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Poodles in the Iditarod: A Fascinating History

Written by: Nicole Cosgrove

Last Updated on April 16, 2024 by Dogster Team

Iditarod mile marker in Alaska

Poodles in the Iditarod: A Fascinating History

From Jack London’s treasured novels to children’s films like Balto and Togo, millions of people picture sled dogs as fluffy, wolf-like Huskies and Malamutes and know the Iditarod, Alaska’s famous sled dog race.

However, in the 1980s, one California man wanted to see what would happen if he tried the Iditarod with Poodles—not traditional sled dogs by any stretch. What happened next is one of the most interesting and inspiring underdog stories in the race’s history.

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What Is the Iditarod?

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, known commonly as the Iditarod, is a long-distance sled dog race held in March each year. It stretches along a route from Anchorage to Nome and takes 8 to 15 days.

The first Iditarod was held in 1973 to test sled dog mushers and dog teams, but it’s grown into a competitive sport all its own. The best teams in the world train to compete in conditions like blizzards, whiteout conditions, and high winds in sub-zero temperatures to prove their mettle.

In addition to being a famous sport, the Iditarod is an Alaskan tradition that commemorates the history of the state and the legacy of sled dog mushing. Portions of the Iditarod Trail had been used by Native Americans for centuries prior to the formal race.

Sled dogs training for race day
Image Credit: Kirk Geisler, Shutterstock

What Dog Breeds Compete in the Iditarod?

The original sled dogs were bred by Indigenous peoples. They’re the earliest domesticated breeds known, but these dogs were eventually crossed with Alaskan Huskies, hounds, setters, spaniels, shepherds, wolves, and other breeds to create exceptional sled dogs.

In the early 20th century, Siberian Huskies were introduced to the sport and became popular racing dogs for their strength and stamina. Modern Huskies are mixed breeds to gain more skills that help them excel in the race. Other Northern spitz types, such as Alaskan Malamutes, compete in the race, but the Standard Poodle was not among them historically.

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The Iditarod Poodle Team

Looking at standard sled dog teams, you’ll see a mix of wolf-like or fox-like dogs with thick, heavy coats, erect ears, fluffy tails, and solid builds that split the difference between strength and speed. However, John Suter, an Army vet from California, decided to try Poodles as his team while he was stationed in Alaska in the 1970s.

According to an interview Suter gave in the Washington Post, he was inspired to race poodles in the famous snow race when he saw a Miniature Poodle running to keep up with his snowmobile. He went on to buy a group of Standard Poodles and transported them north to build his sled team.

Raising them side by side with Huskies to prepare them, Suter said the Poodles began to take on the traits of the Huskies and developed a passion for running. He raced his team in hundreds of sled races to prepare for the Iditarod, placing in the low middle of competitors.

After several generations of Poodles, he had the perfect team for the Iditarod. He completed the race about a week after the winner, but the Poodles were formidable in the cold. He had let their coats grow out naturally, put boots on their paws to protect them, and sprayed them with cooking oil for added protection from the elements.

Suter’s goal wasn’t necessarily to win the Iditarod, just follow his wild dream of competing with a team of Poodles. In interviews, he claimed the benefit of mushing Poodles is that they notice if they lose their musher and will turn around to retrieve them, unlike one-track sled dogs that continue racing without a musher. Despite this, he said that mushing with Poodles was more difficult than he expected, and that’s probably why no one tried again.

Suter’s Famous Team and Legacy

Suter’s team was led by Umiat, a black Poodle, and six huskies. It took him 18 days, 1 hour, and 50 minutes to complete the race, coming in second a week behind the winner. He went on to compete again in four separate races, but his best Iditarod finish came the following year at 14 days and 22 hours.

After his time with racing was finished, he retired himself and his team, who lived out their days with him. He’s been a hero, a novelty, and a joke, depending on who you ask, appearing on Johnny Carson,

Inspiring a children’s book, Sled Dog Poodles, and gaining the nickname “Idita-idiot.”

American musher Susan Butcher was a top musher at the time, and Suter’s Poodle team inspired a new saying among dog-sledding circles: Women win the Iditarod, and men mush poodles. Incidentally, Suter’s daughter is now a competitive musher with a traditional Husky team.

Dog sled team training in the winter
Image Credit: BlueOrange Studio, Shutterstock

Are Poodles Suitable for the Iditarod?

Poodles are classified as non-sporting dogs by the American Kennel Club, but they’re not without athletic talent. As hunting and gun dogs, Poodles love to run, chase, and swim, and their thick curls offer protection from the water and cold when it’s allowed to grow out. According to rumors, Suter’s Poodles were mistaken for sheep with their thick fur.

That said, athleticism isn’t the only thing a dog needs to compete in the Iditarod. While Poodles may be suitable in some ways, they aren’t Northern breeds. These dogs are designed specifically for cold-weather environments with thick double coats that wick moisture while insulating, short, pointed ears that withstand frostbite, and long, fluffy tails that help them cover their faces while they sleep and stay warm.

Poodles toughed it out in these grueling conditions, but they needed some extra help to stay safe, like booties and cooking spray. They’re not suited to sleep outside, either, as most sled dogs do.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Why can’t Poodles compete in the Iditarod?

While Suter made history with his Poodles, they were later banned from the race by Iditarod organizers. According to officials, there were concerns over Poodles’ poorly insulated coats and their ability to stay comfortable and safe in the weather conditions. Now, only Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Husky, or mixed Northern breeds are permitted to race in the Iditarod.

Did the Poodle team win the Iditarod?

No, Suter’s Poodle team did not win the Iditarod. However, he raced four times in 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1991, finishing in second on his first try. Even though he didn’t win, he came ahead of plenty of other teams racing more traditional sled dogs.

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John Suter may have started his quest to race the Iditarod with a team of Poodles on a whim, but his fascinating and inspiring story lasts as a fun bit of Iditarod trivia and proof of the Standard Poodle’s intelligence and athleticism—even if his team needed some modifications along the way.

Featured Image Credit: Brandon Olafsson, Shutterstock

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