Mush! You Huskies Radio: The Lombards

Roland and Louise Lombard

On the Mush You Huskies Radio Show we continue to showcase the people that made the sport of mushing what it is today. It is called Dog Sledding Legends and we will be covering these amazing contributors to the sport all summer long.

Listen to Mush! You Huskies: The Lombards

If you are a musher and would like an excellent reference to your library check out Nancy Cowan’s The Training and Racing Journals of Roland and Louise Lombard. Self-Published 2004.

The following history is taken from Mrs. Cowan’s book and Roland “Doc” Lombard’s training journals to show a history of one of the greatest musher’s of all time. I hope that Mrs. Cowan and the late Doc Lombard to not mind my liberty.

Emile St. Godard’s flop-eared racing hounds may have looked like odd sled dogs to Siberian fans in New England, but as he raced them in the 1929 race in Laconia, an even odder-looking team was making a first mark in sled racing for its youthful owner, Roland “Doc” Lombard of Maine. Lombard, later to win time and time again in the biggest races with long teams of Siberian-Alaskan Husky crosses, was right on St. Godard’s heels with a motley five-dog crew. On lead was often a cocker spaniel-collie farm dog, behind the leader, a German Shepherd cross and a mixed husky, and filling out the team, two Siberians borrowed from Seppala. Lombard’s third place finish was fast enough to win him first-place handicap money, $1,000, which went along way in those Depression days towards his schooling for a career as a veterinarian.

Once his veterinary practice was set up near Boston, Massachusetts, Lombard returned eagerly to his sled dogs. His early teams were made up of purebred Siberians, which were the fruits of a half dozen New England kennels that had been breeding from Seppala stock for almost three decades.

In the late forties and well into the fifties, Doc and his wife, Louise, ran their Igloo Pak Kennel dogs in dozens of New England Races. By the mid-fifties Lombard, along with Charles Belford and Keith Bryar, were known as New England’s “big three,” and they represented the best the sport had to offer outside of Alaska. When the New England races could not hold up to their blazing teams, the three racers traveled to bigger events in New York, Canada and finally Alaska. Lombard was the first to take sled dog racing back to the state where it started, driving in his first Alaskan race in 1958 at the age of forty-six. He was also to be the most successful outsider in Alaskan championship races, giving every sled dog driver in the state a tough run for his money for many, many years. Although he remained an outsider in Alaska, his gentle manner, considerate words and fine racing record won him the respect of the farthest-north Americans.

Lombard won his first Alaskan race on his second attempt. This he did at Fairbanks, in the North American Championship, the first outsider to challenge successfully in the fifty years of Alaskan sled dog racing. From 1958 to 1975 Doc Lombard won six North American Championships, placing second in six others. Down in Anchorage at the Fur Rendezvous World Championships it took him until 1963 to win his first one, and he won the North American that year, and so added the coveted title of Dual Champion to his laurels. In the next twelve years Lombard kept returning to Alaska and kept proving his talents, winning eight more World Championships. In 1964 and 1967 he re-earned the Dual Championship an extraordinary second and third times.

Lombard’s lead dog in most of these victories was a 48-pound black and white Alaskan Husky named Nellie. Trained in Huslia, the little Alaskan town famed for its sled dogs and their drivers, Nellie attracted Lombard’s attention in 1962 while she was running on champion George Attla’s team. Lombard’s professional admiration for the dog resulted in the first sale of a sled dog for the then unheard-of price of $1,000.

According to Attla, “She just never made a mistake on commands. It was like driving a car; you made every turn you wanted to make.” Nellie had all of the good traits, she worked enthusiastically, and she had ‘heart’. She helped Lombard to his unprecedented fourteen Alaskan championships. The year that both “Doc” and his dog were elected into the Dog Mushers’ Hall of Fame, Lombard commented to the Boston Globe: “Nellie is very special. She not only has speed, courage and stamina—because these championship races are long distance—but Nellie is highly intelligent.”

Nellie represented the finest in canine evolution that had been occurring in Alaska since Seppala left with his Siberians. A purebred Siberian strain had been developed in Huslia, but so had a non-registered breed called the Alaskan Husky. The toughest of the survivors from the gold rush days, the fastest of the winners in the early races, were interbred with Siberians, with Malamutes, with Eskimos dogs and with wolves. When the New Englanders brought the best of their Seppala Siberians back to Alaska to race, it was the best of these husky-type dogs that beat them.

Roland Lombard’s contributions to sled dog racing extended far beyond his racing record or his abilities with dogs. During his career he aided more than one aspiring musher with dogs and advice, spending hours talking, explaining and teaching. The more serious new drivers who visited him were slowly included in the fall training activities; and several of New England’s better drivers learned the basics from “Doc.”

Another major contribution was his early belief in the idea of an international organization for the sport. Lombard served as the first president of the International Sled Dog Racing Association from 1966 to 1970, he and a small group of intensely dedicated people gave unselfishly of their time and money to make this infant idea into a reality.

Roland Lombard was a master at reading and communicating with his dogs. His race results represent this. Lombard’s evaluations of his dogs were very precise. As the date of the next racing event drew closer he had an astonishing perception of his team’s readiness. Lombard was adept at finding any and all faults or variation in his dogs’ behavior. Many mushers thought “Doc” was a perfectionist, and as such, overly critical of his dogs. Others maintained that Lombard knew his dogs so well that the type and intensity of the correction he administered to his dogs were perfectly suited to the incident, and even more importantly, to the individual dog.

If something wrong happened to a dog during a run, Lombard recorded the incident. These types of notes were recorded with the intention of curbing negative events and conflicts with that particular dog. Roland Lombard was an in-field researcher of his dogs. He kept training and racing journals that spanned decades.

Each and every dog on the Lombard team always had a clear understanding of what was expected of it. Lombard allowed all of his dogs to remain in a positive frame of mind when running in a team. Year after year he came to the racing circuit to learn, about his dogs and himself. He worked hard and the teams got better. He won his share and he lost some, but he always conducted himself with exemplary sportsmanship.

“Doc” was often asked to speak about sled dog racing. In the book, The Training and Racing Journals of Roland and Louise Lombard, it shows that for over thirty years he did not leave anything out, and did not leave anything unplanned. “Doc” listed some statements he called “one-liners” that he intended to make in order to encourage questions and discussions. Roland Lombard’s “one-liners” follow:

1. Break your dogs on opposite sides. When training, shift all dogs after a mile or so.

2. Start training dogs young, but don’t race them in long or fast races.

3. Try to accomplish as many corrections that you have to make, AWAY from the team (i.e. aggressive and NO.)

4. If you want your dogs to listen to you, keep your mouth shut unless you have something to command them to do.

In one speech, “Doc” used the words, “the numbers game” as a one-liner when speaking about the fact that a lower-48 [states] musher who was working with his kennel, then goes to Alaska to race, was taking a team made up from his limited resources. This musher had to go against teams made up from the pooled resources of native villages. Lombard’s point was that when he began racing in Alaska, the native Alaskans were assembling teams from the best of a pool of five hundred or more “best in the village” dogs, the best of thousands. The opportunity to assemble a superior team coming from a breeder choosing from fifty dogs of his own home-grown gene pool was nil to this prospect. “Doc” was using this one liner to illustrate to people why he had bought individual dogs in Alaska, and then to also explain why Alaskan Huskies were proving themselves superior on the race trail of the day, to any registered purebred team, of any breed.

“Doc” was an excellent communicator and trainer when it came to his dogs. He was considered a master trainer of his dogs, especially his leaders. As a trainer Roland knew, and he knew that the dogs knew, that if it was being just plain stubborn or disobedient, Doc dispensed criticism in a manner and at the moment that the dog would understand it best. In a few instances he whipped a dog, sometimes he urged a dog, at other times he “spoke to” a dog (a verbal reprimand) or else “jollied” the dog with happy words. Each correction was perfectly suited to the canine, to the moment and to the offense. Few trainers are able to achieve the level of performance and empathy that Lombard expected from, and gave to his dogs. In his journal an entry explains how he does it:

Attitude—prefer to train second year dogs because it has proven speed and lack of bad habits.

First teach “come.”

Second teach “line out.” If you have ever tried to get a team harnessed and get back to your sled while the young leader wants to come back to the sled with you, or to visit with the dogs in the team (you know the value of this lesson). After going up and straightening him out eight times, because of the delay, the other dogs are chewing their necklines etc. You might be tempted to get rough with him. DON’T. Put him back in the team and promise yourself that you will start training properly by teaching him to line out.

1. All leaders should be taught to go single. If you start out with double leaders, one will know “gee” and the other will know “haw”. Your young leaders want to have the confidence to push or to pull the other. If one makes a mistake, the other goes along.

2. We do not hook leaders in until last—usually.

3. Teach “NO!”

4. A good leader is a rare and wonderful thing. When you get one, take care never to do anything that might put a bad thought in her head.

5. Everyone should read the Mel Fishback article on leader stress in Northern Dog News.

  1. I don’t believe that you can successfully make a rigid training program at the beginning of the season. It is almost a day-to-day program. I do, however, think that it is probably wise to set some goals.

Roland Lombard was a rare entity, a master of masters at what he did, and who was also mentally and telepathically in tune with his team. He loved and understood his dogs. They loved and understood Lombard. Lombard’s labor made a science of sled dog racing, but it was his talented hands that made sled dog racing an art.

Citation: The Training and Racing Journals of Roland and Lousie Lombard edited by Nancy Cowan, 2004.

__________________

Dr. Robert Forto is the Dog Sledding Examiner, a musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and the host of the Mush! You Huskies Radio Show

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