Interview with Al Stead - Northome-Siberians
printed in SHC-Aktuell, issue 23
Copyright Silvia Roppelt

For how long have you been involved in sled dogs?
I 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 foundation dogs?
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.

Northomes Spook

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 characteristics?
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 it.

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 litter had.

What are your main criteria when selecting breeding stock?
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 attributes ?
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 deficiency.

What do puppies in your kennel have to learn first ?
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 yearling ?
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 successes ?
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 dogs.

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.

Some Northome-dogs can be found on the web:

Thanks to Kathy and Bill Lesinski (Ka-Bi) for the permission to use the following photos

Northomes Coal

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