When it comes to picking a team of dogs to pull a sled through the wilderness in the dead of night, the musher has a lot to consider.

Most dogs come from a kennel of anywhere between 10 to 200 canines, all bred for long-distance sledding with a lean body, warm coat and other attributes beneficial on cold nights in the mountains.

But even though any dog considered for pulling a sled is bred to these specifications, not all sled dogs are equal.

According to Liz Parrish, one of this week's 12-dog, 200-mile contestants at the Eagle Cap Sled Dog Race in Joseph, it all comes down to the mental composition.

"You can have a near-perfect dog physically, but if they're soft in the head or not into working, they're no good for this," she explained. "They have to have the joint and muscle strength to run for 200 miles and uphill for hours on end, but they always have to want to get up in the middle of the night and keep running."

Parrish also talked about the confidence required in her dogs to take the front spot, called the lead, and said an ideal team is made up of dogs who can all be put in that position.

"The leaders have to set the pace, find the trail, negotiate obstacles, and all the while they're being chased by a big pack of dogs," she said. "It takes a lot of self-confidence."

"Their attitude is as important as anything, like any athlete and whether or not they can take it," Enterprise veterinarian Dr. Randy Greenshields added. "Some dogs you'd think are built perfectly for the race and they just don't have the right mental makeup."

The next dogs in line behind the lead are called the point. They can act as leaders and follow both the direction of the lead dogs and the musher.

The point position usually is filled with more experienced dogs to help younger dogs learn how to run in the lead position.

"Once you're sure a dog can run lead, you can run them at the point," Parrish said. "They run behind a puppy and let them know when they're doing something right and when they're doing something wrong."

The dogs harnessed closest to the sled are called the wheel dogs, and bear the highest percentage of the weight distribution.

The wheel position is most commonly filled with the biggest dogs on the team with the strongest work ethic.

"I call them the meatheads," Bend musher Justin Harris said. "They never quit on me, and if I tell them to crawl up a wall they'll crawl up a wall. They don't want to be leaders, they just want to keep going."

Harris, Parrish and many of the other mushers switched out the lead and point dogs through the race, but left their wheel dogs doing what they do best - grinding it out.

As far as size is concerned when picking a team, the preference lies in the hands of the musher.

"Some people like the big dogs because they're stronger, some like the small dogs because they have more endurance," Greenshields said. "Lots of times it depends on the race."

Parrish said her best lead dog, Sinclair, is also the smallest dog in her kennel.

"One of the biggest misconceptions is the bigger the dog, the better the stride," she said. "Sinclair trots more smoothly and more efficiently than any other dog and loves taking the lead."

Harris also chose one of his smallest dogs, named Goliath, to take the lead through much of the Eagle Cap race.

"He's one of the smaller sled dogs you'll see," Harris said. "But don't tell him that."

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