Feb 14, 2021| Alaska History & Culture, Resources For Small Businesses
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race has been a time-honored tradition in Alaska for nearly 50 years.
But Dr. Stuart L. Nelson, Jr., is most concerned about "HAWL.”
Nelson, who has been a veterinarian with the Iditarod since 1986 and has served as a chief veterinarian since 1996, said HAWL is one of the most important aspects of protecting dogs and mushers from injury or illness.
The acronym means "heart rate, rhythm, and hydration; attitude and appetite; weight and lungs.” The system is critical to ensuring the safety and health of mushers and dogs alike.
Nelson and his team of more than 50 veterinarians are ever-alert to these conditions, and although the sled dogs are trained to run in all weather for the 1,000-mile race, these K9 athletes are well-cared for.
Their diet is a dog’s dream.
"These dogs are using a lot of calories, so they have to eat well,” Nelson said. "They have a higher fat diet than the average pet. The challenge is to make sure the dogs don’t get too thin. But these aren’t fat dogs. Hydration is also a critical concern.”
The predominant Iditarod racing dog is the Alaskan Husky, although some teams run with Siberian Huskies.
Besides diet, health, and training, it is also important that mushers, the "captains” of their sled dog teams, keep a watchful eye on their pack.
"I always tell mushers, ‘know your dogs and observe your dogs,’” Nelson said. "If you know your dog really well, you can catch early abnormalities. Catching potential conditions in the early stages will make sure a situation doesn’t become serious.”
HAWL is just one aspect of the care and protection of the athletes, both canine and human, that make the Iditarod safe and, yes, fun for the teams that traverse 1,000 miles of Alaskan terrain during the race.
All dogs get electrocardiograms and blood tests numerous times to make sure they are fit for racing and to make sure they don’t have any parasites that could harm them or spread to other dogs or the mushers themselves. They also must have a complete physical exam 14 days before the race.
"We’re continually monitoring the teams to get them the best care and get them anything they need,” Nelson said. "The thing is that we take a lot of measures to ensure the well-being of the dogs before the race and during the race to prevent minor situations from becoming serious situations.”
Trail veterinarians are also present at checkpoints along the entire length of the trail to examine the dogs.
"When a musher stops to rest their team at the checkpoint, individual ‘hands-on’ examinations are next on the agenda,” Nelson wrote in an article outlining safety practices for the sled dog race. "These are best accomplished soon after the arrival of the team for several reasons. First, any disorders can be addressed, and treatment started to allow maximum recovery time and appropriate re-checks while at a particular checkpoint. Second, longer periods of rest can be achieved. Finally, it is more efficient for busy mushers and veterinarians.”
Mushers are also required to keep Dog Team Diaries and present them to veterinarians at each checkpoint. Veterinarians at the checkpoint must sign off on the document to make notations relevant to team members' medical status.
Although there is a lot of hard work involved with becoming an elite sled dog, mushers also provide lots of time for play.
For the dogs, it’s, well, a dog’s life.
"Nowadays, a lot of mushers are giving their dogs free play time and running time,” Nelson said. "But it all gets down to training. The dogs must learn to interact with each other. These are pack animals, and they must have free time to play. Even when they’re working or training during the summer, they still have free time to play. They’re getting out there and going out on runs or a cart or a sled, they’re hanging out together and barking and woofing and carrying on, but they’re still safe. But the main point is to keep them conditioned.”
With all the preparation and precautions, with all the fun and games and training and racing, the question is: Is dog racing cruel?
The answer is a resounding no.
That response requires a few editorial comments.
Is the race grueling? Of course. Any human who has run a distance race like a marathon knows what it’s like to perform under any conditions, and the dogs have to sometimes endure Alaska’s temperamental weather. But the sled dogs have been running for thousands of years and the fact is they love to run.
Seriously, they have been bred to race for thousands of years and running is simply what they love to do. Just check out the start line when the eager runners jump several feet into the air, waiting for the moment when they can charge across Alaska.
If you are a dog owner, it’s possible that you love your dog more than anything and you would do anything to keep your dog safe and happy. Mushers are expert dog handlers. They know more about dogs than the average dog owner and love their dogs more than anything in the world. That’s why they chose to be mushers, because of their love of dogs and the beautiful abilities dogs have as athletes.
Sled dogs are among the happiest dogs in the world. They get to spend their life running with their best dog and human friends in the remote beauty of Alaska as free dogs. They also develop a deep bond with their mushers that helps the dogs take care of their humans in a time of need. It’s an unexplainable relationship between dog and musher.
But the protocols for taking care of the dogs are highly detailed and specialized.
For example, in addition to the ECGs and blood tests, all dogs are dewormed 10 days before the race. All rookie mushers must complete qualifying races, and all mushers must attend several days of pre-race educational briefings.
"The mushers go through a lot of hoops,” Nelson said. "Many years ago, I also came up with report cards, grading dog care and dog readiness.”
All dogs must be micro-chipped and undergo drug testing.
The team of "trail vets” is highly experienced in trial issues for the dogs and is on hand throughout the race. Nelson said he prefers to use vets who have a background in critical care because they have a greater ability to respond quickly to any medical situation.
"It is imperative that mushers and veterinarians work as a team for the well-being of racing sled dogs,” Nelson wrote in an article outlining the care of the dogs. "This is best accomplished by established methods for examining and evaluating these animals during and after the race.”
It is estimated that sled dogs have been bred for pulling sleds for nearly 10,000 years.
The Iditarod sled dogs are the result of generations of that breeding.
In short, Iditarod sled dogs truly are born to run.
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