Sprint Musher Sherri Pristash!
Name: Sherri A. Pristash
Kennel Name: None yet!
Birthplace: Honolulu, Hawaii
Home Town: Fairbanks, Alaska
Occupation: Publications sales at Alaska Sea Grant Program, University of Alaska
I grew up in Hawaii, training and showing horses. I came to Alaska to attend the
University of Alaska Fairbanks and received a BS in Biology. After spending summers riding
horses here, I realized this isn't really horse country. So what to do to satisfy my love
of animals? I started running sprint dogs! It's really the fault of friends and now
husband, Robert. They all got me hooked. Robert and I have a kennel of over 30 dogs, which
is a cooperative venture between Robert and I--all decisions are mutual. We race the
Alaska Dog Mushers races in Fairbanks and have traveled to Montana Creek, Anchorage, Tok
and Paxson for sprint races there. I am an active member of the Alaska Dog Mushers Assn.,
being Secretary on the Board of Governors and the symposium planning committee. When I'm
not working or running dogs, I love to garden and go fishing.
What is your primary sled dog activity
or area of interest?
8-dog and 10-dog sprint races.
How long have you been involved with
We got our first dogs in 1987, started racing 6-dog in 1990.
What sparked your initial interest in
My husband did some recreational mushing and my college buddy, Bonnie Borba, ran
limited class sprints. Robert and I would run dogs with her on the weekends, taking our
German Shepherd along to plug into a slower team.
If you remember your very first time
behind a team of dogs, tell us about it.
My first time behind dogs was a thrill and a spill. I was behind a friend's 3-dog team
and wiped out around the first corner. But I hung on and didn't lose the team!
What size kennel do you operate?
We usually have between 30 and 38 dogs. That includes old dogs, puppies, young dogs
and, of course, the racing adults.
Give us an overview of your feeding
We feed Annamaet brand dry food, raw meats and
corn oil. Annamaet is an excellent dry food source and some successful mushers feed
strictly Annamaet. We like to feed a perishable race mix with raw beef, chicken, liver,
and cooked eggs. We feed meat to the dogs throughout the entire year, just less of it in
What advice would you give a beginning
Get the best dogs you can, some experienced leaders, take excellent care of the dogs
and gain their trust, and find a mentor. Good dogs will teach you a lot, and won't cause
you some of the frustrations often associated with poor dogs. Experienced leaders will
teach your future leaders and maybe keep you out of trouble. Take excellent care of the
dogs, which they deserve, and will keep them in good health and allow them to perform at
their best. You'll gain trust in each other with lots of time spent together -- even going
for walks in the summer is good. And if you can find a mentor, you'll learn a LOT! Keep
your ears open and your mouth shut, I've been told, and it will pay off. I can't thank
Harvey Drake and Linda Leonard enough for the encouragement and guidance they've given us.
Summarize your basic kennel management
We limit the number of dogs to what we can take care of ourselves, without requiring a
handler or kennel help. We like to breed a couple of litters every year and raise the
pups; the goal is for a high success rate, meaning a large number of the pups making the
race team as adults.
What breed(s) do you work with?
Alaskan huskies. We have primarily line bred Drake/Leonard dogs and a few D/L crossed
with George Attla, Gareth Wright or other stock.
What physical characteristics do you
look for in your dogs?
Overall balance and proportion are very important. I also like long dogs more than
tall ones. I like to see a long back; long, sloping croup (point of hip to base of tail);
sloping shoulders; and a long neck. Legs should be pretty straight when viewed from the
front or behind, but a slight toe out in front or slight "cow hock" in the hind
What mental or emotional attributes do
you require in your dogs?
The dogs have to have a lot of natural drive. Ours tend to be pretty nuts to go, even
by sprint mushing standards. I like confident, friendly dogs. Dogs that focus on me are
something I look for, too.
Tell us about an all time favorite dog
I know you're not supposed to play favorites, but I have to say that Champ and Bingo are my favorites. They are so devoted and
such great performers, and they exude confidence. They are brothers, and both have been my
steadfast leaders. They're buddies with each other and have a special bond with me. We
raised them from pups and have bred Champ, who has thrown a high percentage of leaders. On
top of being top notch race leaders, the brothers love to snuggle with me on the couch!
If you raise puppies, do you use any
Unless something is seriously physically wrong with a pup, we don't cut it. We try to
give them lots of different, positive experiences to prepare them for careers as race
dogs. I guess if we had to choose (and we will soon, as we're splitting a litter), we
would select on general conformation and personality. But remember, the friendliest pup
isn't necessarily the hardest worker! Sometimes it seems the most "average" pup
turns out the best in the litter.
What method do you use for starting
We take them for walks as pups off leash as a group. Once they're tied up for a week
or two, we may leash train them so they learn to go forward when pulled by the collar,
instead of sitting back with the brakes on. Then we may walk them back and forth on the
dog trail with their harness on. Their first time on the sled is VERY SLOW and short, just
1/2 mile or so. We (usually Robert and I will both go with the pups the first time or two)
use the old, slow leaders and try to put a pup next to their mom or another nice adult.
What is the most important thing you
look for in a pup?
Probably work ethic is the most important. We also try pups in lead once they're
steady in the team, so we look for those with leader potential, too.
At what point do you decide a pup is
likely to make it in your team?
Unless the pup is really awful, we'll keep it until we can run it as a yearling. Then
sometime during that yearling year we will make another decision, though most will hold
over until their two year old year. I've heard that a dog should reach its top speed by 18
to 24 months of age, and I think that is true. As the team goes faster, it becomes harder
and harder to find dogs that will make the team. We should be able to fairly evaluate
yearlings after the first few races of the year if the trails are fast.
Training & Racing:
What is the training/racing philosophy
of your kennel?
We train slow and race fast. Seems to minimize injuries that way, and the dogs
naturally go as fast as they can when we let them. We control speed in training by
limiting team size, training with a heavy sled, and using a snowmachine track or
"mat" as necessary. We have 13 miles of groomed trails at home.
With young dogs, we like to expose them
to as much as we can. Training at different locations on the weekends is good for the
youngsters. Robert races the yearlings together and the best may make a big race or two
with the adult dogs by spring.
Do you have specific training goals
for your team(s)?
To run the 8 dog Limited North American in mid March, we like to have over 600 miles
on the dogs. It's a three day race and sometimes in the 30's and sunny, so the dogs need
to be in good condition. We start racing them in December and race about every two weeks
through the rest of the winter, so a fair number of those miles are race miles.
How do you choose which races to
We're very fortunate to live about 20 minutes from the ADMA race trails, so we race
the five ADMA Challenge Series races, plus any limited class races we can get to out of
town. Then we hit all the spring championship races in the Interior of Alaska - ADMA Gold
Run (10 dog); North Pole Championships (10 dog); Limited North American (8 dog); Tok Race
of Champions (8 dog); and Paxson Tail Ender (8 dog). I raced the Women's Fur Rondezvous
one year and it was fun but a pretty tough race.
What classes do you compete in?
6, 8 and 10 dog are the classes we usually enter, but Robert has run some shorter open
class races and I ran the Women's Rondy that is an open class race.
What does it take to win?
It takes so much to win, especially with the tough competition out there today. Top
mushers like Linda Leonard and Terri Killam are at the top of the game and incredibly can
keep it up year after year. To win takes fast dogs -- not just a few, but real depth of
kennel. It takes leaders with incredible drive and talent. It takes a real dog person who
knows how to train and care for the dogs, and someone who pays attention to detail and is
fair and is consistent. And, of course, it takes a bit of luck!
What is the future of sled dog sports?
What can individual mushers do to support and promote the sport?
What part do clubs and organizations play in sport development?
I'd like to address all three questions together. All sled dog sports are under
pressure from animal rights groups. It is the responsibility of individuals and
organizations to be on their best behavior and ready to extol the virtues of running dogs
or our sport could be in danger. It's up to mushers and clubs to "police" their
own communities and either educate or root out those would be mushers who are cruel or
negligent of their dogs.
Sled dog sports can have a healthy and
exciting future if everyone plays some part in keeping them alive. Organizations can hold
symposia to educate mushers, as the Alaska Dog Mushers and other clubs do. Individuals can
visit schools and public events to share the wonderful world of sled dogs with other
people. Go out there and help your local club to get donations of purse money and prizes
for the races. Every little bit adds up to a great whole.
Tell us about one or two of your most
memorable sled dog experiences.
I'll never forget the first time I took five dogs out by myself. I was terrified and
thrilled at the same time! Since then the thrills have changed in character.
This spring I had some incredible racing
experiences that are the kind to keep you going for a long time. In the North Pole
Championships on the second day the trail set up nicely and the dogs were nuts to go. They
cruised around that trail in fine fashion and gave me such a strong finish it was really
incredible--one of those runs that you dream of having, when everything comes together.
The dogs were pretty pleased with themselves after the run, too -- you could tell they had
a great time and were proud of how they did! And well they should be, as they moved us
from 6th to 3rd place.
The Paxson Tail Ender is the last race of
the season. It's an 8 dog race over 9 miles of VERY twisty trails -- it doubles back so
close in some places you can nearly "high five" your competition! A real mind
game for the dogs. The second day was even hotter than the first -- 54 F when I ran -- but
the dogs worked well. So well that we turned in the fastest time of the day! What a way to
end the season -- we were faster than Axel Gasser (Rondy winner), Linda Leonard (8 dog
LNAC champ) and Kathy Frost (Women's Rondy winner). We didn't win the race, but now we
feel more confident about our conditioning, and also in breeding dogs that can run in the
heat. It was an honor and a thrill to race with some of the top mushers--who I respect so
much--and know we could compete with them!
Any final comments about sled dog
Running dogs is addictive. Once you're hooked, don't get so caught up in "gotta
get in xxxx number of miles before that race" so that training becomes more of a drag
than rewarding. Keep in mind the individuality of each dog, and remember to have fun!
Check out Champ's picture and pedigree here.
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