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Interview and Kennel Presentation of Doug Willett

 

Sepp-Alta Kennels

 

 

 

For how long have you been involved in sled dogs?

 

36 years

 

How many dogs are residing at your kennel?

 

Presently, I have 14 sled dogs.  In my prime I generally entered fall training with 20 to 30 adults.   Now I am content to breed a few litters for others and run out my current 12-dog team, which is quite  good, to their retirement.

 

Did you have any mentor?

 

No

 

Which races and distances do you prefer for your team?

 

I always considered myself first a breeder and second a racer.  As such, I considered racing the test for the next breeding.  Breeding achievement is directly proportional to racing achievement and how the breeder uses race performance to select breeding combinations.  It is important to race in the major class at competitive races to have a worthwhile performance level.  Races should test both speed and endurance, both of which are characteristics that should be possessed by good Siberian Huskies.  Therefore, when possible, I chose to race in races that had heats from 30 to 120 kilometers, which tests both speed and endurance.

 

What do you think is necessary to be able to finish this kind of races? (Special nutrition for example, or what kind of dogs?)

 

It takes many things, good nutrition, training, time, money, etc, but,  most importantly, it takes well built, tough dogs with a lot of spirit and a strong desire to please their owner-driver.  The most important item in the make-up of a good team is the dog.  Too often, people spend their resources and energy trying to make rabbits from turtles, when just replacing their turtles will improve their team manifold times more than the small gains achieved refining the turtles.  For the physical characteristics  of a well built sled dog to my eyes, I refer the reader to the standard for the Seppala Siberian Sleddog, which can be seen at http://seppalas.com/page4.htm.

 

Could you tell us something about your training? How many miles are you training and racing in the season?

 

Briefly, I use training to condition the dogs, to reinforce the dog's work ethic and to develop a rapport between the team and me.  To achieve this goal, I have no fixed schedule or special program of weight pulling or speed training.  However, I have been lucky to always have lived in the mountains, so every run automatically includes hard pulling (uphill) and speed running (downhill).  If I lived in flatland, I would be more precise in my weight and speed training.  I like to make training runs fun for the dogs, but I do not tolerate foolishness from them.  They are expected to always work.  If they fool around, they quickly get left behind tied to a tree (to be picked up on the return run, of course) or switched to wheel without a neckline, where I can apply "escape avoidance" to them if they fall back.  Iam a believer in that it isn't so important what you do as how you do it.  I aim for a cumulative fall mileage that will allow me to successfully complete a 50 kilometer late December or early January race.  This requires about 1000 kilometers of training from August through December.  I do not like to lie to my dogs regarding distance.  We start at about 5 kilometers in late August and slowly work the team up to runs of the same length as our first race, usually about 50 kilometers in late December.  After a couple of 50 kilometer training runs in early or mid December, I like to back down to a few shorter runs to cheer up the dogs mentally and let any sore muscles heal.  By mid-to-late January we should be able to race any distance up to about 120 kilometers.  After that, training consists of mostly calibrating their psychic to the next race, regarding both its distance and nature.

 

From which lines did you pick your foundation dogs and why ?

 

My foundation sprung from two breedings of Surgut of Markovo to Helen of Markovo, which were pure Seppalas, three-quarters based on Don McFaul breeding and one-quarter on Malcom McDougald and New England Seppala breedings.  From these two litters came 6 of the best that I have ever raced, including 2 super leaders, Ali and Beowulf.  Thereafter, I concentrated on Seppala lineage dogs.

 

Which further lines did you take into your breeding program and for what reason?

 

I tried bringing in other racing lines, including Anadyr and Igloo Pac, without much success.  The best result came from a bitch, who was line-bred on Spook of White Water Lake.  She never made my team but bred to an Ali son produced an outstanding leader, Sno-Sepp's Elvira of Seppalta.

 

Do you practice line breeding and how close do you choose the breeding partners ? And what about bringing in other lines ?

 

I do not advocate close inbreeding of any type and thoroughly believe in genetic diversity, which is the main reason that I took my Siberian Huskies out of the American Kennel Club.  I am ashamed that it took me nearly 30 years to realize that a closed registry is not the place for working dogs.  The purebred genetic pool is simply not diverse enough to produce superior sled dogs in sufficient quantity to be competitive on an ongoing basis.  Once-in-a-lifetime superior leaders and an extremely dedicated trainer can produce momentary success with just AKC purebreds but not more.  I always tried to breed best-to-best without close inbreeding.

 

What are the main breeding goals concerning physical attributes?

 

Front-end angulation and rear-end flexibility were my number one physical priority, given that the obvious racing silhouette is maintained.  If the purebred fancy really wanted to improve the Siberian Husky, the number one screening priority, before eyes, hips and all the other nonsense practiced here, would be a screen for front-end angulation.  Nothing less than 40 degrees should be bred.

 

What are the most important mental attributes you are looking for in a dog?

 

A desire to please and continued enthusiasm regardless of distance run.

 

What attributes make a dog a leader in your mind?

 

Speed and the mental toughness to run in front of the pack.  Not many dogs have the fortitude to run in front of their companions.  I think that leadership is mostly genetic.

 

What attributes make a dog the perfect Wheeler in your mind?

 

By "Wheeler" I suppose that you mean "wheel dog", not Harry Wheeler.  I do not think a wheel dog has to have any special attributes, but it is useful to have wheel dogs that will increase effort on command.

 

Are there any differences from the dogs of the past and the dogs of today?

 

Purebreds have not changed much because the gene pool is closed.  Alaskan Huskies, yes.  In general, Alaskan Huskies have lost arctic dog characteristics, such as having a thick coat, and become more houndish in physical appearance.  I occasionally get inquires from mushers in Alaska because they are now having difficulty finding good sled dogs with sufficent coat to withstand the cold.

 

What are your selection characteristics in a litter and at what age do you decide?

 

Selection is decided solely on performance in free running at an early age and later (roughly 6 to 12 months in age) in team runs.  I avoid judging puppies younger than 4 months of age because they change too much to render a reliable judgment at any given time in this period.

 

What do puppies in your kennel have to learn first ?

 

To run fast and not quit.

 

What method do you use for starting puppies?

 

My method - long free runs chasing me on an ATV or snowmobile depending upon the time of year.  We start with  continuous walks, as long as one kilometer, around 6 weeks of age and progress up to fast runs as long as 10 kilometers by 3 months of age.  For the most part, these runs are continuous with none, one or two short rest stops.  Sufficient speed to always keep the puppies loping should be maintained.

 

In which age do your dogs start running in the Main-Team?

 

Age is a horrible measure of anything relative to either dogs or people.  Creatures are individuals, each has his own rate of maturing.  I have had dogs make the team at 9 month and others that didn't reach team maturity until 3 years of age.  I had a 12 month old pup co-lead a 16-dog team to victory in a 70 kilometer race.  On the other hand, one of my best leaders didn't show his true potential until he was about 5 years old.  The main rule, if there even is one, is to be open minded, treat every dog as an individual and learn about each dog by practicing with them.

 

Which dogs are a kind of kennel-stars for you and which successes or attributes make them so outstanding for you ?

 

Of course, the dogs that are the most meaningful are the great leaders.  Leaders are 75% of a dog team in terms of racing success.  My greatest leader was Beowulf, who always arose to the occasion.  I can literally say that he drug us to victory in several races where conditions were unfavorable for our success.  Photos of my greatest dogs over the years are linked at http://seppalta.com under the "great dogs" headings.

 

Which dogs do you consider being your best breeding dogs?

And what special attributes did you obtain from them?

 

My best brood bitches were Uelen' Ali, Nestly of Seppalta and Sno-Sepp's Elvira of Seppalta.  More recently, Riverdance's Franky has produced well.  My best studs were Uelen's Beowulf of Seppalta, Race of Seppalta and Hercules of Seppalta.  Beowulf produced leaders, and Race and Hercules (Hank) were prepotent for attitude.  The attribute that all of them possessed and almost always passed to their progeny was real attitude.

 

What are the breed’s strengths and weaknesses as racing sled dogs?

 

In North America, the preponderance (99%) of the Siberian Husky breed has no strengths as sled dogs.  There is a small group, usually referred to as racing Siberian Huskies, who still possess sled dog attributes.  Speaking about just this smaller group, I would say the main problem is over-all soundness and vigor or vitality.  Under our new open registry agreement with the Continental Kennel Club regarding the Seppala Siberian Sleddog breed, we are allowed limited outcrossing outside the main breed.  I have recently started such a program using Racing Arctic-type Alaska Huskies as the outcross, identifying the progeny in this program with the prefix "Arcticsepp" in their name.   The outcrosses have been similar to my regular purebreds in most ways.  However, there is one major difference.  The outcrosses are noticeably tougher, rougher and maintain vigour over distance longer, recover quicker and seem to be immune to health and anxiety problems.  I do not know if this has occurred because of the particular outcrosses that I am working with, or if it is a general phenomena that occurs in cross-breeding of this sort.

 

Are there any serious genetic problems or diseases which you would consider important for the breed ?

 

As I have already noted, the primary physical genetic problem is straight front ends and the primary mental genetic problem is low vitality and soundness.

 

Since you have run both – distance and sprint racing – what venue is best suited for you and your dogs?

 

Distances that test both speed and endurance and are not so long as to constitute the potential for cruelty to the dogs.  As I stated above, I like distances between 30 and 120 kilometers, preferably as daily heats for 2 or more consecutive days.

 

What are the goals for you, your breed and your team in the future?

 

At this junction in life, I'm just having fun as I search for a graceful way out.

 

 

 

 
 

 

 

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