Those with minor injuries are all recovering nicely, as is Bodie, the poor boy that suffered a puncture wound in his paw. He's wrapping up an antibiotic regimen and is no longer limping. I'm sure we'll see him out on the trail again next season.
Each year, I like to dedicate one blog to the amazing canine athletes that make this race possible. So to all our canine friends resting comfortably back at the kennel, this blog's for you!
First and foremost, one needs to understand ~ these dogs love to run. They're born for it. Running and pulling from one point to the next, working with their pack, both responding to and guiding the odd but loved two-legged lead dog riding on the sled. Like a Beagle chases a rabbit, a Border Collie herds a sheep, a Labrador plunges into a lake to swim, Alaskan sled dogs are made for what they do, and they like it.
So what kind of dog, exactly, is an Alaskan sled dog, or Alaskan Husky? You might be picturing something from a Disney movie, a largely matched set of dogs with white faces and darker masks, probably blue eyes. That image is more in keeping with a Siberian Husky, and while these types of dogs and their bloodlines can be spotted in Alaskan Huskies, it isn't the norm now.
Today's Iditarod dogs are largely a decades' crafted blend of hearty Native Alaskan village dogs and a host of other breeds with traits that thrive in this climate and at this sport. A fancier way of saying athletic winter-blend of mutt. Take one of those Disney dogs you were picturing, a Siberian Husky, and toss in some Border Collie, Labrador, a larger breed of hound, Greyhound, Pointer, Irish Setter. Monk, who ran on Kristy's team this year, sure looks like he has some Australian Cattle Dog in him. They can be blond, black, brindled. Floppy ears or pointy ones. Piercing blue eyes, brown, or liquid gold. They do share a number of traits, including a love for running. Endurance, stamina, hearty appetite, strong paws, thick two-layer coats of fur. Today's Iditarod dogs probably aren't as large as you might expect. Size can vary a lot, from high-30 lbs to 70 lbs. Seeing Double dogs probably average 45 pounds for a female and 55 pounds for a male.
Most competitive mushers own several, if not all, of their own dogs. Others, like the twins, own a number of dogs and will borrow or lease additional dogs to round out teams. The twins estimate it costs about $1,500 per year to own and care for one competitive dog, when it comes to food, vaccinations and veterinary cares and tests, and gear required for basic care (straw, dog houses, food bowls). Borrowing or leasing a dog or two for a season varies between mushers, but the one using the dog covers care costs. One could also make more a formal agreement to lease an entire team from one kennel, and I believe this can cost $10,000+.
Maintaining an entire kennel is a lot of work. Kristy and Anna manage Team Janssen's kennel of some 80 dogs when you combine Scott Janssen's dogs with their own 20 or so and those borrowed or leased for the season. I hope when you see a dog yard, you find it nothing other than a happy canine community. Each dog has a comfortable house with regularly-rotated straw, ample food and regular exercise. Some people see the dogs on chains, here or on the dog truck before a race, and frown, but they shouldn't. These dogs are exceptionally strong, and some have chewing tendencies. Rope isn't secure enough, and cable - longer in length and/or for a longer period of time unsupervised - could cause injury. The dogs don't mind the security of a chain, and you shouldn't either.
Ever watch the show Dirty Jobs? I think the twins could have an episode. First, they prepare all the food the dogs eat, a large portion of which is a fresh protein source. Frankly, they're no strangers to butchering. And of course what goes in, comes back out... Daily cleaning of the dog yard is a must. And then there are the concessions the twins make out on the trail... But I digress. This is about the dogs.
All in all, the dogs are very well cared for at home and on the road. Dog boxes on trucks and in trailers may look small to you, but how often do you see a picture of a sled dog sprawled out, even when it could? They like the security, the coziness of their dog boxes, and are never left in one for an undue length of time.
I mentioned above some of what the dogs eat. Learn more about what these amazing athletes eat in a video insert at the end of this blog from Alaska Public Media, featuring Kristy and Anna. Coming back to the race, how are the dogs cared for on the trail? At the end of the day, usually better than the mushers! They eat a high calorie (10-12k+ calories per 24hrs!) diet freshly prepared, enjoy a cozy bed of straw and receive regular massages and paw rubs with ointment. Gear, in varying sizes to accommodate different dogs, includes padded harnesses, legs wraps to help prevent "chicken legs" in crusty snow, "fox tails" for male dogs who perhaps have... er... exposed parts without enough fur to adequately protect from frostbite in extremely cold conditions. Each dog has a jacket and a fresh rotation of new booties. The jackets are used in extremely cold, stormy, and/or windy conditions while booties are used almost constantly. Although they're not waterproof, they're designed to help protect against trail abrasion and the clumping of snow even your dog at home may experience. Dogs perspire not only by panting basically by sweating through their paws. This moisture, in cold conditions with snow, can form 'paw-sicles' without booties.
Also for the Iditarod, each dog has blood work, an EKG, urine test, and overall examination. Each dog has a named collar, ID tag, and microchip. Mushers can and must start with 12 to 16 dogs and finish with 5 in harness. Each dog is recorded in a log book that mushers must carry with them and present to vets at each checkpoint. This allows each dog to be accounted for and vets to relay messages on things to follow up on as dogs move up the trail.
During the race, should a dog have a problem - sprained wrist, sore shoulder, waning appetite, a puncture like Bodie's, or just doesn't want to run or pull any more - the dog can and will be "dropped" at a checkpoint. That point is key - at a checkpoint. There is a "no dog left behind" policy in the Iditarod. A musher must arrive at each checkpoint with the same number of dogs he or she left the prior checkpoint with, even if a dog is riding in the sled basket. A musher can then drop a dog, leaving it safely in the hands of vets and dog handlers at a checkpoint, and proceed along the trail. A vet or race official can overrule a musher if necessary and mandate a dog remain behind.
That's a lot of information, but hopefully it answers a lot of questions about the dogs in general and the Iditarod in particular. Here are a few pictures to illustrate some of what I've written about. And who doesn't like a story with pictures!