John Suter had a dream. An odd one, but there it was: He wanted to run the Iditarod with Standard Poodles. Suter spent 14 years pursuing that dream — and he made it. Sort of.
Let’s start back when the insanity first found a comfortable niche to hole up in his brain. Back in 1976 John Sutter was a normal Alaskan transplant with an eye for adventure. Mushing seemed the ideal way to mesh adventure and sport, but most serious mushers have sponsors to help defray the costs of dogs, dog food, veterinary bills, sleds and time off for practice. It wasn’t very likely an inexperienced newcomer would be all that attractive to most sponsors.
The day of the big idea came when his father-in-law’s Miniature Poodle, Fluette, was visiting. Fluette easily kept up with Suter’s snowmobile, jumping in and out and bounding alongside. Most people would just nod and think, “Cute.” But Sutter nodded and wondered: “Could big Poodles pull a sled?” And, “Is that the ticket to attracting sponsors?” (Or being admitted to a mental health facility?)
Maybe it wasn’t all that crazy. Poodles are smart and biddable — two key components for sled dogs. They’ve been used as retrievers, guide dogs, circus dogs and even military dogs. Their coat was developed to keep them warm in icy water.
But that didn’t make them huskies. Huskies are born hardwired to pull. Poodles had to learn to want to pull. His early Poodles just didn’t have that inner drive. Suter finally solved that problem by raising and training his Poodles along with huskies, starting when they were as young as two months old. The Poodles assimilated the husky drive to pull, and together they all acted as a strong family unit, pulling the sled in concert.
Suter started entering races with his Standard Poodle teams. The Poodles ran better when their husky cohorts were among them, so most teams had a few huskies as well. They didn’t win a lot of races, but they turned a lot of heads. And caused a lot of head shaking.
Then came the supreme challenge: the Iditarod. Anchorage to Nome: 1,157 miles through untamed back country. Suter and his partly Poodle teams competed in the Iditarod from 1989 to 1991 — more than most husky mushers can claim. In fact, one year he managed to place ahead of 12 husky teams.
People still thought he was crazy — or as one Finnish musher carefully explained to him, it was apparent Alaska also had what in his country they called “village idiots.” But for a while, he was the state’s most famous idiot, even appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Alaskans adopted a motto: “Alaska: Where woman win the Iditarod and men mush Poodles.”
But despite the attention, Suter never raised significant sponsorship money. Instead, he spent at least $250,000 of his own money over the course of 14 years. He did get a sponsorship for $250 from Out! pet deodorizer.
In the end, it wasn’t the money or lack of ability on the part of the Poodles that brought a halt to great adventure. It was the race officials — and the Poodle’s glorious coat. The snow tended to form ice balls between the Poodles’ foot pads, but Suter had solved this problem with booties. But Iditarod race organizers banned the Poodles anyway, citing concerns over their poorly insulated coat, and limiting the Iditarod to only husky breeds in the future. The Poodle teams were disbanded, but Suter had done what had never been done, and what no one thought was possible.
Or even sensible.
Photos via Alaska: Mushing Poodles in the Iditarod
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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.