Samoyed: The Versatile Beauty
Text and Photos by Kent & Donna Dannen
The smiles, the pointing fingers, the wondrous raving by complete strangers
over the dog's beauty--a Samoyed owner soon learns what it is like to possess
one of the most beautiful breeds of the canine world.
The long, sparkling white coat contrasting with dark nose and eye rims causes
the Samoyed to look glamorous. The upright, pointed ears, long muzzle, and
plume like tail curled over a moderate-sized body identify it as one of
the romantic husky breeds. The dark lip lines accent the expressive Sammy
"smile," which transforms the dog's admirers into its friends.
"What kind of dog is it?" the wide-eyed admirers ask.
"A Samoyed," the owner replies, perhaps putting the accent on
the first syllable or more commonly on the second, but always trying to
emphasize the "d" on the end of the name.
"Oh, a Sam. . .oyon. Will it bite?"
"No," the owner laughs, ignoring the mispronunciation. "This
dog loves you as much as me."
Happily plunging fingers deep into the sensuously thick coat, the questioner
enjoys the dog's obvious pleasure in being petted as it cuddles up to the
petter. In this way, the Samoyed's great beauty and friendly personality
snares another admirer.
Yet, as a tee-shirt popular among Samoyed owners proclaims, the working
Samoyed is more than a pretty face. Rugged and sturdy under the masses of
hair, modern Sams are multipurpose descendants of dogs first developed many
centuries ago by nomadic Samoyed tribes of north-central Siberia, one of
the toughest homelands on earth. Preserved in isolation by the ruggedness
of this Arctic territory, the Samoyed remained mostly unchanged over several
thousand years, making it today one of the oldest breeds.
The Samoyed tribes were semi-nomadic reindeer herders. In summer, they grazed
their reindeer on the ground-hugging plants of the Arctic tundra. In winter,
they retreated with their herds to subarctic forests. To supplement their
livelihood, Samoyedic tribes hunted and fished. Throughout the year, these
nomads lived in tents called "chooms." Covered with reindeer hides
or bark, chooms were conical and often banked with earth or snow in winter.
To Samoyedic wanderers, only reindeer were more significant than their precious,
multipurpose dogs. Occasionally, a dog's hide with its long hair might end
up as part of human clothing. Usually, though, the dogs helped the Samoyedic
tribes herd their reindeer and hunt wild animals even as daunting as polar
bears. The dogs' bodies added warmth to the chooms during Siberian winters
and companionship in the wilderness. Samoyeds also transported their masters
across the snow in dog sleds.
This wandering lifestyle may account for the Sam's inclination to wander
today, making a securely fenced yard or constant use of a leash necessities
for keeping a Samoyed safe. A nomadic heritage may also account for the
breeds adaptibility to various living conditions. Sams can do well in apartments
and urban, suburban, or rural houses so long as they receive plenty of exercise
under control of fence or leash. Lack of a fenced yard does place considerable
demand for leashed walks on the owner, who will benefit tremendously also
from the time-consuming exercise. Samoyeds also seem to adapt to the heat
of southern states, if they can find refuge in air conditioning with the
cool times of day available for exercise.
The one thing a Samoyed cannot tolerate is being ignored or living without
companionship. With its heritiage of living and working with nomadic people
on a daily basis, the Sam must be an integral part of its family rather
than being constantly exiled to even a large fenced yard or comfortable
kennel. An ignored Samoyed can do significant damage to property and even
to itself, not out of anger but out of boredom. Most adult Sams can tolerate
lack of humans during normal working hours, but Samoyeds should be part
their owners' lives during the rest of the day. Puppies of all breeds, of
course, require special attention and lots of time during their formative
weeks in a new home.
Regrettably, the Communist Revolution in Russia cut off western experience
with the Samoyed people and their beautiful, multipurpose dogs. No significant
breeding stock from Siberia influenced western Samoyed pedigrees after World
Our best sources of information about the Samoyed people, their culture, and
their dogs are the journals of a few turn-of-the-century polar explorers. These
men went to Samoyed tribes to buy dogs to aid in the charting of unknown
Antarctic and Arctic regions. Adventurers used Samoyed dogs to pull sleds and
praised these dogs fervently, especially for their hard-working spunk and
A low percentage of the dogs of all breeds used on these explorations survived
the expeditions. Because they were so appealing individually, and thus received
special consideration, Samoyeds may have had a little better chance. Some
Sams became pets of expedition members. Other Samoyeds went on display in
zoos after serving on famous expeditions. Most importantly to the breed,
English dog enthusiasts bought some of these dogs and established a breed
The Samoyed looks much the same today as the dogs who pulled explorers'
sleds. Norwegian adventurer Fridtjof Nansen in 1893-94 tried to reach the
North Pole with a Samoyed sled team. His records of his dogs' weights and
heights match the dimensions of today's normal Samoyeds. Proper weight for
a 21- to-23 1/2-inch male is around 60 pounds; a 19- to-21-inch female weighs
45 to 50 pounds. This size is a compromise between a somewhat smaller sprint-racing
dog and a giant freighting dog. Many of the dogs originally bought in Siberia
for polar exploration could have won championships in modern dog shows.
Expedition dogs from the western Samoyedic tribes often were spotted, black,
or brown, unexceptable in today's show ring. However, Alexander Trontheim,
a Russian who bought dogs for foreign explorers, tended to shop among Samoyed
tribes in eastern Siberia. These remote people always bred dogs colored
like modern purebred Samoyeds, white, cream, or biscuit.
Some historians of the breed maintain that all Samoyeds are descended from
just 12 individual dogs. This ancestral dozen all came under the care of
English breeders, who established a registry and began competing with Sams
in dog shows. Several were veterans of the 1894 Jackson-Harmsworth exploration
of Franz Josef Land north of the Arctic Circle. One dog was salvaged from
an Australian zoo where it had been warehoused after completing the Borchgrevink
Antarctic expedition. Another Samoyed survived the North Pole expedition
led by Italian adventurer the Duc d' Abruzzi. Alexander Trontheim supplied
some others and some English breeders themselves followed the route of this
Russian dog broker to the Siberian source before World War I. (We should
have mentioned this effort to a potential puppy buyer in Colorado who balked
at the distance when we referred her to a litter bred in central Wyoming.)
Befitting its romantic, glamorous appearance, the Samoyed that first emigrated
to America came in 1904 as companion to Princess de Montyglyon, of the Holy
Roman Empire's ruling family. That dog had been a gift from the Grand Duke
of Russia, the Czar's brother.
The breed's aristocratic looks were inconsistent with its egalitarian attitude
and working spirit, and Samoyed breeders in America emphasized canine virtues
that harmonized with the American work ethic. Breeding and exhibiting dogs
they imported primarily from English show stock, American breeders preserved
sledding abilities that had served well the English polar explorers and
nomadic Siberian tribes.
A sound body free of genetic faults was critical to this effort. Though
the Samoyed breed sometimes produces genetic flaws found in many canines,
careful screening of breeding stock by reputable breeders has kept these
problems to a minimum. Puppy shots given by a veterinarian generally come
along with a general exam that provides warning of any heart defects. Sire
and dam should have had their hips X-rayed and examined by canine orthopedists
to be sure of freedom from hip dysplasia. Better yet is for all eight grandparents
as well to have been X-rayed and cleared.
Sire and dam should have been examined by a canine ophthalmologist also
to be sure they are free of progressive retinal atrophy, glaucoma, cataracts
and retinal dysplasia. Nordic breeds, which include the Samoyed, are said
to have a higher than average rate of cataracts and glaucoma, though the
incidence of these problems seems to have remained low enough to avoid a
major concern among Sammy enthusiasts.
Puppies sold as potential show and breeding prospects also should have their
eyes examined, although this may present a logistical problem. An ophthalmologist
can clear eyes as free of problems as early as eight weeks. An eye problem
cannot be diagnosed, however, until as late as 12 weeks because normal eye
development sometimes masquarades as disease. Since the ideal time to send
puppies to a new home is in the ninth week, it may be up to the new owners
rather than the breeder to get eye checks done.
In the 1950s, Rex of White Way was a Samoyed from California who was well-known
for his working attitude and accomplishments. Agnes Mason, who bred Rex,
had lived in Alaska and maintained sled dogs with her father. She continued
her interest in sledding when she moved to California and began breeding
Mason showed off Samoyeds' abilities through exhibitions with her dogs at
parades, fairs, and dog shows. She hired Lloyd Van Sickle to drive her dogs
on mail sled runs between Ashton, Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana.
Rex of White Way was the mail run team leader. Rex also learned to parachute
from small airplanes to help rescue travelers trapped in winter snow.
Though successful in dog shows, Rex evidently was too busy with other work
to complete his championship. One story of this renowned dog has him pulled
from a dog show to assist in the rescue of plane crash survivors in the
Sierra Mountains. Rex also competed well in weight pulls. Rex of White Way
is in the pedigrees of many of the top working Samoyeds today. His drive
and determination to pull have stamped these characteristics on many of
the breed's modern bloodlines.
It might seem that this working heritage could be revealed physically in
malformed Samoyed owners who have one arm stretched out longer than the
other by their pet's pulling on the end of a leash. While walking their
dogs, Sam owners often hear comments from passersby such as, "Now just
who is taking whom for a walk?" This inconvenient tendency can be trained
out of Samoyeds, who can distinguish when they should heel on lead and pull
The Samoyed may have fared better under its primitive owners than did breeds
developed by other Arctic people. Tribal Samoyed breeders must have loved
their dogs greatly to create gentle animals that dote on children and have
basically calm, predictable temperaments. As living blankets, Sams often
brought comfort to Samoyed people in Siberia's biting cold winter nights.
In warm, modern homes, many Samoyeds prefer to sleep next to (or in) their
masters' beds, despite the hot discomfort of their heavy, double coats.
Such devotion does not cause a Samoyed to loyally defend his owner or owner's
property. Sams usually trust and love all people and almost certainly will
wag a tail at the burglar rather than exercise the toothy end. Warning barks
as strangers approach his master's property only mean the Sam is excited
with the prospect of someone new to love. Its loud voice makes the Samoyed
a very useful watch dog despite the breed's total incompetence as an attacking
Its light-hearted approach to life may reflect the general attitude of the
original Samoyed people. In any case, the Sam's happy-go-lucky outlook has
contributed to the American Kennel Club's description of the breed: "The
big, white, smiling dog carries in its face the spirit of Christmas the
whole year through."
Mischieviousness typical of Sams adds challenge to puppy raising or obedience
training. Bored Samoyeds make a hobby of destruction, greatly distressing
Samoyed owners who have little time to spend on training their pets. Even
the Sam who gets much attention and training stays awake nights dreaming
up ways to frustrate the owner's goals. When training becomes a game, though,
training a Samoyed is fun. Many Sams have done well in obedience trials.
As with most breeds, successful training also requires that the owner maintain
the role of pack leader.
Samoyeds perform well in many outdoor activities and need a fair amount
of exercise. Whether on a long excursion with dog packs fully loaded to
25 percent of the dog's weight or on quick jaunts through the forest, working
and playing with its master bonds the two through achieving a mutual goal.
The owner of only one Samoyed might enjoy skijoring, cross country skiing
with a dog pulling on the end of a tow line. It looks something like water
skiing and is not nearly as bold as it sounds.
A pair of Samoyeds can pull a dog sled, but three or four trained to work
as team provide better power. Sledding exercises the owner as well as the
dogs and fills winter with fun. The original Samoyeds used by the English
to preserve the breed worked as sled dogs, having been bred in Siberia for
that task. This alone should settle an everlasting dispute among today's
enthusiasts about whether Samoyeds were designed to pull sleds or herd reindeer.
Because nomadic people cannot afford single-purpose possessions, Samoyed
tribes likely used their dogs for both these purposes.
Sams are unlikely to be the fastest dogs in a sled race. However, a well-built,
well-conditioned Sam team with a good lead dog sometimes may take advantage
of a difficult trail that slows down specialized racing dogs more than the
gritty and smart all-purpose Samoyeds. On a very hot or very cold day, on
a steep or winding trail deep in fresh snow, Sams can make an advantage
of adversity and beat normally faster breeds.
Of the three AKC breeds normally used for pulling sleds, Siberian huskies
are racing sports cars. Alaskan malamutes are eighteen-wheel tractor-trailers.
Jack-of-all-trades Samoyeds are station wagons. So infatuated are Sammy
enthusiasts with the breed's non specialized virtues, that they race more
for the pleasure that team and driver take in the competition itself rather
than for their slight chance of coming in first.
Some Samoyeds excel in weight pull events. Because they compete in weight
categories against dogs of similar size, Samoyeds are among the top pullers
as each dog tries to pull increasingly heavy loads until all put one dog
fails to pull the heaviest weight. Some Samoyed owners use their weight
pullers for hauling wood, rock, or whatever else needs moving from one point
Most Samoyeds naturally do well in moving sheep from one point to another.
As of this writing, five Samoyeds have earned recently devised AKC herding
titles, and many Sams have passed herding aptitude tests. Training any dog
for herding requires access to sheep, a difficult requirement for most American
dog owners. No Samoyed owners have the opportunity to train their dogs to
A few Sams have worked as gun dogs. The best ones have been obedience trained
to retrieve dumbbells and have transferred that ability to retrieving game
birds shot by a hunter. Not many Samoyeds have soft mouths, however. In
their native Siberia, Samoyeds probably were used to run down big game.
Arctic explorers found that Sams were talented at distracting polar bears
until human hunters could shoot the bruins. Most Samoyeds, though, would
rather kill prey for themselves and must be properly trained to be a real
asset to the hunter. Some are proficient mousers, but woe to the floor lamp
or light furniture that is between a Sam and its pestiferous prey.
The Samoyed Club of America (SCA) works for the improvement and recognition
of the breed. When more and more people became interested in cultivating
the various natural talents of the Samoyed, SCA established a series of
working titles to identify and honor dogs with working abilities. These
titles also encourage owners to exploit and enjoy these abilities. The dogs,
which must be owned by SCA members, can earn points through eight types
of work: sled racing, excursion sledding, skijoring, weight pulling, packing,
herding, therapy, and special application (for work, such as movie making
or assisting physically handicapped owners, which defies categorization.)
Earning 1000 points, verified by a sometimes daunting amount of paperwork
for the SCA Working Committee, qualifies a dog to have the letters WS (Working
Samoyed) appended to the end of its registered name. An additional 500 points
creates a WSX (Working Samoyed Excellent). A recently created title highlights
dogs who have earned 5000 points in at least four categories, Master Working
The Organization for the Working Samoyed is another group that promotes
the working ability of Sams. It awards annual trophies to top competitors
in obedience, sled racing, and weight pulling and publishes a newsletter
to inform members about training techniques, working dog care and nutrition,
and other matters of interest.
All these types of work have a romantic character suited to the Samoyed
and add to the flair of Sammy ownership. Americans have a special fascination
with work and also with history. Therefore, American Samoyed breeders usually
strive to produce dogs that "can do what the original Samoyeds did."
The original dogs, of course, were bred to help their owners survive in
austere conditions under which no modern Samoyed owner lives on a daily
The traits of modern Samoyeds that Americans define as working abilities
are mostly creative anachronisms that vastly improve the quality (and perhaps
the length) of life for dog and owner but are not absolutely necessary for
survival. Therefore, debates occur among Samoyed breeders about whether
it is better to breed for "type" (how the dog looks) or for working
ability. It is very unusual for a Samoyed breeder to admit to breeding mainly
for type (a derogatory accusation) though type is highly valued for winning
in the show ring. This type-versus-performance debate goes on constantly
within many breeds but fortunately remains largely academic among Samoyeds.
The Samoyed breed displays no obvious split between working dogs and show
dogs. The best Samoyed sled teams always are laced with AKC conformation
champions, and all-champion teams are not remarkable.
We live near easily accessible alpine tundra, very similar to the treeless
Arctic tundra with which Samoyeds were bred to cope. Therefore, we have
come to realize that the Samoyed type, its beauty and charm, probably had
essential survival benefits for its breeders on Siberia's Arctic tundra.
Heart-stoppingly dramatic, the tundra is a perfect example of "It's
a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." Because
the wind that rules this domain is determined to kill any rebel or invader
who dares to stand erect more than a few inches above the ground, humans
feel alien and threatened as well as excited when visiting the tundra.
The tundra's endless, jagged, hostile openness reduces humans who spend
much time there to the mental stature of a tiny flower. The vastness in
which humans count for absolutely nothing beats us down and humbles us.
The high suicide rate among some groups of people who actually live on the
Arctic tundra is easy to understand.
However, when we see Samoyed companions on the tundra, grinning at us with
obvious joy in our presence and with no concern for anything but the present,
our mood changes. Dogs so incredibly gorgeous lift our spirits by the overwhelming
joy in their beauty. Their beauty and charm have the power to overcome the
tundra's anti-human intimidation. Perhaps machines could do the dogs' draft
work to help us survive on the tundra, but no internal combustion engine
has the power to lift our spirits as do the dogs' beauty and charm.
The tribal Samoyed breeders were clever. They made their dogs beautiful
and charming as well as solid workers because beauty and charm had essential
survival benefits for people living in an environment inherently hostile
to human life.
Many modern people also live in ways and places that are unnatural and hostile
to human survival. Evolved like dogs to live in small packs, we humans often
live in huge urban herds that make individuals count for nothing. Formed
naturally to finish our lives as part of a small pack, many humans now grow
old living alone. Dogs very significantly help people survive happily in
unnatural environments and situations just as Samoyed tribes survived on
Therefore, among the Sam's many working talents, the greatest may be its
ability to be a wonderful pet that is totally devoted to its owners. Happiness
for a Samoyed is being included in family activities, just as its ancestors
were part of tribal families that migrated from one reindeer feeding ground
to another. To share this happiness in constantly expanding amounts with
the people fortunate enough to own a Samoyed is the breed's finest work.