The Traits that Matter

SLEDDOG BREEDING, it seems, is widely supposed to be so simple as hardly to be worth discussing. There seem to be two very popular schools of thought. Newcomers to sleddog breeding, especially those freshly graduated from the ranks of show dog enthusiasts, often tend to assume that the heart of the matter lies in racing physique. After all, they have seen enough examples of dogs that obviously can't run because they are grossly too heavy-boned, too short-legged, too under-angulated, carry too much of their own body weight, have too heavy or long a coat, etc. Hence they tend to assume that the secret of breeding sleddogs must be to produce a fine-boned, long-legged, super-angulated, light-weight, scantily-coated dog! (Does this sound familiar to anyone?)
     Racing breeders of the old school, using Alaskan huskies or hounds of several sorts, took a very different approach to the problem of providing cannon-fodder for the high rate-of-attrition game of world-class dogsled racing. With just two selection tools -- a stopwatch and a shotgun -- and a thirty-pound racing sled, their methodology was simplicity itself: breed one or two dozen litters every year, raise them to yearlings, hook them up, and 'wash out' the slower animals until only the best six or eight remained to replace the attrition from injury and superannuation of last year's team dogs. If somebody came along who was fool enough to admit that he had a recreational team or that he had been driving Siberian Huskies but now wanted to join the serious racers, then maybe some of those washouts could be sold to help buy dogfood, otherwise -- take 'em out in the woods and blow 'em away!
     Is that really all there is to it? Breed the 'best to the best' (as adjudicated by the stopwatch) and blow away the rest? Or else breed according to an engineering blueprint of sleddog structure? Those are questions the reader will have to answer for himself/herself. There is no single exclusive foolproof way to breed sleddogs. What I intend to do in this article is simply to outline a complex of traits and characteristics, many of which are seldom mentioned because dog drivers just take them for granted, qualities which I believe are necessary to sleddogs generally. There will inevitably be great argument, now and forever, over the relative importance of each of these various characteristics, and I don't intend to suggest a system for ranking them in importance or weighting them against one another in a selection formula. In my opinion, their relative importance varies from one breeding to another, but they all must be present to a certain degree before you have a worthwhile sleddog.
     The following characteristics are enumerated and briefly explained in a document entitled "Breeding Programme and Guidelines for the Seppala Siberian Sleddog," published as an appendix to our 1996 brief to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, "The Seppala Siberian Sleddog: An Evolving Breed in Canada's Yukon Territory". (Extracts from the document are in bold-face type; the rest is commentary.)


1. Pulling ability: a desirable specimen keeps a tight tugline at all times when harnessed and in motion, evidence that he is actively pulling his share of the load. A superior animal will exert himself to his maximum strength when called upon, as when starting a heavy load or climbing a steep grade.

A dog that goes fast but fails to pull might be a running dog, but it isn't a sleddog. The pressure of high-level sprint-racing competition may demand that the driver be athlete enough to reduce virtually to zero the average load pulled by his team, but that is simply one of the perversions of high-level competition. Outside the rarefied world of sprint competition, if a dog team doesn't pull, you might just as well cut the gangline, let them go, push the sled around by yourself and stop buying dogfood.


2. Speed: a desirable specimen demonstrates high speed capability when unloaded under favourable trail conditions and maintains the best possible pace under unfavourable conditions. Average speed is dependent on distance, team size and training factors, thus it is impracticable to specify velocity benchmarks. In general, selection is exerted in favour of the faster specimens, provided that pulling ability and endurance are also present.

Speed is not an absolute; it is a relative matter entirely. A dog team can move too fast for the trail or the surface conditions. If a team runs out of control and the driver cannot prevent the sled from colliding with trees, going off cliffs, etc., then that driver may wind up at worst dead, or at best with a collection of bruises and a lost dog team, himself unexpectedly on foot in the middle of the wilderness. On the other side of things, two miles per hour may be a fast speed in very heavy trail and weather conditions. It's all relative in the real world -- the world you drive dogs in when you hook up and head out into the forest or the mountains in all kinds of weather. Some days you come back in fifty minutes and other days it takes two hours -- over the same fifteen miles of trail. Arbitrary standards of speed have meaning only under ideal trail conditions with very large teams. If you hook 22 dogs in front of a 30-pound sled and enter the Fairbanks Open North American Championship, then you should expect to go eighteen-and-a-half-plus miles per hour, or you are wasting your time, money and effort. But if you are hooking six or eight dogs to a plastic-bedded toboggan sled and going up into the mountains, the ONAC standard is ludicrous. Even if you could go that fast, you damn well wouldn't dare to do it. Speed is very much a matter of horses for courses and is subject to a good deal of variability in a versatile sleddog breed. Above all, it is far from being the only, or even the major, meaningful standard for sleddog selection.


3. Endurance: a desirable specimen demonstrates endurance capability by maintaining satisfactory speed and pulling power throughout the duration of the longest runs for which he has been conditioned.

Endurance just means that the dog doesn't poop out on you when he has been adequately fed and conditioned; he keeps on working, at an appropriate pace, all the way through the run. It applies for any distance, provided the team has been conditioned to run that distance. Traditionally, endurance also means that your dog team will get you where you must go even when conditions deteriorate badly, when the food runs out, or when you have somehow badly miscalculated. It means that the dogs have a physical and mental reserve that enables them to keep on going well past their normal conditioning limit, albeit at a reduced speed. Those who repeat the old complaint, "Siberians never give you everything" ignore the reality of arctic sleddogs; in the real world, if things fail to go according to plan, dogs that give you everything over their conditioned racing distance can leave you stranded in a bad situation.


4. Attitude or determination: a desirable specimen displays a positive mental and emotional attitude towards his work. He wants to run, wants to pull, wants to go fast, and wants to keep on going. Attitude is subdivided into pulling attitude, speed attitude, and endurance attitude. Selection favours the animal who refuses to quit no matter how bad conditions get and keeps going no matter what happens.

Attitude is primordial where sleddogs are concerned. Unless you fancy beating dogs with a whip until they are so afraid of you that they will do anything to run away, your sleddogs must have attitude, or that sled doesn't move. A dog can have the greatest working physique imaginable, with perfect shoulder angulation, arch of loin, slope of croup, turn of stifle, letdown of hock, and all the rest of it, but it will do you no good at all if he just sits there and refuses to go, or if he goes, but only at a walk, or has a tugline like a wet noodle, or quits after the first two miles. On the other hand, a dog might be swaybacked, straight-shouldered, cowhocked and pigeon-breasted, but if he has something behind his eyes and between his ears that tells him he has just gotta get out and pull that thing all the way until the Boss says "whoa," then no matter what an AKC dog-show judge or anyone else thinks of that dog's structure or 'conformation,' you can rest assured you are just naturally going to go all the way to the end of the trail when you hook him into the gangline.
     Attitude in its finest flower is contagious: if you've got one or two dogs in the team that think they really want to do this thing or bust, the odds are excellent that this mentality will be communicated to their teammates, so that when you hook those 'spark plugs' you get a much better performance out of the entire bunch. That is fortunate, because until they start producing clones of George Attla's 'Lingo' you will never get a whole team of dogs with that kind of Capital-A ATTITUDE!


5. Innate sleddog capacity: a desirable specimen is a "born sleddog." He pulls the first time he is harnessed, which may be as young as 3 1/2 or 4 months; he works well with other dogs without interfering with them, fighting, or tangling right from his first introduction to team work. He does not need to be taught to pull or "broken" to harness.

Maybe this little quality is not absolutely essential, especially if you are a genius at real training, versus just going out and hooking up teams regularly. But Seppalas have it in spades, and it sure does make life a lot easier. I introduce 4-month-old pups to their life's work using an XXS super-small harness, a twenty-foot rope, a three-foot tugline and a chunk of snowmobile track for a drag, one at a time, on foot with no sled. Usually my only worry is whether I can run fast enough behind each one of those puppies and whether my heart will take it!


6. Intelligence: a desirable specimen displays an intelligent orientation to his work. He avoids obstacles, he avoids line tangles or tries to clear them for himself when they occur, he is aware of the driver's presence, he listens for and expects verbal commands, he responds intelligently to new and unfamiliar situations.

Some folks appear to think that a sleddog doesn't need to be intelligent! Some people actually like bonehead dogs. Maybe they just enjoy untangling dogs all the time, or they need to feel superior to somebody. If you want your dog driving to be truly enjoyable, it sure helps to have dogs that learn from experience and can relate cause to effect. Otherwise, every time you see a tree ahead on a curve in the trail you will worry whether one leader's going to go to the left of it and the other to the right of it.


7. Trainability: a desirable specimen is highly trainable. He responds quickly and positively to his driver's efforts to teach him commands or procedures. He learns quickly to stay on his own side of the gangline, to co-operate and even to assist with his own harnessing and unharnessing, to behave in an orderly fashion while hooked in a team, and to respond to directional and pacing commands. The superior animal will quickly learn almost anything his driver tries to teach him.

Intelligence is no good without trainability. A few dogs are smart as can be but refuse to learn anything useful. A dog has to have something which more or less corresponds to pride in accomplishment before he is really trainable. He must have that mental 'set' that makes him able to learn to perform in a particular way, because he knows you'll be pleased and will praise him and pet him, or because he realises life will be easier if he does things that way, or for some other reason. His exact motivation is not so important, but it is vital that the dog be convinced that it is worthwhile to do the thing you are training him to do! One of the nice things about Seppalas is that they are so motivated they train themselves to do many good things you never even tried to teach them. I have a young wheel dog who scoots back and forth under the gangline on tight turns like it was nothing, and looks back to see what the sled is doing! I never taught her to do that; she learned all by herself because she decided not to get pulled into tree trunks by the dogs ahead of her. That's intelligence plus trainability.


8. Co-operation: a desirable specimen is highly co-operative. He attempts to discern his driver's desires. He obeys commands. In unfamiliar situations he looks to his driver for guidance and attempts to comply with what is asked of him.

Co-operation is the third element in the sleddog behavioural triangle. It completes the mental equipment, along with intelligence and trainability. This is another great feature of Seppalas: they really want to please their driver, want to do the right thing so life stays easy and everybody is happy. That's another reason why Seppala teams are so much fun to drive. It doesn't necessarily mean they invariably do what you want in every kind of situation, unfortunately. I've got one dear old utility leader who, the instant she spots overflow (water on top of ice) on the trail, does a 'come-haw' and comes back to me with her ears down, looking apologetic but righteous, unmistakeably saying, "Sorry, Boss, but that's open water up ahead there, and we can't possibly go on through that, because it just ain't safe, so let's just turn around and go on back home." Well, you can't win 'em all.


9. Docility: a desirable specimen is easy to handle, manageable and docile. He does not pick fights with other dogs and even turns aside from other dogs' aggression. He does not resist physical handling in any way. He allows dog booties to be placed on or removed from his feet without protest, and also quietly permits his toenails or inter-digital fur to be clipped. He accepts medication without a struggle.

Sleddogs have to be handled quite a lot in the course of transporting them in dog trucks, caring for them, harnessing and working with them. They must get along well in groups, sometimes in trying circumstances (even Seppala teams experience massive tangles once in awhile when things go wrong). If sleddogs panic or resist when handled, or get aggressive in close proximity to other dogs, life becomes difficult for the driver, handlers and veterinarians. When fighting occurs, a lot of damage can be done quickly. I've known some drivers (possibly with masculine-image problems) who apparently take pride in their dogs' fighting and aggression; funny how other dog drivers would rather be almost anywhere than on the same trail with those guys!


10. Bonding: a desirable specimen bonds strongly to his owners or drivers. He displays overt affection and dependence. He desires the company of his human masters. In return for his food, care and training he offers love, companionship and loyalty.

Bonding may be, in a way, a non-essential quality. Some people run teams of dogs that obviously bear no particular love for their drivers. If you're one of the racing- machine types, maybe the absence of bonding makes no difference. But I'd guess that most of us would rather sling dog chow and scoop poop for a bunch of potlickers who love us dearly. There's little enough love in the world as it is. The nice thing about Seppalas is their high capacity for such bonding. Some very popular racing Siberian Husky bloodlines seem to consist of dogs devoid of positive feelings towards humanity; I once owned some of those, so I know. I'll take my soppy Seppalas any old day. I spend a lot of time in and around the kennel in close contact with my dogs; their cheerful affection and desire for my company keep me from getting hopelessly depressed about things like the dire state of Spaceship Earth as we embark upon the new millennium.


11. Metabolism: a desirable specimen is metabolically efficient. He functions well on small quantities of high-energy food. His physical exertion is efficient. His rest/recovery cycle is rapid. Given correct conditioning and nutrition, he is able to work and to continue working indefinitely in a stable exertion/alimentation/rest/recovery cycle.

This quality is as crucial as attitude. If a dog wants to run, he has got to be able to do so on a sustainable basis in terms of oxygen uptake, energy metabolism and lactic acid accumulation. It's true that this can only be evaluated by the average musher empirically and indirectly, according to the dog's performance. No matter, the relative quality of a sleddog's metabolism is the great enabler that allows him to perform. Without it, he's a couch potato!


12. Movement: a desirable specimen displays qualities of physique, proportion, musculature and innervation which result in a smooth and efficient working movement at any gait or speed. In particular a fluid and flexible working lope is essential, together with a free and rapid trot.

Gait or movement is very important for an animal that must keep running for hours, or trotting for days. Both speed and endurance are negatively affected when a sleddog has an inefficient movement. By the way, if you glance over the rest of this list, you'll find that I haven't included a section on specific structural traits. This is because structural matters are (or should be) governed by their ultimate effect on movement, speed and endurance. Those who stray down the garden path of breeding sleddogs for conformation usually wind up experiencing a decay in attitude and/or metabolism as they aim their selection primarily at structural features. It is better to allow the bottom line of performance to rule and simply to let form follow function. In any case, variability of structure goes along with versatility of purpose. Relatively few animals out of the total sleddog population are used for Fairbanks ONAC class sprint racing. Dogs that race in 3-dog class, for example, are likely to be totally different in physique from the ideal large-team sprint racing animal. Dogs that run in 6-dog middle distance races are another highly distinct type. Rather than attempt to produce a minutely-detailed structural blueprint for each distinct kind of sleddog activity, it makes better sense, especially in a numerically limited population, simply to allow for considerable physical variability in consideration of breed versatility, and to concentrate instead on efficiency of movement which will serve to limit undesirable structure severely and automatically.


13. Courage: a desirable specimen is courageous but not foolhardy. He displays awareness of danger on the trail without being fearful. He will face glare ice, overflow, steep climbs, deep snow, heavy loads, unfamiliar territory, other dog teams and other hazards or dangers with steadiness and determination to carry on working.

Racers whose experience is confined to well-marked overgroomed trails may snort at the mention of canine courage -- until they have experienced conditions in the Yukon, or unless they have run some of the European mountain classics such as Alpirod or Pirena. A dog, for example, that panics on fast downhill runs, even after he has repeatedly been exposed to them in training, slowly at first, then gradually working up to speed, is simply lacking in courage. A dog that freaks out when surrounded by a noisy crowd in the chute has a problem with courage. It's one of those things that you never notice unless it's missing, but it is highly necessary even (perhaps especially) to racing dogs.


14. Seriousness: a desirable specimen displays a serious approach to his work. He does not clown or play while in harness. He does not disturb his teammates in any way. He ignores trailside distractions. He pulls his share of the load always without shirking.

Here's another quality that you don't appreciate until it's absent. A non-serious sleddog is invariably a pain in the driver's butt. Other dogs on the team resent his shenanigans, too, because he breaks up their rhythm and their focus. Serious teams develop a working rhythm and a concentration that allows them to maintain the desired pace in spite of irregularities in the terrain and distractions on the trailside. But if Charlie Brown the Canine Clown is always bouncing up and down when he sees something interesting, or poking at the dog beside him, or chewing his neckline in two, or trying to pee on the bushes just off the trail, the team can't maintain that rhythm and concentration. Just watch a novice team of show-dogs some time and you'll realise how important seriousness is, by observing the hilarious, chaotic effects of its absence.


15. Temperament: a desirable specimen is stable in temperament. He is neither nervous nor aggressive. He may be either outgoing or quietly shy with humans other than his owners, or anything in between those extremes. If shy with strangers, this should not manifest in panic and wild flight reactions, only in quiet avoidance. Likewise if outgoing, this should manifest in friendliness rather than wild exuberance. The Seppala temperament is evidenced in balance and stability.

When you run a dog team, it is important to know how the dogs will react to different situations: meeting a hiker on the trail, passing another team, getting tangled, for example. Stable temperament means predictable reactions and the absence of extreme overreactions. As noted, it doesn't matter too much if sleddogs are a little bit on the shy side; in fact that tends to limit their interest in trailside spectators and similar distractions and so can even be somewhat of an asset, provided it is not extreme. Extremely shy dogs are hard to manage and inconvenient to own. In the 1970s I owned two AKC Siberian Huskies from a big-name kennel in Alaska, that were, in effect, wild animals; every time I hooked down and walked up to fix somebody's neckline, here were these two, eyes glazed with fear, on their backs in a rigid foetal curl in the deep snow off-trail. I could barely manage to harness them as they shook with fear of an owner who always treated them gently and kindly. Who wants or needs dogs like that! Similarly, who needs the dog that is so aggressive he wants to pick a fight with every team that passes, or every time he's hooked with a new running mate? Balanced, stable temperament means dogs that are easy to handle and don't cause problems in harness.


16. Eating and Drinking: a desirable specimen eats with a good appetite whenever food is offered and drinks plentifully and reliably, without going off his feed or refusing to drink due to the stress of working. Nutrition and hydration are of crucial importance to the working sleddog and emotional stress factors must not be allowed to interfere with these necessities.

This is a quality that needs a lot of work both in Seppalas and in other Siberians. Some are okay; I've got one guy I call "Hungry Hurley" because he's always ready to eat anything that doesn't eat him first. Others are picky eaters and are also difficult to induce to drink. These qualities really come to the fore in long-distance racing, because distance events depend on a stable exertion/alimentation/rest/recovery cycle so that the dogs can keep going for as long as two weeks at a time under highly stressful conditions. A dog that refuses to eat or drink is a dog that must be dropped at the next checkpoint. Maybe this problem is allowed to persist just because it isn't so crucial in shorter racing events, hence hasn't been selected against, but I'll bet it makes a lot of difference in the longer middle distance races, too. Hard-working animals should eat and drink reliably.


17. Climate Hardiness: a desirable specimen possesses qualities of fur coat, toughness of feet, stoicism in the face of pain or discomfort, and endurance of extreme cold, which render him capable of living and working in the climatic extremes of arctic and subarctic environments.

Cold-hardiness is a basic arctic-dog quality. Maybe dog drivers in Ohio and California can ignore it. I know that we still get an occasional dog that lacks sufficient coat for comfort in a Yukon cold snap; this in a sleddog bloodline renowned for its excellent coats. Is that due to years of selection for racing in the Lower Forty-Eight? Heat dissipation is emphasised as a positive quality in sprint racing, which doubtless accounts for the scanty coats of many Alaskan huskies. I can understand its value, as I can see my heaviest-coated dogs frantically dipping snow (even though they were well watered an hour before the run), with their tongues out a mile on the last two or three runs of the season at the end of March or the beginning of April. If you are trying to run dogs competitively in temperatures just barely freezing or higher, you simply must have that heat dissipation. But I hate to see a sleddog shivering violently, turning blue and purple about the hocks during a cold snap, even though he has a tight, well-strawed doghouse. It strikes me as unethical to deprive a dog genetically of the protection that centuries of evolution in a cold climate gave him, just for the convenience of people in warm locations.
      Seppala feet, also, are renowned for their toughness. Let's hope it stays that way; it won't if we ignore them. Some racing Siberian and Alaskan husky teams run in booties from beginning to end of the season. The old-timers always said, "No feet, no sleddog."


18. Reproduction: desirable female specimens display high levels of maternal instinct and drive, together with high fertility and reasonable levels of fecundity. Whelpings should be natural without complications or the need for human intervention, and milk supply should be abundant. Desirable male specimens display good sex drive and high fertility.

What does reproduction have to do with sleddogs? Just this: if you have to produce litters of stock from which to select good team dogs, it helps a lot to have no difficulty producing those litters. Some breeds of purebred dogs now depend almost entirely on artificial insemination and Caesarean-section birth, believe it or not (bulldogs, for example). Do we want to put up with that in order to breed sleddogs? Well, artificial insemination is being pushed hard these days in the dog-fancy media and to my mind, once you dispense with natural mating pretty soon you will start having dogs that for one reason or another can't or won't mate naturally, because you allowed those traits to be perpetuated unnaturally. Caesarean births have been on the increase in the Siberian Husky breed in recent years. Before you say this is irrelevant to sleddogs, check out what your vet charges for a C-section!


19. Health, Viability and Longevity: a desirable specimen is naturally healthy and hardy. When maintained in a state of good nutrition and physical conditioning and regularly deparasitised, he should be free from illness and always ready for hard work. Sleddogs are expected to work until the age of ten years, and longevity in excess of fifteen years should be the norm.

A dog can't work if he isn't healthy, can he! Sleddogs' work is physically demanding and stressful; they must be able to cope. Given the cost of raising them to maturity, the time and effort required to bring their abilities to perfection, they ought to keep working for quite a few years. Some purebred dog breeds these days peg out at seven or eight years of age -- do we want this for sleddogs? If not, then longevity matters, too.


20. Leader quality: a desirable specimen will pull in harness without anything to chase and with no other sleddogs hooked ahead of him. He will "lead out" ahead of whatever vehicle he is harnessed before. He will obey directional commands if he has been taught them and, if he is uncertain, he will try to discern the desired direction from his driver's actions. He will hold a gangline tight during the hookup of a team, and he will not allow it to slacken so that he or the gangline is overrun by the dogs hooked behind him. He will maintain a tight line and respond properly to verbal commands no matter how many dogs are hooked in a team behind him. Superior lead dogs display qualities of determination and spark which animate the entire team; they will be responsible for maintaining control and for keeping the team going in the very worst of driving conditions, night or day, hot or cold, wet or dry, through blizzards, deep powder snow, heavy overflow and similar trying circumstances. The superior lead dog is the ne plus ultra of the Seppala Siberian Sleddog breeding programme.

Those of us who breed pure Seppalas are blessed with a bloodline that produces abundant leader ability. At Seppala Kennels we find somewhere between one-third and one-half of our animals eventually demonstrate the ability to lead a team; granted, some are better at it than others. But if a dog is able to lead at all, he is probably able to improve on his natural abilities with practice. This is a great blessing to that poor, much-ridiculed and maligned soul, the novice recreational driver. It means if he can but get his hands on one decent Seppala brood bitch, he has got it made, because he can breed her to a good Seppala male (even if he can't buy the dog), raise a litter and know that he will have a team from that one mating. We have proved this to our own satisfaction with Seppalas by several times training complete litters as self-contained teams. Granted that the process is easier if you have a capable leader around to start with, so green young leader trainees have a role-model from whom to learn the trade. There are some Siberian Husky and even Alaskan husky bloodlines in which it is by no means guaranteed that any particular litter will contain dogs able to lead capably.
     This article is long enough already without my penning a psalm of praise to the superior lead dog. Let's just say that superior leaders are always at a premium and always in short supply relative to the demand. Breed superior lead dogs -- and sell them -- and the world will beat a path to your door. Seppala lineage produces capable leaders routinely, and superior ones occasionally. You just have to have the time to give every dog a fair chance in training, then give enough experience to those that demonstrate leader ability. It helps if you train your dogs in small teams, starting with 4-doggers in the autumn, working up to 6 and 8 dogs when the snow flies. If you always run a 12 or 16-dog team, you may get finished with your training a lot sooner, but you won't produce nearly as many leaders; when you always run big teams, you are pretty much forced to stick with the old, tried-and-true leaders to keep things in order, so young leader prospects seldom get much of a chance to show their ability.


THESE ARE the traits that matter at Seppala Kennels, the traits enshrined in the start-up documentation for the Seppala Siberian Sleddog project. The above list of twenty sleddog qualities is not the only way to cut up the cake of sleddog ability, needless to say. If you disagree with the above breakdown, then I encourage you to sit down and make your own list. Most people tend to think they are only selecting for one or two things, but in fact they actually demand a very similar list of qualifications from their dogs, although their selection may be on an unconscious intuitive level only. It's a worthwhile exercise to try to drag it all out into the open and get it down in words, so that you really know what each quality is that you consider essential to a well-balanced sleddog.