Interview with Al Stead -
printed in SHC-Aktuell, issue 23
Copyright Silvia Roppelt
For how long have you been involved in sled dogs?
started messing around with huskies in 1971 with my brotherís dogs. I
got my own dogs in 1973.
How many dogs are residing at your kennel?
Right now I believe
we have thirty five sled dogs. This number includes the pups and
retired dogs. We will start fall training with a single team of
eighteen, and a pup team that will get occasional training.
Could you tell us about the dogs you would name your
The two dogs that
had the most impact on our breeding were Nakoo Amahok of Anadyr and
Caribouís Darka. Nakoo was a very big boy. When in racing weight, he
tipped the scale at 65 pounds. He had a very nice gait, but his size
prevented him from running past six miles at any kind of speed. Darka
was our main leader until she retired. She had plenty of speed for her
time, and had more honesty in harness than any other dog I have had
since. The pups from the breeding between those two were and are the
basis of our strain. The two pups out of that breeding that became the
ancestors of most of our dogs today were Northomeís
Spook and Northomeís Pepper.
What are the basic lines of your breeding stock?
We have always said
that valuable qualities can be found across the entire spectrum of the
breed. We bought dogs from every famous bloodline that we could. In
our early years, everyone was selling their Siberians in favor of
Alaskans. Because of that, we were able to obtain some very good
dogs. However, we also had to be content to get some not very good
dogs, and try to pull out the quality of their family line from them.
There are of course lines that we avoid, but in general there are jewels
to be found everywhere.
Why do you prefer these bloodlines? What are their
There are no current
lines that I prefer. I continue to develop my Northome line, and I
prefer to work with that, but as I said before, there are virtues to be
found even in show dogs. Right now I have a Vargevass dog and his pups
in my yard as well as Seppala, Kodiak, Manitou Crossing, Lokiboden, and
Anadyr. Dead lines represented in our line are Little Alaska, Natomah,
Igloo Pac, Calivali, White Water Lake, and just about every major line
that ever was.
In which way did you select the breeding partners to
create this in a way classic ĎNorthome-Lookí ?
In my whole career I
never tried to create a look. I only cared about performance in
harness. As it turned out, the Spook litter had a particular look that
still predominates in my line today, but it was not a conscious effort
on my part. I recently found out that this look can be attributed to
Nicolai. Because I have bred down from the Spook litter so heavily,
the look from that litter survives even if I donít pay any attention to
Did you practise any outcrossing or line-breeding ?
Could you tell us about your experiences ?
Because I started
out with such high quality dogs from my first litter, I have practiced
line breeding on that litter right up to this day. However, no one can
line breed as closely as I have forever without outcrossing as a planned
part of the program. We have always been on the lookout for top quality
dogs from top bloodlines. When we were able to buy one, we outcrossed
to it and then blended the outcrosses back into the original line.
Sometimes we would do it from two different directions with the same
dog. When we selected the pups that would go on into our breeding, we
always used the ones that showed the same qualities that the Spook
What are your main criteria when selecting
Early on in my
career I always bred for performance in harness. Now I breed for health
first. I will sacrifice some performance in the short term to enhance
health. There have been times when I have used a dog that wasnít the
best one on the team but he had a better chance of producing health in
the pups. The reason that my focus has changed is that I learned that
unless a dog is healthy, it doesnít matter how you train him or how
fast he is, or how tough, he will not make it in the end.
If a person tries
his best to keep his dogs healthy and working up to their potential in
harness it is as hard to make the quality of his gene pool go down as it
is to make it go up. As long as a person doesnít select for lesser
quality, he wonít produce it.
What are the main breeding goals concerning physical
I like dogs that
arenít too big. I like my males to weigh under 50 pounds and my females
to weigh under 42. I like dogs that have good thick coats that arenít
too long or too fine. I used to care about fine bone, but since I have
been running in the open class, I donít think it matters, as long as the
bone isnít heavy. Shoulders are the hardest thing to breed for, so I
pay quite a bit of attention to them. I like flat running dogs. I am
very concerned with cool running. If a dog canít dissipate heat, he
wonít get bred here. I pay a lot of attention to feet. Their feet must
be nice and big and knuckled up really well. I donít care about the
color of their pads. I have all colors of pads and they are equally
tough, at least in my dogs.
What are the most important mental attributes you are
looking for in a dog ?
I am mostly concerned with focus. The dog has to pay
attention to his job and not take his mind off it until I tell him it is
okay. I want dogs that will listen to me no matter what they might be
feeling. The only way I can get my dogs to manage the Fairbanks trail
for three days in a row is to be able to teach them to listen to me and
do what I say. If they do that they will learn to trust me and will
perform at a higher level than they would if they were guessing what I
want, or running to please themselves. Other than that, the only thing
I wonít tolerate is a dog that bites. I have all kinds of
personalities in my team, and they all learn to run the same way. So
for me personality doesnít matter at all.
What are the breedís strengths and weaknesses as
racing sled dogs in general?
With the advent of the pointer crosses, the biggest
disadvantage Siberians have is speed. The new type dogs are simply too
fast for them over any distance greater then six dog distance. Quite a
bit of that difference could be made up by improving the shoulders on
most racing Siberians. Another disadvantage is in how hard they drive.
Siberian breeders have not kept pace with other sled dog breeders in
producing hard driving dogs that will gut it out in all conditions.
Other than that, I donít think the Siberian is at a disadvantage to any
dog in most important areas.
Siberians have some advantages over even the new type
dogs. I almost never mess with my dogís feet. All my friends with
pointer crosses have to baby their feet. Siberians generally donít eat
as much as other racing dogs, but that is counter balanced by the fact
that they need more protein in their diets than the crosses do. In
general, we donít have to baby or fuss over our dogs just to keep them
comfortable and happy.
Are there any serious genetic problems or diseases
which you would consider important for the breed ? Which examinations
are important for you (Thyroid, eyes etc.) ?
We think it is important to do any genetic testing
that might be advantageous. We donít check hips, but we do check eyes.
We donít check thyroid unless we have a problem. I think it is
important to stress producing a top quality immune system. If you breed
closely on only one bloodline, you will suppress the immune systems in
your dogs with the result that cancer will start to show up routinely.
Many other diseases will plague your dogs that they might have avoided
if they had strong immune systems.
How often do
you breed and how many puppies do you keep from these litters ?
We only breed to
satisfy our own needs. That means if there is a vacancy in the team or
we want to invigorate them with younger dogs added in. Because we only
breed for those events, we do not breed very much anymore. On average
we will try to produce two litters every other year. Our goal for those
litters it to keep them all.
What are your selection characteristics in a litter
and at what age do you decide ?
We donít try to select the pups until we have
trained them in harness for a few months. If we have room in the
kennel, we will keep them through one full winter before making any
decisions. When we do make choices, we consider their gaits as well as
how they handle being asked to go beyond their training. We have ways
of telling if a young dog will stand up to the very hard training that I
put them through in order to get ready for ONAC. There are two simple
things that people can use to tell if a dog will train up easily. Get
them tired and see if any of them worry about it. Get them tired and
see if their gait changes. The best ones donít worry about being tired
and the fastest ones donít change their gaits to accommodate a
What do puppies in your kennel have to learn
They learn that Iím the boss. That usually happens
when they think that they can fight over food. After that, they learn
that it is always good to come to me when I call them.
At what age do you put puppies in harness for the
first time and in which way, and how many chances does a puppy get from
you if it seems to be just second best ?
We break out the pups as soon as they are big enough
to fit into one of our harnesses. We broke out a litter of pups that
was 16 weeks old last year. They were some very big pups.
We like to break out pups when we can both go with
the team. We keep it short and happy, and never get upset at them.
Most pups will get the idea pretty quick, but some take some special
attention to figure out what we want. We donít stop working with a pup
until he is running in harness the way we want him to. We donít care
how many times he has to try. We will keep teaching him and will wait
until he gets the idea. Every single pup we raise becomes a sled dog
unless he physically canít.
How do you recognize leader potential in a puppy or a
The only reliable way is to put him up at lead and
let him try. We usually wait until the pup understands running in
harness and is running steady from beginning to end of the run. Even
if a pup doesnít run out front the first time we try him, we will still
keep putting him up there as he grows. When you do this, you must never
let his tugline go slack, ever. If he backs up or stops pulling, stop
and make him happy again. Once he is pulling in lead again, take him
out of lead before he stops enjoying it, and try again another time.
Could you describe what makes a perfect wheel dog
in your eyes ?
Wheel dogs are the hardest dogs to obtain. I have
had many great leaders, but only three great wheelers. Wheel dogs have
to be the nimblest dogs on the team. They also need to be some of the
biggest. One of my best wheel dogs was a female that I eventually sent
to Belgium. She was so quick on her feet that the trail never could
surprise her. She was also so tough that I couldnít upset her with my
amateur sled riding. We have a practice of never running the same dog
at wheel two days in a row. We will leave leaders up front longer than
we will let a dog get beat up by the trail in the back of the team.
Could you please give us examples for typical
Northomes of present and past or are they any kennel stars you would
like to mention?
One of the things that I have learned over the years
is that most dogs can be a star in some capacity or another. Everyone
seems to remember the great leaders, but for me the most important dogs
are the ones that never miss a step every day. These are the dogs that
you hook up and never look at again because they are always doing their
job perfectly. They run the same way every day no matter what. Maybe
they donít want to lead, but you run noticeably slower if they arenít in
the team. I have had so many of these that to name a few would be to
dishonor the rest.
One special question concerning the standard Ė itís
about size and using dogs for breeding which are too tall, as you know
that oversize is disqualification. As American breeders are free to
decide, what do you think about the importance of size ?
As I said before, I like my dogs to be a bit on the
smaller side. The reason for this is entirely because smaller dogs tend
to run cooler. In speed races, dogs generate a terrific amount of
heat. Smaller dogs have more surface area per unit of weight so they
are able, all else being equal, to dissipate more heat. It is a big
deal. However, a dog can be too small to run fast. I have found that
dogs around 30 pounds tend to be too small to travel at speed for very
long. I donít worry about small dogs not being strong enough, because I
can just hook more of them up. I have always had dogs that are too tall
for the standard, but they were never my best dogs. The best ones
always were in the middle of the size chart.
Are there any
differences between dogs for distance and dogs for sprint only?
Which races and
distances do you prefer for your team?
I am only interested in running the Open North
American Championships. I feel that the ONAC is the most challenging
race that can be reliably staged from year to year, and is the utmost
test of a dogís athleticism. The Anchorage Fur Rondesvous is more
challenging as far as training a team to do what it is told, but it
doesnít get reliable snow, so it doesnít happen every year. We would
also like to run the Yellowknife race and The Pas.
Could you tell us a little about your racing and
Without getting into a lot of boring stories, we are
generally either the top Siberian team at any given race, or very near
to that. I have never won a race but Annie has won some mid-distance
races and a couple limited class sprints. As we have gotten older, we
have taken the attitude that success at the races amounts to getting the
team to do what we trained it to do, and not worrying about where they
place. We also donít use race results to figure out who has good dogs
to breed to. We would rather breed to a good dog than a famous one.
You canít talk to Northome without mentioning the
Mushing Boot Camp. Tell us about the ideas behind that.
We have been helping beginners with their problems
for many years. About 10 years ago Jamie Nelson contacted Annie about
putting on some three day training camps to teach beginners how to drive
dogs in demanding situations that many professional drivers would not
try. The idea was that many of the things that frighten people about
running dogs are not very difficult and should be overcome as
beginners. They like to take three days of intense training to build
the communication between the musher and his dogs to its best effect.
People bring their own dogs and equipment to camp and are taught the
safest and most productive methods to use their own stuff to train their
What are your
breeding goals for the next future?
My breeding goals
are to take a step up to the next level and produce a team that can run
the ONAC running with the old style Alaskan huskies that still show up
in the race. I donít know if I will live long enough to accomplish
this, but it is worth a try.
Northome-dogs can be found on the web:
Kathy and Bill Lesinski (Ka-Bi) for the permission to use the following