Robert Cooke and his Siberians have been part of many major long distance races in Canada and Alaska. In this edition Mushing Magazine features his dogs in the Super Dogs section. In order to provide context and gain insight in Cooke’s operation, please read the following interview with Cooke conducted via email.
Mushing Magazine: What is the name of your kennel and where are you located?
Robert Cooke: We are Shaytaan Siberian Huskies and with our 58 purebred Siberian Huskies live on Annie Lake Road in the Mount Lorne area just outside of Whitehorse, Yukon Canada.
Mushing Magazine: Could you talk about your decision to relocate from England to Canada?
Robert Cooke: We have been living with, and racing, Siberian huskies since around 1997. In England, particularly in the 1990’s, the majority of sled dog racing was for pure breed ‘northern’ dogs (Siberians, Alaskan Malamutes, Greenland Dogs, Eskimo Dogs, Samoyeds) and was nearly all dryland sprint. We would race most weekends from October to March with the biggest race being the Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain Aviemore Race, which attracted over 200 teams. Travelling long miles just to race short distances was not enough and I wanted to do more distance. Around 2004 I became really interested in the Yukon Quest, I even started to wonder if I could train my own dogs to take part in the race.
My goal has always been to race with my own dogs, not dogs raised and trained by others – this has always been important to me for many reasons not least because I know those dogs so well. I was serving in the military at the time and managed to get an exchange posting with the Canadian Air Force and we moved to Canada in 2005. We started breeding and buying more puppies from Siberian Husky lines that I thought could run long distance races and in 2008, when I was recalled to the Royal Navy, I resigned from the military after 23 years’ service so we could stay in Canada and prepare for the Quest. I spent the winter of 2011/12 in Willow Alaska doing qualifying races and in 2013 we ran our first Yukon Quest.
Mushing Magazine: Describe a bit the landscape and physical features of the area where your kennel is located in. Also please describe trails where you train.
Robert Cooke: We live in almost the perfect mushing location. We are close enough to Whitehorse, about 40 minutes’ drive, for shopping and work but remote enough that our nearest neighbours are about a quarter mile away. We are in a series of valleys totally surrounded by mountains so the views, and location, are idyllic. Because of our location we also tend to get more snow and colder temperatures than Whitehorse so it is a good area for mushing.
Although quieter on the trails this year there are also a lot of other mushers in this area, we regularly run into teams such as Magnus Kaltenborn, Yuka Honda, Nathanial Hamlyn, Marcelle Fressineau, Tamra Reynolds and a whole bunch of sprint and recreational teams when training. In the fall we are limited by creeks and lakes to around 30-mile training loops but once the creeks freeze we have pretty much unlimited training trails including creeks, lakes, forest trails, mountains and above treeline trails. I think this is one of the best areas in the southern Yukon, if not Canada, for training sled dogs.
Mushing Magazine: How many dogs are in your kennel?
Robert Cooke: Currently 58 Siberian Huskies and one Karelian Bear Dog. Because of our beliefs and kennel philosophy we only ever bred when we want more dogs for the team, we never breed to sell and so tend to keep most puppies from any breedings we do. We also believe that the dogs have worked for us for their entire lives and so the least we can do is ensure they have safe and secure home when they retire from working and so all retired dogs remain with us. I fully understand why some kennels ‘place’ retired dogs, but for us we prefer the dogs to remain with us. So we currently have six dogs that have yet to start training and 24 dogs that have retired from racing so only around half of the kennel are working on a regular basis. Anywhere between six and nine dogs regularly live in the house.
Mushing Magazine: What is the focus of your kennel?
Robert Cooke: Our focus really has been, since 2004, on the Yukon Quest. Everything we did, buying dogs, breeding dogs, where we lived, worked, housing etc. was to prepare ourselves for that race. Even now my focus is still on the Quest; even though we have run Iditarod three times, and plan to run it again in the future, all thoughts, trainings and other racing is designed to have a team capable of finishing the Quest. With that in mind we do try to do other mid distance races to help prepare the dogs; in particular we have finished the Copper Basin 300 seven times now as I think that race is by far the best race to prepare dogs for the realities of the Quest.
Mushing Magazine: What is your philosophy?
Robert Cooke: I guess it is a cliché that everyone uses but my focus is on the dogs. I don’t think I am a particularly good racer because I find I am unable to push the team that bit further, I prefer to rest longer than maybe the dogs need to. It is much more about being out on the trail and achieving our goals together. I would say it is about having fun but the Quest is certainly not always fun. It is always a challenge, though, and I like to overcome those challenges with my own dogs that I spend my life with.
Mushing Magazine: Which bloodlines run in your kennel?
Robert Cooke: I would say mostly now our own. I think the Quest team this year will feature 10 dogs we bred ourselves, three others that were bred from our dogs, and only one dog, Tsuga’s Olympian God (Redgrave), that was not from our own lines. Behind our lines are a mix of some of the more traditional UK lines such as Forstal’s, Penkhala’s and Aceca’s plus lines we introduced in North America so Anadyr, Northome, Kodiak, North Wapiti, Lokiboden. Our main race dogs tend to go back into breedings we did between Kraken’s Kermit the Frog and Penkhala’s Medea – both outstanding representatives of the breed.
Mushing Magazine: Describe how many people are involved in your kennel (family? handlers?)
Robert Cooke: The kennel just tends to be my wife Louise and myself. We don’t often have handlers working with us mostly because I am very insular and don’t like having other people around (other people don’t often like being around me either ),but also because I want to ensure the dogs are trained and treated exactly as I want them trained and treated and the best way to achieve that is to look after them ourselves. I also have a habit of thinking that people should be able to read my mind and do exactly what I am thinking without me telling them – it is quite an expectation to put on people.
We do have friends and family who come over from the UK often to help handle on races, people such as Hugh and Judy Wakker, Chris Leyland and my brother Andy have been supporting us for many years. James Wilde seems to manage to get the time off from his duties with the UK Army to come and handle on the Quest every year, too. We would really struggle to start, let alone finish races without this support.
Mushing Magazine: How did you get into mushing and what keeps you at it?
Robert Cooke: We were looking for a dog to keep Louise company when I was going to be away on deployments with the Navy back in the 1990’s and also, at the time, we did a lot of mountaineering so wanted a dog that could come on those trips with us. We ended up getting a Siberian Husky —having seen a photo of a husky in a backpack— and decided we wanted to do more with him and so our mentors at the time, Nigel and Sonya Richards, took us training with them and we got hooked on working dogs – it went downhill from there.
It is hard to work out what keeps me at it, if I could work that out maybe I could stop! As many have said in the past – it is an addiction. I love being out with the dogs, just them and I on the trail; the fact that every run is different, never boring; that there is always that possibility that something can go wrong at any time – the challenge, I guess. There is also a huge attraction to the Quest (the trail, the communities, the checkpoints, the people, the romance) that drags me back every year.
Mushing Magazine: How many years have you been doing it?
Robert Cooke: We have had Siberians for around 22 years now, have been doing dryland and short mid distance since then and are into our eighth winter of training for long distance.
Mushing Magazine: What are your major achievements in mushing, both in races and maybe beyond racing?
Robert Cooke: In racing I think firstly that we have finished six Yukon Quests has to be our main achievement. We were the first, and to date only, pure breed Siberian Husky team to finish the Quest and Iditarod in the same winter —achieving that feat in 2015 and 2016— we got a second place in the 2012 Yukon Quest 300 which included the vet choice award, I had the honor of receiving the Sportsmanship Award after the 2019 Yukon Quest – this was presented to me by Brent Sass which was a real honor considering his deserved reputation for excellent trail sportsmanship. I think we have bred some pretty phenomenal Siberian Huskies that have done very well with us as well as in racing and showing kennels in the UK. Sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning seems to be a major achievement.
Mushing Magazine: What do you think the major challenges to mushing are and how to overcome it?
Robert Cooke: I think mushing, and particularly racing, is in a very difficult period, probably the most challenging ever. I do think that in their current formats the days of the Quest and Iditarod are probably numbered. Mushing has never provided a strong, unified front – organisations such as IFSS, in my opinion, fail to be a single representative voice for the mushing community, they always seem to have their own agendas. If you put 10 mushers in a room, you’ll end up with 14 different opinions. A lot of mushers tend to shy away from the spotlight (there is a reason why we prefer dogs to people) and so are not always the best at showing people how well cared for our dogs are or even at countering the attacks from the animal rights groups.
On the other side of the coin social media has given animal rights groups a platform and an audience that knows no better and so they are turning the screws firstly on distance racing, but next they will oppose all racing and eventually even recreational mushing will be targeted. We are already seeing legislation in the east that is preventing tethering of dogs, there is more legislation coming in that will prevent dogs from living outside below certain temperatures, I can see the ban on greyhound racing in Florida eventually moving west and extending to all dog racing.
Maybe I am being pessimistic but I am not sure these are battles we can win, maybe just delay the inevitable. I do think kennels need to help themselves, we can all do a lot better: move away from tethering where possible (the Seavey’s are showing that this is possible), when I have travelled in Europe and Australia I can even see that mushers there do not approve of tethering; I got into quite a discussion in St. Petersburg last summer. We all need to promote the best year round dog care, ensure that any bad actors are drummed out of the sport (let’s not hide behind the falsehood that all mushers are great dog people and every kennel promotes great dog care); educate and empower race judges and vets to remove dogs or teams from races when they are not looking so great, just do a better job of showing the positives of the sport.
I am sure these words will not make me particularly popular but we have to ensure that we, as a collective, are not giving animal rights groups any ammunition and we also need to evolve in order to counter changing attitudes in society.
Mushing Magazine: Is there anything I didn’t ask but should have?
Robert Cooke: I would like to mention the Crazy litter one more time. Maddie, the only female in the litter, obviously featured in Famous Feet in the last issue of Mushing Magazine, but all five (Maddie, Skits, Psycho, Nutter and Loonie) have been a massive part of my team. They started racing in 2010 at just over 18 months of age; they have run six Yukon Quests, three Iditarods, six Copper Basin 300’s, the YQ300, Gin Gin 200, Can Am 250, Knik 200, Sheep Mountain 150 and many other races.Maddie and Loonie have never been dropped through injury; Loonie in particular has run every mile of every race I have run since 2010 and their offspring are now at the forefront of my race teams going forward. They must be one of the most successful Siberian Husky litters ever bred.
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