Kasilof musher Jon Little trims Rambler's nails last winter. A number of factors go into the makings of a perfect sled dog.
Clarion file photo
Dogs are an integral component of sled dog racing, but what may not be so obvious is how much goes in to selecting the 14 dogs with which mushers choose to start a race.
Several factors most based on performance standards but a few are measurable physical standards influence a musher's decision.
Preferences for specific traits may vary from musher to musher and depend on the type of race the dogs compete in, be it a sprint race, a mid-distance race like the Tustumena 200 or an ultra-marathon like the Iditarod.
"The dog used by most Alaska mushers is the Alaskan husky," said Kasilof musher Jon Little, who is an Iditarod veteran and annual T-200 contender.
The husky is not an officially registered breed and, as such, is best understood as a type of dog more than a breed, since its ancestry can be traced back to huskies as wells as hounds, retrievers and, most recently, German short-haired pointers.
This can be surprising to those unfamiliar to sled dog racing, since many expect to see dogs that typically are symbols of the north Siberian huskies.
However, most purebred dogs can't hold a candle to the combined speed, power and propensity for pulling embodied in the Alaska husky, which is why "Slowberian huskies," as they are called by some mushers, are few and far between in the teams of most professional drivers.
"Siberians just aren't as fast as the Alaskan huskies," Little said.
Little looks for speed in dogs that make the cut for his race team, although as a mid- and long-distance musher, it's not the only factor he looks for.
"Distance racing is different. Top speed isn't as critical. Having a dog that is more medium fast but has the stamina to hold it is far more important. I look for dogs that are steady and almost have a cruise control," he said.
Little said dogs that run 12 mph for durations of six hours are ideal, but due to trail and weather conditions that aren't always perfect, dogs that maintain speeds of 10 mph are more realistic.
"You can win races with a dog that can maintain that speed for long distances," he said.
Some mushers look for dogs that lope while others favor a trot, but Little said he doesn't mind which his dogs do as long as they can hold their specific gait over long distances.
"Smooth gaits are more important, since they often mean less nicks and damage to a dog's feet," Little said.
Foot care is a critical component that must be evaluated when racing dogs. Durable feet are a must and some mushers speculate that black-colored foot pads are a sign of a tough-footed dog, although Little said he's not entirely sold on the idea.
"I also look for good fur," he said.
Thick-coated dogs can withstand remarkable drops in temperature but may have trouble in the heat of the day when temperatures are more mild. In recent years, thin-coated dogs have been favored for their abilities to trot quickly without overheating. However, some skeptics believe that even with the synthetic coats these dogs must regularly wear to protect them, a fierce winter storm could endanger their lives.
"It's also very important they eat well," Little said.
Finicky eaters are less than ideal in races where seconds count and often mean the difference in thousands of dollars in prize money. Sled dogs easily consume up to 10,000 calories per day, and the only way for them to maintain their pulling power is to eat food that will be utilized for energy.
"Dogs have to eat every time you stop and snack them, so it's critical that they lunge at food and devour it," Little said.
He also looks for dogs with strong minds and strong spirits.
"They've got to be serious about running and have a willingness to pull," he said, noting the seriousness often is attained with age.
"Dogs that may be goofy as puppies can mature and get a real intensity to them. They'll get to a point where they would rather look up the trail then be scratched or pet," Little said.
These factors, combined with an intense training regime, may lead to a promising dog team, but that still doesn't mean there's ever a sure thing when it comes to winning a race.
"You've still got to go to the finish line and see who looks good," Little said.
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