Robert Forto made his first long-distance run, or mush, in 1994. His new hobby seeded a dream that still calls him: to run the Iditarod. How many thousands of miles more will he have to mush before his ambitions become reality?
Robert Forto is an award-winning dog trainer with nearly thirty years of experience. His approach, called Peak Performance, focuses on leash walking, communication, manners, and creating a balanced mood. He’s an internationally respected podcast advice guru and successful business owner.
In short, he’s got a great life doing good work with people who really love their dogs. A dream life, right?
Yes … and he’s also got a not-so-secret dream: to run the Iditarod before he gets too old. The legendary race is nearly one thousand miles in length over some of the most challenging terrain on the planet.
It takes weeks to run … weeks of snow, and ice, and cold, and strain. Musher and pack must be one in mind and body in order to finish, let alone win, this grueling race.
After decades of building his pack of Huskies, one dog at a time … while running tens and tens of thousands of miles to learn and bond with his dogs … Forto is that much closer to achieving his dream.
0:00 Welcome to The Long Leash
02:06 A Bumpy Ride in The Life of a Seasoned Dog Trainer
03:15 An Interesting Love Story for Robert
04:59 Me-Time for Mushers In Love
06:38 Ever Heard of the Rock and Roller Tour??
07:20 From Dog Training to Pursuing the Iditarod Dream
09:26 Hobby Farm Planted the Seed of the Iditarod Dream
13:04 Racing Down the Kenai Peninsula…. And Are Those Pterodactyls?!
15:43 The Life of Any Dog Musher During a Race – Passion Lives
17:38 A Bond and Affection Expressed in a Unique Way
18:19 Fresh Straw Bale = Treats!
19:01 Who Gets the Skittles Every Night??
19:28 Pack of Athletes – The Thoroughbreds
22:57 Who Gets to Be the Lead Dog?
25:00 … When The Symphony Begins – And The Neighbors Couldn’t Care Less
28:14 Summers in Alaska… Time to Relax, Snoopies!
28:58 Coaching Lead Dogs – Basic Commands Matter
31:56 $30,000 A Year in Food Bills
32:30 Alaska Dog Works
34:59 Dog Works Radio
39:01 Almost Reality: Reaching for the Iditarod
About Robert Forto
Robert Forto began mushing in 1994 and became interested in long distance sled dog racing shortly thereafter. He plans to compete in the Iditarod before he gets too old. Forto owns and runs Alaska Dog Works with his wife Michele. They teach dog lovers how to become excellent dog trainers using a unique philosophy and system of training.
He is also the host of a weekly radio show, Dog Works Radio where people all over the world call in to ask questions of Robert and other dog trainers.
About The Long Leash
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>> James: [00:00:00] Hello! It's James Jacobson. Thanks for hitting play. You are listening to the Long Leash and it may be warming up where you live but it's still a bit chilly in Alaska, which is a good thing for today's guest and his pack of Alaskan Huskies. Robert Forto is a man on a mission. The mission, which will eventually lead to the thousand mile long sled dog race known as the Iditarod.
Now it can take anywhere from 8 to 15 days to complete the Iditarod, but as you'll hear in today's episode, many years of preparation and planning. And that planning is what Robert is doing. And in the process he is built a business and a lifestyle that centers on these amazing Alaskan Huskies.
We profiled Robert Forto on a segment that you can listen to on our sister news magazine podcast, called Dog Edition, but for more context and insight that you won't hear anywhere else, here is our extended conversation. So you're in Alaska and I'm in Hawaii, so we're the 49th and the 50th States.
>> Robert: [00:01:35] That's right.
>> James: [00:01:35] Pretty cool. And we all love dogs and have built businesses around dogs.
>> Robert: [00:01:39] Of course.
>> James: [00:01:40] So, Robert your evolution to sitting here today and talking to me from Alaska has been kind of interesting, it sounds like.
>> Robert: [00:01:51] It has, I got started as a dog trainer way back in 1994. And, it's been a heck of a journey over the last 25 years or so, but I love every minute of it.
>> James: [00:02:02] And let's talk a little bit about that journey, cause it's been bumpy along the ways. Yeah.
>> Robert: [00:02:06] It has, you know, I've had my ups and downs, of course, but, you know, as you work through life, you kind of find those pitfalls and then find a way to deal with them the best way you can. I had a really big pitfall in the late nineties, some gambling issues and things that really cost me just about everything. But I had, my wife stand by my side and she really, took the bull by the horns and, really saved my life because of it.
>> James: [00:02:33] Do you mind going into a little more detail?
>> Robert: [00:02:35] Well, in the late nineties, I was heavily involved in the internet stock market day trading and that sort of thing. And I was doing that during the day and running sled dogs at night. I was living in Northern Minnesota at the time and what I thought was a kind of a perfect world. I was, you know, trading stocks back and forth during the day and doing quite well with it. And then I was offered a couple of investment deals that, I know now I shouldn't have taken. And of course that led to many things down the road, but, ended up, really messing up my life quite a bit.
>> James: [00:03:11] Got it. And then how long had you and your wife been married at that time?
>> Robert: [00:03:15] Actually I'd met her after all that happened. So she stuck with me after the fact, which is very uncommon and, her and her family really took me under her wings at that time. And, I am eternally grateful for it.
>> James: [00:03:29] Well, tell me a little bit about that story of how you guys met.
>> Robert: [00:03:32] Well, interesting story. She and I actually met in an internet chat room. This was in 1999 or so when a Yahoo chat rooms were very popular and, Yahoo, I know, but, she was on, it was a Saturday afternoon and she was on the chat room and she asked a question in a dog room or forum or whatever they were called back then.
And she said, is anybody out there that can help me teach my dogs how to pull my kids in a wagon. And of course I was a dog musher, so I jumped right in and, you know, we started talking in the chat room and before long we were talking on the phone and a little bit later, I had flown to Colorado and met her for the first time. And, as they say, the rest is history.
>> James: [00:04:19] So she wanted to mush her kids.
>> Robert: [00:04:22] Yeah, in a wagon, not necessarily mush, but just getting the, she had Malamutes at the time. So just getting them to pull the little kids around in a wagon. She had a decent size property there. So, you know, Northern dogs do Northern things. So, that's how we met.
>> James: [00:04:38] That is a beautiful love story and rather unique.
>> Robert: [00:04:41] Thank you. Yes.
>> James: [00:04:43] And how long have you guys been together?
>> Robert: [00:04:45] So we've been together 99. What is it? 2021 now. So almost 22 years.
>> James: [00:04:51] And what's her name?
>> Robert: [00:04:53] Michelle.
>> James: [00:04:54] And Michelle is not just your wife, but your business partner.
>> Robert: [00:04:59] Yes. She is my right hand woman, as they say in every aspect. We are in business together with our dog training business. We're in business together with our mushing kennel. Everything that we do, we pretty much do together. And, you know, sometimes we have to do a little bit of escape to get away from each other cause you can't spend 24 hours a day with somebody all the time. But, we do that and, it seems to be working good. We've been doing it for a long time.
>> James: [00:05:27] So what is your escape? And what's her escape.
>> Robert: [00:05:30] Well, traveling to your neck of the woods is always fun when we go to Hawaii. But, you know, we love to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Each of us take trips and things on our own, like this coming October, or excuse me, August, I'm taking an expedition trip to Wyoming and I'm going to spend a week, hiking and backpacking with a group of llamas. So that should be a...
>> James: [00:05:53] With a group of kennels or Buddhist Llamas?
>> Robert: [00:05:56] Llamas, you know, the, yeah, the animals.
>> James: [00:05:59] Or like a Buddhist Llama. Tell me about that.
>> Robert: [00:06:03] So it's a NOLs trip, a national outdoor leadership school, and a we're going to go for, I think it's six or seven days in the, rocky mountains of Wyoming, and we're going with a group of, I think, eight or nine executive leadership types. And we're going to go out there and, learn about each other, learn about business. And of course, also do some, some pretty good physical exercise, as they say through the Rockies there.
>> James: [00:06:30] That is awesome. I never knew such things existed. That is pretty cool. And you also have another hobby when you travel. I understand.
>> Robert: [00:06:38] We do, hopefully that kicks off back this year if COVID works its way, out of the mainstream, we do what we call the rock and roller tour every year where we travel down to the lower 48 and, my wife and I go to rock concerts and, roller coasters and just kind of make a vacation out of it and kind of enjoy spending time together on the road.
>> James: [00:07:02] And you've done how many roller coasters across America now?
>> Robert: [00:07:06] Oh my goodness. I would say probably a, well over 200 in the last five or six years.
>> James: [00:07:12] So how did you get interested in mushing and the whole like Alaska wilderness dog scene?
>> Robert: [00:07:20] Well, I started off as a dog trainer first. I was going to college at Portland State in Oregon, and I was thinking about becoming a veterinarian at the time. And I realized real quickly, I didn't want to spend my life in, you know, in an office or in a hospital setting. So I started going to the local parks and, helping other people train their dogs.
And as they say, my business started with a leash, a business card and a smile. And I did that on Saturday afternoons and, you know, just teaching basic obedience stuff, you know, to, families in the, in the parks. And before too long, I decided that was a pretty lucrative career, even back in the early nineties, you could still do decently with dog training.
So I went to a national canine, which is a dog trainer school in Columbus, Ohio, the following summer, and became a quote unquote professional dog trainer at the time. And then shortly thereafter, my grandfather passed away and left me a, kind of a homestead cabin, farm type deal, hobby farm, I guess they call it in Northern Minnesota.
And,I ended up getting my first group of sled dogs there. And we started doing races throughout Northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Montana, et cetera. And then that goes back to the original part of the story. So that, that went on for five or six years or so. And then, shortly after that, I moved to Colorado and in 2010 or so is when we moved to Alaska and had to chase that Iditarod dream that still has not been accomplished yet, but it's going to be rather soon before I get too old, I hope. And we've been doing it, every day. It's a 24 hour a day job. And, I would not give it up for the world.
>> James: [00:09:17] But I want to get to the end of the rod and everything you're doing in Alaska. But let's start in Minnesota. When you had this hobby farm, I liked that. How big was this hobby farm?
>> Robert: [00:09:26] It was about seven acres with, access to, I don't know if it was state land or federal land right behind it. So we had trail access right from the backyard. We had a couple of horses there at the time. I had some roommates. I was still in college. So, you know, the college deal and they wanted to move in for free rent.
>> James: [00:09:44] That's great like seven acres and way out of the country. But how did you decide, like let's do some racing?
>> Robert: [00:09:51] Well, I had a pretty good group of dogs at the time. I was racing purebred Siberians and a really good group of sled dogs. And I was pretty good at it. So we were doing mid distance and sprint mushing, which for I'm sure a lot of folks that are listening don't know what that means, but.
>> James: [00:10:09] I don't know what that means.
>> Robert: [00:10:10] So I'll go through it if you want that. So a sprint race is typically the number of dogs on your team is the number of miles. So if you have a six dog team, you're running six miles. Eight dog team, eight miles, so on and so forth, but it's a rather quick race you're usually done. And, you know, in a couple hours and you do it typically Friday, Saturday, or Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So it's a weekend gig and we went all over the North Midwest, Northern Midwest of the US doing that.
And you know, that was fun, but it didn't really, keep the fires going as they, so they speak. So I started doing mid distance races, which means bigger teams, longer miles. And that typically is 10, 12, 14 or 16 dog teams. And you can run anywhere from 30 to 300 miles doing that. And that's where I really found my true passion, was just being out in the wilderness with a team of dogs.
And I was really enjoying that and we did several races in that class. And then that's sort of what I'm doing now. I just really enjoy that distance. But one of these days I'll get to that thousand mile Iditarod.
>> James: [00:11:16] So, what is the average mid distance that you find yourself doing?
>> Robert: [00:11:21] I really liked the one, at least to two hundreds. Those are really, you can say they're quick, but it's still a day and a half, two days, but it's a nice way to get out. I mean, a lot of people that have jobs do that type of racing. No, it's not all consuming to do those types of races where if you're doing the longer distance, like Iditarod and you know, the bear grease in Minnesota and the races of the sky in Montana, those type races, you're truly a professional dog musher at that point, it's sort of like being a professional athletes where you just train all the time and you're racing all the time. It's an entirely different mindset.
>> James: [00:11:56] Walk me through what is going on in your head when you're on one of these day, day and a half long races.
>> Robert: [00:12:04] Well, training is typically worse than racing. Racing, you're finally able to get away. So it's, everything's just kinda dialed in and you're going, but, training for those, those types of races is kind of that, go, go, go. You're doing chores in the morning. You're getting up. You're doing training. You're coming back. You're doing chores again. You're hopefully getting some, some work done with your day job that pays the bills for all of this at some point there, but it is something that you really have to have a passion for.
I tell people all the time, this is not. It's not a hobby, it's a lifestyle. It's something that we think about 24 hours a day. We have 37 dogs about, 500 feet or so from here. And they take all of our time, all of our money, all of our energy, all of that.
>> James: [00:12:52] Okay. Well, I bet there's a lot of chores with that many dogs, but describe for me and paint the picture for me of what it's like when you're on one of these long races and it's just you and the dogs.
>> Robert: [00:13:04] I'll give you a story. My, one of my first races in Alaska, I'd only been up here. I think this was either the first or second winter. They all come together now that I've done it so long, but it was a race down on the Kenai Peninsula, which is a Soldotna Kenai area, very well known for their fishing.
World-class salmon fishing is this part of the, this part of the world. But anyway, I signed up for a race called the Tustumena 200. And my friend said, Oh, it's an easy race. It's a hilly race. No problem. You'll be able to do this, et cetera, et cetera. I live in a relatively flat area of Alaska, which we're about an hour and a half or so from Anchorage. So, my son and I drove down to the Kenai Peninsula there and we hooked up the dogs and I took off and, and within a half an hour or so, I was just kicked in the face by the number of hills and, and they became mountains. It was truly a humbling experience, but I was so worn out by the time I reached the halfway point, I was so sleep deprived because of all of the lead up to it.
And then of course, all the prep and driving there and all of that. It's about an eight hour drive. You're doing these chores and everything. So anyway, I get to the halfway point and I get ready to, to bed down our dogs for the mandatory rest, which is about an eight hour mandatory rest. And I get ready to head back and I was exhausted.
But I headed back and sleep deprivation is a big deal in long distance mushing Midis, especially because you just don't get any sleep, but I was heading back and I thought I was nodding off. And then all of a sudden, I thought I was being chased by pterodactyls. No joke, pterodactyls, the dinosaurs. And you know, I was kind of dipping. Oh my goodness, they're going to run me over, you know?
And, again to the next checkpoint, which is about, I don't know, 25, 30 miles from the finish. And I'm talking to my fellow competitors there and I said, Oh my God, I don't know what was going on. But something was happening out there. And they were saying, Oh, did you get a chance to see all those snow owls that were flying around? And I thought, Oh, that's what they were. I thought they were pterodactyls. So I was.
>> James: [00:15:21] A little sleep deprived. How big is the snow owl?
>> Robert: [00:15:23] They're big. I mean, they have what, a six, eight foot wings, man. I mean, they're, they're the big, the big owls, but anyway, I was just so dehydrated, so sleep deprived, then I just didn't have my wits about.
>> James: [00:15:37] So they have an eight hour mandatory rest for the dogs. What are you doing during that eight hours, Robert?
>> Robert: [00:15:43] You're doing all the chores. A dog musher on a race gets relatively no sleep. So when you pull into a checkpoint, you gotta do all the, all the dog chores take off the booty, set up the straw, get the food going in the cooker. You know, it's sorta like making camp. If you're stopping for a camp out or, you know, a human type camp out. So you're setting up camp, you're feeding all the dogs, you're taking care of the dogs, massaging them, taking well care of them. And then hopefully at that point they get to rest. And then you're doing the cleanup that takes about an hour and a half to two hours to do the setup part, the first feeding, then hopefully they get three or four hours of good rest.
And then you have to do everything again before you leave. You have to eat breakfast. So in that eight hours, you're probably tending to the dogs four or five hours, and hopefully you will get two or three hours sleep as you're going, but anytime you're racing, your adrenaline's gone and everything's kind of firing all cylinders, so I don't sleep much on races. That's why I say, you know, everybody thinks it's this romantic hype. Oh, you're out there with the dogs. You're enjoying the Alaska scenery. It's all about work. Like I said.
>> James: [00:16:59] That was bleary-eyed.
>> Robert: [00:17:00] Yeah. You're just, you're just exhausted.
>> James: [00:17:02] Well, why do you do it?
>> Robert: [00:17:04] Passion, you know, you could ask any athlete and they'll say, you know, whether they're doing triathlons or marathons or whatever they're doing, it takes something in you to get up every day to do that type of activity.
You know, I would love to be able to kick back on the couch and watch YouTube videos all the time. But, it's something I really like to do.
>> James: [00:17:25] When did that seed of that passion start blossoming?
>> Robert: [00:17:28] I think in my early years in Minnesota, of course I've always loved dogs. I've always loved working with dogs.
>> James: [00:17:34] There are so many ways to love dogs. This is such a unique way.
>> Robert: [00:17:38] This is a very unique way, but I truly found the bond that I could build with those dogs. Not only on races and in trading rooms, but you know, those dogs down in the kennel, they're my best buds. I can go down there and just escape. You know, that's kinda my world and you know, whether I'm picking up poop or, you know, shoveling straw or, clipping nails or whatever I'm doing. I'm in my zone and it, you know, it's very similar to somebody playing basketball or canoeing or whitewater rafting or whatever they're doing. They're in that zone. And it's just where I like to be.
>> James: [00:18:14] Pardon the naivety. But what's the role of the straw? You mentioned straw a lot. How does that play into this?
>> Robert: [00:18:19] That's their bedding. So whether they're on a race or in the kennel we have, I don't know, they're probably three foot by four foot dog houses for them. And you pack them full of fresh straw. We do it every time. It gets 10 degrees colder. So, you know, winter starts at 30 degrees. Every 10 degrees, we're adding fresh straw.
>> James: [00:18:40] And that's an insulator.
>> Robert: [00:18:42] Insulator, a cushion, you know, that's their bed. They love it. They go absolutely crazy when you bring out the straw bale. I mean, it's like giving treats to a Pomeranian.
>> James: [00:18:50] Okay. I was going to say so it's no Tempur-Pedic mattress. Oh, they like the straw.
>> Robert: [00:18:55] They love it. Yes.
>> James: [00:18:56] Is there something particular about the breed that draws you in.
>> Robert: [00:19:01] No. I said I was a Siberian guy first and I've always loved the Siberian Huskies. I have two of them right now, Odi and Reagan. They are my pals. They come inside every night to hang out with us, but...
>> James: [00:19:14] Do they sleep inside?
>> Robert: [00:19:16] They sleep inside. Yeah.
>> James: [00:19:17] No straw for them?
>> Robert: [00:19:18] Nope. They have houses during the day where they go out and be with buddies. But at night they come in and every night we get Skittles, but that's a different story, but...
>> James: [00:19:27] I want to hear that one.
>> Robert: [00:19:28] Okay. But, the guys down in the kennel, they're all Alaskan Huskies and they are different than the typical pet dog. These guys are born and bred to be athletes. They are, you know, they're dogs in a sense, but they are truly athletes. You know, they have different metabolism, they have different drive. They have different metabolic rates. Everything is different. It's kinda like, you know, a show pony versus a thoroughbred. Entirely different breeds of dogs. And those guys, all they want to do is get hooked up to that sled and run and they will run literally until they fall over. That's their job. They love it.
>> James: [00:20:09] Tell me about the metabolism.
>> Robert: [00:20:11] You know, I'm not in nutrition side or anything, but my understanding is.
>> James: [00:20:15] But you're the one feeding him?
>> Robert: [00:20:16] So yes, we feed them about 8,000 to 10,000 calories a day when we're heavy training or racing. So think about that. That's what a five or six big Macs a day is what we're feeding each dog in terms of calories, but they.
They just have a different way of processing food compared to your typical pet dog. You don't see a lot of obese, Alaskan Huskies, unless, you know, they have thyroid issues or something.
>> James: [00:20:43] What do they eat? Not big Macs.
>> Robert: [00:20:45] They eat a mixture of kibble, dry kibble, a meat mixture that has quite a bit of fat. We add some supplements too. Some cosamines, some fish oil. It becomes almost the consistency of a very hearty beef stew. That's what it looks like and we feed them, twice a day, every day. And, it's really, kicking the budget. We have about a $2,500 a month food bill for our dogs. So that's a lot, that's a lot of dog treating in itself.
>> James: [00:21:14] A lot of kibble and also a lot of poop on the other side.
>> Robert: [00:21:19] Yep. There is, of course, we try to figure out a feeding mechanism that produces the less amount of poop possible. Of course you want to have adequate absorption. So as humans, we know if we eat junk food, we have problems coming out the other end, if you know what I mean? So if you feed that high quality diet, you're going to have a high quality output as they say.
>> James: [00:21:40] Okay. And so how did those working dogs get along with your two Siberian Huskies who get Skittles?
>> Robert: [00:21:47] They, they like each other, you know, when we have client dogs here, we of course are dog trainers as well. None of those guys get along because these guys down in the kennel, they are a pack, you know, they are bonded together.
So anytime we bring another dog in. For boarding or training or whatever we're doing, we try our best to keep them totally separate. Not only do we have health issues that could transfer back and forth, but we also have behavior issues on the training dog end, as well as behavior modifications that can come in to the mushing dog. And so it's a real chaotic moment when we introduce new dogs to the house. When we have all the sled dogs in the kettle.
>> James: [00:22:30] Okay, Robert, this is actually a good place to take a break. But when we return, I'd like to dive in and discuss the dynamics of the pack and how you figure out which dog is top dog. You're listening to the Long Leash, we'll be right back.
Let's talk a little bit about the pack. I'm interested in the dynamics of how that works and how did they determine who, what the packing order is and what role you have in all of that.
>> Robert: [00:22:57] Okay. I would say I have learned more about dog behavior by just understanding pack behavior more than anything else. Just understanding body language and movement and communication and all that. That's what kind of sets me apart in the dog training world, meaning pet dog training world, but in their eyes, they are truly that team. And there's often a packing order. Of course, that as humans, we don't know anything about, about who they think the boss is, whether it's the alpha dog or the beta dog or the omega dog or whatever, I don't try to figure that out.
But a lot of people think, Oh the lead dog will be the alpha dog and that's not necessarily the case. Typically the lead dog is the dog that communicates the best with the human part of the team, the musher, and we have found over the years that the ones that are the most attuned to us as people are the ones that make the best lead dogs.
And of course you have everything in between as you would with any type of a relationship system. You know, you have your strong guys and gals, you have your bullies and you have your meek ones and you have everybody in between as well.
>> James: [00:24:11] And how do they all get along or do they get along? Like when you're on a race, but the rest of the time they're, they're dogs?
>> Robert: [00:24:17] They get along relatively well. You know, some dogs have issues with others, you know, intact males don't necessarily get along with other intact males. So we separate our yard. We have kind of the males on one side and the females on the other. And of course, when dog.
>> James: [00:24:33] It's like in High School dance.
>> Robert: [00:24:34] Kind of like in high school dance. Everybody's, you know, with the gym in the middle. It's sorta like that, but they get along relatively well when they're in harness and underline. We rarely have any issues whatsoever. We don't have a lot of fighting and carrying on because they're focused. They're ready to go.
>> James: [00:24:52] So when it's time to bring them together so that they can get in line, are they willing and excited about this or do they think of it as work?
>> Robert: [00:25:00] Oh, they're willing and excited. I mean, once you bring the harnesses out of the barn, they know exactly what's happening and you're going to have a symphony of 37 sled dogs just going absolutely crazy. And they are that way until what we call it in the sport, pulling the hook. We have a snow hook that holds the sled back.
And when we pull that hook, we can take off it's sorta like the emergency brake for your car. And when we pull that hook they're, they're rocking and rolling 15, 20 miles an hour down the trail, and you will hear all of those guys that you've left behind. Still just, going crazy because they want to go as well.
And that typically settles down in about 15 minutes or so. And they, they kind of settle in thinking, Oh man, I didn't get to go this time. But then we come back and everybody gets ready to go again. And of course we unhook and typically hookup other teams and, you know, just kind of start that process all over.
>> James: [00:25:55] I would love to hear that symphony, can you give us some tape? That we can.
>> Robert: [00:26:00] I think I could probably get you some. I'll look through some old videos.
>> James: [00:26:03] Okay. I think that sounds amazing because it must be a little bit unearthly to hear that.
>> Robert: [00:26:08] Oh yeah. It sounds like a, it sounds like a group of screaming school kids, for sure.
>> James: [00:26:14] Does it put your hair on end or is that music to your heart?
>> Robert: [00:26:18] It's a little bit of both. Adrenaline's going, because you're hooking up dogs so fast and getting ready to go. And it's kind of like, getting ready for, the gun to go off and attract me to, you know, you're in your zone, but you're aft at the same time, but also, you know, that, you know, you're going to be doing something pretty cool.
And, when we bring people down to, you know, to go for rides or teach them how to do this, that's one of the first things they talk about when we say, Hey, what did you think? Oh, my goodness, that hooking up part is just amazing. And, you know, it's just, just that kind of controlled chaos that's going on for that 10 or 15 minutes that it takes to get hooked up.
>> James: [00:26:58] Do the dogs, are they wagging their tails or can you see that?
>> Robert: [00:27:02] They're running, they're jumping they're barking. They're, they're just going, it's like being at a rock concert. You just have, you know, kind of this, cacophony of just noise and power that's going on.
>> James: [00:27:14] Okay. So that's on a race day when they're all hooked up. But tell me a little bit about the training. You said you spend a lot of time on a regular basis training. What's that like?
>> Robert: [00:27:21] That's the same thing. That's the same activity.
>> James: [00:27:24] So you hear this symphony every day?
>> Robert: [00:27:25] Every day, every day. And a lot of people will say, you know, how in the world can you live with your neighbors like that? Well, first off we have, I don't know, four or five dog mushing teams right here at our neighborhoods.
So we probably have 150 dogs in a 20 person neighborhood. So we have at least five to one dog. First off in the neighborhood itself.
>> James: [00:27:47] What are the HOA meetings like?
>> Robert: [00:27:50] Thankfully we don't have any HOA.
>> James: [00:27:53] It's Alaska, I forgot.
>> Robert: [00:27:54] It is Alaska, but it is quite loud, but it's only loud when we're hooking up. Or when we're getting ready to feed or something like that. But you know, as of right now, I don't think you could hear anything. I don't hear any barking myself, but if I were to go down with the, the food buckets, you would definitely hear them going off.
>> James: [00:28:11] So what do you do when the weather warms up?
>> Robert: [00:28:14] It's getting warm now. We're in about, I don't know, 50 degrees right now. So I'm sitting here in shorts and thinking about, wow, we had a rough winter in terms of snow and temperature. I think we had about six feet of snow this year. So quite a bit of snow, but in the summertime, it's relaxing time for them. And if I were to go out right now and look down into the dog yard, you would see.
30 of the, you know, the old cartoon Snoopy sleeping on his doghouse and you would see 30 dogs doing that right now. Just kind of sunning themselves in the sun and you know, all the snow's melting and all of that. They're enjoying the warmer weather.
>> James: [00:28:51] I bet they are. They've been at the change. So let's talk a little bit about lead dogs. Do you have just one or do you have a backup?
>> Robert: [00:28:58] No, we have probably, maybe a half, maybe a quarter of our dogs are trained for lead dog. And you have to have that because you know, all sorts of things could happen. They could be hurt, injured, sick. Whatever could happen in training or on a race. So we always train up other dogs to be leaders.
And as I said earlier, it's the lead dogs that are taking the directions from us. So whether we're telling them to right or left or go or stop or wait or whatever we're telling them to doing, they're the ones that are listening and, they are quite a bit of distance away from us. It's every two dogs is about 10 feet. So if we're running a six dog team, that would be 30 feet long from the tip of their nose to where I'm at.
>> James: [00:29:45] So you have to make sure you're well heard in there and they're attentive.
>> Robert: [00:29:48] You know, dogs, Jim. They are very attuned to voice inflection and, that sort of thing. So they are the ones listening to us. And then of course, all of the other dogs are typically listening to them. And as I tell people all the time, the lead dogs are sorta like, the quarterback of the team. They're the ones that are giving the directions. They're the Tom Bradys of a sled dog team. And then you have all of the other players as you go back.
And the dogs right before the sled are called the wheel dogs. And those are typically the brutes. Those are the offensive lineman of the crew. They're the, the Husky, you know, the Burley. A hundred pound dogs, you know, that won't take any scruff. They're the down in the trenches type dogs. And then everybody in between has their own position.
>> James: [00:30:33] So if they're the Tom Bradys, does that make you the coach?
>> Robert: [00:30:37] That would make me the coach. My job is the coach. That's a great analogy.
>> James: [00:30:42] For my sake, and for our listeners, say, give us some of the commands of the left and the right and what does it sound like?
>> Robert: [00:30:49] Our main commands are Gee and Haw for left and right. And we use Whoa, to stop, take a break to sort of relax after you stop. And then we'll say, let's go, as soon as you say, let's go. So if you're stopped for any amount of time, whether you're switching out a booty or, you know, doing a tangle or whatever you're doing, you tell the dogs to stop and Whoa, and then you'll set the hook and you'll get off the sled and do whatever you're going to do.
But as soon as you say. Ready. Every one of them kind of just popped to attention. It's just like that. Kinda like, soldiers getting ready to, you know, ten hut and they're just popped up, ready to go. And then you'll say, okay, let's go. And they immediately take off down the trail.
>> James: [00:31:35] I never thought of this from the perspective of American football, but this is great.
>> Robert: [00:31:39] Yup. Yup. I'm a huge sports fan. So, yeah, that's, that's my best analogy.
>> James: [00:31:45] Okay. So $2,500 a month. That's $30,000 a year in food bills and hay and all that stuff. Gets pretty expensive. And this is your hobby.
>> Robert: [00:31:56] Well, we use it as tax deduction for our business. We use it as a business expense, but it's a very expensive hobby. We talk about all the time. What could we be doing if we weren't doing this? We could probably have a yacht or plane or a second home in Hawaii. We could be doing a lot of things otherwise, but you know, everybody has their thing, whatever it is, whether it's a, you know, a restoring a car in the garage or, whatever, taking trips around the world, this is just sort of how we choose to spend our money.
>> James: [00:32:27] So tell me a little bit about your day jobs.
>> Robert: [00:32:30] My day job is a dog trainer. We own a company called Alaska Dog Works, and we focus on typically obedience, you know, the average pet dog, but we also do training for service dogs, therapy dogs, a little bit of protection dogs.
I've sort of gotten away from that up here in Alaska. It's not as, as needed as it was when we lived in Colorado. But mainly just working with the average, you know, family pack. Whether that's the golden retriever, the Labrador, the German Shepherd, whatever, that's what really pays the bills. And, I would say not to brag at all, but I would say that we're one of the best dog trainers up here in Alaska.
>> James: [00:33:07] And people come to you or you go to them?
>> Robert: [00:33:10] Both. We do private lessons as well as a board and train in what we call camp, where dogs will come out to stay for a period of time and, learn the ropes from us. As they say, of course, we have a lot of property up here in trail, so it's much different than living in the city. So we go on nature walks with them and they get around in the woods and all this sort of stuff. So that's a big part of our program. And of course the in-home lessons. And of course now with COVID, we're doing a lot of virtual classes and online and that sort of thing as well.
>> James: [00:33:40] Is it just you and your wife doing the training?
>> Robert: [00:33:42] We have just recently hired two other people. We brought our daughter back on board who took a few years hiatus. She wanted to get out of it. You know, she's been involved since she was a kid, so she just came back and we hired another trainer just last month. So business is pretty good.
>> James: [00:33:58] That is awesome. And, how do you determine which trainer works with which dog? Which client.
>> Robert: [00:34:04] Well, I do a lot of the, aggressive dogs and behavior issues. My wife, Michelle, she is our service dog trainer and therapy dog trainer. So she does a lot of that type of work, as well as a lot of the pet dogs. My daughter does a lot of the camp dogs here at the house. She's actually sitting out in the driveway waiting to come in, so the dogs don't bark and then our new trainer, she is a wildlife biologist and she's worked with a lot of feral dogs.
So we get a lot of dogs that come from rural Alaska, you know, the villages and that sort of thing. So she works with a lot of those dogs and we just have a very good team that we've set up. And of course, a lot of it has to do with time, you know, can somebody meet with somebody at, you know, Tuesday night at eight o'clock versus Wednesday morning at 11, and that's who we're going to get for each person or each client.
>> James: [00:34:54] And podcasting grew out as a natural evolution of your dog training business. Right?
>> Robert: [00:34:59] It did. We started podcasting in January of 2010. We were one of the early adapters of it. We had a decent sized training center there in Denver and on Saturday mornings we thought this would be cool to set up some microphones in our lobby and have people come up and ask questions, you know, why does my dog pool, why is my dog, you know, chewing on the furniture or whatever. And we would have people coming in on our busiest day at our center and they would just sit down and we would ask questions and that grew into our podcast. And at the time Jim, we were paying about a thousand $1,500 or so for yellow page ads.
>> James: [00:35:38] I remember those things.
>> Robert: [00:35:41] It was a big expense for our business. So I remember talking to my wife, I said, we're going to have to do something about these ads.
>> James: [00:35:48] The compounded yellow page ads that are monthly. Yeah.
>> Robert: [00:35:51] Yeah. So we ended up saying that, we're going to go away from that and, use our podcast as our primary marketing platform. And we still do that today. And, you know, we do great with it. People call us up all the time and they say, Hey, I listened to your podcast. I want to sign up for your training. Cause we give advice. And you know, I love your podcast because you do a lot of stories. Whereas our podcast, we do a lot of advice.
You know, why is my dog doing this? Why does my dog have separation anxiety or whatever? And of course, the beauty of podcasts is you're able to tailor those episodes to those questions. And when people are searching, whether they're on Google or YouTube or whatever they're searching for, that will pop up. And of course the goal is for those people to listen and then to call you for trading and it works pretty well.
>> James: [00:36:42] And your training is not just limited to people in Alaska, or is it primarily focused on.
>> Robert: [00:36:48] Oh, we do about 80-20 in terms of obedience, but most of our service dogs are outside of Alaska. We have service dogs that are in Utah, Texas, South Korea, New Zealand, Tennessee. I believe we have a service dog. A lot of them are prior military, so they will start with a service dog after they get out. You know, they get out and they're war veterans or whatever. So we'll train their service dog. And of course they get transferred somewhere else. So a lot of our service dog is more nationwide compared to local. And our therapy dogs are pretty much local, but we do a little bit of kind of regional therapy dog training as well.
>> James: [00:37:27] And so you can do the whole service dog training remotely.
>> Robert: [00:37:30] It depends. It really depends on what type of service dog we're doing. Typically we will, we do it in what we call semesters. So we have 15 weeks semesters, three times a year. So a dog will do, something particular in each semester. So if they start off in kind of a puppy class, then they'll go to basic obedience will be a semester, then canine good citizen on one semester, and then advanced training and then public access, et cetera, et cetera. So over a two year period, each 15 week semester is something else. And that will determine whether they're here, or they're with their owner and whether we're doing it remotely or we're going down to visit or whatever we're doing, it depends on where they're at in the program.
>> James: [00:38:11] What is next for you? What's on the horizon?
>> Robert: [00:38:14] What is on the horizon? I would love to slow down a little bit. I'm 50 years old, but, I don't know if that's going to happen. COVID really, like it did everybody, COVID really kind of changed up how we thought we're going to do things. So we're in the process of changing our service and therapy dogs into a nonprofit. So we're going to do that a little bit differently than we've done in the past.
We just started that and getting aboard together and things. So we're going to be able to do that where we've been a for-profit business for a long time. Now that our daughter's back into the business, we're kind of having that transition plan. So hopefully in the next five or 10 years or so, I can hang the leash up as they say, I don't know if that'll happen, but we'll see.
>> James: [00:38:59] Tell me about the Iditarod dream.
>> Robert: [00:39:01] The Iditarod dream, you know, this is a great story, and I think your listeners will really like this. But as I said, we were living in Denver with a decent size training center. We had a little house in the neighborhood. We only had one dog at the time. And, I remember thinking, wow, I need to, get back into this mushing thing. So we found a house up here online, and my daughter and I.
>> James: [00:39:25] Oh by the way you found your wife.
>> Robert: [00:39:27] We did. Yes, this is 2010, so a little bit different, but we found the place, my daughter and I flew up, for a weekend visit and in the very cabin we're living in now, it was a run down mess. I mean, it was overgrown. People didn't take care of it. So, I remember Jim telling my daughter, it was a Saturday afternoon. Mom was back in Denver at our training center as a middle of group classes and busiest day of the week. And I said, okay, Nicole, my daughter's name. I said, I want you to text your mom. I don't want to know your answer, but I wanted to text your mom and tell her what you think.
And she texted her mom, Mom, we're moving to Alaska. So, we left it in the hands of a 10 year old.
>> James: [00:40:15] As all big decisions should be.
>> Robert: [00:40:16] As all big decisions should be. And, we left a check for the down payment, right on the counter here in the kitchen. And, I don't know, three or four weeks later, we closed on the house. I moved up right away. My daughter moved up in December of that year and my wife and son did not move up until almost a year later because we closed our business and they finished school and doing all that. So it took us about a year for everybody to get up here. But finally we were here. And during that time, we were thinking about Iditarod and what we were going to do and how we're going to acquire a good team and all of that, because we didn't have any sled dogs at that point.
So we started working with a kiddo here in the neighborhood, as I said, there's several right here in the backyard. And, we were doing pretty well, but we didn't have a lot of dogs on our own. And then over the first couple of years, my daughter started training for the junior iditarod and she was, 12, 13, 14 years old, or so then, so she did that and ran to junior Iditarods, which is 150 mile race. And, she ended up, finishing a couple of those and of course, moving out, going to college, that sort of thing. And at that point I was sorta on my own, you know, it was just my wife and I here in the house. So we decided. Do we want to take the Iditarod route right away, which I said before, it's sort of a, full-time a hundred miles an hour, always go or to sort of take our time doing it.
And that's sort of where we still are. We still do races. I also teach a expedition class at the college. So we do that with our dogs as well. So it'll get there.
>> James: [00:41:58] But you're 50 now. When do you want to do the Iditarod?
>> Robert: [00:42:00] 53 is my goal. That's my goal. But as I was saying, I think the oldest person to ever start an Iditarod was 72.
>> James: [00:42:10] Oh, you got lots of time.
>> Robert: [00:42:12] I got lots of time. I still have a couple of decades, but, my goal is, you asked what was next. I think if we could slow down a little bit. And, get the business where we really want to be so we can pass it on. We could definitely do that. And, just really concentrate on that and kind of ride into the sunset as they say.
>> James: [00:42:31] Robert Forto. We'll leave it there. Thank you so much. This has been wonderful.
>> Robert: [00:42:36] Thank you very much.
>> James: [00:42:39] If you would like to learn more about Robert Forto in his dog training and his podcasts at dog works radio. Please check out the links in the show notes for today's episode. Dog podcast network continues to grow, and we are grateful for listeners like you. But I have a favor to ask you and it won't take any time.
It won't cost anything, but it will mean a lot to me and the rest of our team here at dog podcast network. Will you please tell three friends who are dog lovers and hopefully listen to podcasts about dog podcast network and our shows like the Long Leash and Dog Edition. If you like what we're doing here, please help us grow our audience.
Share us on social media. Yeah. We love Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and YouTube. And we're on all of those, but the things that really matter are the conversations that you may have in the dog park, where you say, Hey, I'm listening to this and let other dog lovers know about dog podcast network.
In the way background, you may hear my dogs barking. Anyway, if you have a story idea, I want to also invite you to reach out to us. The quickest way to do that is by using the URL address Long Leash show.com. And there's a little blue microphone in the bottom, right of every page where you can leave us a voicemail message. Or you can visit our main website at dog podcast network.com. I'd like to thank Robert Forto for joining us today, but most of all, I'd like to thank you for listening. I'm James Jacobson. On behalf of all of us here at dog podcast network, we wish you and your dog, a very warm Aloha.