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Meet Sprint Musher John Swenson

Name: John Swenson John Swenson
Kennel Name: Swenson Kennels
Birthplace: Rural Duluth, MN
Home Town: Holyoke, Minnesota
Occupation: Teacher of Students With Emotional/Behavioral Disorders

Introduction:

Linda and I live in Holyoke and have two children, Jennifer and John, who are both currently attending college. We will be the poor couple at races this winter begging for spare change. I will be competing in sprint races in the ten dog class. Linda and I are members of the North Star Sled Dog Club. I am the current vice president and race promotion officer for the North Star Sled Dog Club. I also belong to ISDRA and am an associate member of the Wisconsin Trailblazers.

Background:

What is your primary sled dog activity or area of interest?
I have received some strange looks for this reply, but I really enjoy training a team of dogs. Don't get me wrong. I enjoy racing sled dogs, but if I had to make a choice, I would choose training. I work a high stress job and it is the evening runs and that one night that you experience the near perfect run that I find the most rewarding and satisfying.

How long have you been involved with sled dogs?
Eight years.

What sparked your initial interest in sled dogs?
We bought a Siberian Husky for a pet and as our little guy was growing up, we thought "wouldn't it be fun to have him pull a sled?" There just happened to be an inexpensive sled in the paper and we bought it. It was a pretty big sled, so a decision was made to buy another dog. A 500 mile trip later, we now owned three sled dogs. Our two new experienced lead dogs may have been experienced, but that experience did not include pulling a sled. A 400 mi. trip later, we now owned four sled dogs. You can see that early on I had a natural ability to block out all rational thought (a very necessary trait for a sled dog driver). Our fourth dog was a retired open class leader who, through no help from us, trained our family and our other three dogs to be sleddogs. Some dear friend said "with a leader like him, your kids should enter the junior class." Many more dogs after this.

If you remember your very first time behind a team of dogs, tell us about it.
It hurts to think about it. First snow, the whole family is outside, including grandparents. We hook up our two experienced leaders (the dogs I drove 500 mi. for with the intention of buying one dog, going way over my budget because they were lead dogs) and our puppy. My daughter gives the hike sign. One of the experienced leaders sits down and the other leader proceeds to turn around and attempt to play with the puppy, who, by the way, was all business, trying to pull the sled, my daughter, and the two experienced leaders.

Kennel Management:

What size kennel do you operate?
20 dogs (14 adults and six puppies).

Give us an overview of your feeding program.
I feed a combination of meat and commercial dog food year round.

What advice would you give a beginning musher?
Start small and locate a veteran musher who has a reputation for quality dog care - who you can call or visit to seek advice. I will repeat this again. Start small. We all have witnessed new mushers who place themselves into a situation where they have more dogs than they can properly care for. One needs to remember that each new dog in a kennel requires a time and financial commitment.

Summarize your basic kennel management style.
Dog care is the top priority. Make sure the dogs receive a sufficient amount of water, a high quality diet, an effective worming program, are vaccinated, receive ample socialization, and are never expected to run beyond their training.

The Dogs:

What breed(s) do you work with?
Alaskan Huskies. I just split a litter of pointer cross puppies.

What physical characteristics do you look for in your dogs?
This is hard to place into words. I guess I would have to say I like a well proportioned dog. A dog that is not too large or small, legs not too long or short, body not too short or long, etc.

What mental or emotional attributes do you require in your dogs?
To be able to keep his/her tugline tight for an entire run.

Tell us about an all time favorite dog or two:
I ran a group of very young dogs last season and five or six of these dogs just won my heart. They give you everything they have and just love being sled dogs. No matter what goes wrong on a run, or what the conditions are, these dogs always look like they're really enjoying themselves.

Puppies:

If you raise puppies, do you use any pre-training evaluation?
No. Pre-training involves lots of socialization for my pups.

What method do you use for starting pups?
I place my pups next to an easy going veteran in a small team to start with.

What is the most important thing you look for in a young dog?
A good work ethic.

Training & Racing:

What is the training/racing philosophy of your kennel?
I start off by having the dogs work hard at a slow speed. I do not start working on speed training until early winter. I never push the dogs to a point in training where they become too exhausted after or during a run. I always strive to maintain a positive attitude within the team throughout the training and racing season.

Do you have specific training goals for your team(s)?
I try to get the team ready physically along with a strong attitude by the first race.

How do you choose which races to enter?
I try to support our local sled dog club's races. One of the reasons I chose to become vice president of our local club is to help build our race circuit back up to where it was several years back.

What does it take to win?
Good dogs that are well cared for and properly trained.

The Future:

What is the future of sled dog sports?
I'm feeling pretty optimistic at the present time. There have been a lot of new people getting into the sport in the past few years, especially recreational mushers. There has also been an increase in the number of towns putting on races. Last year our club had six races scheduled at this date. This year we have twelve races scheduled. Raising purse money for races has been a problem, but it has also been a problem for other sporting events. There are sporting events out there, though, which have flourished at the present time through creative marketing.

With major sponsorships and a high profile can come problems. Our present day animal rights groups are no longer out rescuing animals in need--animals who are starving, improperly cared for, or without homes. They only become involved in high profile causes because high profile causes create increased membership, which generate high amounts of capital. These groups have become very bureaucratic and require a substantial cash flow to operate. When encountering these groups we should never place ourselves into a situation where we are forced to defend our sport.

We must be proactive, regulating ourselves to ensure dog care is our top priority and educate the general public on the sport of running sled dogs. At the present time, public opinion is on our side. Let's keep it that way.

What can individual mushers do to support and promote the sport?
Join your local and international sled dog clubs, or any other club that is a voice for working dogs. Become an active member in these organizations. If there is a sled dog event in your area, volunteer to help. Every sled dog racer should help put on a sled dog race to truly appreciate the time and effort involved in staging a sled dog race. Most importantly, dog care should always be your top priority. How the public views how you treat your dogs is a reflection on the whole sport.

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