics in the Department of Animal Science at Cornell University. Dr. Huson received her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University (’97) and Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (11). A significant part of her PhD work was done at the National Institutes of Health in the Human Genome Research Institute and her post-doctoral research was with the USDA Bovine Functional Genomics Laboratory. She has a diverse background combining animal breeding, veterinary technician experience, and molecular genetics across livestock, companion animals, and wildlife species. Dr. Huson competitively raced Alaskan sprint sled dogs for 23 years, participating in internationally sanctioned events throughout the continental United States, Canada, and Alaska. She left competitive racing during her graduate studies but kept close contact with the sport as she studied the genetics of Alaskan sled dogs. Her research aims at improving animal health and performance by investigating the genetic regulation of economically important traits. In addition, she explores population structure and admixture to better understand selection, breed development, and conservation. Her primary research focus uses genetic profiles to identify ancestral and population dynamics and establish their relationship to performance or adaptation. Her work has identified genetic markers associated with athletic performance in Alaskan sled dogs and production or adaptation measures in livestock. The genetics associated with performance in working dogs remains Dr. Huson’s passion and her research has expanded to other working dog groups including guide and detection dogs. Her research also includes the study of canine aging in an effort to extend the working lfespan and quality of life in dogs. An end goal of her research efforts is to generate data thal/can be directly used as a tool to inform breeding and management.

2022 Canine Health Summit Sessions