Archive for January, 2010

Leonhard Seppala

Leonhard Seppala

By Robert Forto, PhD

No dog driver has the status, the renown and the respect of his colleagues as does Leonhard Seppala. His fame has lasted far beyond his brief national acclaim following the race to Nome against an epidemic. His greatness has long outlasted his success as a racer. Before his death in 1967 at the age of ninety, Seppala had been made an honorary member of four prestigious organizations: The Siberian Husky Club of America, The International Siberian Husky Club (which was originally chartered as the Seppala Siberian Husky Club), The New England Sled Dog Club and The Norwegian Sled Dog Club.

The longest sled dog race in North America was named for Seppala. When thirty four dog teams left the starting line in Anchorage on March 3, 1973 bound for Nome, in the first thousand-mile Seppala Memorial Iditarod Trail Race, no driver wore Number One. Starting position Number One had been reserved in memory of the most distinguished dog driver of all time.

In 1961, at a testimonial banquet at the Alaska Press Club, Lowe Thomas introduced the 84-year-old musher with sparkling blue eyes as “the greatest dog team driver that ever lived.” For Seppala was an original, an innovator, and a pioneer. There was no aspect of dog driving he left untouched. Even today, over one hundred years after his birth, many Siberian Huskies that race today are descended from Seppala’s Siberians.

At the turn of the century young Seppala left his native Norway, his father’s fishing boat and his apprenticeship with a blacksmith, to join the hundreds of new explorers seeking their fortune in the gold fields of Alaska. He soon discovered that a steady, if less spectacular, way to make money was to have a dog team and to freight supplies to the miners. Within a few years Seppala had the reputation as one of the best dog punchers in the new territory.

His life swerved onto a new trail when inspired by the excitement of the new sled dog races in Nome, he entered and won his first race at age thirty-six. The next year, 1914, he entered the All Alaska Sweepstakes with a team of young Siberian dogs he had been training for the explorer Roald Amundsen. After losing the trail and injuring his dogs, Seppala finished last.  He started that race with a leader named Suggen, and he was hooked on sled dog racing.

Seppala trained hard and in secret, far away from town and returned to win the race by over an hour in 1915.  He repeated this feat in 1916, and 1917, winning both Sweepstakes by large margins.  Seppala was to obtain permanent possession of the Siberians when Amundsen’s North Pole trip was cancelled. Seppala’s appreciation of the imported huskies was immediately apparent and years later he wrote, “Once more the little Siberians had proved their superiority over the other dogs and I was proud to have been their driver and to have brought them in such good condition.”

Seppala’s continuing success put him on “top of the list when the chairman of Nome’s Board of Health was looking for fast teams to go for the diphtheria serum being relayed in from Anchorage.”

Seppala’s leader by then was Togo, a son of Suggen. Togo, destined to be a hero as the result of his valiant leadership across the trackless treachery of Norton Sound, began life as a spoiled, hard to handle pup. He was the offspring of some of Fox Ramsay’s Siberian imports. Part of his early training including running free beside the big team, which he loved, but one day he ran into a team of tough Malamutes and was badly chewed up. Perhaps this is one of the ways a future lead dog learns part of his lessons, for Togo became the best passer Seppala ever had. Togo was a master at leading his team well out of reach of any other dogs on the trail.

After the successful life-saving race to Nome, Seppala toured the East Coast of the United States. In 1927 he took his whole team to New England and proceeded to win race after race. He won New England Sled Dog Club races in Maine and New Hampshire; he won Eastern International Dog Derby’s in Quebec; he raced in Lake Placid, although Canada’s great Emile St. Godard did beat him for first place in the Olympic Games exhibition race. Everywhere he went, if he was not actually racing, he was “talking dogs.” Many future dog drivers learned the basics, the fun and the dangers of driving sled dogs by listening whenever “Sepp” was around.

Eastern mushers became just as enamored of the Siberian Huskies as was Seppala and, with his help, selective breeding programs were started at several kennels. Seppala was looking for a slightly larger dog without diminishing alertness, grace and the lightness of foot had contributed to this natural breed’s success in racing. These new kennels provided this by mixing their bloodlines with his.

In addition to the dogs, Seppala introduced to the East at least two innovations to the sport of dog sled racing. To New Englander’s familiar with the single file freight hitch brought from Alaska by Arthur Walden, Seppala’s method of hooking the dogs in pairs with a single leader looked strange. Nothing bodes better for an innovation than success however, and this double tandem hitch, with occasional slight modifications, is standard in races today.  The other novelty presented by Seppala was the driver’s more active participation in the race. Although dog punchers and long-distance racers usually ran beside their sleds, the sprint racers would stand on the runners of their lighter sleds, jumping off only to run uphill. Seppala broke through this prevailing concept by introducing a pedaling motion. With one leg, as though on a scooter, timing his push with the dogs’ strides to keep the sled moving at an even rate.

Seppala and his wife returned to Alaska in the mid-thirties, and then after retirement moved to Seattle, Washington. In 1960 the chipper little man flew to Laconia to serve as honorary judge at the World Championships Sled Dog Derby. He was eighty-three years young and still delighted with the sled dogs. He reflected on his forty-five years of dog driving, his quarter of a million miles by dog team, his ninety-three silver cups and eight gold medals.  The people of Laconia knew they were witnessing a giant in the sport.

Beyond the trophies, the Seppala-strain sled dogs, the inspired dog drivers, the innovations and contributions to the sport, lies the quality of the man. In a sport where handling dogs well is a necessity, the best still pay tribute to Seppala’s skillful relationship with his dogs. In a sport where some try to win with pressure and punishment, Seppala’s unequalled triumphs were achieved with kindness and encouragement. A driver could be running a good race, but he knew if Seppala was in it, chances were good that the little Siberian team would go flying past, almost soundless. Many mushers would say that Seppala would just cluck them every now and then, and the dogs would lay into their harnesses harder than they have ever seen before. One competitor said, “Something came out of him and went into those dogs with that clucking sound. He passed me every day of the race and I wasn’t loafing any.”

After a long day Seppala would reach for his parka and cap and go out to his dogs one more time before retiring for the night to check on their comfort. Out would go that little weather-beaten Alaskan, a man who pinned his faith and his life on the good health, endurance and loyalty of his dogs.


Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher and the training director for Denver Dog Works. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at


Pacing the Team

Pacing the Team

By Robert Forto, PhD

It takes hard training to get a team in top physical and mental condition before race season. By the time the dogs are hardened, they have lost their eagerness and might even be in a slump. Depending on how tired the dogs are, the musher should stop the serious training before race season. The dogs should be allowed to rest. After resting, a few dogs can be taken out on some very short runs. They should be left on the picket line longer then they want to rest, and the musher should not run them as far as the dogs want to go. This will restore the dog’s attitude and they will be eager to run again. If a musher can manipulate the dogs so that they are crazy to go while still in top form and still controllable, then the team will reach it’s peak performance.  With skill and sound judgment a musher can “peak out” the team just in time for the biggest event of the season.

The musher need not be a behavioral scientist or a learning theorist to accomplish this peak. They need not know the nuances of Skinnerian conditioning, Ivan Pavlov, Karen Pryor or Conrad Most. They just need to be able to read their dogs and communicate with them in a way that allows for synchronicity in order to win races and make the sport fun.

Mushing has been termed a blue-collar sport, not a white-coated, scientific endeavor. The idea is to have fun and become one of the team—the musher is the boss/leader, the quarterback if you will, and the dogs are his teammates.

Dr. Robert Forto a professional musher for Team Ineka and is training for his first Iditarod. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at

Dissertation Abstract: Chasing the Dream

Dissertation Abstract: Chasing the Dream

By Robert Forto, PhD

 In this week’s article I am providing the Abstract for my doctorate dissertation, Chasing the Dream: The Study of Human-Canine Communication in the Sport of Dog Sledding. If you would like to read more please contact me via email at and I can send you a .PDF version for $9.10. If you would like to receive a hard-copy please contact me to make arrangements.


Human—Canine Communication

Domestication has significantly affected the ability of humans and dogs to communicate. Recent research has shown that there is still a lot to be learned about communicating with dogs. Understanding how dogs communicate with other dogs and with people is of vital importance to dog trainers, handlers and animal behaviorists.

Communication is an integral part of all forms of social interaction. It allows dogs and people to become familiar with one another, to bond with each other, and live peacefully with one another. People who are able to communicate with dogs have two distinct advantages: one, they are able to interact closely with dogs and two; they can regulate their own behavior to meet their dog’s needs. Dogs can also interact with humans and can regulate their behavior to meet the human’s needs as well. 

Communication is therefore of the utmost importance to people who work with dogs. Every aspect of dog training depends on the sending and receiving of information between the handler and the dog. Much of this exchange takes place on a non-verbal level. Instead of speaking, the sender makes gestures, movements, sounds and facial expressions. To effectively control and manage dogs, a dog handler needs to be sensitive and responsive to a dog’s effort to communicate.


Dr. Robert Forto is a professional musher training for his first Iditarod under the Team Ineka banner and is the training director for Dog Works Training Centers. Dr. Forto is the host of a weekly radio program, The Dog Doctor Radio Show, which can be heard every Saturday at 9:30 am in the Rocky Mountain West or you can download it at anytime. Dr. Forto can be reached through his website at


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