"Damn Fine Dog"
Many accuse the Iditarod of animal cruelty to dogs. But if the organization does its best to protect them is there a bigger problem?
Photo: © Matt Cooper/ThickStock
Okay, have a few issues with this article. I couldn’t read the whole thing so I skimmed, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, I’m just so sick about hearing how ‘cruel’ the Iditarod is to dogs I can’t stand hearing any more of the crap spewed by Marjorie Glickman and the ‘Sled Dog Action Coalition’.
Firstly, Iditarod dogs are not culled in their old age. If you’ve raised and raced with a dog for 10+ years you’re not gonna be able to take a bullet to them. There is a group that is dedicated to finding new homes for retired sled dogs when the musher no longer wants to keep them, but in most cases those dogs stay with their musher until they die. Or, like I got most of my dogs, when they’re past their prime but still raceable the dogs will be given to junior mushers, because the juniors can learn a lot from those old dogs (and believe me I did learn a lot from my old guys). I currently have 7 dogs, and of those only one is under age 9, because the others were the heart and soul of my dog team for the 5 years I spent seriously racing dogs.
A lot of mushers like Martin Buser and Mitch Seavey have a ‘geriatric’ section in their kennel where they keep their old dogs, and they’ll often get let loose to run around and play with the younger dogs. I have a fenced in back yard so my dogs run loose all the time, and when I introduced my now three year old dog to them she spent weeks chasing them around and playing with them and they absolutely loved it. There’s a lot of life left in old sled dogs, because they’re kept in such good shape their whole lives they can often live to 14-20 years old. My oldest dog is turning 17 this May, and my next youngest dogs are turning 15 in May, and they look like 11-12 year old pet dogs.
Now as for your main argument. Yes, there are a lot of hazards out there on the trail, but even just living a normal life there are hazards. You mention moose attacks, well I’ve never had a moose attack me on the trail in 14 years of running dogs, but twice in two years I’ve had a moose come into my backyard and stomp my dogs while they were relaxing behind their fence, just because the moose didn’t like them. I had a dog severely dislocate her wrist and a dog dislocate his tail when she stomped on them, which could’ve happened to any dog anywhere near wildlife.
You also mention dog fights. These rarely happen, especially on the trail. When there’s a dog fight it’s usually young male dogs or bitchy female dogs getting into it with each other, and it’s never life threatening. And again, this could happen to your pet dogs playing in the house. The worst injury I’ve seen from a dog fight was a patch of missing fur, or a 1inch gash in another dog’s head that wasn’t even deep enough to warrant stitches. All dogs have the potential to fight when you put them near other dogs.
You also mention heart problems. The worst heart problem I’ve seen in a sled dog is a heart murmur, which in sled dogs is usually caused by the heart muscle becoming so big the valves cannot close entirely. Basically, the dog is in such good shape their heart can’t handle it. I’ve also heard of this happen in human elite athletes, so not exactly worrying. It’s not life threatening, and as soon as the dog gets the summer off their heart shrinks to a normal size, and if you don’t reach that level of training the next year the dog will never have a heart murmur again. Also, before the dogs start the race they go through a mandatory vet check that includes full ECGs on every dog, and I have known at least one or two dogs every year that get rejected by the vets because they have some underlying heart issue that the musher doesn’t know about because it hasn’t affected their running up to that point. And also, vets go through every dog team at every checkpoint the musher spends more than 10 minutes at and listens to every dog’s heart with a stethoscope to see if there’s anything abnormal.
Dehydration- every dog can experience this. Literally. Look at a husky living in a desert state like Arizona. They hate it, wouldn’t you rather they be living in Alaska where they evolved to survive? Weak argument, especially as it’s the mushers main priority to keep their dogs healthy. If a dog isn’t drinking water, you give them baited water, if they won’t drink that you give them a piece of frozen meat or fish. SImple fix. If you have a well trained team like Martin Buser on this year’s Iditarod, the dogs will drink straight cold water out of their bowls (which I have never been able to train my dogs to do, they prefer their water to be meat flavored).
Hypothermia- Now I’ve never seen this in a sled dog. I’m sure it happens, but when they’re running, unless it’s really cold, they’re generating enough heat to keep warm. If it’s really cold (say, -30F) the mushers put dog coats on their dogs, usually made of polar fleece with an overlayer that’s windproof that keeps them warm. As soon as a mushers stops in a checkpoint they put these coats on their dogs so they cool down slowly, like a race horse or human, and they lay down a bed of straw for the dogs to sleep on. The dogs know when the straw comes out it’s time to relax for a while, and a lot of dogs think straw is a real party. I’ve had dogs literally jump and knock straw out of my hands because they think it’s so much fun to sniff around in it and make themselves the perfect bed. A few mushers also use polar fleece blankets to lay over their dogs when it’s cold. I’ve tried this, but my dogs usually just kicked them off, they preferred to just stay in their dog coat.
Strangulation with tangled lines - again, this could happen to any dog. A collar and leash are very dangerous if a dog gets loose, or tries to jump a fence. I’ve never had it happen with a dog, though I’ve heard of one or two cases, but the dog survived and still raced (it happened to a friend of mine who was running a dog I gave her, and he recovered fully and went on to finish Iditarod with her last year). Not a big problem, as I’ve raced for 14 years and never had it happen.
Getting lost- again, not a huge problem. I’ve never lost a dog for more than 24 hours, and that one time was a freak chance because my team got hit by a snow machine on a cross trail (I clearly had the right of way as I was on the Iditarod trail and as a non-motorized vehicle I always have the right of way in that case), and the dog broke loose from her traces and ran away because she was so spooked by the event. My dad went out the next day on snowmachine, found her, coaxed her in with food, and she came in the house for a bit before deciding she wanted to be back outside. She finished the Junior Iditarod with me that year, and continued racing with me for a while after that with very few adverse effects (she never wanted to run lead after that, and I respected it. Coincidentally, she’s also the dog of mine that had her wrist dislocated by a moose a few years ago. She just has horrid luck as none of my other dogs have been injured that badly). Yes, May got loose on Iditarod last year, but she traveled home and was just fine, fine enough to race in the Junior Iditarod and Iditarod this year with her owner Jim Lanier and his son Jimmy. I believe the problem Newton had catching May was that he was not her owner, and this didn’t have the connection with her most mushers have with their dogs, and she simply didn’t want to go to him because he wasn’t her master. I’ve had dogs get loose on the trail, because their tug-line came undone (the line attached to the back of the dog’s harness) or they chewed through their lines, or even because I’ve let them loose, and my dogs always come back to me. I make it a point that when I come back from a run I let my dogs loose in the yard so they know when I call they have to come to me, so if they do get loose on the trail it’s not a problem.
Overexertion- now this is not a problem in a lot of the elite mushers. This comes from the rookie mushers just starting out who don’t know how to read their dogs. I’ve never had a dog overexert themselves, simply because I don’t ask that much of them. There are mushers who accidentally overexert their teams, and the dogs just lay down on them until the team decides to go again. Team on Iditarod have been known to lay down for days because their musher pushed them too hard, and asked too much of them, and they said NO, we’re stopping and resting now. So again, not a real problem with the dogs, and again a pet dog will overexert themselves if given the chance. Watch a Labrador Retriever play with a tennis ball, they will chase that tennis ball until they physically can’t get up anymore because they like it so much. Huskies are smarter than that and will stop when they feel they’re at a breaking point.
Now the biggest problem in sled dogs: “Medical problems including foot injuries, fluid in the lungs, stomach ulcers, frostbite and muscle tears” (quote from your article). Yes, foot injuries happen. But again, that can happen to a pet dog who steps on a rock or a tree branch while going potty. It’s amazing how tough Iditarod dogs feet are, and they’re also protected most of the time with booties so they won’t get injured. An old mushing saying is ‘If you don’t have feet you don’t have a dog team’ so the mushers pay particular attention to their dogs feet out on the trial. Fluid in the lungs- I’ve heard of this happening, but never seen it in my dogs. I do know that Iditarod dogs VO2 max is double that of an elite human athlete, so fluid in the lung isn’t a big problem with dogs, until it turns into pneumonia, which is one of every musher’s worst nightmares. Pneumonia is very dangerous in sled dogs and must be treated right away. I’ve never had it happen myself, but I’ve heard it’s horrible, and I don’t know of any way to prevent it. But again, any dog could get pneumonia or fluid in the lungs, again look at Labs that love to go swimming. I bet they carry a lot of fluid in their lungs too. And (just my thought, no scientific backing I know of) the fluid in their lungs could actually help them breathe better in the cold, because the air in Alaska is so dry, I know humans often have problems breathing in the cold, it would be an evolutionary thing for the dogs. Next, stomach ulcers- now these used to be a huge problem in sled dogs, and we still don’t know what causes them. But we do know how to prevent them. Every elite musher knows if you start your dogs on a pepcid regimen a few weeks before a big race, or when your training gets intense that the dogs will not develop ulcers. I believe it’s required on Iditarod that you have your dogs on pepcid because they are running an intense race. So again, not a big problem nowadays. Frostbite- yes, this can be a problem if the musher is not prepared for it. The most likely areas to get frostbite are the male dogs penis sheaths, and a female dogs nipples. Both are preventable, for example when it’s cold and windy you put dog coats on. Females get special coats that cover their whole bellies, and males get special coats that have a flap or a bit of fur that covers their penis sheath and protects it from the wind. There are also mushers, generally more old timers, that use fox or wold tails and attach velcro to each end then fasten it around the male dogs’ middle and it does the same thing a flap on a dog coat does, keep their penis sheath out of the wind and cold. In 14 years I’ve had one dog get serious frostbite, and it didn’t affect him more than my having to put ointment on it twice a day (which he really enjoyed. Me, not so much…) and it healed just fine. And finally, muscle tears. Just like a human athlete, make one stumble and you step wrong and you hurt something. Again, can happen with pet dogs too! Especially high strung working dogs like terriers, retrievers, herders, and hounds. They want to move, so they’re going to. With sled dogs the most common injuries are sore wrists and sore shoulders. These are not preventable, but they are easily treatable with a few hours to a few days of rest. Just like I currently have a sore wrist and sore ankle, so is often the case with dogs. The mushers carry special wrist wraps with them that are neoprene with a strip of velcro. When they stop for a rest the mushers goes through their whole team and massages every joint with algyval (like Icy hot for dogs) and if they have a sore joint they pay special attention to that joint. Often they’ll take chemical hand warmers and put them on the wrist joint with vet wrap, or they have special shoulder coats that have pockets for the heat packs to keep the heat on the joint/muscle, just like human athletes. Heat and ice, heat and ice. Except you often don’t have to ice, because it’s Alaska, so you just have to take the heat off ;) After a couple hours the musher will go through and check everybody again, and if there is still a sore spot they’ll often ask a vet to have a look. You’re not allowed to use analgesics (like ibuprofen for humans, it masks the pain) on the race, so if a dog is sore, they’re not going to keep running. Sometimes the musher will walk them around and see if with a bit of movement the muscle loosens up, or if they’re fairly close to the next checkpoint they’ll keep the dog in their team for a mile or two and see if they limber up. Often, just like humans, the dog is sore simply because they stopped moving for too long and just stiffened up, and after a mile on the train they’re warmed up enough to limber up and keep moving. If the dog is not loose after a mile or two, the musher will either load them in their sled, or turn around and return to the checkpoint where the dog is left to be taken home and coddled by the mushers handlers (and often kids). If a dog is seriously injured, they are immediately taken care of, and there is at least one vet in every checkpoint on Iditarod to assess if a dog needs immediate care, and they often have a slew of prescriptions with them if the dog needs more than the musher has on hand, things like painkillers for once a dog is dropped, or metronidazole if a dog is having trouble with diarrhea.
Now that’s one thing you didn’t mention that i saw, dogs getting sick. It happens quite a lot in the dog mushing world, it’s like the first few weeks of school. Everybody’s gone somewhere else over the summer and picked up new bugs so they spread them around to all their friends. Same thing happens on Iditarod for the first few days, often dogs get diarrhea or kennel cough, but it does not adversely affect their running unless they get dehydrated in which case the musher will do everything they can to fix the problem, and if they can’t the dog gets sent home to rest. Dogs are required to have a lot of vaccinations for Iditarod, including kennel cough/canine bordetella and parvo and rabies. Rabies is especially prominent in Alaska, so it is essential the dogs are vaccinated against it, but I’ve never known a sled dog to get seriously sick on the Iditarod with something like rabies.
And finally, the mushers on Iditarod are required to keep a vet book with them, and the vets check it at every checkpoint and write down any issues with certain dogs on the team so all the vets down the trail know what they thought of a certain dogs condition.
Really, you cannot run this race if you don’t keep incredible care of your dogs. The Iditarod mushers I know would willingly give their lives for their dogs, often because the dogs have saved their mushers life once or twice. When you spend a few hours to a few weeks in the wilderness with no one but your dogs you create a very special bond that’s only created through mutual survival. The mushers is always the weak link in the team, as was demonstrated this year by how many musher scratched after the Dalzell Gorge and Farewell Burn totaled either their sleds or them. Their dogs teams were totally fine, but like Jake Berkowitz said, “I’m the weak link here” and in the video by the Anchorage Daily News you can clearly see that his dogs still desperately wanted to go, but Jake failed to plan enough repair strategies for his sled.
I apologize for the length, but you really can’t know enough about these athletes. I certainly don’t know everything, but I know enough to have so much respect for them, and hope to run the Iditarod in a couple years.
I leave you with some photos of my Iditarod sled dogs that are so obviously abused:
Pork Chop, who I swear spends more time on my bed than me:
Diamond, my baby girl whose mother was on Dallas Seavey’s winning Iditarod team in 2012:
My big boy Hammer on the couch with me:
My sweetie Logo who was attacked by a moose:
My oldest dog, Bat Baby, almost 17 years old and still happy as a clam:
One of my old guys, Pancake:
And my other old guy Red Skelton:
Saying hello to all my guys out the back door:
All of them having a lazy day in the sun:
Pork Chop and Diamond on the couch with me, aka taking over the couch:
And lastly, Diamond in lead at my summer job as a tour guide (as a side note, a lot of the dogs in this team are currently in the race with Danny Seavey, so you might recognize some of them if you’ve seen pics or videos of him!):
Feel free to message me with any questions you have regarding this post, it’s almost 2am so no guarantees the grammar and spelling are great, as well as my argument.