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My views are certainly not unique. It's been said many times before but I'll say it again: breed only the best to the best. I hear people say it over and over again, but then along comes an accidental litter from a trailside breeding or a planned breeding between a pair that are perhaps a bit less than the very best. It's wishful thinking to believe that B-team dogs will produce A-team pups. It simply won't happen. Not unless you have some magic potion to pour into the gene pool.
I choose the dogs to breed strictly on the basis of conformation, speed, size & shape. I don't believe that breeding leaders yields leaders. I don't believe that breeding dogs with great heart will necessarily produce offspring with great heart. I think that pups acquire their personality from the mom, but they get their size from the dad. I pay a bit more attention to personality in the bitch than I do in the dog, and I'm a bit less concerned about size in the mom than I am in the dad. It is expensive and very time-consuming to raise litters. Even under the best of circumstances, many of the pups will not meet your standards. So be very, very selective in deciding which dogs to breed and breed only those which have perfect conformation.
Do you use any pre-training evaluation of puppies?
I am more concerned about giving the pups plenty of opportunities to experience new challenges. In my puppy pen I have a play area with some 'puppy lawn furniture.' I've built wooden boxes with holes and tunnels an elevated platform with ramps leading up to it. I find it interesting to observe the pups as they solve these 'puzzles' and I think it helps in their physical and mental development.
What method do you use for starting pups?
What is the most important thing you look for in a young dog?
At what point do you decide a youngster is likely to make it in your team?
How do you identify the dogs you think might make good leaders?
That's why I tend to like crazy dogs. The crazy ones often tend to be more curious, more competitive. This is also why I spend so much time with my pups. At a very early age you can begin to see which pups are more curious, more bold, more competitive. Spending time with them as pups - bonding with them - pays enormous dividends down the trail. Playing with puppies is also a lot of fun. I enjoy it.
What is the training/racing philosophy of your kennel?
Once many years ago when I was driving race cars the engine lost oil pressure about a lap and a half from the finish. I decided to just roll the dice, cross my fingers and hope for the best. A couple hundred yards from the line, with the checkered flag in sight, it let go in a very impressive way. I coasted across the finish line, but there was nothing left of the motor but shrapnel.
This year in the Yukon Quest 250 I held the lead approaching Circle on the river. I knew that the last 5 miles into town would be a sustained uphill grind. I wanted to win. I wanted to win so bad I could taste it. But the dogs had been running a long time and they were tired. For a couple of hours I had been debating whether to run on through to the finish or stop and rest them. If the finish had been on the river, I'd have kept going but that final grind uphill concerned me. If I ran them flat and they broke down going up that hill I would have broken their trust. I thought back to that time years ago in a race car when I rolled the dice and blew the motor. I wasn't willing to take that risk with the dogs.
So I stopped on the river about 15 miles from the finish and gave them a quickie - a short 3 hour breather. I fed them a meal and then served up every last bite of trail snacks I had in the sled to lighten the load. Eric Butcher caught up to us and passed by just as I began to stand them up and attach tug lines. Eric went on to win the race and I finished second by 2 minutes.
Frustrating? Sure, in a way. But going up that hill into Circle the dogs had some bounce in their booties. As we crested the top and the trail leveled out they broke into a lope. When we turned onto the road at the edge of town they bumped it up to a dead run. We finished second but every one of those dogs was happy with their tail wagging at the end. Every one of them wanted to keep on going. After 250 miles the dogs were still having fun and that matters a lot more to me than finishing in first place.
Do you have specific training goals for your teams?
Early in the season I try to just get the dogs moving freely again and re-establish full range of motion. I run them on the 4 wheeler and I use the engine a lot. I like to get them stretching out and to do that they need to be loping. I keep the speed up and the load light. Once they've completed a few runs and their tendons and ligaments and muscles limber up they get less and less help from the engine. I probably run my dogs faster in training than most distance mushers do. Loping is hard on them - especially on wrists and shoulders. But so long as I keep the load light and don't overdo it I think that loping them also makes them tough. Their wrists and shoulders get strong. I have very few wrist and shoulder injuries and I attribute that to the fact that the dogs lope a lot during the early part of the season.
Loping also helps them develop full range of motion in their shoulders and hips, legs and backs. I'm certainly no expert in canine physiology but the biomechanics of a loping dog are very different from that of a dog that is trotting. When a dog trots, his back remains quite stable and his legs are moving through a limited range - perhaps 100 to 110 degrees. When a dog lopes he's arching his back with every stride and the legs are moving through a range of something closer to 150 or 160 degrees. Maybe more. If a dog is conditioned to be able to perform the broad range of motion required for loping then he is well within his capabilities when he settles down to a trot.
Throughout the fall as long as I'm on a 4 wheeler I alternate between grunt work and speed work. Every run I make them haul the 4 wheeler without any help from the engine to build muscle strength and then I light the fire and they jam for awhile to work on range of motion and muscle tone. Then I cut the engine and they haul it again. It's a form of interval training but I do it not so much for the cardiovascular benefits as for the muscular strengthening and conditioning. As training progresses I begin to mix in some hill work. I use the engine and they lope uphill, then I slow things down and they trot back down. Loping downhill is just too hard on their wrists and shoulders. They actually work a lot harder on the 4 wheeler than they do on sleds. By the time we have enough snow to go to sleds they're doing about 15 miles or so on the 4 wheeler and they're glad to see the sleds come out of the shed.
What do you consider most important to accomplish in training?
How do you choose which races to enter?
What are your strengths as a racer?
What do you consider your weaknesses, if any?
Do you having a mushing career goal?
What does it take to win?
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