Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mike Ellis, Team Tsuga, and respecting your dogs

As I'm sitting here on my hindermost parts, working on my computer and looking out the window at another glorious Alaska late winter day (deep snow, lots of light, warm temperatures -- nice!  What on earth am I doing inside, again?), dog teams from interior Alaska are headed down to Anchorage for the Iditarod start.  I am not much of a fan of the Iditarod but I'm a huge fan of some of the people and dogs who are running it.

I think a lot of people know Mike Ellis as someone who runs purebred Siberian Huskies.  Some smaller number of people are aware that he and Sue are consistently recognized for outstanding dog care, both on and off the trail.

What even fewer people may be aware of is that they've got a very, very successful breeding program, one which is absolutely consistent with "Respect your doGs."  Not that long ago it was pretty common to hear mushers say "If you get one good puppy out of a litter you're doing well" or "Expect one good puppy for every 10 you whelp," and you still hear that from time to time.  But Mike and Sue have been producing consistently good litters, in some cases with all the puppies eventually making their Quest team.  By focusing on quality rather than volume, they're producing excellent litters, improving working Siberian Husky performance, and raising the bar for other mushers, purebred and Alaskan alike.

As a side note, there's been a trend towards breeding lankier and lankier Siberians for performance, with some dogs these days looking more like Alaskans than Siberians.  The breed standard says "moderate," though, and I've heard Mike insist on breeding moderate dogs.  Team Tsuga dogs look like Siberian Huskies.

So, needless to say that it was not a surprise when Team Tsuga won the Seppala Heritage grant ("Applicants have to demonstrate a commitment to work with, train and race sled dogs, and show value traits of generosity of spirit, courage, integrity and love for the dogs, land and people of Alaska").

Fortunately the Ellises are not the only mushers taking exceptional care of their dogs, and there are quite a few teams in this year's Iditarod that deserve a lot of respect.  I was at the road crossing in Two Rivers when some of this year's Quest teams came through, and Dan Kaduce's team looked incredible (the other eye-popping team I saw come through was Scott Smith's, although he's not running Iditarod this year). Dan and his wife, Jodi Bailey, run Dewclaw Kennel together, and Jodi will be taking some of the dogs from Dan's Quest team in Iditarod this year.

There are many other teams in there who display consistently great dog care (and I think one in particular is likely to win this year's race as long as nothing weird happens with the weather or trail), and my not mentioning them here should not be seen as suggesting that I don't think they're model dog people.  But every once in awhile you see something kind of magical, and need to give it a nod.

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