Who are these dogs anyway?
TAPIOLA – In the movies, winning sled dog teams can be made up of beagles, poodles, even mutts. But in real life, the dogs on most teams can trace their bloodlines back several generations. They’re bred to run, bred for the type of race in which they’re expected to compete and sometimes bred specifically for a role as the leader of the pack.
“They look like mutts, but we don’t breed for the AKC. We breed for performance,” said Roy Bauer, who heads Otter River Sled Dog Training Center and Wilderness Adventures in Tapiola. Last February, Bauer’s teenage son Roy mushed the Otter River team to ninth place in the CopperDog 150.
Most sled dogs, and more than likely all of those that will run in the CopperDog 150 this February, are Alaskan huskies.
It’s not an American Kennel Club recognized breed, but one that was founded around 1909 when Leonhard Seppala brought Siberian huskies to Alaska and began breeding them with the Malamute sled dogs kept by native Inuit people, explained Calumet’s Jerry Trudell of Sharks Came Racing Kennel. Trudell had to pull out of last year’s CopperDog, but will be trying again this year.
Still, to many first-time race goers, the dogs seem smaller, shorter-haired and without the traditional husky markings. These dogs don’t look like any husky they’ve seen before.
Trudell said that’s because of innovations that began in the late ’80s, when mushers began breeding in German shorthaired pointers, English pointers, Afhgan hounds and greyhounds.
“A lot of those bred in were bird dogs, from fast, muscular breeds,” Trudell said. “There were some experiments before the ’80s, but none with great success.”
“Very few dogs around here don’t have some hound in them,” he added, noting that the normal mix is about five-eighths husky to three-eighths hound.
That’s about right for shorter stage races like the CopperDog, he said. Sprint teams, he noted, are often composed of just pointers and Greyhounds, with no husky in them at all.
“They can run 4-and-6-mile races at about 25 mph, but they have to be in heated kennels and come out to the start in warmup jackets,” he said.
Other mushers, particularly those breeding and training for the 1,000-mile Iditarod and other endurance races, still eschew the hound mixes, even if they run in shorter races as well.
“Mine are still the pure Alaskan huskies. They go back to my dad’s breed over the last 50 years,” said Ryan Redington of Callin’ Trail Kennel in Wasilla, Alaska, whose grandfather, Joe Redington, founded the Iditarod in 1967.
Ryan Redington finished eighth in last year’s CopperDog, and will be back this year as he builds toward an eventual Iditarod run himself.
“That’s the plan for the near future, so we still like to have the huskies, and prove that they’re still the dog to have,” he said.
According to Redington, winning the CopperDog or similar races requires dogs that want to run all out, all the time.
To survive an endurance race like the Iditarod, you need dogs willing to back off to about 70 percent of full speed.
He’s pretty sure his breeding program is on the right track, noting that four-time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher ran dogs in that race that had been purchased from his father.
Normally, Trudell said, dogs with decent bloodlines sell for about $500 to $2,500. But in one case about five years ago, a lead dog that had been run by back-to-back Iditarod winner Lance Mackey was advertised for sale at $10,000.
Lead dogs, who run at the front of the team, and dogs that tend to breed strong leaders are always at a premium, he noted, mainly because lead dogs need an extra desire to compete and the ability to energize their team.
Many dogs like to chase down another team from behind, Trudell said, but a great lead dog “will want to blow by that team and never look back.”
Redington said a good lead dog also has to be smart, responding to “gee” and “haw” commands to turn right and left, and willing to plow through unbroken snow when there is no trail.
“We’re proud to have good leaders,” he said. “I wish we had more competitions in the sport just for lead dogs.”
To emphasize the importance of breeding, Redington pointed out that almost all of his team are either the pup or grandpup of a single female named Craekle. Each of their lineage can be traced back several generations, and the line has been bred primarily for the smoothness of their gait.
“I feel like we could put a glass of water on any of their backs and it wouldn’t spill,” he said.
This year’s three-stage CopperDog 150 runs Feb. 28 – March 2, and will also include a 40-mile, six-dog team race.
To learn more, go to www.copperdog150.com.