Oh Dog! I am SO excited! Today I’m talking with Robert Forto of Dog Works Training Centers about his sled dog teams.
Why am I so excited? Well, as you know, I am a Malamute, and Malamutes were bred as Arctic work dogs, just as the Siberian Huskys that Robert works with.
Unless you’ve owned or worked with dogs like us, it might be difficult to understand how strong we are or how much energy we need to expend on a regular basis. To be honest, it’s the main reason why Jen wants me to go to daycare.
So I want to assure you that mushing is NOT abusive to the dogs. A good musher takes excellent care of his team because he depends on them.
So let’s talk with Robert, and find out more about him and about his team.
Robert: Thank you so much for the opportunity to interview me on your blog. I hope I can answer some of your readers questions and share insight into the wonderful world we live and the lifestyle we chose as a mushing family in the wilds of Alaska.
Rumpy: I am so glad to talk to you today! How about we start by you telling us what got you interested in sled teams?
Robert: It was 1993 and I was the proud owner of one Siberian Husky at the time. His name was Axl. I wanted to get another one and I responded to an ad in a dog publication about Siberians for placement from sled dog lines in the mountains of Georgia. I was in college at Portland State and planned to drive to Florida for spring break. I made a bit of a detour and ended up at a the kennel that had placed the ad. After looking over the pups the lady said, “Do you want to go for a ride?”
“Sure,” I said. We hooked up eight dogs on an old Sacco cart and hit the trails. I was immediately hooked! I caught the mushing bug (as we call it) and here we are 18 years later and I’m still involved. I brought home two dogs that day–a red and white male that I named Rutgrr the Grreat (I called him Rutgrr) and King Ryche (which I called Ryche). Over the years I acquired dogs from many breeders and a few I rescued. I raced Siberians in mid-distance races for almost a decade before what I call life getting in the way and moving to Colorado and getting married and raising three kids and opening a dog training center in Denver.
Many dogs came and went over the years but one dog held a special place in our hearts. His name was Ineka. It means ‘rescued friend’ in a Native American dialect. He came into our lives in 2000 and changed my life forever. Over the years Ineka taught me the meaning of unconditional love and how to survive in an often difficult world.
Ineka passed away in 2010 just one day after we closed on our house in Alaska. It was his way of saying: I did my job now do yours…
I am now in Alaska and training a group of dogs to run my qualifying races this year and I have plans to run the Iditarod in 2013. I run under the Team Ineka banner, paying tribute to my good buddy. I know he is looking down upon us on the trail and wearing his silver harness with pride.
Rumpy: *sniff sniff* That’s beautiful, man! So tell us about your training center!
Robert: We own four acres in Willow, Alaska. Willow is the official start of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and some would say is the mushing capital of the world. Within a mile of our home are seven mushers. In the our little town of 2500 there are more sled dogs than people.
We live in a log home that has a trail right off our dog yard that you can run literally to the end of the earth. There is not another town to the northeast until you reach the end of the earth.
Since we have only been here just over a year we are still setting up our dog yard and kennel. We will spend most of the winter building 30 or so dog houses and getting ready to bring dogs over.
We share a kennel now with good friends right up the road. They run the Serum Run Expedition. We have 50 dogs ranging in age from a year to over 13. The dogs are a mixture of hound-cross Alaskan Huskies to my pure bred Siberians.
At our home we also train service dogs for people in need for clients all over the country. In fact, just yesterday we sent home a German Shepherd to North Carolina after he and his owner spent the week with us up in in Alaska teaching his owner how to work with him in his new job.
Rumpy: For those of you interested in Alaska Dog Works’ service dog training, click here to access their web site. So Robert, what does training a sled team entail?
Robert: Training sled dogs is a lifestyle. It is also a full time job. When my wife and I are not training service dogs (she also is a full time paralegal) we are in the dog yard and spending time with the dogs. It costs over 2000 dollars a month in off season to care for 50 sled dogs and almost double that in the winter. This does not count race entry fees, new equipment, etc. Most of it is just the cost of food.
Many mushers either give their dogs time off in the summer or they head to the glaciers in southeast Alaska with their dogs and offer tours. Not us. We work with our dogs all year spending time with them, giving them exercise and making sure they are ready.
Rumpy: And how much time does it take to train/practice before a team is ready to race?
Robert: That’s a good question. I don’t like to count miles as much as I do time on the trail. Last year we trained for over 1500 miles. This year we are already up to over 450 miles since the middle of June.
In the summer we run short runs on the ATV when the weather is still cool. Often it still below 50 degrees in the mornings during the summer and we will take out small teams of dogs and just have fun. This is a good time to train new dogs and work on leader training.
As we get into fall training, what we are doing now, we are training four teams of 12, mixing dogs up in the teams and seeing who works with who the best. We are running about 10 miles now or about an hour and a half per team. This goes on seven days a week. Now we are running mainly on the dirt roads around the house as the tundra is still very soggy and wet.
As soon as the snow falls, which it is doing for the first time this morning, we will hook up the dog teams to a snow machine (snowmobile) and we will start running on the trails. Hopefully by Thanksgiving the lakes have frozen and we have adequate snow and we will be on the sleds. We start the dogs off at about eight miles and then add half of that every three days until we are up to 50 mile runs. This continues through the mushing season with most of the races taking place in late January/early February.
Last year our last run on the sled was the third week of April. We will give the dogs a month or so off then start all over again!
Rumpy: I see what you mean about it being a lifestyle! Now tell me, what makes a good sled dog?
Robert: Sled dogs are born to pull. Most mushers will start working with their dogs before they are even born. That comes through good genetics and proper selection for the best. We raise our puppies to become sled dogs from the beginning.
At about six months or so we will start hooking up young dogs in harness and running them on short runs on a three-wheeled cart.
A sled dog is still considered young until they are about three years old and this whole time we are training them to be the best they can be through the best nutrition and the most socialization we can give. Typically our older leaders will train the newer ones to become lead dogs. Some dogs just have that natural ability to run in lead.
I like to give all of my dogs the ability to shine in the team. If that means putting them in lead or just running next to their brothers and sisters. We make every training run fun.
When our old dogs retire they stay with us until they pass on. We do not place them in homes when they are done. We want them to live out their days doing what they love to do.
Rumpy: Hooray! That’s great! Now tell us, if someone had a desire to learn to work with/lead/run where would he/she begin?
Robert: That is another great question. Many of us catch the bug as I mentioned earlier. Some of us work a year or two with a veteran musher and learn from the best. But that is not to say that your readers can’t become involved in this wonderful world of winter sports. Just about any dog will pull you. You just need to buy a proper fitting harness and hook him up to your bicycle, scooter, cross country skis, snowshoes, etc. Just get out with your dogs and explore. That is what it’s all about. If you have a few dogs you can buy a small kick sled and teach them how to pull. Its not too hard and I will guarantee you will have so much fun!
Rumpy: Awesome! Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Robert: You can follow us on the trail on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and by visiting our website at Team Ineka. We host a weekly radios on the Internet. They are Dog Works Radio which is training advice for your family pet, Mush! You Huskies where we cover mushing and dog powered sports as well as the Iditarod,and our brand new show, The Gypsy Musherwith host Iditarod and Yukon Quest veteran, Hugh Neff. For info on our radio shows visitDog Works Radio.
Rumpy: Oh Dog! Thanks so much for being my guest today! We’re going to follow your progress and root for you to win in 2013!
Robert: Thank you so much for this opportunity and never forget your dreams!