Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lecture: What the Iditarod can teach us about performance dogs

I was fortunate enough to attend a fantastic presentation by Utah's Kim Henneman last night, Kim is an integrative DVM who has a very strong background in canine and equine sports medicine. Dr. Kim made her way to Alaska this March to work as a race veterinarian for the longest dog sled race in the world.
Iditarod Wiki site:
Iditarod Official site:
Photo courtesy of Flauto;
subject to a Creative Commons license
One caveat to note that this post is by and large just a brain-dump (and my brain specifically) of the material presented.

I went in with one impression of the Iditarod (and of mushers in general) and left with a very different and far more favorable impression. I tend to focus on the chain-lines of dogs, bedded down outside with little shelter. And to some extent that's certainly true. But my notion of sled dogs as "tools" really wasn't true. Teams start the 1130 +/- race with a team of 16 dogs - all of which must pass a pretty serious health check prior to even hitching up to start, including a full bloodwork panel, an EKG and full physical evaluation. If values don't check out the dogs don't run - period. It's not unusual for a musher to submit a team of 20 dogs and then choose from the dogs the dogs that pass - though I'm told that a high percentage of the dogs do pass. Mushers must finish with at least 6 dogs. Dogs can be "dropped" (more on that in a moment) but dogs can not be substituted once the race starts.

Most teams are not made up of Malamutes or Siberian Huskies. The elite mushers are breeding their own stock to improve speeds, durability, endurance and overall performance. They might contain malamute or huskies - but that's not the entirety of heritage. They want double-coated breeds of course, but modern Iditirod dogs appear to have german shepherd, pointer, collie and hound in strong phenotypical representation. They have a strong market for the dogs that don't make the cut - demand for dogs that don't have the double coat or have the stamina for long races generally end up with amateur mushers.

Very few dogs are altered. Bitches are allowed to run in season. Kim showed one picture of a group of dogs on a flight back to Anchorage - 20+ dogs in an open cargo area, including one full (intact) team of dogs. One bitch who was - ummmm....attractive (and receptive) to the boys had to ride separately. And there was still a bit of a rumble in the "back of the bus".

It goes without saying that sled dogs are fit. These athletes are in phenomenal shape. I spend a great deal of time and thought on conditioning my agility dog (and my couch potato) - mushers do all that and much much more. Iditarod training is year round on the glaciers and the serious conditioning begins around labor day.
Photo courtesy of Flauto;
subject to a Creative Commons license

Lots of raw feeders on the Iditirod trail. Mushers must pan and pack for all 16 dogs throughout the entire trip. Their packs are dropped at various checkpoint locations along the way to reduce the amount of supplies that teams are carrying. If a dog is "dropped" from a team the musher MUST provide rations for that dog for the remainder of the race. Dogs are fed snacks and meals along the trail - snacks are often in the form of 'meat-sicles' - Dr. Henneman's word not mine. For meals meat is thawed and mixed with a slurry of broth, electrolytes and occasionally high-fat kibble in the event dogs go off their foods. These dogs are fed as marathon athletes (as they are). Most dogs along the race will eat about 11,000 calories per day over the 10 day race. Multiply that by sixteen dogs and WOW. That's a lot of packing.

Like the lure coursers (which was something I picked up last weekend) - race dogs aren't fed bone while they are racing...Bone taking longer to digest and sitting in the gut - racing dogs don't have time to digest bone. One of the reasons that racing kennels feed so much tripe and performance dog. It's a complete meal that is very easily digestible.

Check out this blog: This is just one musher's dog food preparation. I won't look at packing for a trial quite the same way again!!!

Stomach Ulcers
Apparently stomach ulcers are big big problems for dogs on the trail. Lots of dogs are dropped for bloody diarrhea caused by bleeding ulcers. Untreated these ulcers lead to hemmoraging, bleed-outs and deaths. Since the 2010 race all  mushers MUST feed pepcid to their race dogs along the trail. Since 2010 (and now 2011) no dogs have died on the Iditarod.

Wild animals on the trail. 
Apparently moose attacks are not uncommon on the Iditirod trail. Mushers are not allowed to hunt while on the race, they are however allowed to shoot and kill an animal threatening their team. If they kill a moose (bear, etc) they cannot continue the race until they field dress the animal (and yes they can keep the meat to feed to their packs). However, dressing a moose takes quite a bit of time - during which no team may pass that team - so it's in everyone's best interest to jump in, assist and divvy up the meat so that everyone can move forward.

Entry Fees.
Running the Iditarod is not cheap. Entry expenses alone top $5000. Plus expenses a deposit for veterinary fees for dropped dogs - all told the race costs $50,000 per musher. I found THIS budget from musher Robert Forto who is preparing to make a Iditarod bid in 2013. Mr. Forto puts the number closer to $30,000 - but I suspect that without putting too fine a point on the number it's an expensive race - FAR more than the average agility competitor spends for an entire year of campaigning.
Photo courtesy of Travis S.,
subject to aCreative Commons license

Dropped Dogs
Dogs can be dropped for any number of reasons - some mushers use the first couple of legs as training for some of their younger dogs who need exposure, dropping them after a couple hundred miles. Dogs are dropped for health reasons, physical reasons. Hydration, fever, cough. Sometimes dogs just decide to stop pulling. You're only as fast as your slowest dog - so dogs get dropped. Now, here's another piece that I found fascinating...what happens to dropped dogs? Essentially there are teams of veterinarians who are specifically assigned to care for the dropped dogs. There's a papertrail for every race dog - and that paperwork follows the dropped dogs as well. Before mushers pull out of a checkpoint they must provide all food and medications for any dropped dogs.
Dropped dogs are coded by need - red dogs (obviously high priority), Blue dogs (high and low blue) are any dogs on medication - and then White dogs (no medical conditions). Dogs are all flown back to Anchorage to await pickup by the musher (or the musher's agents).

Net take-away.
For me it was a whole new respect for mushers. I'm not particularly fond of the cold, cold wind, snow, ice and the like. To WANT to be there, to love the sport, to love the dogs, to challenge one's limitation - all qualities I can appreciate and respect.

This has gotten a bit too long for one post - So I'll have to add the "lessons for performance dogs" in another post. Look for a part two shortly...

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