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Meet Siberian Sprint Musher John Bates

John & Geri Bates with Linwood Feidler

John & Geri Bates with Iditarod musher Linwood Feidler

Name: John and Geri Bates
Kennel Name: SIBEX, also known as The Siberian Express
Birthplace: Lubbock, Texas
Home Town: Ferndale, Michigan (suburb of Detroit)
Occupation: 9-1-1 Dispatcher for the Michigan State Police

Introduction

Geri and I have been married for 15 years, and we have two teenage sons - Jason (17) and Justin (14). We met in the U. S. Air Force, married, and have been living in Michigan for about 12 years now. I am primarily a sprint musher, running in the 6-dog classes. Last year was my rookie year, and I'm still alive to tell about it. We ran one mid-distance race in the Upper Peninsula last season in order to get more "qualifying" miles on the dogs to compete in the Sled Dog classes at the Specialty shows.

I am a Board member of the Siberian Husky Club of Greater Detroit and we members of the Mid Union Sled Haulers (MUSH) and the Michigan Sled Dog Association

I'm also a local precinct delegate for the 12th GOP, a contributing writer/photographer to The Siberian Quarterly magazine, and the only "dogsledding dispatcher" in the Michigan State Police. My experience in dogs includes four years handling narcotics and bomb detection dogs in the USAF. Geri has taken over many of my duties as photographer, and her photos often accompany my articles. We also publish "Paw Prints", the monthly newsletter of The Siberian Husky Club of Greater Detroit.

Background

How long have you been involved with sled dogs?
A little over two years.

What sparked your initial interest in sled dogs?
My friend & neighbor, Donna Lutz, got me interested as she mushed her dogs down the snow-covered sidewalks of the neighborhood at 6 a.m. one winter morning. After I got over the initial shock, I thought "Wow - that's COOL!"....it really made me want to try it myself.

If you remember your very first time behind a team of dogs, tell us about it.
I was pretty uneasy at first, knowing the awesome power I was about to unleash, yet very excited. My first experience was on a training rig with 4 dogs in a wooded area near Flint, Michigan. Luckily for me, the dogs were running well and I can remember thinking, "What a rush !" The neighbor that had sparked my initial interest was also my mentor and gave me lots of insight into the sledding scene, which I was grateful for as the weeks went by and the training progressed. Still, every time I step on the runners and listen to the countdown in the starting chute the adrenaline almost overflows.

Kennel Management

What size kennel do you operate?
Ours is a small operation, as we still reside in the city. The dogs are all cherished family members as well working sled dogs. Like many pets, they are spoiled. By day they have the run of the yard, and at night have individual crates in the cool basement. Luckily, our neighbors are very understanding. We are currently shopping for a suitable site in the country for our new home & kennel for our six adult dogs. We are planning one litter in early 1998.

Give us an overview of your feeding program.
We feed & recommend Diamond Pet Foods of Meta, MO. They make several formulas to suit our needs - Diamond Puppy for the little ones, Premium Adult for the show dogs, and Professional Formula for the training/racing season. The products are a very good value and of the highest quality. I've toured their manufacturing facility, and the company veterinarian consults with us frequently on nutritional needs and even comes to Michigan to watch us race and see the results of their products first-hand. Not many companies would be willing to do that for an individual breeder/musher. In my opinion, this is what sets them apart from other brands. Other than that, I use fresh ground venison to supplement during the racing season, which the dogs really love.

Summarize your basic kennel management style.
Since our sled dogs are also show dogs, I have two areas of concern which actually sort of overlap. My first concern is with "workability". As novice breeders, we want to produce Siberian Huskies that closely fit the AKC standard while retaining their working heritage. As a musher, I want dogs with plenty of drive and attitude. My "ideal" Siberian Husky can go from the home to the show ring to working in harness, while retaining the qualities that make this breed unique in the dog world. For example, we place a lot of emphasis on socialization, and take our dogs on other outings besides shows and races. One thing we enjoy is taking them to a local cider mill or public park and staking them out where they can enjoy the human interaction as people come by to pet them and ask questions. It helps the dogs get accustomed to crowds and we get the opportunity to help educate the public about Siberian Huskies and sledding.

What advice would you give a beginning musher?
Find a mentor, and ask lots of questions. Most folks will give you the benefit of their experiences if they are approached properly, but don't expect them to reveal all their racing strategies if you are going to compete against them. Also, educate yourself and go slowly - many beginning mushers seem to acquire too many dogs and are overwhelmed. It's easy to acquire genetic "junk", so take your time and acquire the best specimens possible of your chosen breed. Your efforts will pay dividends in the years ahead.

The Dogs

What breed(s) do you work with?
Purebred Siberian Huskies.

What physical characteristics do you look for in your dogs?
The dog should conform closely to the written AKC standard. I like plenty of angulation, good shoulder lay-back, and proper gait. If the conformation is good, then other characteristics such as coat & eye color become secondary considerations.

What mental or emotional attributes do you require in your dogs?
I like a dog that is somewhat mellow around the home, yet gets excited when it is time to go to "work". I realize the two traits are at opposite extremes, but most of our dogs are like that. It all goes back to training and socialization. They know what is expected of them and behave accordingly. Of course, there are times when they test their limits, much as children do, but that's just part of their mental make-up. We have "house rules" and "yard rules" and "working rules", which present us with many challenges when training. We just have to adjust our training methods to the individual dog. I'm very fortunate to have such versatile dogs. They are my friends.

Tell us about an all time favorite dog or two:
Two of our dogs were actually "adopted" over the Internet from a lady in New York City in the summer of 1995. She had developed liver disease, and couldn't keep them any more. One bitch was from a very famous show kennel, the other bitch from a casual breeder, and she didn't want to separate the two since they had been raised together. Lots of people wanted the show quality bitch, but not everyone wanted the other spayed female. After exchanging numerous emails and letters and phone calls, I just knew I had to have them so we drove to New York City one weekend to get the dogs. "Nikki" went on to compete in the 1996 SHCA National Specialty and has become one of my best leaders, while "Jessie" is content to be a mischievous sled dog. We love them both, and stay in touch with their former owners in New York. Talk about versatility - from New York City apartment dogs to working sled dogs in a matter of weeks ! They are special members of The Siberian Express team.

Puppies

Puppy

If you raise puppies, do you use any pre-training evaluation?
It's not an exact science, but I look for personality and attitude, and how well a puppy reacts to different stimuli. I watch them play and interact to get clues as to their social development, which helps me form an educated guess as to temperament and attitude.

What method do you use for starting pups?
First, observation. Stake them out and let them watch the other more experienced dogs. They learn by watching them. Walking in harness, then gradually adding objects like small tires or short logs to see if the pups will pull, and how they react to their new "job". Then, they go next to an experienced (but patient) older dog near the middle of the team. After that, their performance determines their position on the team.

What is the most important thing you look for in a young dog?
A combination of conformation and attitude.

Training & Racing

What is the training/racing philosophy of your kennel?
I am not pursuing fortune or glory. As a "rookie", my main goal is to make it across the finish line alive with my team intact. We train as often as possible, and try to make it fun for the dogs. Sportsmanship is also very high on the goals list - I'm a firm believer in good sportsmanship and fair play.

Do you have specific training goals for your team(s)?
We try to vary our training till the dogs will run as few as one or two miles or as many as fifteen miles. As the training progresses we average about 6-8 miles per session.

How do you choose which races to enter?
We enter as many as our work schedules will allow. Like many other mushers, we are not independently wealthy and must work full time to support our doggie habit. Last year we were able to run eight or nine races.

What does it take to win?
Hard work, training, nutrition, and the best dogs you can afford to acquire.

The Future

What is the future of sled dog sports?
I believe the sprint and stage races will continue to grow in popularity. Public education and improved dog care will go a long way toward silencing the vocal minority that opposes dogsled racing. Mushers must become proactive and exhibit good sportsmanship in order to promote a more positive image of mushing. As the saying goes, "Perception is reality."

What can individual mushers do to support and promote the sport?
Go out and find a school to host a demonstration on mushing and sled dog care. Many will help arrange to bring in the local media to cover the "story", and with a few hours investment you can educate an entire community about this growing family sport. Make yourself available to answer questions at races or public outings. Practice good sportsmanship, and follow the rules. By doing so, you can help insure that we will be enjoying dogsled racing for many years to come. Lead by example. (emphasis by SDC)

What part do clubs and organizations play in sport development?
That depends on the involvement of the members and the goals of the individual clubs. Be a joiner, and get involved with the club's activities. You get out of it only what you put into it.

Anecdote

Tell us about one or two of your most memorable sled dog experiences :
One time during training my team got thirsty and my leaders took the entire team over the bank of a pond for a cold drink, standing belly deep in the frigid water. Now, I make sure I get plenty of water into them before going out on a run. I was so shocked to see my team disappearing over the bank that I almost didn't get the rig stopped before going over the edge myself ! Now I try to anticipate the unexpected, but with Siberian Huskies there's never a dull moment.

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