Interview with Geoff Abbott - Kriskella Samoyeds
Top Driver, OWS - 1994-95

Interview Conducted May 5, 1996 In Pine, Colorado
by Connie Rudd

Q. Geoff, please summarize your competitive mushing history. I know that you ran a very successful team several years ago, had a hiatus, and returned to competition two seasons ago.

A. Well, it is a rather interesting question. Like so many of us, I started with just one dog. And one thing led to another. I loved being outside with my dog, and that dog led to plural dogs, which is very easily done. When I first started doing competitive work with Samoyeds, I was doing weight pulling and that was very enjoyable and rewarding. I wanted to do more so then I got into sprint sled racing. I just love being competitive.

I became very good friends with a lot of dog drivers in the local Colorado area. Many of them were, in good humor, poking fun at the "puff balls" I was running, and I took exception to that.
I wanted to get the most out of my dogs; and even today, when I hook up the dogs, I learn something new. I certainly do not profess to have all of the answers, but I raced with some wonderful competitive people in different breeds. There is nothing more that I enjoy than beating Siberian Husky teams, because those drivers poked the most fun at me. I did learn where our place was, and felt our place was considerably higher than where Sammies had placed in the past. However, there were folks who ran dogs long before I did - Merle Mays was very competitive here in Colorado. So I knew the dogs could do it.

There were times out on the trail when the dogs would slip into what I call Sammy-hyper speed. It would only last only a short distance, maybe a couple hundred yards, and then they would drop back to their smooth running gait, but not as fast. So I knew they could do it, and I kept working and fine tuning, and wondered what it was that sparked them all at once to just take off. That is when I started learning about dog running rhythm, and I know a lot more about that now than what I knew then. I started back in the early 70's and ran for about 12 or 14 years, and then took a bit of a break of nine or ten years.

I am having even more fun this time around. All you have to do is make fun of this wonderful heritage we are blessed with, and I will find a way to get the most out of them.

Q. In your first round of racing, 12 or so years ago, do you recall your best years, and the ISDRA points you earned?

A. Those were very exciting years. As far as I was able to dig out of the files, at that point there had not been any other Samoyed teams that had accumulated ISDRA (International Sled Dog Racing Association) points. I recall the first time I placed in an ISDRA sanctioned race and received ISDRA points. While it was only 15 or 18 points, I felt like I had really accomplished a goal. Brenda and I worked very hard at training and racing. And we had several races in one season that our three dog team (back then they had 3-dog as a sanctioned class), ran to place us in the top third of the three-dog class for year-end points, nationally. Our five dog team also earned points those years, and while not placing as high, they were a long way from the bottom. I was racing in Colorado at the time, and Colorado was then, and now, a premier sprint racing state, so the competition is always good. We also had received OWS top honors, individual dogs top honors as well, with Pal.

Q. Who was leading your team in the 70's and 80's?

A. I had two leaders then. Rose, (Kriskella's Wild Irish Rose) a wonderful bitch of our breeding who would run single lead - as a matter of fact she performed better at single lead, she did not like sharing her duties. She had some other qualities that you cannot train for. She hated to be passed. She loved to chase. You couldn't buy that combination. I remember one race at Leadville, Colorado at over two miles in elevation, and one of the best drivers in the country was there - Dan Larkin. His dogs were always at 18 mph or more (Alaskan Huskies and kennel mutts). He passed me at a race; he turned around and looked, and I was still on his tail - ultimately he pulled away from us, but it took him well over a mile to pull away. That was an exciting ride. While I couldn't keep up with him forever, my Sams were doing something that I like to see: tails flat and blowing spit! When you have that combination, you know the dogs are digging deep into their hearts.

Q. What brought you back after a ten year retirement?

A. The training technique then was carts. Based on what I know now, carts are dangerous for the dogs and the driver, and I have bad knees from high school sports. The pounding my knees took with those carts is not conducive to doing any kind of pumping. It got to the point where an operation was in order, or find another sport. It was just timing, as so many things are. My dogs were getting old, and we felt like we should hang it up. We had our second Organization for the Working Samoyed Team honors (first was in 1979) AND Samoyed Club of America Top Team honors that season, 1984-85, I believe. And we got out . . . retired . . . or so I thought.

But we continued to breed Samoyeds - only an average of a litter every two years. This litter of pups that makes up most of the team I am running now, . . . well, I had no intention of running dogs again. Most of my equipment was gone. We had only old harnesses, no sled, no training rig, some old snaps, and some fond memories. Then this wonderful litter came along (Ch. Frostipaws Champagne Bud X Kriskella's Stardust Delight) and we kept three wonderful boys from that litter. Brenda had intended to keep one, "Midas" (Ch. Kriskella Turns to Gold, WSX) anyway, and I had become very attached to the other two. But we still had no inkling about running again. There was just something about this group of boys that was special.

Well, as you know, Connie, you came to dinner one night and made a comment about what ". . . a great team those boys would be . . . ." Your comment about those young dogs sparked everything up again. We ran that following morning after digging up some old harnesses with some wonderful old names on them - Pal (Ch. Silveracres Sunshine Boy, WS), Adam (Kriskella's Adam Up Again, CD), Andy (Kriskella's Andy Isaboy, CD), Rose, and Peg (Ch. Kriskella's Peg O' My Heart). My big dogs, Adam and Andy, were good-sized boys, but their harnesses were a little snug on these new pups. The running weight of those old boys was 60-65 pounds, but they were taller than the current team. The boys I run today are more compact with more ribcage depth and spring; they weigh about 55-60 pounds.

Q. How have training techniques changed in the decade since you retired and then returned to the sport?

A. Basically the difference is that the cart has been traded for an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle - four wheel). I'll be honest, when I heard people were training teams with an ATV, I said " What the heck has this sport come to?" I was not in favor of training dogs that way. But, I like to think of myself as being open minded, and I knew that most of the competitive teams at any level of competition were training with ATVs. It didn't take me but a couple of minutes on the ATV with the team to realize that this was a real advancement in the sport. You look at the speeds dogs are maintaining today compared to ten or fifteen years ago; the animals are the same, so what has changed? The training technique has really opened the door.

Q. What is the real difference between carts and ATVs?

A. I think the biggest difference is that its more fun for the dogs. As you know, attitude is about 99% of what we are doing here, and without attitude, the dog will never come close to its ability. The ATV gives the dog the confidence that he can run fast and maintain it. With a cart, when the dogs hit the hills, after a while they just learn to slow down, because they know they have to drag this cart and driver up this hill. It is very difficult for the driver to pump, and the ATV makes it a totally different world for the dogs. I think it is safer - you can carry additional equipment and a passenger. In our case, Brenda has been on every single training run, and she is able to see her dogs work.

I didn't know if it is right or wrong, but I never want my dogs to trot. The ATV makes a tremendous difference in training to keep dogs from cheating as opposed to really running. The thumb on the throttle helps keep just enough weight on the tugs and gangline, and lets the dog know he can do this, up hill and down. The ATV is a real morale booster. I believe we have trained our dogs to slow down on hills by just using the cart. It is just the nature of the equipment, and the ATV allows you keep that speed up.

Q. You took three pups, not yet two years old, and their dad who was 7 1/2 at the time and hooked them all up for the very first time. How did they know what to do?

A. I don't know. I never really asked them that. I borrowed your Alaskan Husky and hooked her on the line, a great old dog who probably has several thousand miles of training on her. A well-trained sled dog can teach a green dog in one training run far more than I could in a whole season.

The pups did just what I expected. They bounced and played and had no idea that this was work. I didn't know what to expect except that being behind a team of Sams is something that I dearly love doing.

Q. Compare nutrition ten to fifteen years ago to today.

A. The dogs haven't really changed that much, but speeds and times have changed considerably. 10-dog teams are 20mph - averaging. These are top teams, but nevertheless, nutrition has certainly played a tremendous part in the success we are enjoying.

Some leading universities have done some studies on how a dog digests its food, water intake, etc. That may have been a bigger contributor to success even than going from a cart to an ATV in training. I feed a very high quality dry food, and as you well know, keeping working dog hydrated is probably number one. You don't want any dippers (snow dipping during a race) - if you have a dipper, he isn't working and its dangerous.

Nutrition is very important. I have some very good fiends with whom I have kept in touch over the years, and they are running dogs at a very high level - Brenda and Al Valletta - and they introduced me to some products that are an absolute must.

One is called Energy Pac - made by National Dog Food. A very good product, it is a high fat, high protein powder that I use once a day even in the off season. It is tremendous for baiting water. Then there is another product that has just recently hit the market, called SDX, made by American Dehydrating Company. This product is a meat supplement. It is 46% protein and 42% fat. It is very HOT. You give very little, and it is strictly for working animals. The side effects can be severe if the introduction is not monitored carefully. The first sign that you are overloading a dog is loose stools. Then you have to cut back. There are very strict instructions on how to feed this powder supplement. I feed it a little differently to each dog. I know what each will tolerate. The SDX pumps protein to the muscles. The amount of protein and fat into the muscle nets best performance. This supplement saves buying fresh or frozen chicken or beef supplements.

Even a premium dry dog food is not enough for competitive dogs teams. It doesn't do for the dog what the dog needs. If you are taking your dogs out for strolls, hikes or whatever, and he is not under a great deal of stress, either physically or mentally, a good dry dog food is adequate. But I want the most out of my Sams, and these products certainly help tremendously in getting it.

Q. Geoff, talk about the mix of good training, good feeding and good breeding. What about the working lines of Kriskella.

A. The working heritage of Kriskella . . . I think there is a large amount of stubbornness in Sams in general! I have never really seen a Sam that couldn't work. But I have seen a lot of Sams that were a lot smarter than the driver who was lulled into believing that a certain dog, or dogs, just couldn't do it.

We have really done very little breeding (about 16 litters in 25 years) as compared to some breeders. I have always run what Brenda has bred, and Brenda has always very strongly believed that if you breed to the best of your ability a structurally sound Sam, he's going to be a good working dog. The real key is structure. Even a small fault in structure in a working situation can ultimately take a potentially good working dog and make him a mediocre working dog. This is because he has to work a lot harder at doing something that should be done smoothly. Brenda has always tried to breed structurally sound animals. We do all hip and eye testing on breeding stock. Any working dog who isn't sound starts out with several strikes against him; some can still perform, but it is more difficult.

Q. What about the "stuff" you can't see?

A. I am not sure I know how to answer that. The greatest asset this breed has, is in my opinion, is its heart. And that is something that you can't see. So, how do you bring this out?

Let's assume you have a structurally sound animal. As in any other training mode, if everything you do is positive and fun, that high level of workability that you can't see when you breed comes out.

The most important thing Brenda and I breed for is temperament. Our males run together; they eat together; they are hooked at the truck together. Temperament is very important. When you run dogs, you are going to live with five, ten, or fifteen animals, and if they don't get along, it's not fun.

Interviewer: I can tell you, from being a fellow driver on the trail, I don't mind meeting you on the trail. It makes a difference - knowing your dogs will not "come into my team" during a pass. It makes a difference.

Response: That is an interesting point. I have learned a lot from running this group of boys that we have now. Mostly it is about trust. I see their level of trust toward one another and I think it is directly related to their workability. They trust each other, and probably more importantly, they trust me.

Q. Who are the dogs on your current team? (OWS Top Team for 1994-95). Tabulations are not in for 1995-96.

A. Those were the three pups we kept out of Dusty and Bud's first litter - Midas, Bill (Kriskellas Fleks of Gold, WSX) and Freck (Kriskellas Top Billing, WS). Those boys, plus their sire for some races, was our team for last season - (1994-95). This year (1995-96) we again hooked in their father, Bud, who is nine years old, and he ran some of our best races. We also hooked in their littersister, KC (Kriskellas Star Celebrity, CD), owned by Mary Powell who is one of the top obedience trainers in this breed.

Q. Let's talk about race-day strategy. What is your strategy?

A. The first thing I like to do is see who is in front of me and who is behind me on the first day - usually the "luck of the draw" tells me a lot of things. As you well know, there are teams out there that shouldn't be out there running - actually a hazard on the trail - and I want to know where those teams are, frankly. I want to know if I am going to meet them on the trail. Then a lot of troubles can be avoided or anticipated.

Weather conditions play a role in race day strategy. If I know something about the trail, take for example the two Granby legs of the Triple Crown races here in Colorado, all of the turns on that trail are left hand turns. I like my dogs to run pretty much in any position that I hook them up in, but since Bill is considerably bigger than Freck, I move Bill to the left side wheel position.

When you are talking about a sport where there can be 3 seconds between first and fifth place, every second counts. You can take a turn tight and your wheeler holds you snug in the turn, then perhaps you pick up a half second on every left turn, as opposed to going wide and getting in the soft stuff, which gets them out of their rhythm and slows them down. Then you have to talk them back into their rhythm. Strategy plays an important part in it.

Ideally, I love some fast teams in front of me, and one or two fast teams behind me. My boys love to chase.

The second day of a two day heat is also where strategy plays a big part. The first day, say you encountered a little difficulty - maybe a five second difficulty. That five seconds could cost you two places. You look at the standing board at the end of the first day. Only YOU know what kind of run you had. You look at the team ahead of you, who may be in front of you by four seconds. You know you should have beaten them. The second day you have the advantage of really knowing the trail. You know that you don't need to drag a foot on this corner - that could be a half a second. You go through the race and subtract all those situations, and before you know it, you have made up your five seconds or plenty more. Second day strategy is fun. It really brings out the competitive nature in me. If I know I should beat the team in front of me, I call on my dogs finishing speed sooner.

Q. How do you do that? How do you "Call them up"?

A. Well, the dogs have three speeds. There is the starting chute speed, and I like them to come out of that starting chute speed slowly - I don't want them to burst for a mile and then drop. I want them to come out of the starting chute speed to race speed, smoothly. Race speed is where you are out there by yourself, everybody is in tight rhythm, and everyone is working.
Then you have their finish speed. Finishing speed I want to have as close as possible to their starting chute speed. I give the dogs a signal to associate starting speed with finishing speed. I give a very loud whistle - only at the start and then again when I want to call them up to finishing speed. I never call them up in the middle of the race. I always give them soft words of encouragement during the race. But I never give them the whistle during the race. I want to feel a real difference in the finishing speed when I call them up, as opposed to their race speed. I want to see flat tails and I want to see spit!

Q. What role does hydration play in race day strategy?

A. At race day, hydration plays a very important role. Let's put together a scenario like this: a 20 degree race day (pretty warm). I want my dogs totally empty when they race. In other words, if we are racing Saturday morning and we leave the chute at 10:00 A.M., I want the dogs' last meal to have been mid-day Friday. I want to keep a lot of water in them. A dog who has to take a leak will still run as opposed to a dog that needs to make a movement. I water frequently. If it is warmer than 20 degrees, I will water even 45 minutes before race time. I let them take in as much baited water as they want.

The color of a dog's urine tells you whole lot. I want to see almost clear urine just before a race.. Hydration is very important.

Two hours after the race on Saturday, I feed. I will cut back on volume of dry food and increase the SDX just a little.

Monday, after the race, I load them up; Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday I return to the normal feeding routine during race season. And begin Friday again with race-day feeding and hydration.

Q. What role do feet play in race day strategy?

A. When you consider how many times a dog's foot slams into the ground during the course of a racing season, foot conditioning is very important. We have been very fortunate that our dogs are well pigmented. I like black pads, black tummies and black mouths. I have found that a black foot pad is a little tougher. I don't like to boot up - I will if I have to - but I think boots can mess with the rhythm. I keep the hair trimmed back between their toes, vaseline them up if necessary. Feet are very important.

A foot injury during training season, when you run on frozen dirt, is bad. It is a serious injury. A stone bruise the first of October can hamper a dog for the entire season. Let those early injuries rest for three or four runs in the fall.

Q. Geoff, a quick question on sleds. What have you learned in your 20 years on the trail?

A. I have learned that I don't know much! My first race two years ago, after returning from retirement, I had an 18 inch shock cord between the sled and my wheel dogs. Al Valletta, who is known internationally, who is a multi-ISDRA medal winner as is his wife Brenda, helped me understand the new technique. I now know that we don't use long shock cords anymore, but put the wheelers as close to the sled as possible. My sled, a Bergren, weighs about 18 pounds. I also don't hook the gangline to the sled with a carabineer...that is just one more thing that can break. Quick change runners have made a difference in race-day strategy. That system allows you to put runners on that fit snow conditions.

Q. In conclusion, you have been very successful in fielding a fast team of Samoyeds. How do you make them run so fast?

A. I don't "make" them run. They run because they want to. A combination of good breeding, good training and conditioning, good nutrition and good equipment allows them to do what they are capable of doing. No one "makes" a dog run. Attitude and desire are the most important factors.

Geoff, thank you for your insights; happy mushing! And congratulations on your excellent track record. You and Brenda are living examples of "maintaining the character of the Working Samoyed".

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