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Art Stoller's 20 Tips
for Successful Sled Dog Racing

 

Name: Art Stoller

Note: Although Art's 20 Tips don't follow our typical interview format, they contain some very valuable ideas which will benefit you and your dogs if you apply even some of them.

The tips are taken from Art's presentation at North Star Sled Dog Club's Summer Seminar, August, 1996. A special "thank you" to Sally Bair, editor of North Star's TugLine for permission to reprint her article here--she did the hard work of transcribing the oral presentation.

Art Stoller & Janet Smith at the 1998 Fur Rondy Race
Art Stoller and Janet Smith
at the 1998 Fur Rondy Race, Anchorage, Alaska

Art Stoller's 20 Tips
for Successful Sled Dog Racing

I've divided these twenty tips into four basic categories:

  1. Kennel Management & Dog Care
  2. Acquiring Dogs
  3. Training and Equipment
  4. Racing

I am only going to touch on racing very briefly. Some of the points I’m going to make may seem redundant; some may seem contradictory. Bear in mind that everything is my opinion, and there are no laws or rules we can refer to that say "this is the way things have to be." Opinions are formed based on trial and error and one’s own experience and successes. The things I am going to talk about are the things that have worked well for me the last couple of years, and I've been lucky enough to enjoy some success with my dogs as a result. I hope that they might be able to help you.

One of my pet axioms is: "If you always do what you've always done, you’ve got to expect to get what you’ve always got." If you continue to do what you’ve done in the past, and that isn’t getting the results you want, you’ve got to consider changing. You’ve got to look at alternative ideas.

Kennel Management & Dog Care: Trust

What kennel management and good dog care are all about, I think, is trust. By taking good care of your dogs, whether you’re a recreational, distance, long distance, or whatever kind of musher, you develop trust or a bond with your dogs. You do so by how you care for your dogs—not just how you train them or race them—it’s what you do everyday with those dogs. They learn to trust you; they count on you for dog care. That starts from day one, right from the day pups are born and in every activity you do with them. They count on you for a number of different things: feeding, watering, attention, training, discipline, etc.

I’ve done a bit of touring with my dogs. I haven’t always just raced with my dogs. Touring with them is one of the ways I maintain my interest—by doing a little bit of diversification and having some fun. These tours into western parts of Canada and the mountains have been pleasurable experiences—valuable time spent with the dogs as well as trust-building exercises. In doing all these things I’ve learned a lot about the dogs. This knowledge has helped me a lot in racing. The main point, however, is that your dogs will do a lot for you if you have that trust. As I said before, that trust starts with your kennel management. The development of that trust and bond with the dogs carries through to race results

Tip #1: Provide clean, dry bedding.

In kennel care, the primary topic is housing. By housing I mean complete houses—without holes—and dog trucks that are kept clean with fresh, dry straw when the dogs need it, not when you have time—even if that means changing it when it’s 30 or 40 below or at 10 o’clock at night and you're tired from driving, but a dog has urinated in the dog box-you do it. It’s not that dog’s fault. You trained that dog. You’re the one who’s in control. It’s your job to provide clean and adequate bedding and housing for those animals. That’s a big step in building that bond and trust. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but that’s an obligation you took on when you acquired the dogs.

Tip #2: Feed the best — with lots of fat.

Feed the best diet you can possibly find and afford. Many would say that they’d go broke if they had to feed that kind of quality to their dogs. If you can’t, maybe you have too many dogs. It’s as simple as that. Feeding a poor diet in the summer and a good diet in the winter does nothing for your dogs. You must feed a high quality diet year around. I’m fortunate to have Eagle as my sponsor, and I also feed some meat. I feed high quality year round.

Fat gives dogs the energy that enables them to run. If you’re not feeding enough fat in the winter, your dogs aren’t getting enough energy. The amount is all relative to how much they do, how cold it is, how far you’re running, etc. Quality fat is a main ingredient for a diet. Chicken fat and corn oil are good sources of the fat. I would argue with anyone who suggests that you sour dogs by giving them too much fat. I think you sour them for other reasons. They can get the runs, they can get too fat if they get too much fat, but I don’t think they get sour from too much fat in their diet. In the winter I give around 45-50% fat on a wet basis. I haven’t had it analyzed, but I figure that’s what I’m feeding. Arleigh Reynolds claims that he keeps his dogs on 40-50% fat [energy basis] year around. He probably knows more about nutrition than anyone I know. How much fat depends on many things. Alaskan Huskies seem to burn fat just by standing still! Siberians and Malamutes don’t seem to require as much.

Tip #3: Drop on schedule.

By dropping, I mean letting the dogs out of their boxes to relieve themselves. Dropping your dogs on schedule helps develop trust. Develop a schedule and stick to it. Hanging around for just one more beer helps to break that trust. The dogs trust that you will drop them at a given interval, and they depend on you to do it. Whether it’s the 2, 4, 8 hour system, or whatever works for you, stick to it. The dogs learn it and build trust in you.

Tip #4: Provide shade.

Provide shade in your kennel for your dogs. I’ve been able to provide shade by planting trees. I think having shade for your dogs in the summer is of prime importance. We stress our dogs continually year-round. I think most mushers underestimate the stress their dogs go through by sitting out in the open sun in a climate that gets hot as it does in Minnesota or where I live in the Winnipeg area. If the only place your dog can get shade is inside its house, then it will feel stressed. How would you like it if you had to crawl inside your house for the only shade? Would you like it? Is it really cooler in there? If you lessen the stress on your dogs throughout the summer, they are healthier going into the winter. I can’t emphasize how important shade is. I planted poplars and green ash. You need trees that will tolerate the urine. Don’t plant trees too close to the dogs; the dogs will destroy them.

Another idea for shade is to put a piece of plywood with two by two’s on top of it on the top side of the dog house, nailed down as an overhang. I got this idea from Larry Tallman. I don’t have trees for every dog, so I try to give shade to those without a tree with this plywood setup.

Tip #5: Clean up regularly.

I scoop the poop twice daily every day. For good dog health, parasite control is maintained by cleaning up the feces.

Tip #6: Control flies.

Dogs are defenseless against flies unless you put something on their ears. There are many products on the market. Tri-Tec 14, Defend, and Swat liquid are some of them. Most dogs act like they don’t like having this stuff put on them, but after it’s on and the flies aren’t bothering them as much, I think they appreciate it.

Tip #7: Water consistently and on demand in summer.

Water is as important or more important than anything else. I think all dogs should have a bucket of water by them all day during the summer. The transition period in the late fall when the water starts freezing is important. I’ll tell you how I do it. When the temperatures start to dip below 32F and water starts to freeze, I take their buckets away and water only with their food for a few days to make them thirsty. In other words, I reduce their water for a couple of days. Then I start on the baited water. They then get into the habit of my watering schedule. I water them once a day in the morning. However, they get a lot of water mixed in with their food in the evening, too. I know a lot of people who go out in the later evening and water again, but I don’t think that’s necessary.

When they’re training, I give them water right after a run. This fall I’m going to carry a couple of water bottles with me and water the dogs by shooting some water into their mouths during a training run on a hot day. Don’t you do that for yourself when you’re working on a hot day? Watering on a training run is not as important if you train in cool weather. A lot of these things which I’ve learned are so simple.

Be careful that you use appropriate sized pails for watering young puppies. They may drown in a deep pail.

Tip #8: Use bull snaps.

I used to use the slider type brass snap. Before that I had runs. I switched to the stake-out system when I started running Alaskans rather than Irish Setters. I think the dogs like the chains better than kennels. Chains are quicker for feeding, are more economical, and make watering and cleaning up easier. But I lost a leader to a slider type snap that opened up. The snap just caught on something, opened, and the dog was gone. I learned the hard way. I’ve never seen a dog open a bull snap. Yes, bull snaps are harder for you to open and are more expensive, but I have not had one of these snaps break. They do wear out but not as fast as other snaps.

Acquiring Dogs

Tip #9: Buy dogs from the winners.

Buy dogs from winners—they have fast dogs. I got mine from those who had good lines. When you breed a hybrid, you don’t spit out five or six replicas. It takes time to breed what you want. It may be better for some, then, to buy from winners with winning bloodlines. You don’t need seventy dogs. I have seventeen very good dogs. The best leaders are the ones that are a bit shy. Martin Buser taught me that. The crazy dog isn’t always a leader. A dog that is a bit on the shy side but responds well to you will make the best leader for you.

Tip #10: Raise and train your own leaders.

The best leaders are raised and trained by you. They are rarely bought from someone else as an adult, trained leader. When you do the raising and training, you build that important trust and bond. If you’re desperate and buy from someone else, you’re taking a chance. Cindy, my leader, is the world’s greatest lead dog. She was one of the first pups I got from Mari Hoe-Raitto. Cindy’s about forty-five pounds. I have a policy that I never punish lead dogs. Your trust has to be very deep with your leaders, and they need to know that they won’t get blamed. If you have a dog that you think may be a leader, try it in single lead sometime for a spell. Being in single really tells you what kind of leader you have.

Training and Equipment

Tip #11: Leaders are NOT stake-out lines.

Lead dogs are not stake-out lines for your gangline. It’s really neat to be able to show off how good your leader is by making him or her stand there out in front while you hook up the rest of the team. I think that’s too stressful on them. I use a steel stake to tie down the rest of the team, and I hook in my leaders last.

Tip #12: Check and replace equipment regularly.

I use the cable lines. Every summer I buy a new set (section) and throw out the oldest set. I don’t wait until things break; I replace them before they break. The same goes for everything else you’re using. The summer is the best time to do this.

If you’re using a cable line, especially, you need to use a shock cord. The cable lines don’t have any give in them. Poly lines have more give. You need to replace the cable line about every two or three years. I also put a couple of spacers into my lines.

Tip #13: Eliminate metal parts as much as possible.

The fewer mechanical parts—carabiners, quick links, panic snaps—that you use, the better. They always break. Steel has a habit of wearing out. There’s a lot less chance of something going wrong when you use a rope loop.

Tip #14: Don’t use panic snaps for quick release.

Panic snaps are a disaster waiting to happen. Why do you think they’re called panic snaps? When you break one, I guarantee that you’ll panic! In a cold climate, the metal shrinks. I saw in INFO Sled Dog Racing Magazine a better system, a rope loop with a pipe/wood stick affair. To use this, you need a rope on your sled. Hook it to your bridle (don’t use the snowhook rope). That is your hookup rope. During running, it just drags along. You need another rope with a loop to the post. You loop one rope through the other one. Pull the other rope up through the loop and pass the stick through it. I use the top of a shovel handle.

Tip #15: Speed kills.

If you are training your dogs to run as fast as they can run every time you hook them up, you’re going to sour your dogs, bum them out, injure them, or do a combination of these things. It doesn’t matter if you’re a recreational musher or training for long distance or whatever, you must control the speed of your dogs. You can’t let them blast out. You want them to set a pace.

It’s really simple to put a piece of snowmobile track behind the sled and control the speed of the sled that way. I set my track up in such a way that I can flip it up, for instance, when I’m coming home and I want the dogs to pick up the pace. I think controlling speed on sled is an important aspect of training and racing.

I race in Colorado quite a bit. They don’t train on sled very much, so they don’t experience speed control on sled in their training. Whenever I do go out there to race, many of those racers come up to me to ask about hooking up with a snowmobile track, how to hook it into your sled, etc.

I also think that the rest you give the dogs between training runs is important. If you run three or four or more days in a row with very little rest, I think that many times you’re doing more harm than good. The dogs definitely need that rest. The farther they’re going and the more you’re training, the more rest they need to recover because training and conditioning are based on the ability to put out maximum effort. That doesn’t mean running the dogs as fast as possible; it means working them as hard as possible The only way they can do that is by being rested and by having the proper glycogen replacement in their muscles. It’s important that they are rested before training so they have the ability to improve on their conditioning.

Tip #16: Start dogs young.

I think that you want to start dogs when they’re young even if they don't have their heads on straight. Start running your pups when they’re five or six months old. Normally, if you have a spring litter and you build up their conditioning all winter with relaxed training runs, I don’t see anything wrong with having those pups running eight to ten miles by the end of the winter—not fast, though. Not going fast is really important unless you want to ruin them. I started that program with the first litter I had, and it’s really worked well for me.

When I’ve gone to Colorado to race, which I've done for the last three years in a row, I’ve put those pups in the 4-dog races. They were maybe eight to ten months old then. Each time I finished in the money. I don’t make them run any differently in the race than on a training run, but they are learning what a race is. They are also learning about traveling. They may be only yearlings, but they're veterans at the same time. They’ve never been yelled at; they’ve never been required to run as fast as they can. I can’t tell you how fast they are, for they’ve never run flat out on a sled. That probably won’t happen until the following winter. The important point is that you’ve got to start with them when they’re young, let them learn that they can be worked with and that they have to learn. Then the following year they can be on the regular team in training. I race yearlings all the time.

Tip #17: Rotate your dogs in early training, but reduce changes later as training/racing season progresses.

Rotating dogs in training is important, especially early in the fall. Don’t run the same dog in the same position all the time, especially the wheel position. Wheel is the hardest position on the dogs. I think you want to get your wheelers off that position as much as possible. The time to do this is when you first start training in the fall. You want to rotate all the time. I even rotate leaders, giving my other dogs the opportunity to run at lead.

The important point is that I do that rotating as much as I can early in the fall and as little as possible later on in training. As the season progresses, I reduce the amount of changing around. I start then to pair dogs; I start to put positions on the dogs, trying to determine where they run best. As racing season approaches, I reduce this changing so that they become familiar with where they’re going to run, what their job is, who’s running beside them. Then there are no surprises. When you rotate late in the season, I think you can cause more confusion. Early in the season I’m training around seventeen to twenty-one dogs. I start off with ten or eleven dogs on a team on the first run. Then I want to start running more dogs at lead, so I run teams of six or seven. That way you train more leaders. It takes more time, but that’s the way I like to do it. Once the dogs have the routine down pat and you have more control, you start putting bigger teams together.

Bear in mind that I train by myself. If you have someone else to train with, the situation might be different. The smaller the team you train with, the better you are able to analyze and assess the dogs and pick up on problems and work with the dogs better. The bigger the team, the harder it is to spot potential problems. If you have sixty to a hundred dogs in your kennel, though, you’re in a totally different situation and probably have to run bigger teams.

Racing

Tip #18: Never use anything for the first time in a race.

I’m talking here about a new sled that you’ve never used before and aren’t sure as to how it handles, or a new dog, a snowhook, new boots, a gangline, a sled bag, a new pair of mittens. Everything I’m talking about should be used for the first time in a training run.

There are some pretty innovative things happening in sleds these days. Larry Tallman’s sled that he brought back from France, for instance, which cost a lot, comes to mind. You wouldn’t want to take a sled like that without ever having run it and put it in a race for the first time you use it.

This sled is very high tech and has some interesting features. The runners are like high tech skis, multi-laminated. Attached to the brake is a little piece of snowmobile track. It’s attached to the double claw brake by two pieces of flat plastic that are heated a bit and twisted a quarter turn so that they’re flat where they attach to the sled. They’re also facing the other way where they attach to the piece of snowmobile track. There’s a bungee cord on the end so you can flip up the track. It’s just wide enough for your foot. That would have saved my skin at the Fort Nelson race when I was going down a steep hill. I just couldn’t slow my team down enough with my boots. The trail was fast, it was 40 below, and my team just piled up and I crashed big time. I almost ruined two good dogs because of the speed going down that hill. It was the very first race for these two young dogs. If I’d had a piece of equipment like the track, I’d have been able to slow the team. I’m going to try it for my racing sled this winter. This French sled is also pretty light, under twenty pounds. The bed is like plastic. The sled is supposed to handle like a dream. The important thing in this sled is a backup system for slowing a team down without adding much extra weight.

A word of caution on the double claw brake system of many sleds: on my sled there is a board across the top of the brake and there is a space between the brake and the sled. That space acts like a bear trap. When you go to hit the brake, your foot can easily slip through and get stuck between the brake and the wooden cross piece. This can be very dangerous.

Tip #19: Use new plastic often.

The only exception to not using anything for the first time in a race is in the case of new plastic. Use new plastic often. Tim White backed up the fact that there is oil impregnated in that plastic. There is nothing faster than new plastic on a sled. I don’t wax—I haven’t waxed in twenty years—but I do change plastic often when I’m in a big race. There is nothing faster.

Another piece of new equipment I like to use is the steel feeding bowl for feeding the dogs when on the road. Don’t use old rusty bowls. Fleet Farm or Wal-Mart have cheap, steel dishes. They are easily washed as well.

Tip #20: Keep the fun in what you’re doing, or get out!

I’ve managed to do that, not without some difficulty, over more than twenty-six years in this sport. I still get excited when the time for training approaches. I can hardly wait to see what those yearlings are going to do, and hopefully there will be some good races to go to, some good snow to race on this year. The important point is to keep the fun in it and you’ll be around a long time. If what you’re doing now is more work than fun, either reduce the number of dogs you have in your kennel or get out of the sport. I’m not encouraging you to get out—it’s a great sport. You can have a great time at it. You just have to maintain the level that’s fun for you.

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