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From the RSH Archives
Winter 1990

Strategy from Sled Dog Racing's Winners:

An Interview with Jim Welch

Part Two

Racing Savvy is proud to present the second of several segments of an interview between RSH's racing editor Rick Petura and Jim Welch, the successful Alaskan musher and author of The Speed Mushing Manual. This valuable book, which has received high praise from some of the world's top mushers, was published in 1989 by Sirius Publishing.

RSH Racing Editor:    Following up on the first question, please explain how you go about gauging what basic pace is possible for a particular group of dogs you want to work with?

Jim Welch:  I don't know of any practical way to objectively measure a dog team's best pace potential. Comparison to other dogs, dog teams and performance criteria has to be the rule of thumb.

Since I personally do not deal with an entirely new group of dogs at the start of every season, I know my core dogs' capabilities and can compare the new dogs to see how they fit in. I know who is fastest and who is most enduring and can compare new dogs to those.

I look for their willingness and ability to keep a tight tug at the start of the season, when we're going short miles pulling a non-motorized heavy cart (e.g., a big 4-wheeler with the motor turned off). I want to know how smooth and efficient their gait is, how long the stride is. Is the tugline tight when they take off with the hind end as well as when they land with the front? Is there any period in the stride when the tug slacks even for an instant (jerk running)? Can they work hard and yet do it easily?

If a dog runs with no wasted motion, is smooth-gaited at a run with a tight tugline throughout the stride, it will likely be fast.

I think you have to see an example of what a gifted dog's gait looks like to really understand this seeming paradox of working hard and yet doing it easily. You will never forget, and never be able to kid yourself again. If a dogs runs with no wasted motion, is smooth-gaited at a run with a tight tugline throughout the stride, it will likely be fast. As probably all your readers know, the so-called "show trot" tells nothing about how well a dog will perform nor how fast he will run.

Next I compare their fatigue level and recovery time at the end of a run. Are the dogs panting so hard that you could look down their throat like it is a wide-open mine shaft? Do they stop panting about the same time that other dogs do, or do they take longer to recover? Are they wobbly and weak? You can have dogs that try very hard to do as well as the rest, but just don't have the physical talent.

Are the dogs panting so hard that you could look down their throat like it is a wide-open mine shaft?

I have a soft spot for dogs like this. They will give everything they've got for you. It's not their fault they don't have the natural gifts, but if you are honest you ask, how do they compare to the rest of the team? Recovery time can be a good indication of fitness relative to the rest of the dogs in the group.

If I were starting from scratch with an entirely new group of dogs, I would build their condition from scratch, pulling heavy loads for short distances (a couple of miles). The load would be heavy enough so that they could maintain a slow lope. I would evaluate their gaits and the tugline status and look at all the factors mentioned above. If after no more than a month of this they looked good, I would start letting them run pulling light sleds distances that they could do easily and fast. I would give them the opportunity to show what they can do on their own.

From there, I would go step by step, training them and culling when individuals cannot match what the rest of the team is able to do. I can time some segments of a training trail I know to see what their comfortable pace is and judge from that how they compare to other teams in other years. I try not to be too theoretical. If the dog does the job, I give him/her the benefit of the doubt until it shows that the dog can't make the grade.

A well conditioned dog teams needs to be capable of maintaining a basic pace in excess of 19 MPH if it is going to win races in my area since 20 MPH race times are now the rule rather than the exception.

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1990 Heritage North Press, 2013 by R&BP

This interview is continued in Part Three,
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