Building - and Preserving - a Competitive Racing Team

(This article was written for the "Racing Siberian Husky" in 1995. At that time Anneliese was driving the 1st string and Manfred the 2nd string - the "rehab" team - of the kennel.)

What possibly could the magazine Runner's World or similar publications have to do with building and maintaining a competitive racing team? The link is our knowledge of the close relation between racing dogs and human runners and their similar development to become top athletes. We are open-minded and willing to learn about the latest research in this field. For example: A lot of yearlings are ruined in race teams, breaking down mentally and physically, before they reach full maturity and can handle the job. Talking about distance racing, I converse with some drivers, asking if they are aware of the fact that their 16-month-old dogs are basically equivalent to 12-year-old children running in a marathon! Would they really allow their teenage son or daughter with the prospect of a great running career to push themselves - or be pushed by a trainer - that far so early, so young? One common response was, of course,"With dogs you can't see it that way!" We at Alka-Shan do! That's why we have every year a fairly substantial and competitive "veteran" team. We raise our puppies on a high protein diet and spend many hours of socializing. This includes lots of strange visitors and running free in a large exercise yard. No pup will be harnessed in a team before 7 or 8 months of age. Since we bring them up always thinking of them as future athletes, we like to avoid any situation which could damage their future abilities, physical or mental. We do make them pull tires and other things. But we do not want to stress their ligaments by running too excited in a team at an early age.

The yearlings we select for our future distance teams, should be balanced and smooth gaiting with good front reach. They should stand about 56 to 60 cm (22.0 to 23.6 inches) tall, eat and drink like vacuum cleaners, and have good heat tolerance and solid attitude without being too crazy.

Their first year, these young Siberians will be loaned out to sprint teams. There they will learn to handle race conditions without being driven to their mental and physical limits. If you can't do the first year of racing this way, run the yearlings yourself in sprint races just to have fun and to think about the future. When I get the yearlings back, I will increase the distance they run and evaluate the results in order to select the ones for Manfred's future team. From these, the ones that successfully experience their first distance season, may end up in my race team the following year.

In general, two new young dogs run on my team each year because I choose to depend upon my veterans for tough racing. When my team became faster every year, it was surprising for some racers to discover that most of the dogs I was running had run on the slower teams from the years before.

Building dogs up slowly, like human runners are built up under scientific direction, I avoid early injuries. Each serious physical breakdown a young athlete has, will leave scar tissue or calcium deposits which accumulate with time. The scarring and deposits may force dogs into early retirement.

We never turn training runs into (private) race runs. We will turn race runs into training runs, however. We condition the teams, and never run them to their limits for any reason.

Each training run, the dogs break down some muscle tissue as a normal part of exercise. The tissue will be repaired within a day even stronger - when the conditioning is done right. If the run was tough and the dogs are stiff, they may need two days rest to recover. Taking a tired team out just to stick to your personal schedule may accomplish nothing.

Only if you do some kind of physical exercise yourself, and push yourself once in a while during that exercise, you will have the knowledge about what happens in an athlete's system. This sort of exercising gave Manfred and me the right understanding of what the dogs feel during racing and afterwards. Both Manfred and I run, though I do more bicycling because of my crippled knee.

We use interval training to condition our teams. The sprint sessions are run at solid basic speed on the flat or slight uphills. While trot resting, we choose downhill parts to make sure the dogs develop a fast trotting speed.

Evaluating the true performance increase of our young dogs and the success of the breeding combinations made over years is based upon a very simple scheme. Here are the key points of our approach.

First: lf most pups out of a litter are better than one parent, we call it a step in the right direction, since we only breed with our top dogs. However, this means only holding our present performance level for the main team, at best raising that of Manfred's team.

Second, if one or two pups are better than both parents, we call the breeding a success. This means real improvement for the future.

But we also know that you have to come up pretty regularly with some pups which are better than both parents to improve your team's performance and stay competitive among the good and quickly improving Alaskan husky teams. And this sort of competition is what we aim for!

Interestingly, all the dogs on my present team are products of crossstrain breeding, except for one linebred Siberian. I have to wait and let the dogs get at least three years old before I am able to evaluate their full ability. In 20 years of breeding, building my experience to where it is today, I never got anything better than the parents when I chose to linebreed. However, I do not have a particular favorite when it comes to breeding systems. What counts for me, is only the success. Therefore, every top performer, no matter what line he comes from, is welcome in the Alka-Shan breeding program.

Line-breeding is fixing the genes of good traits, but also the unwanted ones. We do not ignore genetic problems. We observe the genetic disorders of various lines, we deal with, closely. We try to breed those out by enlarging the gene pool.

We routinely test hips and eyes, and for low thyroid if there is evidence of it. Also dogs, which for no reason have a sudden declining performance, will be checked out by running a blood panel.

If some of the young dogs make it into the main team, they will be handled with kid gloves. In Germany we would say we will treat them like raw eggs. I expect them to make my team until they are seven years old. After seven years of age, with their declining speed, dogs from my team go back to Manfred's team to stabilize the young and upcoming Siberians.

For dogs to last years running on a main team, you have to preserve their body more than their mind, because they've got solid temperaments and attitudes. I never try to wear my team out to the last bit, except if it is a real important race. lf a dog becomes lame, I try to find the reason and lay it off for an adequate time. With each calcium deposit that builds on a dog's spine or other bones, it may loose some of it's speed and it's effortless gait. So I do not risk the future soundness of one of my "jewels" to short-lived success.

In all those years of racing dogs, I learned my lesson: there is no guarantee that your next breeding will enable you to replace a top dog with something equal or better.