Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
What happened to John Suter, the poodle musher, the Iditarod sensation of the late 1980s? The short answer is that he is still here, in Chugiak, just not racing poodles anymore.
As is common in Alaska, the full story involves a prominent cameo from the military. Suter was born in San Francisco and accustomed to the sun of California. Then, in the early 1970s, the Army moved him to Alaska. Like so many military transplants before and since, the land grew on him. He married a woman here, coincidentally also from California. And after his tour of duty ended, they chose to settle down where they were.
No longer a soldier, Suter needed a new challenge. Inspiration was quick to arrive. In 1974, he was babysitting his father-in-law’s miniature poodle. Man and dog were riding a snowmachine when the poodle leaped off to run alongside. He was shocked at its speed, the way it handled the terrain.
Suter was and is a hard, tough man. He was an Army Ranger and Golden Glove boxer. He saw a similar strength in the little poodle. While he watched the little pet speed across the snow and ice, he thought to himself, “What if you could get the big guys to run like that?”
While primarily considered a pampered pet for the wealthy today, poodles have historically been trained for more dangerous and strenuous roles, including as hunting dogs. Most notably, poodles have been employed as war dogs for centuries. During the English Civil War (1642-1651), Prince Rupert of the Rhine rode into battle with his beloved hunting poodle Boy running alongside. The celebrated Moustache the poodle (1799-1812) served in French armies during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. Along the way, he discovered a spy, convinced a female enemy dog to switch sides, lost a leg, and died in the bloody 1812 siege of Badajoz, Spain.
During World War II, the United States Army trained several breeds, including poodles, for military use. While none were shipped overseas, some poodles were used as guard dogs during the war.
Suter got his first poodle, a full-sized model in 1975. By 1976, he was running in races around Chugiak. His first interaction with a prominent musher could have been discouraging. “I remember him telling me, ‘You’ll never win a race with poodles.’ ” But then Suter won his next event, a local three-dog-class race.
Over the years, the races and experience built up. Finally, in 1988, he entered the Iditarod and finished 38th out of the 45 mushers who completed the race. There was no trophy or cash prize. However, the sense of accomplishment — and the coveted buckle exclusively for finishers — felt good.
As Suter expected, his story caught the nation’s attention. The hook, poodles in Alaska, was entertaining and original. Scores of newspapers, magazines and shows from across the country reached out for interviews. Sports Illustrated ran a feature on him. The peak came with a May 26, 1988, appearance on the “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” then the dominant late-night television program. Also appearing that night was actor and comedian Chevy Chase.
Some of the other mushers were less than enthused by Suter’s new celebrity. “The Iditarod mushers were kind of envious of the news,” says Suter. “There were a lot of confrontations, a lot of resentment.”
Suter’s Iditarod career notably coincided with a period when women dominated the race. From 1985 to 1990, Libby Riddles and Susan Butcher combined to win five of six races. As a result, a certain joke proliferated in the mushing community: “Women win the Iditarod, and men mush poodles.”
Despite the publicity, he struggled for funding. Rather than the hoped-for major sponsorships, donations instead came in tiny drips. An Anchorage greeting card storeowner covered the 1989 Iditarod entry fee. For another race, a company paid him $250 to wear their logo on a patch. A couple of elementary school classes sent him a few dollars.
For the Suters, poodles and mushing were a family lifestyle. He told me, “It ends up consuming your hours, from the time you wake up until way late at night.” His wife and one of their daughters also mushed. They spent their savings and far more to support the operation. Suter told the Anchorage Times in 1989, “We thought we had enough cash to pay our way, but we ran out of dog food, and then the phone bills added up.”
“All the big-name dog mushers had big sponsors,” notes Suter today. “And I thought, well, you know, if you had poodles, I’m sure you’d get a lot of news and big sponsors, but it didn’t work out. It’s too expensive for the average working person, especially if you’ve got a wife and kids. It’s just too expensive. They don’t last very long. They go a year or two, maybe three. They find sponsors to help flip the bills for them, or they fade out.”
Despite the jokes and cost, the idea of mushing poodles did not fail on its own accord. Victories would have been grand, but Suter’s explicit goal was more conceptual. In seemingly a very Alaskan manner, he wanted to prove a point. He told Sports Illustrated in 1988, “People should give poodles a chance to enjoy outdoor activities. There’s a great misunderstanding about what poodles can do, and that’s why we’re on this crusade.”
He finished 36th in the 1989 Iditarod. In 1990, he was 45th out of 61 finishers. And in 1991, he was 41st out of 61 finishers. However, in 1990 and 1991, race officials and veterinarians pulled the poodles from his mixed team before he finished, citing health concerns. The primary complaints were the risks of icy buildup under the paws and ice adhering to their coats. Suter countered the issues with booties and cooking spray.
In August 1991, the Iditarod Trail Committee’s board of directors approved a new rule. Though the wording was broad, the change functionally targeted poodles. The new guideline stated that “Only Northern breeds suitable for arctic travel will be permitted.” Suter’s career as a poodle musher was legislated out of existence.
The subsequent stage of Suter’s life essentially involved recovering from the mountain of mushing debts. “I ended up running up all my credit cards, second mortgaged my house, and borrowed money,” says Suter. ”It took me 19 years to pay it all back. I was working jobs that weren’t paying real well or were seasonal or part-time. It was a real difficult time.”
He still keeps up to date on the mushing world and has no intention of leaving Alaska. “Everybody’s got to pick the place where they’re going to die, and I decided I would die here.” So, here he remains.
Another somber question lingers: what happened to the poodles? It has been more than 30 years since they ran in the Iditarod. Per Suter, “They all went to see Jesus.”
Brendler, Beau. “Gravy Train Mushes On.” Anchorage Times, January 13, 1989, B1.
Brulliard, Karin. “Once Upon a Time, Poodles Raced in the Iditarod. They Weren’t Half Bad.” Washington Post, March 17, 2016
Suter, John. Interview by author. November 8, 2021.
Taylor, Mike. “Iditarod Limits Breeds and Aid.” Anchorage Times, August 14, 1991, F1, F2.
Thornton, James S. “The Very latest in Mushing: Poodle Powered Sleds.” March 7, 1988, Sports Illustrated,