May 28, 2012

The Makings of a Champion Lead Dog

What else could we have named the fat little red pup that was hopelessly lost and then found? After all, he was a survivor, a true champion. The name Champ fit him well.

When he was a few weeks old, Champ had wandered away. Andrea and I searched and searched for the little guy, finally giving up late at night. But the following morning he showed up, sitting comfortably in the tall green grass where we had last seen him, wagging his tail and ravenously hungry. Andrea tells the story very well in a previous post, Spirit of Adventure .

Now, two years later Champ has lived up to his namesake. On the 2012 Arctic expedition, the rookie took to lead position like an old pro and exhibited leadership and maturity like a veteran. Being a lead dog isn’t for everyone. It’s a tough business, especially if you’re breaking trail, but I knew Champ had it in him.

Here’s Champ on his first expedition. Happy and ready to take on the world!!


There are certain characteristics that make a good leader. First, it’s ideal the candidate has some smarts. I mean, he or she has to be intelligent enough to figure out the best way to maneuver the team across the landscape with the most efficiency. This might sound simple, but actually it’s not. A lead dog must learn to avoid deep pockets of snow which lie in hallows, and around brushy and grassy areas. They have to learn to travel on a straight course up and down steep hills, navigate through blizzards, and remain focused on their job without fooling around and stopping to sniff caribou turds and tangling the lines.

Secondly, they should be athletic. Some dogs are naturally more athletic than others. The third and fourth characteristics are the most important. A great leader must have an iron will and be tough minded, someone that doesn’t ever, ever give up and perseveres through the toughest demands of the environment and snow conditions. A tough minded, iron willed dog is a God send. When you’re against Mother Nature’s onslaught of devious weapons like getting your butt kicked in a blinding blizzard, or you are breaking trail through waist deep snow and your snowshoes feel like lead weights, the team is getting discouraged, and you’re losing heart, a tough minded, cheerful warrior of a leader will keep the team and you going.

The fifth characteristic, which is the catalyst that binds all of the ingredients together, is passion. When you have all of these traits in a leader, you’ll have a dog that will guide you to hell and back while wearing a smile and wagging his tail.

Champ is on the right and learning the ropes from the old pros, Farmer on the left, and Shorty is in the middle.


Last winter, Champ started in swing position, which is directly behind the leaders. Even swing is an extraordinary accomplishment for a rookie. Rarely, do I ever start a youngster there, but Champ is a light boned dog and I felt it was best for him positioned there until his body was strong enough to handle the rigors of solid heavy pulls and breaking trail. The swing position is a relatively stress free environment, although swing dogs are just as important as leaders because if they can’t keep up with the lead dogs they can drag them down, slowing and disrupting the entire team. It’s an easier position physically and I usually reserve it for old timers since they know what they’re doing and they can follow the lead dogs’ trail, widening it for the rest of the team. There’s one thing about old timers and veteran dogs though, they are master trail-breakers so when times get really tough they don’t have a problem helping out the leaders break trail.

Trail breaking is an art and a skill acquired from many years of experience, and there are no better teachers for rookies than the veterans. So, I placed Champ between two old guys, Bruno, which is Champs father, and Texas. Texas is a solidly built 11 year old gentleman who in his hay day was a real powerhouse and one of the strongest pullers I’ve ever had. He’s traveled with me for nearly a decade covering more miles than 10 Iditarod 1,000 mile races. Together we’ve been through it all…falling in crevasses, breaking through thin ice, battling hurricane force winds and surviving -100°F windchills.

The old timer Texas with eyes of wisdom.

06-07 Expedition 372

Bruno, who is 10 years old, was a phenomenal command leader in his younger years. He has the same reddish white coloring as Champ, and he’s a smaller guy than his son, but he’s almost as trail wise as Texas. It didn’t take long for Champ to learn the basic trail breaking techniques from his two mentors, but you really don’t learn how to do something until you actually dive in, get your hands dirty and just do it. So one day I placed Champ in lead.

Here’s Bruno – father like son!!


To be Continued…..


  • Henrik

    “Looking him into his eyes made you feel as if you were flying over oceans of snow, solitude and peace.”

    Looking at Bruno really put a meaning into that quote. There is’nt a more beautifull sight than an aging Malamute …

    Greetings from sweden …
    Stay safe …

  • Piappies World

    Paws up for Champ! It’s great to see how far he has gone and seeing that sweet smile shows that he is enjoying the ride. It’s good to know that he is well uided by the veterans Bruno and Texas.

    Safe travels always Champ! Keep that smile all the time.

    Piappies Fudgie, Princess, Frappie, Mocha, Sugar, Wai-Pai, Wai-Max & Forgie