Beargrease Primer #3: Getting ready: conditioning the dogs (including the two-legged one on the sled

Jan 26, 2018

Credit ©Lisa Johnson

Over thirty years and 125,000 miles behind a sled later, when John Stetson talks about training dogs, he comes back, over and over again, to trust. How it can enable a person to control 14 fast-moving dogs with only a brake and their voice.  And how easy it is to lose.  

There are no prima donnas on John Stetson’s dog teams.  That goes for the dogs and the human mushers he trains.

Baffin Island 2007 Expedition and Basecamp Team L/R (Back Row) Simon Qamanirq, Me, Will Steger, Theo Ikummaq, John Stetson, Lukie Airut, John Huston. (Front Row) Elizabeth Andre, Abby Fenton and Jerry Stenger.
Credit ©James Paulson/John Stetson

John Stetson knows a little bit about what makes a good sled  dog team. He grew up training hunting dogs with his dad  and started training sled dogs for Will Steger’s Trans-Antarctica Expedition in 1986.   The longtime musher and trainer ”ran dogs in the wilderness” for ten years before he even thought of racing.  He has prepared his teams for the Iditarod,  the Hudson’s Bay Quest and 13 John Beargrease races, where he finished in the top five of the mid-distance 12 times and won it twice.  He’s even trained dogs and brand-new mushers to compete.

It takes a lot of dogs to field a championship race team, and Stetson’s sports metaphors abound.  At any given time, a musher may have a group of puppies and a group of younger, less experienced dogs  in addition to the tried-and-true race veterans.  He likens it to high school, college and NFL teams: “there’s a lot of talent even if they’re not NFL.”

And what constitutes talent in a sled dog?  In addition to the speed/distance cutoff (how long and how quickly a  dog can travel before their speed drops off), Stetson says it’s temperament, socialization, training, athletic ability and drive.

Credit ©Lisa Johnson

And it takes all kinds of dogs with different abilities to make a good team.  “If you had a team of just Tom Bradys,” says Stetson.  “They’d lose every time.  You need calm dogs and cheerleaders and the crazy, excited dogs as motivators.”

So in the course of  hundreds of thousands of miles and hours, observing dogs, working with dogs, switching up partners and positions and even the sides they run on, Stetson begins to see which dogs run best where and with whom,  And just like any good coach, he’s making a group of individuals into a cohesive team.

November 2013: Ann Stead starts training a team of young dogs and race veterans behind an ATV
Credit ©Lisa Johnson

It starts in August, usually, hitching up teams of young dogs to the four-wheeler and letting them run.  It’s strength and resistance training, letting them pull against the engine and strengthen their muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Young sled dogs need to learn to ignore distractions - like photographers lying in the road
Credit ©Lisa Johnson

It’s “conditions” training, exposing the dogs to puddles, noises, traffic, new sights and sounds and smells and teaching them to ignore everything but the musher’s commands.  And it’s intervals training to build up stamina and speed for the distance: running fast, running slower, running fast again.

But every day, with every interaction and every run, it’s training: letting the dogs learn who you are and getting to know them in turn, teaching them manners, teaching them commands and how to obey them, learning each dog’s strengths. While there may be no divas on a John Stetson sled dog team, every dog has one or two skills at which they excel, and Stetson regularly rotates every dog through every position, building a team with the idea that each dog is a leader at something.

Credit ©Lisa Johnson

Over thirty years and 125,000 miles behind a sled later, when John Stetson talks about training dogs, he comes back, over and over again, to trust.  How if you let a young dog run until he has nothing left, you can lose the dog’s trust and destroy his potential. How only trust can enable a person to control 14 fast-moving dogs with only a brake and their voice.  And how ”overrunning” dogs, allowing them to run faster and longer than they’re able can destroy the trust that’s the bedrock of every good dog team.

John Stetson at a mushing event at his home, 2010
Credit ©Kyle Krohn

For all the consideration that John Stetson expends on his dog teams, though, he’s a lot tougher on his mushing proteges.  “Step one,” he says, is remove the ego from the person.”

“Everyone wants to win.  But you need to focus on the dogs, what they’re trained and willing to do.  A fifth-place team can’t be run like a first-place team; that’s back to overrunning the dogs.  But run as a fifth-place team, and you might get second- or third-place -- they’ll overachieve.”

Jason Rice caught the racing bug back in 1996 when the TV reporter/news anchor was assigned to cover the Beargrease.  In 2002, he ran the mid-distance race with musher  Ed Stielstra's dogs and his strategy, one that Rice said was far different from Stetson’s, and finished in the middle of the pack.  The next two years, he trained with Stetson and his dogs. 2003, he says, went better than he expected.  “I learned to hold the dogs back more in the early part of the race.  It left a lot more speed in them for later.”  Rice finished in the top ten in 2003 out of 40 teams and still hopes to run the full marathon some day “just to feel what true sleep deprivation is like!”  In the meantime, and is now the vice-president of the John Beargrease Board of Directors.

Under Stetson, Rice started by feeding the dogs, spending time with them, letting them get used to him and begin to see him as a caretaker.  And in Stetson’s kennel, the dogs’ needs - for food, water or rest - come before those of the humans.  “The dogs eat first,” he says.

John Stetson with a team, 2012
Credit ©Elizabeth Sorenson/John Stetson

It takes time and trust for dogs to learn to listen to someone else’s commands, so John and Jason went out on training runs together.  Stetson took the lead, setting up different scenarios and modeling how they should be handled, and since the dogs already knew what to do, Rice learned fast.  

And from the beginning, Stetson let him know “you’re just another dog.”

That meant strength and stamina training for the reporter, too.  The Beargrease trail has a lot of hills, and being “one of the dogs” meant he got off the sled and ran beside it going uphill.  In addition to being easier on the dogs, Stetson says you can gain a mile an hour during a race that way.  Rice also learned to “pedal,” a maneuver like riding a scooter where the musher hangs onto the sled but helps move it forward by pushing off the ground with one leg.

Credit ©Lisa Johnson

"I think the biggest thing I learned working with John is that the dogs are like kids in a sense,” says Rice.  “They're watching and listening for cues from the musher.  They pay attention to your mood.  They pay very close attention to your movements.  If you look and sound confident, they seem to feel much more at-ease about going with you.

“ I also learned to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Even when you're dressed right, there are still moments where you're chilled or tired or sore.  You have to keep going, even if you'd rather lay down in a warm bed and sleep a while.  When you quit, your dogs quit.  And they can sense it coming."

John Stetson still runs dogs, although he doesn’t have any of his own at the moment.  Maintaining a kennel is time-consuming and expensive, and he says you almost have to have two trainers to prepare the 20 dogs you’d need for the 14-dog full marathon, or the 12 dogs you’d have in training for the 8-dog mid-distance.

But come race day, he’s right there in the thick of it, and his love for the sport and the dogs is as strong as ever.

Credit ©Lisa Johnson