Interview with Robert Stradley

Robert Stradley with Piton
By Brad Dupray

Harmony Pines Christian Camp, located in the San Gabriel Mountains, just north of Los Angeles, has one of the most unique camp programs in the United States. Robert Stradley, camp director for the past 12 years, and his wife, Karla, provide a home to 18 sled dogs that are used in camp programs to teach leadership and teamwork. Prior to serving with the camp, Robert was a Disneyland “Matterhorn” mountain climber and ultimately became a Disney University leader, teaching Disney corporate philosophy to Disney “cast members” and outside corporations. Robert and Karla have two sons, Talon and Trent, who both race their own dog teams.

How did you end up on the dogsledding path?

After getting the job at Harmony Pines, I decided to get my first dog, an Alaskan malamute named Sherpaw. We did a play on words; a Sherpa is a mountain guide from Nepal. To be a Sherpa one must be sure-footed, or SherPAWED. This dog got me excited about sled dogs because, at the time, I didn’t know anything about them.

My wife worked for Ontario International Airport and was able to secure round-trip tickets to Alaska for $20 apiece. It was there that we had our first dogsled ride, got to train with Iditarod mushers, and bought our first dogsled for our one-dog team. <laughs>

What was one of the first lessons you learned from your dogs?

Our dog was still a puppy so we had to train it from the getgo—not to be afraid of pulling something behind him. We purchased a book—MUSH: A Beginner’s Manual of Sled Dog Training. We went at it with vigor. The Iditarod people gave us a bunch of mushing magazines. A lot of these magazines we read and learned—I’m still learning.

How did you add to your team?

When Sherpaw was about six months old, we had a camp leader who had a boyfriend with a dog that he couldn’t take to his new location, so he was wondering if we would be interested in adopting his dog. Haze was a purebread Siberian husky from champion show lines. Those two made my first team. We added another dog, Aurora, soon after. She was half malamute and half Siberian husky. So now I had this three-dog team. The sled we bought was for children—a junior sled. So you’ve got to picture this: Sherpaw, Aurora, Haze, a junior sled, my wife, and my 6-month-old child in the basket, and I’m behind. This sled was designed to have no weight in it, the trails weren’t groomed, and it was hard going. The big change came when I went to a dogsled race, my first race with these three dogs. I got “whupped.” I had to run in front of the dogs to finish a four-mile race in order to get them to the finish line.

After that race one of the people who won asked me if I was interested in buying an Alaskan husky, a special hybrid racing husky. At the time Barkley was 7 years old; he’s 16 now. I called my wife and told her I may have found our lead dog! Barkley was our first Alaskan husky. Now I had a four-dog team led by a hard-working dog that bubbled over with contagious energy.

When you use the dogs for teaching groups or teams, what are the most significant lessons you target?

Teamwork is obviously one that comes to mind. We teach the importance of working as a unit in the body of Christ, which is beautifully portrayed by the dogs working as a team. The team has different positions: lead dogs, swing dogs, team dogs, and wheel dogs. After explaining the positions of the team, we often ask our participants which one is the most important position.

And I’m guessing most people say, “The lead dog.”

We would challenge them on that. Someone else might say the wheel dogs, the strong ones in the back. But every position is important. If every dog is doing his job and pulling together in the same direction, you will have a successful team. We talk about leadership, teamwork, the whole idea of work ethic—each individual’s responsibility to do his own job. We talk about humility, not to feel that your job is more important than someone else’s. Not only appreciating your own strengths, but appreciating the strengths of others.

I’m sure the dogs don’t always work perfectly, in unison.

Dogs, like humans, are not perfect and will sometimes do things to hamper the team’s effort. Occasionally there may be some quarrels among the dogs. Lead dogs can presume they know where to go despite what the musher is telling them. If a dog wants to chase a squirrel, that could take the team, the sled, and the musher careening down a steep hillside. So it’s important to have reliable dogs in the front of your team that are not going to be distracted by such temptations, but will remain focused on the path ahead.

Are certain leadership traits essential?

One of the things we stress is that in dog teams you try to run two leaders together. They will help each other in making decisions. They excite each other. As they see their partner running, they run harder. And most importantly, if one dog makes a bad choice and chooses not to follow the commands of the musher, the other dog will pull that dog back into line and remind its partner of its leadership responsibilities. As Christians, we have a God-given responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ. If one strays from the path, the others must try to tug the wayward person back onto the path that Jesus Christ, the “Good Musher,” has called us to take.

How does the musher fit into the leadership picture?

The good musher leads his team down the trail, provides food, and has a close relationship with his dogs. The musher knows each personality and each little quirk of his team. His main job is to guide the team down the path to victory—or at least a successful run. The good musher is the “alpha dog” of the pack, so on a healthy team, all of the dogs will submit to the commands of the good musher (John 14:15).

And the musher has a perspective that the dogs don’t have.

Yes, there’s an advantage for the musher to be on the sled runners, standing up looking over the top of the team. From there the musher has a better viewpoint of what’s ahead on the trail, and he may also know of pending weather or trail conditions that could affect the team’s progress. A successful dog team learns to trust the musher’s leadership, believing his decisions will be in the interest of the team’s safety and ultimate success.

How does the musher get them to work together as a team?

That’s the challenge. The one thing we have working for us is that a sled dog is the breed most closely related to the wolf, so you utilize what’s natural to the wolf—his distant ancestors would work together as a pack. So we’re using the way God created these animals to work together in the wild and are literally harnessing that natural instinct and using that drive to move that sled down the trail. The dogs will have their own pecking order, just like in a wolf pack, but it’s my job to control that. Ultimately I’m trying to find unity within the team and I discourage any displays of dominance among the dogs.

Are the dogs able to reflect teamwork without your leadership?

I would say so. Ultimately that’s what you want. I want the team to do the right thing, even in my absence. A lot of that comes down to good training; the more well-trained the dog team is, the better it will do in my absence. However, I wouldn’t let the team run off with the sled without me.

Are there natural-born leaders?

Yes. I have a couple of dogs, Scout and Zip, who are still learning, but they have a drive inside that I think will make them great lead dogs, with a little formal training.

Do you see that trait carrying over to people?

Yes. But I would qualify that by saying that every one of my dogs is trained to be a lead dog. There may be times when any one of my team might have to be moved into a lead position and take over a leadership role. I want to make sure all my dogs are ready for that leadership possibility. Of course, as a natural crossover to us as human beings, each one of us will have to assume a leadership role at some time in our lives. A good sled dog needs to be prepared to lead, but needs to be content to follow—with enthusiasm.

Can leadership be learned by those who aren’t natural-born leaders?

Absolutely. I would say that the dogs learn leadership by watching leaders, and the best way to train your lead dogs is to have a good lead dog showing an example for the others to follow. That lead dog can model good leadership for the rest of the team.

What happens when a dog chooses not to follow the leader’s guidance?

One of my dogs, Lickity, has a tendency to chew through the (rope) lines when he gets excited. This could cause dogs to be disconnected from the team and could cause serious problems on the trail. This would be a parallel to the Christian walk when one person chooses to stray from the path by not following Christ’s commands. This act of disobedience causes problems not only for him, but also for his teammates.

Can you be a friend to the dogs and still maintain your authority?

Absolutely. That bond I have with the dogs can only help us on the trail. I don’t drive them with fear. The dogs want to follow my leadership and are excited about going out on the trail with me.

For the dogs, is there a difference between work and play?

Yes. Definitely. When they’re in harness, it’s work time. But with that, it’s important to understand that they love their job. I have heard it said that if you love your job you’ll never have to work a day in your life. I believe that. There are a lot of rich people in this world who are unhappy. There is a difference between work and play. When the dogs are in harness, they are working together. It’s work, not playtime, but they get a satisfaction in that. A sled dog is most content when it’s in harness pulling that sled down the trail.

What do you want your guest groups to walk away with?

One of the things I like to do at the end of our programs is to hook up the dogs for a run. During the hook-up the dogs go crazy, leaping into the air, lurching forward in their harnesses, enthusiastically yelping; all in anticipation of the musher’s command—“Hike!”—which tells the team it’s time to begin another exciting adventure on the trail with their musher. I share Romans 12:11: “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” As these dogs bolt off down the path I am reminded of how pleased Jesus, the “Good Musher,” would be if my run with him shared the same fervent passion.

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