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Meet Siberian Breeders & Racers
Ann & Al Stead

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Name: Al and Ann Stead
Kennel Name:
Northome Kennels
Birthplace:
Al - Boise, Idaho, Ann - Duluth, Minnesota
Home Town:
Duluth, Minnesota
Occupation:
Al is a railroad conductor, and Ann is full time kennel manager.

Introduction:
We have been primarily racing in the limited sprint classes in the Midwest and Canada. Ann has done some mid distance and triathlon racing in 6 dog class.. We have both been officers in many of the organizations that we belong to. Al has been the president and vice president of North Star Sled Dog Club, as well as a columnist for the International Siberian Husky Club. Ann is the current treasurer for North Star. She is a past President (2 terms), Vice President (2 terms) and Treasurer, as well as Race Columnist, for the International Siberian Husky Club. She is also one of the editors of the recently released book, The International Siberian Husky Club presents The Siberian Husky - 3rd edition. Al wrote the genetics section of the book. Ann has also been the moving force behind many of the successful series of North Star Seminars. She also coordinates the foster homes for dogs and is on the Board of Directors for our local humane society, Duluth Animal Allies. We like to stay active in our local organizations to try to keep the sport moving ahead.

We have one son, Chris, 28 years old, who recently graduated from college with a degree in kinesiology. Al has a degree in life science and has been continuing his studies independently to further his breeding goals.

Background:

What is your primary sled dog activity or area of interest?
Our primary focus is producing competitive Siberian Huskies. We have stuck with the Siberian all of these years because we love the breed and enjoy the challenge of trying to compete with a purebred dog. We understand that it is an uphill battle, but find a lot of satisfaction in trying something just a little different. We also have a lot of faith in the breed. We have seen competitive Siberians on top teams and know that if we stick to it long enough, we will be in the race.

How long have you been involved with sled dogs?
Al started running sled dogs in races in the winter of 1973-74. He ran a small team belonging to his brother for two years before getting into racing. Ann took a night seminar that Al put on in '75, and took up the sport shortly after. When she started, she had a malamute-golden retriever cross with a bad attitude, and a pet Siberian female. She raced that team with poor results in the placings but trained them to be a very trustworthy duo. The mallie cross was her main leader for many years.

What sparked your initial interest in sled dogs?
Al became interested in sled dog racing after attending the Ely races while in college. He had raced everything imaginable from snowmobiles to canoes previously, and didn't have a clue what he was getting into. Ann had a polar dog that she had trained in obedience and was looking for something to do with him in the winter. She was also looking for a purebred dog to train in obedience that could compete in AKC Obedience Trials. Mixed breed dogs are not eligible. The Siberian Husky was the breed she decided on.

If you remember your very first time behind a team of dogs, tell us about it.
Al - WAY TOO LONG AGO! I can tell you that I ran five dogs on a pair of downhill skis, because I had no sled.

Ann - Me either, I'm old!

Kennel Management:

What size kennel do you operate?
Currently we have fifty sled dogs in our dog lot. Only one of them is an Alaskan. That number is a little high, but we have twenty four pups that haven't seen a harness yet so we have to keep them to see what they can do. Al is a big guy, so for him, racing in the smaller classes is an exercise in bleeding money. Therefore, we have to keep enough dogs to produce a ten dog team for Al and six and four dog teams for Ann.

Give us an overview of your feeding program.
We feed the same diet year 'round. We base our diet on whole ground chicken. We add liver and fish meal to that and use Annamaet as our grain. We also use Gee-Haw to thicken the mixture. We add a vitamin supplement during training and racing and fat (oil) if the temps get below 0 degrees F., or the windchill is very low. With Siberians it is very important to feed as much protein as possible and still keep the diet balanced. We have also found that with our diet we do not supplement with fat on a regular basis. Siberians are thrifty dogs and cannot tolerate much fat when in race condition.

What advice would you give a beginning musher?
Once you have your first team, stop and have a real conference with yourself. Ask yourself what exactly turns your crank about mushing, and be completely honest. If you like the picture of a team of beautiful huskies running down a frozen trail, go with that. If you like winning races, follow that trail. Don't go blindly along without figuring out what it is that you like so much. You will waste a lot of time and maybe end up with a bunch of dogs that you really don't like. For the sake of those dogs, figure out what you want. Also don't get too big. I mean if you don't really like, and I mean really like scooping poop, you will not last very long in the sport.

Summarize your basic kennel management style.
We co-authored the CHAMP guidelines with Jerry Vanek--that should tell you something. Our philosophy is that the better our dogs live, the better we like it. About ten years ago we decided that we would build the best kennel setup we could imagine. We spent a pile of money on a brand new facility and have not regretted a penny of it. Since we built our new kennel we have saved its worth in vet bills and back breaking labor. We can testify to the benefits of going all the way.

The dogs are kept in a fenced in area with some of them on stakeout chains, and some in kennel runs. The dogs on chains can all touch and play but cannot tangle. We use plastic barrels for houses that are set on a four by four foot platform 16 inches off of the ground. The barrels all have a wooden door frame that sticks out at least eight inches. This frame helps to keep the snow from blowing in during the winter. The platform gives the dog access to shade in the summer and a 'never shovel out the dog house' situation in the winter. Our stakes are 4x4 cedar posts cut off knee high with a seven inch lag screw attaching the chain to the top. Again no shoveling in the winter and because the chains are not on the ground, poop pick up is much easier and the chain lasts longer. Most of the gates are on slides so that there is no shoveling in the winter - just lift and stomp down the snow.

We also have kennels for older dogs, mom's and pups, and quarantine. The quarantine is very important. Everybody buys new dogs from time to time. It pays to keep them in quarantine until they have been checked out by the vet and you are certain that they do not carry any disease.

The kennel runs were bought from a boarding kennel that went out of business. We have panels for nine indoor/outdoor runs. We use sand for the bottom of the kennel runs. In order to keep the dogs from digging out, we laid down 2x4 welded wire on the ground and filled over with masons sand about three inches deep. The whole setup is surrounded by railroad ties to keep the sand in. This system is preferable to cement in our estimation. It is easier to clean and when it rains, it flushes rather than just getting wet. We did the same thing with the puppy pens with the exception that we just put the wire in the ground around the perimeter of the pen. We don't care if they dig to china in the middle of the pen, but they cannot dig out. We have found that some dogs prefer the kennel runs to a stake out, and some dogs cannot tolerate having a chainlink fence in their face. Probably the most important thing we found using this kennel setup is that depending on what is happening in the dogs' life, chains or pens are appropriate and that neither is better than the other.

The Dogs:

What breed(s) do you work with?
Siberian Huskies with an occasional neutered Alaskan leader if needed.

What physical characteristics do you look for in your dogs?
We have a breed standard to consider when breeding the Siberian. The main characteristic we breed for is toughness and the desire to work in harness. However, we must also consider the physical ability of the dog. The Alaskan competition is clearly more physically able than most Siberians so we must try to close that gap. When we look at a dog for harness work, we want a dog that is light on his feet. He must have very good reach and be balanced front to rear. You can tell if a dog has enough front by the way he holds his head when he is running in harness. If he holds it to one side, he doesn't have enough front for the speed that he is running. You can tell if a dog is balanced by watching the cadence of his feet hitting the ground.

What mental or emotional attributes do you require in your dogs?
Toughness - see above. We also will not tolerate a dog that bites. Otherwise we have worked with all types of personalities. That is some of the fun of running a sled dog team. Also, we have not been able to identify any single behavioral indicator that a dog will be a good sled dog or not. We have found that psycho or laid back, stupid or smart, they will all be good dogs if handled right.

Tell us about an all time favorite dog or two:
Our all time best dog was, without question, Northome's Spook. He was a product of the first breeding that Al did with his foundation dogs. He wasn't a fast looking dog, but Ann ran him in front of a five dog team at 30 miles an hour for a couple of miles. We know this because Al was following in the truck. He always preferred to run single lead. If we hooked him up back in the team, he would sulk. Al always had his best runs with him running lead alone. Ann placed 10th in the ISDRA standings in the 3 dog class in 1986 with an all Siberian team. Spook, age 10, was the single leader. In his entire career, he never had a bad run unless he was sick. We have linebred on this dog and his sister to create the Northome line.

Puppies:

If you raise puppies, do you use any pre-training evaluation?
We spend a lot of time with our pups, but we don't try to evaluate them before eight weeks. Between eight and twelve weeks we run them on the half mile trail that we have out the back of the kennel. During that time we can tell if a pup will have the gait and desire to run on the ten dog team. Basically we use George Attla's method. We see who is always leading the pack and who is willing to keep going when they are really tired. It
doesn't always work, but it is close enough.

One important thing that we will cut a pup some slack on is size. If a pup is bigger than his litter mates, we will consider him if he is not getting dumped by the rest. Bigger pups have a tougher time hauling their greater bulk down the trail than their smaller litter mates.

What method do you use for starting pups?
We like to start the pups on a rig as opposed to the 4 wheeler. Some pups just don't like that engine running up their butt. We have some old Thompson Torsion rigs that have a prong brake that actually sets in the ground. This rig can hold a dog team no questions asked.

We also have an age rule. A puppy cannot be broke unless he/she fits in a regular adult harness. Because of that, the pups are between 5 and 10 months at first hookup, although we've run them younger than that. We usually hook up two pups at wheel and two seasoned leaders. By the way, the pups are staked next to each other in the dog yard. We only go one-half mile or so with lots of stops, changing the pups from side to side and giving them tons of praise. By the second run, they usually look like seasoned adults, managing the lines really well and even understanding the few commands we use.

Sometimes a pup will not get it. We will hook that pup next to an adult that is very well behaved but enthusiastic. We also hook the pup a little short of the adult so that he can see the adult having a good time and gain confidence from that. If that fails, we run alongside the pup while he is running in the team and talk to him until he leans into the harness. We have not had a pup fail his harness training that we can remember.

You can infer from this that we never break out pups unless we are both there. That is a big plus. If you can have someone else to help control things, it is much safer for the pup.

What is the most important thing you look for in a young dog?
The desire to keep going when they are tired.

At what point do you decide a pup is likely to make it in your team?
We have been surprised enough that we don't make any early predictions once the pup is in harness. The only way to find out if a pup will make the team is to give him a chance to do so. If their gait is what we like, the speed seems to be adequate, we will keep a pup until he/she is 2 years old for evaluation. We have waited as long as four years for a dog to make the 10 dog team.

Training & Racing:

What is the training/racing philosophy of your kennel?
NEVER take the dog out of the race! What we mean by this is that you must always watch the dogs on your team and never over-run any individual dog on the team. You always want to see all tight tuglines: no matter what. If you always keep all the tuglines tight, your dog team will never fall apart.

Do you have specific training goals for your team(s)?
The only goal that is reasonable is to expect the team to run the distance that you set out for them without overextending themselves. That means that they can run it strong. It doesn't mean that they are not tired when they are done, but they could do it and finish as fast as they started. If you expect a team to run a trail within a certain time frame, you are butting your head up against the brick wall of their genetic endowment, and there is nothing that you can do about that. So, when the team is strong for the distance, you done your job, and their speed is what it is.

How do you choose which races to enter?
We like races that are well run and have consistently good trails. We don't like to travel long distances to go to races that are new or have a bad reputation. Also, if a race isn't fun, we will not be likely to go again for a while. This means that if there is a lot of complaining or poor sportsmanship or controversy, we don't enjoy that and will avoid that race in the future. Prize money almost never plays a part in our selection criteria for races. We seldom take any of it home, so we don't pay any attention to it. We race for enjoyment, both for ourselves and the teams. If the race isn't any fun, forget it.

What does it take to win?
You're going to have to ask someone else. Al is the only person we know of who has been racing sleddogs for 25 years and has never won a race. Ann has won some in mid distance and four and six dog sprint classes - both Siberian and open races. I will say that we usually seek out the toughest competition we can find. We want to compare our dogs against the World Class Teams. As far as winning races, we don't do anything different from year to year except try to keep learning, and do our best to field teams that are prepared to their potential.

The Future:

What is the future of sled dog sports?
The future of Sled dog sport is in flux right now. We pride ourselves on trying to keep an historical and global perspective on the sport. We have one of the most complete collections of club publications in existence. We use them to keep our perspective, and determine which current problems have been confronted in the past. We have seen that the sports' recurrent problems have all been dealt with at some point in the past, but are still with us with no solution in sight.

We believe that the future of the sport will take care of itself if we all do one thing: remember to keep the dogs first. Winning isn't all that important in this sport. We have issues of exploitation to deal with in our own hearts and in the eye of the public. If we race our dogs because the dogs love it and not to try to make a name for ourselves, the sport will continue and chart its own direction. Our goal as a sport should be that every dog in every race is a winner. We as mushers are just there to share in their joy.

What can individual mushers do to support and promote the sport?
Take to heart what we wrote in the previous answer and spread the word. Go to schools and clubs to display the joy that mushing is all about, and spread it around so that when spectators look at your dog team they see the unbridled happiness that is what a racing dog team is all about.

What part do clubs and organizations play in sport development?
It has been our experience that clubs can be the primary hindrance to growth in the sport. The unfortunate history is that clubs are sometimes controlled by individuals who are winning races and have a vested interest in preserving that situation. This is a funny sport. As we said before, winning isn't all that important in this sport. The fact that we have made a successful and rewarding career out of racing and not winning proves that statement. Clubs have traditionally been about enhancing the competitive aspects of sled dogs sport and neglecting the fundamentals of mushing as a sport. Racing is not the be all and end all of mushing. Until clubs recognize that the base of our food chain is the enthusiast, whether recreational musher, or spectator, or pet owner, and cultivates that segment, the sport cannot grow beyond its current stagnant club race status.

Anecdote:

Tell us about one or two of your most memorable sled dog experiences.
Al- I used to ask my team if they were ready before pulling the snub line from the truck. I taught them that when they heard that sound they were going to take off. Two things came of this. First, it was almost impossible to undo the snub line because of all the force the team was putting on the line. Second- I was hooking up two small teams with Annie one day, and because they were small, I set my snow hook to hold them instead of tying off to the truck. When I had my team all hooked up, I turned to Annie and asked her if she was ready. Guess what they did. Yep, they knew what "Are you ready" means and took off. And you know, that darn snow hook took almost a mile to set itself again. I don't ask the dogs anything anymore.

Ann- Well, I can confidently say that I have a bunch of bloopers but this one comes to mind. I took off from the truck with a 6 dog team and got about 150 yards down the trail ready to make a haw to stay on the groomed trail. The team went straight down a logging road. I couldn't really hook down so I had to work fast. Threw the hook down, ran up and turned the team around and hopped on the sled as it came by. We've all done that. My snowhook bounced out of the sled bag (this happened way before hook holders) during the turnaround. Somehow I stepped on my overturned snowhook and got it stuck on my sorrel. I couldn't put my foot on the runner because the snowhook line was too short. You can understand that I couldn't do much with my other foot!! And so we barreled 20+ miles an hour back to Al at the dog truck and almost hit him and the truck because I had no foot to hit the brake with!!

Comments:

Any final comments about sled dog sports?
Sleddog sport is equal parts sport and lifestyle. Unlike sports that use inanimate equipment, we are charged with the care and feeding of our stock in trade. In order to persist in this sport, a musher must love his dogs as companions and pets as well as partners in competition. Over the years we have seen too many people get into mushing and because of the responsibilities of managing a kennel, get out of the sport in five or six years. Those people missed the point. It is just as much fun to scoop poop and play with the dogs in the yard as it is to run them. People need to spend quality time with their dogs every day. The fact that they might be feeding or watering or picking up at the same time is a bonus. Loving our dogs enough to be responsible for them is like a good marriage and is the best part of this sport. So, when it's raining and you don't want to be out cleaning your kennel, stop and pat the dogs while you are getting wet. You will be surprised how fulfilling catching a cold can be.

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