A Lot More than Just Dog Care

Why do they do it? Why do vets travel to Alaska in winter to volunteer with the Iditarod Sled Dog Race?  Dr. Stu Nelson posed that question during his presentation on dog care during the Iditarod Educators’ Conference.  The obvious answer: the dogs.  But that’s not where Dr. Nelson went.  Of course it is the dogs.  But why Alaska? Why this race?   Yes, it’s the dogs. But it’s also about the community. The people.  And it’s about the history. And it’s about the beauty of The Great Land.

Why does this matter? It’s because dog care at the Iditarod isn’t just about checking to make sure the dogs are ok.  It’s about the deeper history of what Iditarod is about.  Dr. Nelson began with Joe Redington Sr’s vision to preserve the working sled dog.  Not just this dog in front of me right now, but the breed and the history.  The vision is about preserving the dogs and trails rooted in thousands of years of history.

Yet it IS about this one dog in front of this musher, this vet, at this checkpoint.  Dr. Nelson explained how mushers and vets bring thousands of years of knowledge, distilled down into their own years or decades of experience in dog care.  For THIS dog, it’s about the mushers and vets seeing, understanding what to look for, and taking the action needed to provide the best possible care.  The dogs depend on it. The race depends on it. The vision depends on it20190227_110637

In an earlier blog, I talked about Mush with P.R.I.D.E., an organization that promotes excellence in dog care from the husbandry side.  On the vet side, Dr. Nelson explained that the ISDVMA (International Sled Dog Veterinary Medicine Association) brings the research, biology, and medical sciences to the table.   Both organizations help assure that everyone is prepared for the race: mushers, vets, and dogs.

All Iditarod vets are required to get pre-race training.  Experienced Iditarod vets are recruited in spring, to guarantee the knowledge of veterans.  Rookie vets spend days in seminar before the race begins.

Veteran mushers bring years of experience, both with their dogs and with working in partnership with the vets.  Rookie mushers meet in December to focus on dog-care issues.

How are the dogs prepared?   The process has evolved, and ITC rules have evolved to guarantee the best possible preparation.  Mushers train and condition dogs over 6 months before Iditarod starts.  The pre-race screening happens one month prior to the race when dogs are microchipped and undergo ECG and blood panels.  Two weeks before the race, physical exams, deworming, and food drops must be completed.  All this is set up to be sure they are prepared to hit the trail from the start.

Once the dogs are on the trail, it is the job of the vet and musher to work together to see that each dog receives the attention it needs.  Dr. Nelson said that the theoretical goal is hands on every dog at every checkpoint. Since that isn’t possible, the realistic goal is that every musher will interact with a vet at every checkpoint.  Thus the vet book.

The musher’s job is to know their dogs.  They are the first set of eyes, bringing their observations to the vets for confirmation and advice.  Both will be looking for the same things, which fit into the acronym H.A.W. L. (heart and hydration, appetite and attitude, weight, and lungs).  A hands-on vet check will include looking at gums (color, moisture, capillary refill), pulling up on the skin (hydration), checking  body fat for adequate reserves, and listening to their lungs.

There is a shift in language happening, which should help clarify the way dogs are cared for on the trail.  Instead of “dropping” dogs, dogs are returned.  It is first the musher’s call to decide that a dog should be returned to Anchorage. Dr. Nelson explained that,  most of the time, a musher already knows that a dog needs to be returned.  Sometimes they are unsure, and look to the vet for advice.  It’s a consensus.  A partnership.Rarely does a vet need to require a dog be returned against the wishes of the musher.

Through all of this process, from pre-race preparations to actually running the Iditarod, meticulous and extensive records are kept.  Not only does this benefit the care of the dogs themselves, but the data collected contribute to research that is improving the health and nutrition of dogs (and even humans) beyond the race.

Tell me again how these dogs are not cared for? No. Listening to Dr. Nelson, it’s impossible to go away with any doubts.  By being both proactive and reflective, the Iditarod is evolving to improve the care of all dogs.

*Teachers: there are many ways to use these ideas in activities or discussion.

  • The acronym HAW +L is a handy way to remember the things a vet is looking for.  Can you create acronyms to help remember important procedures that are done in class?
  • Draw the analogy between how mushers and vets work together for the care of dogs and how teachers and parents work together for the care of children. How is it the same, and how is it different?
  • Continuing the dog-child analogy, what are the preparations that are needed for parents, teachers, and students so that the students will succeed?
  • Connotation: how does changing “dropped” to “returned” affect how we perceive the care of dogs?
  • Conduct “claim testing” and critical thinking activities around dog care issues.