JEANETTE: Hello and welcome to the first episode of our brand new podcast! We`re starting with one of the best mushers in the world. He won the Iditarod 4 times and broke the record 2 times. When he's not training or racing with his dogs, he is sharing his philosophy on how to build a team with everything from athletes to business leaders, and today he will share it with you – Dallas Seavey, all the way from Alaska – welcome to Norway!
DALLAS: I'm happy to be here in Norway once again. I've raced the Finnmark now twice and over the last two years I think I have been in Norway about five months. Mostly of course for the races but also coming over in the fall and preparing things or like now – coming over for a visit!
JEANETTE: Dogs have been a big part of your life, as far as I know since you were a kid?
DALLAS: My family has been mushing for 55 years now. It started with grandfather moving to Alaska because he was interested in sleddogs and the Alaskan way of life. It was supposed to be a couple of years, but he got hooked, and sleddogs have been a big part of my family's life ever since. I was born into a kennel of mini dogs, so all of my memories are around sleddogs, my earliest memories with sleddogs. That has been my life, yes.
JEANETTE: But you started doing a totally different sport when you were younger, you did wrestling?
DALLAS: Yeah, I wrestled for about seven years where that was my main focus. That is also something both my dad and grandpa had done. That was my experience as human athlete which I think has really been helpful in many ways to be more of what I consider is a coach – teaching athletes, which in this case is dogs. In a 1000 mile race the human has to be a part of that team and be an athlete as well, but our main value is supporting the dogs so that they can perform at their best. It is about developing a team that will do anything for you. I would not say make them do something for you, but make them a part of the team, and whatever that team does, we do it wholeheartedly and together. That is very important.
A sleddog is very much a pack animal. They rely on the security and the strength of a pack and they need to feel secure in that pack and they need to feel that if we’re gonna run out into a blizzard or cross a big river, og through deep snow, they’re never doing it alone. Even if they are the leader they know the rest of the team is right behind them and they’re gonna help them through this. At the core of how do you get the dog team or any dog to do what you want or to do it whole heartedly with you. It comes down to trust. It comes down to them knowing that you are never gonna ask the dog or dog team to do something that they can not do well. And I don’t mean just accomplish the task, but do it well and have fun doing it. Thats based on trust and a lifetime of teaching them that this is going to be fun, we are going to do it together and Im nevver going to ask you to do something you cant do.
JEANETTE: What do you do to build that confidence and when do you start?
DALLAS: It absolutely starts as a puppy. Every interaction you have with that dog form day one you're teaching them something, whether it is continuously or whether you are aware of that you are teaching them something, they are learning from every interaction with you, so it is important that every interaction is the right kind of interaction.
As a person you can’t fake that. You have to become the person you want to be. You can’t pretend to be in a certain way or pretend that you are honest or trustworthy. You just can’t do that every single day. And dogs will see through any act so that really needs to be your personality or your character.
But in the beginning we’re training Superman. That’s what I tell every handler we have working there. We’re training Superman with that meaning that we are training this dog to be invincible. To be able to do anything. The secret is to show them that they can do anything and never show them anything they can’t do.
In the beginning the human is the new thing in their environment. When they are little they are used to their mother, their little dog house and their siblings and as a person when we come into the pen, we’re the new thing that’s being introduced.
By being surrounded by the things they are familiar with it helps bridge the gap with something new. When they get to be a little bit older, when they are at five weeks, by now they are used to the human being in the pen, bringing the puppies with them in the house and petting them and whatever. Now its time to goon little walks and I really love this transition because now when we take the puppy, usually just one maybe two, out into the field or wherever we want to go or hike somewhere – obviously with a five week old puppy we are not going very far, but it is interesting to see where now the environment is what’s new and the human is the one familiar thing. This is the major transition where we are no longer the new thing in their life, and for the rest of their life were gonna be the thing that helps bridge the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar. We're gonna help interpret the world for these dogs, we're gonna help them understand every new thing they see whether that is a city when you are getting ready for the Iditarod or a blizzard or a storm in the mountain on the Iditarod trail or some of my lead dogs go and do presentations and they will be on a stage in front of 3.000 people. Whatever that environment change is, I am always the bridge.
JEANETTE: If something wrong happens and your dog has a bad experience – how do you handle it?
DALLAS: Calmly. It is not what the challenge is, it’s how the team handles the challenge. Things happen in life. You’re gonna have good days, bad days – things happen when you are mushing with a team. You’re gonna get caught in a blizzard, and how do you handle it? I think the dogs are willing to, or any team, is willing to forgive if things are done honestly and with the teams best interest in mind.
So take for example you get into a big blizzard and maybe it is more than you can mush through, but if you look at it from a dog’s point of view, they never knew that we were supposed to go through the blizzard. They never knew that we were supposed to end up at another checkpoint, that is a human mentality and understanding. What they do know is that we found a somewhat sheltered place and waited out the storm. Yes it is windy and yes it is cold but we as a group made this decision and the musher was always in control in contrast to if the musher keeps pushing, because in our mind we have to make it to the next checkpoint and if ever the dog say “I can’t do what they’re asking me to do” then you just broken trust and you’re gonna end up camping in the middle of the blizzard but it will be because the dogs couldn’t make it. That`s an entirely different setting.
If you are in a bad situation or if something goes not how you planned – take control of it. Take a controlled landing rather than a crash landing. Try to find a way to regain control of the situation and find out: What is the best thing I can do for this dog team right now? In 10 seconds, 10 days or over the next 10 years?
JEANETTE: Is that a common mistake, that their focus is a bit wrong?
DALLAS: Most common mistake and an honest mistake is that we see things from a human perspective. Most people have spent their entire life being a human.
When we see a problem we naturally see that problem from a human perspective but our team is not a team of humans, our team is a team of dogs. They will look at the same problem very differently. While we think we are solving the problem or think it shouldn’t be a problem because we can cognitively understand that is something the team doesn’t necessarily see.
Always remember that you have to look at the problem from your dog’s point of view, not your point of view. Think about if you’re travelling with a dog anywhere – we are gonna think logistically, like are we going to catch the next flight or do I have enough fuel to make it , where are we going to spend the night? Those are not problems to your dog! All they know is they have been in the crate and they really have to pee!
Look at what is the problem for the dog? Also, the dog may not see any problem but yet the human is all stressed out, and now they are starting to think are the human or my leader of this pack irrational? Cause here they are totally stressed over something that the dog sees no problem.
Other times we can cognitively understand that the next checkpoint is only three miles away and it has been a long day but it is not a big deal – we’re almost there. But we only know that because we can see the GPS and we know the plan. The dog doesn`t know the plan or see the GPS so you always have to be aware of maybe they are starting to be nervous and you are not supporting them or acknowledging their concern. See the problem as your dog sees it.
JEANETTE: How do you use your knowledge to motivate them?
DALLAS: First of all I don’t generally try to motivate them to do more than they should because I don’t want to push a team. That is not really the goal. The goal is to support the team and if the team is well hydrated, well rested and has good body fat they are going to do well. And this comes back to a lifetime of training and teaching these dogs that every time we take off for a run they’re gonna be able to make it to the next stop pulling hard, having a good time – they are not going to get tired on this run and that`s something you have to do with them every single day.
I hate doing long runs. I almost never do long runs and races because you teach the team that they has to preserve themselves. You’re not going to protect them, they have to back off, they have to decide not to pull so hard and that’s not something I ever want my team to learn. My guys spend their entire life learning that they can lean into the harness, work hard and I will be responsible enough to stop before they get tired. It is not a trick to get them to work hard, it is just teaching them that they can always work hard and they’re never going to get too tired doing that.
JEANETTE: How do you start training a young dog?
DALLAS: Slowly. I have talked to a lot of different mushers and people in different dog sports and a lot of people are very opinionated on when you start putting a harness on your dog. I think that is highly individual and I don’t think there is any hurry in my specific sport.
I start out doing a lot of loose running, puppy walks to the forest. You are building confidence, a good agility base on that dog by bouncing through the forest – this is great development. I usually end up putting a harness on a dog around a year old. That’s a highly individual thing. Some puppies you can put them in a team and hook up six puppies that have never had a harness on before and they do great. Other groups I will spend a lot of time doing canicross with them, getting them comfortable to their harness.
Some dogs I will put a harness on them and let them run loose next to the team and let them gradually decide when they are comfortable enough to buddy up next to their brother or sister and join the team. That’s a great way of overcoming the fear og being tied together and usually a loud cart or four wheeler behind them, sometimes a sled that is making strange noises. They can get comfortable with those noises from a little bit of distance.
Then the first year that they are in harness, between one and two years old, it`s really about repetition. I don`t care about building any cardiovascular base, it`s just getting out there, doing exercise five days a week. Up to maybe 20 mile runs, which for a long distance sleddog is nothing. That’s just a fun jog.
The next year, between two and three, they`ll actually start doing some more serious training but now their bodies are primarily fully developed.
Emotionally, mentally they are not fully developed, they’re still very immature. They are not going to tryout or race in my team until they are three years old, and even as three-year-old’s they are rookie, I`m not relying on them. A lot of times we skip that third year and don’t count on them until they are four.
JEANETTE: How do you put together a team and decide how to mix young dogs with experienced dogs?
DALLAS: One of the fun arts of this thing is putting together a team. Your first job is to develop each individual dog. Once you’ve done that you can start to kind of bring them together into a team.
I’ve never had so many dogs that’s been like trying to build that team and this fits better. It’s always been these are the dogs we have, these are the best athletes and they are going to have to work together and we have to solve those problems, work through those problems.
Sometimes that means sometimes you get dogs that simply does not get along. Obviously we can keep them separated but is there some anxiety because this dog is here so trying to develop these relationships and trying to make these dogs be comfortable with each other and around each other. I think you have to recognize if this is a young team or an old team or some of each, and what is our strength?
If it is mostly a young team on a long distance race our strength is probably going to be more speed, but we are going to have to keep the runs shorter and do more frequent rest. If it is just an old team that does not have that top end speed they probably do have a little more confidence and developed endurance and strength that way so we’re probably going to do longer slower runs, keep the speed down. When you recognize the team you do have, you then have to find how does this team be successful? How do I play to their strengths and avoid their weaknesses?
JEANETTE: Can you tell us a bit more about your dogs – how many do you have, how do they live? As far as I know you are building a new kennel, or did you already do it?
DALLAS: Yeah, I moved about two years ago and finally had a big piece of property where I could build the kennel I wanted to build for some time. I have spent many years trying to figure out what a perfect kennel look like? What we came up with is more of a zipline system of tethering dogs.
I’ve played with the idea of pens but honestly, with a large kennel I don’t like pens for two main reasons: One – it decreases the interaction with the dogs. You always have a gate between you and the dog and as it is now I can walk through the yard and pet one dog and the next dog and the next dog every time I feed them water them, obviously clean up after them. You’re hands on all the time. Always put your hands on the dog, feel the dog - a furry dog may look fat but it’s just furry. I’m always trying to have physical contact with the dog. Pens or fences really decreases the physical contact with the dog.
Secondly is visibility. When you live in a place with a lot of snow – anytime you have fences it builds up with snow and you cannot see through multiple layers of fencing and when you are in the house and you hear something happening in the dog yard you can’t easily look out and see what’s going on.
I do not like the decreased visibility and I guess the third thing is I think dog’s like to have a little bit of privacy space. They like to be able to lie down and curl up or have their favorite rock or their favorite bush or climbing their house and not worry about some other dog bothering them. I think they do like having a little bit of private space but still being able to touch noses and play together.
I have about 100 dogs. When I say I have that is actually not correct because there are me plus seven more people that live on site. Most of those people have been there for many years so it is kind of our dogs.
There are definitely some of the people that work there that have more ownership if you will with certain groups of the dogs than I do, cause they have worked with them every single day since they were puppies, so they are probably closer with some of my dogs than I am but it is a family. It is me, my fellow humans and these dogs and we work together all day every single day. We all live on site.
One of the nice things in addition to the ziplines, which gives the dogs a much larger area to move and they can also run in a straight line for a longer period of time, as opposed to like a center pivot tether, I also have a huge run pen and I utilize that quite a lot. Every day we can bring up to I think we had 23 puppies in there the other day chasing a ball. It is fun to go in there and have social time but then go back to their own kind og space where they can be social if they want or they can pull back and be by themselves if they’d like.
JEANETTE: You seem to be very open to learn new things. What have you learned from other sports?
DALLAS: I’m always trying to seek out more knowledge from human athletes so everything from the ski coaches in Alaska to I tracked down a lady who is very accomplished in ultra long distance cycling. We’re talking 3000 mile races.
What I really wanted to understand was – I wanted to talk to somebody who actually is riding a bicycle 20 hours a day and is it more effective for them to eat a big meal and then sleep or snack during the day or a combination? Is it better to sleep an hour at the time or sleep for 6 hours straight. It’s the closest thing to what I’ve ever seen a human doing to what a sled dog does on the Iditarod and this person could actually talk!
There is things I have always wanted to ask my dogs that you can’t really do so were definitely seeking out knowledge from people that have like or similar experiences.
Other mushers - I always like to assess what they are doing but I don’t like to be trendy. That is when you see everybody doing something, everybody starts copying it. Lance Mackey does long runs, soon the whole game is who can go farthest? When you see a musher doing something, the question is not does that work for them – obviously it worked for Lance Mackey. The question is: will that work for my dogs or is there some aspect of what they are doing that would work with my team? I want to be able to absorb the best of Lance Mackey, the best of Jeff King the best of Martin Buser, the best of Mitch Seavey and pull that into my kennel and to where you create your own existence.
Personally, obviously growing up wrestling and doing a lot of that I feel like that is something that really helped me understand what it is like to be the athlete and how to be a good coach to that athlete.
JEANETTE: You are one of the best, and now people start copying you – what do you think about that?
DALLAS: Perhaps. I spend 99 percent of my time in the middle of nowhere with a bunch of sled dogs and that’s how I like it.
The most important thing that has been helpful for me and is what we try to relate to anybody who is looking for advice or input is don’t look at the specific thing that somebody is doing – look at it again from your dog’s point of view.
When I started my kennel this was one of the big focuses. I felt that so many things in my mushing had just become “this is how you do it”. We did not think about it anymore, and so many of the things that we were doing were simply from a human point of view. Even the run lengths we were doing on the Iditarod was based of the distance between the checkpoints, because the checkpoints provide amenities for a person. The checkpoint has no value to the dog. So we really tried to look at those as a re-supply station and if what the team needs to do is a 50 mile run then do 50 miles even if it is 60 miles to the checkpoint. Stop 10 miles before, the dogs don’t care.
There is no sense to push that extra distance just so that I can have a warm place to sleep. That’s not a dog problem, that Is a human problem. Looking at everything from the dog point of view and rebuilding mushing from the dog point of view, I think that’s what I hope to encourage and anybody who is looking for advice from us. I acknowledge and appreciate the fact that everybody have different types of dogs. If there is any core value it is: what works for your dog? Or look at it from your dogs point of view cause what I do might be completely wrong for an other musher and vice versa.
JEANETTE: You’ve had many dogs throughout the years. Is it one dog that stood out?
DALLAS: There has been several that has stood out, I think. Those really special characters. One would be Fridge who was one of my first dogs that I got when I started my own kennel. I had actually trained that dog when it was a two year old, it belonged to my dad and was a very very stubborn and independent dog. Super tough dog, and one of the best athletes I’ve ever worked with. After I trained him and his brothers and handed them over if you will, Peyton, Fridges brother, became my dad’s super leader, won the All Alaska Sweepstakes and has been a major stud dog in Alaska, but my dad and Fridge never got along. That was not a good match, so I was able to buy a very very nice dog. It’s probably the only dog I have ever seen that is truly a one person dog. He would do anything for me and nothing for anybody else.
In fact I did a show in Anchorage for many years. Twice a day Fridge and I would do a leader demonstration where we were doing very precise steering, slaloming through barrels and picking up… We would have somebody throw a small object in the middle of this huge arena and my trick was that I would mush the team so close that I could pick it up without going off the sled, so people were trying to put it very difficult places.
What really made him special was – that dog loved mushing beyond everything else. And I love working with dogs that love to mush as much as I do.
One of my top criteria when choosing who to breed is their desire to go, their joy for life. That’s what I really enjoy working with. A freak of nature. That dog always wants to go. He is always excited about what we are doing. It is dogs like that inspire you on the Iditarod.
I don’t want to push the team, I want a team that is out there pulling me. If it is tough but they are still excited about it, that’s a team I can work with.
JEANETTE: When do you see if a dog, if it is going to be top notch?
DALLAS: I don’t think that you can make any real definite decisions too young. I very rarely can make any educated decision at less than two years old and even two. I have seen dogs develop and change so much between two and three that it is tough.
There are some dogs that stand out right off the bat. They’re the superstar yearling, they’re the superstar two year old and sure enough they are the one winning the Iditarod in the lead as 3-4-5-6-7-8 year old.
There is other dogs like Hero, one of my favourite dogs, he is kind of my pet dog now I guess. He won the Iditarod with me a couple of time, he was one of my yellow rose leaders in 2015. He is or was the largest dog on my team, at about 75 pounds, and he was a late developer. He is way too big to be a sled dog, at least an endurance sled dog and obviously as a two year old he was not a star. He was big and awkward.
At three years he couldn’t quite do it and I neutered him cause he was way too skinny. By the time he was four he was coming into his own. Big dogs takes longer to develop and then he won the Iditarod. He did that a couple of times actually and he was one of those dogs that is always there. Never had a problem, always reliable. I could not ask for a better dog but yet as a yearling and two year old he was the bottom of the barrel.
One of the things I enjoy most is what we do in dog sports is develop a dog – that’s the challenge, that’s the fun part. Taking the dog from A to B, and A is wherever they are right now. Whatever unique circumstances, maybe it is a brand new puppy – maybe it is the perfect puppy with perfect genetics. Maybe it is a rescue dog that has pre existing issues but taking a dog from where they are right now to B, which is wherever they can be – the best version of themselves – that is possible.
I think that’s really fun to see. That could be finishing the Iditarod or starting the Iditarod or having a great recreational team, it doesn’t have to be measured by how they finish in a race. I think my second best best race ever was a 4th place finish in 2013. That was the time that I was able to develop the team the most and ran that team to the best of their ability in the race. That team was never going to be able to win. It was a bunch of two year old dogs they so outperformed, they finished 4th, should have been 20th.
We did not over push them, they built confidence. The next year in 2014, 15, 16 they won all of these Iditarods, so clearly it was a learning experience, a good experience.
That’s really the fun part as a musher – when you see a team come together and outperform what they should have been able to do. That’s when you know you’ve done your job – when you helped these guys become better dogs. 4th, 1st - does it matter?
JEANETTE: Do you care about results at all?
DALLAS: I think in the end – well, now less than I did before, absolutely. But that’s personal growth. I think the point of doing any of these things is to challenge ourselves and hopefully see some personal growth. Yeah, I do think, especially in 2012, winning the Iditarod was a big goal, but over the years I think I have learned that winning a race is an effect, not a cause.
We focus our energies on the cause. What causes you to win the Iditarod, to run a perfect race? Okay, so the goal is now to run a perfect race. How do you run a perfect race? You set up that dog team for success at every turn. You make sure that they have everything they need, they’re fully supported, and they’re comfortable. They’re relaxed. Now the focus is really on making 10,000 absolutely perfect steps, and that creates a perfect race.
So the goal is to run a perfect race, and sometimes that perfect race is fourth place, but that’s the best that that team could possibly do. If you do that, you’re going to win races – or at least, you’re going to give yourself the best possible chance of winning races.
I think that’s the real goal, and oddly enough, this last year in the Finnmark was the first time I’ve ever not finished a race, and it was really a unique situation for me. The team had gotten really sick before the race. I thought they had mostly recovered prior to the race; the obvious signs, the diarrhea and the vomiting, had finished by the time the race started, but they still seemed a little bit – flat, I guess would be the right way to say it.
Fairly quickly into the race we realized that this isn’t going to be a good educational experience for these dogs I started off really slow, slowed down more, took our mandatory rest really early, and eventually just pulled the plug. Looking back at it, it seems like it should be a failure, right? We didn’t finish the race. But you look at it and try to in point, what decision did we make that was wrong?
You start looking at it from that perspective, and I think we actually did a really good job of recognizing some small signs very early, reacting appropriately, and we made the right decisions. There’s nowhere in this race that I can say “oh, here was a major mistake.” If anything, I think I ran a more mature race than I have in other events previously. We saw the signs earlier, we made the right decision – even knowing that taking my 16 that early in the race meant we weren’t going to be competitive.
So the fact that I was doing a self-assessment, able to do that, I’m happy to see that I’ve maybe grown beyond the result orientation a little bit more. I think it was a good race; we just didn’t have a very good hand.
JEANETTE: This is interesting because there’s a lot of people that expect you to win this race, and it’s a lot of pressure on you, and you still managed to make this decision.
DALLAS: That’s a really important aspect you touched on there. I’ve seen this happen in many Iditarod mushers. We start having expectations, and it’s really important that – last year is gone. Every year you wipe the slate clean. I don’t care what my name is because the dogs sure as hell don’t. [laughs]
The dogs don’t care if you’re Jeff King or you’re Lance Mackey or you’re Dallas Seavey. The dogs are the dogs. They don’t know that this is even a race. They don’t know if they were first or last, last year. They don’t care. So if I’m caring about that sort of stuff, it’s not helping my team.
We have to be absolutely honest about what this team is ready to do well and really push the human expectations aside. And that can be hard to do. It’s really hard when every checkpoint, you have the camera in your face, wanting you to say that you’re going to win this race, when you’re looking at a team that that’s not in their best interest.
My job is to watch out for these dogs. Again, I’m always going to be the bridge between these dogs and their perception and the whole world. I have to help interpret the world for this team and protect them from that and help them accomplish that, whatever that is – whether it’s a 1,000 mile race or a walk in the park. It can be challenging to push all that other stuff aside and not let it affect your decisions.
JEANETTE: Being a musher takes years of experience. Can you tell us a bit about things you have learned throughout the years, good and bad?
DALLAS: I think if you’re trying to, you’re always learning something. We do a lot of assessment, though. Even during a race, I try to take the 30,000-foot view here, looking at your team as an aspect. “Okay, I feel this way about the team, but why do I feel this way? Is it because I’m sleep-deprived? Is it because I’m ambitious? Is it because I want to see something good, so that’s what I’m seeing?” Taking that honest look at yourself, at the team, and I think a constant assessment – in the moment, the last year, the last 5 years – really helps us to learn along the way.
At one point the biggest area we had to improve, or the biggest problem I was running into, is I felt that I was putting too much training into 6 months. I felt like we had to do this much training, but I felt like I was always under pressure to do more, more, more, and I wasn’t able to afford the time off that we needed.
So that’s when we ended up trying to figure out, how do I make the season longer? How do I have more time to train the dogs? We came up with the treadmill. I have a rather large refrigerated treadmill so I can actually run 14 to 16 dogs at a time and have it be cool temperatures even when it’s hot outside.
This did exactly what we wanted it to. I could take the same training we were doing in 6 months and spread it out over 9 months. I think we did a little more total mileage, but not any meaningful amount. The main focus was we just earned 3 months of rest time. We can now give them lots of time off between these major training events and really make sure they can peak at the right time.
But then what we saw was – understanding that mushers are trendy – other mushers saw that we were training year-round, or at least 9 months out of the year. So their natural inclination was to train at that same 6 month intensity for 3 extra months. I think this is a classic example of when you emulate something or copy something, make sure that it’s doing the right thing for your team. You don’t always understand why somebody’s doing that. Learn a little more, because what we saw was what used to be a small overtraining issue became a much bigger overtraining issue. I think people are now starting to figure that out a little bit better.
So there’s some warnings. Just because somebody’s doing something, doesn’t mean A) that you understand why they’re doing it or B) that it’s going to be the right thing for your team. At the end of the day, you have to be responsible for your guys and look at your team. Will this help them, or how will this help them?
There’s been so many little things, I don’t know how you could pinpoint one or two, but we’ve definitely made mistakes. I think being open and able to make mistakes is the only way you’re going to learn from it. You have to be able to look at it and say, “Yeah, I screwed that up.”
If you try to justify it and say “I didn’t really make that big of a mistake there,” you may not learn from it.
One mistake I definitely made was 2010 was my second competitive Iditarod, the second time I was racing with my own team. The year before we had had a great finish and really outperformed what we thought we were going to do. The next year I started – I guess you would say pushing on the Iditarod. We were near the finish, but not near enough to the finish.
It was the first time that I felt like I was actually having almost to push the team. We’re talking about shades of gray here; it’s 48% instead of 52%. But I just had this feeling that “This is not fun. I don’t want to run a team like this.” I really had to let that sink in hard to make sure – I never want to be in a situation where I feel like I’m asking the dogs to do something that they’re not excited to do. I really let that make a big impact, because that has to stay with you for a long time.
Specifically going through Golovan, I guess you put yourself in the dog’s shoes. Here they see a town and they think it’s a checkpoint, and they’re excited. They get there and then they go through that checkpoint, and they don’t know that white mountain is only 15 miles away. Golovan is not a checkpoint; just from their perspective, it looks like a checkpoint. It’s a town. We mush up into it, there’s people, we go through the town, we pop out on the sea ice on the other side.
When they’re looking around, not sure what just happened, it just left a mark and it’s something I don’t ever want to be in that situation with the team, where they’re unsure and feel vulnerable, I guess is what it is. So I’ve really made it a point to always make them feel secure. Always let them know that this is something they can do. Always make sure that they’re rested enough to easily do whatever is in front of them.
JEANETTE: You talk about your dogs feeling confident, being secure, and having the motivation to work themselves, but what about you? Being a musher takes a lot of work. Long hours, a lot of training, bad weather. How do you stay motivated all the time?
DALLAS: I guess it’s work. A lot of it is uncomfortable at times, but I really enjoy it. That’s just what I do. Being out there in the cold for let’s say an 8 hour run, which would be a really long run for me – 8 hours straight of standing there, wind in your face – that’s something that I’ve been doing since I was very young, and I know how to cope with that.
Now, put me inside in front of a computer for 8 hours straight and I go crazy. I haven’t internally developed the coping mechanism for that, whereas in the cold I definitely can.
But I really enjoy what I do. I enjoy training a dog team. I hate waking up after 45 minutes of sleep on your sixth or seventh day of an extended training period. It hurts. You’re trying to wake up, and it is physically painful to wake up with that little sleep when you’re that sleep-deprived. On the sixth or seventh day of the Iditarod, you’re beat up.
But I guess as far as the motivation on that, at least on the races, I definitely feel like this team has worked really hard to get here. They deserve to be able to do the best they possibly can, and they deserve for me to do my job. On the Iditarod, that’s the 10 days of the year that I have to be perfect.
Training, they work hard, they do all this stuff, and I need to be able to stay on my schedule. I need to be able to get up after 45 minutes of sleep and get these guys ready to go and repack the sled so they’re not waiting for me. Make sure everything’s organized so when we’re running, I can make the next run as easy as possible for them, not have them standing around waiting for me to find where I put the snacks or find my mittens.
So I think the motivation is more a responsibility to the team, and this is again where I like having dogs that are gung-ho and charging, because sometimes you go out there and you’re putting the boots on and you might feel a little bit bad, thinking “Am I going to be pushing these guys out of here? Are they not ready to go?” and you realize that you’re putting your feelings on them. You’re tired, you’re not comfortable, your hands are frozen. When the dogs start getting up and shaking off and barking and hitting the line, they motivate you to do better.
JEANETTE: At races, your team also consists of handlers. How important are they, and how do you pick the right team?
DALLAS: Well, some races it consists of handlers, like the Finnmark. You can have handlers in the checkpoints that help take care of you, essentially. They can’t do anything for your dog team, but they can provide you with food. On the Iditarod, once you leave the starting line you can have no outside assistance. Nobody can help you with anything. Even advising you is not allowed – which is kind of an interesting setup because now it does come down to making good decisions while tired.
Having a good team is really important. That’s something this last year in the Finnmark, I had some really good help out there. It made a big difference. It just made things easier than in training, when you’re doing it all by yourself, that’s for sure.
But what is also important, I think, is not to rely on those handlers too much in making decisions because you as the musher need to be very in-tune with your dog team. You are part of that organism. I kind of feel like the dogs are my legs and the musher is the brain that are working together. But the brain has to feel what’s going on.
It’s easy for the handlers to want you to do well in the race position-wise, and it’s easy for them to advise to be more competitive than you should be. You, the musher, have to feel what’s happening in the team and make the right decision.
So I think that’s a bit of a caution in the handler setup. They don’t always have the same information. What they’re looking at is “Your run time was faster than this other person, and if you take a little less rest, maybe you can catch up or pass them.” As a musher, you’re looking at, “Yeah, our run time was faster because this dog team worked really hard. They need more rest. I owe it to them so that they can all run fast in the next one.”
Again, the musher ultimately always has to be responsible for the team and make sure they have a finger on the pulse and be careful not to take too much outside influence. Handlers can be no different than the media. They want you to do well. They’re encouraging that, and it’s one of the hardest things on a race – like this last year – to come in to the handlers, who are working hard and want you to do well, and say, “This is honestly what I’m seeing, and this is honestly the best call. We’re going to have to back off a little bit. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
JEANETTE: Before a race, do you have a plan on when to rest, how long to go, when to feed the dogs? Or do you just take it as it goes?
DALLAS: Both I think. On the Iditarod – I’ll speak on this one because I’ve spent a lot more time doing that – on the Iditarod I have a playbook. I have a pretty thorough understanding of what this team is good at and what’s our best case scenario on the trail I think we’re going to have.
I have four or five different options on how to run the first 300 miles of the race, and I will switch between one play to the next depending on the information that I see when I’m out there. Okay, I thought it was going to be a hard trail; it turns out to be a soft trail. Now instead of me having to completely come up with a new idea while racing, you can flip through your playbook and see, “oh, here’s my slow trail plan for the first 300 miles.” You already have that one prearranged. That also leads into the next 300 miles, where you have a couple different options for this section of the trail.
It’s not specifically in 300 mile sections, but I have a lot of different options, and this comes from very thoroughly assessing the race, very thoroughly reviewing how it’s been run by other mushers previously, what worked on certain trails with similar dog teams, what has worked for me in the past, and by doing a lot of studying, by writing a lot of schedules, I think I become better at making decisions in the moment.
Some mushers spend a lot of time writing a schedule and then they feel committed to that schedule because they’ve invested time into that schedule, and they’re slow to change that plan. That’s something that’s not necessarily good. But I do think by doing your homework, doing your research, you become a better intuitive musher and can make better judgment calls on the trail.
But I definitely am switching my plan hour by hour as the trail conditions change, as my dog team changes, as they react to a situation positively or negatively.
JEANETTE: Does the same thing apply to your training?
DALLAS: I have a fairly solid idea – there’s four or five high points in the training year that I’m going to hit, or going to accomplish this training exercise. How I prepare them for that training exercise is going to depend day by day, depending on what you see from the team.
This really frustrates the people that work with me because my training changes hourly. Again, there are those high points that I definitely know I want to hit, but we’ll go and do a training series. Maybe we go up to the Denali Highway. It’s a couple hours north of where I live. It’s a great place to do a long series of training.
We’ll go up there and the handlers will say, “How long are we going to be gone?” “Be ready to be gone for 5 or 6 days, but it might only be 2 days.” They’re looking at you like, “Do you really not have any more of a plan?” [laughs] Each run, “How long are we going to go on this one?” “I don’t know exactly. I’ll find a good place to stop.” “How long are we going to stop?” “I’ll see.”
You have to be in the moment as you’re doing this because what we’re really doing is riding a very, very fine line. You’re trying to maintain a level of output from the dogs. You never want to bring them below a certain point, but for the entire span of this 4 or 5 day exercise, I never want them to be over-rested either.
So we’re keeping them in a range that they can comfortably do. I want to keep them slowed down enough to where they’re not running a high risk of injury by pushing themselves too hard, but I also want to keep them plenty rested to where we avoid getting to the possible injuries when you get to too depleted – which means you’ve got to change your mind hourly.
When we get done with this big run, we’re going to have 8 days off, and then 8 days comes and they say, “Are we going again?” “Nope, we need to have another day.” Another day, another day, and then “Now, go.” So we’re making these calls one minute at a time, and I think it can be very frustrating for the people who work with me because it is hourly. But it’s not something you can predict. You just have to see and feel.
JEANETTE: Do you ever feel stressed that you and your dogs won’t be in shape? Or do you not care?
DALLAS: I do care. Obviously you have to care about it, I think. Yeah, I guess I have to admit that I’ve been stressed, but it’s not that they’re not ready. I really care about making the right decision. So you agonize over it, and it’s a detail, it’s a minutiae. But almost every year, there’s a time in probably January that I always feel faced with some very, very tough decisions. You feel obligated to – I don’t want to say push, but do a lot of training. It’s like, “back off, back off.”
That’s why I’m saying I plan to take 8 days off; it ends up being 12 days off. Then you feel a little bit behind. But when you see that moment that they’ve hit 100% health and they are truly ready to go again – that is to say, they’ve maximized the recovery time after having done the previous exercise – now it’s time to go. There’s no time to waste. That’s why it’s very precise. You have to let them fully recover, but then once they are, it’s time to go again.
Ironically, I see the same thing in a couple of the mushers that I think are really good intuitive mushers. They agonize over these little details, and what it is is they’re seeing more than other mushers. You’re seeing these minutiae. You’re seeing what’s going to happen in the future, and this means you’re looking at something that’s 1% off on a dog team.
You see a lot of mushers that are always very confident in their team. It’s always the best team ever. A lot of it is they’re just not getting the input. They don’t see a problem till it’s a 20% problem, not a 1% problem. So of course they seem to be overconfident in their team, but sometimes that’s a lack of knowledge of their team.
JEANETTE: It’s all in the details. What details do you plan on adjusting and improving in the time to come to be even better?
DALLAS: Every year we’re trying to assess, where is our biggest area of improvement? Going back to the beginning, when I started mushing, one of the biggest goals was consistency. Why is it that nobody can go more than 3 years in a row in the Iditarod in the Top 5? How is it that somebody can be so good and break the record one year, and two years later they can’t be in the Top 5?
When I started racing competitively, in recent history at least, since the mid or late ’80s, I think Martin Buser and Lance Mackey were the only two mushers that went four years in a row in the Top 5. Jeff King, even, who we’d all agree is one of the top mushers in the Iditarod and very consistent, I think had only ever been three times in a row in the Top 5 once in his entire career.
So we started assessing, what causes mushers to have a bad run, and how do we negate those risks? How do you build consistency? Other times, we’ve very much focused on how to develop the best athlete – how do you develop the dog? That’s what we’re putting all of our interest in. No, I’m not going to worry about new equipment innovations. This year we are focusing on developing each individual. The next year, yeah, it’s time to focus on equipment because I feel like we’ve moved these other things up to 90% of our potential. In this other area, equipment, we’re still at 50%. We need to push that one up.
One year, my main focus on innovation or change was, how do I go faster without making it harder for the dogs? Just as a broad spectrum. Look at everything you do. If you want to go faster on a race, you’re either running faster, running longer, resting less, resting shorter – all of these things make it harder for the dogs. How do we go faster without making it harder for the dogs? How can we be more efficient so when I stop for 4 hours, they get more rest? I’m always breaking it down to try to see an area to improve.
So, what’s next? I don’t know. I haven’t fully decided yet. I’m still in the assessment phase right now, what we need to learn more on. But I do think in the last 2 years, coming to Norway has been – I don’t know what we’re going to learn, but we’re going to learn something. You can’t change the entire mushing world or the world you surround yourself with. I’m surrounded by the Norway mushers, and you can’t do that and not learn something.
When I was doing these experiences, I think we tried very hard to have open eyes and be ready to learn anything, from anyone.
JEANETTE: If you had to do another dog sport, what do you think that would be?
DALLAS: Do I have to get away from all mushing sports, where you can’t put a harness on the dog? [laughs]
DALLAS: I’ve always been intrigued by herding dogs, that kind of communication and working together with a dog to accomplish a common goal, and I’ve always appreciated that intense drive you see in a border collie. It’s so part of who they are to want to put these sheep together, or ducks or whatever it is. [laughs] So I think I would probably be working with a herding dog. Sport or no, it’s something I would love to experience and learn more about.
JEANETTE: Have you ever visited someone doing herding, trying to learn something from them?
DALLAS: Not really, no. I’ve been so busy doing what I’m doing. I’ve been around a lot of border collies; I’ve had relatives who’ve had border collies, and they were always herding this or that. And I’ve seen it, of course, on TV. But no, I’ve never been somewhere to actually see them really working. Again, I don’t know why that is what it is, but it’s always intrigued me.
JEANETTE: Maybe some inspiration for the years to come.
DALLAS: There you go.
JEANETTE: Thank you so much for coming here and joining us on this podcast.
DALLAS: I appreciate being here, and thanks for your excellent questions.