First, the dogs themselves. What kind of dogs are out on the trail, anyway? These days, you'll rarely see an all white team of Siberian Huskies with blazing blue eyes looking like it ran straight out of a Disney movie. Instead, you'll find a great many mutts. Sure, they share several characteristics ~ a robust coat, large strong paws, on average probably 40-60 pounds. Ideally they're intelligent and have a good appetite. They all love to run! And yes, there is a great deal of Alaskan Husky in them. But that is a breed as much defined by its purpose as it is a particular physical appearance or ancestry. The dogs of today's Iditarod are Husky in origin, but don't be surprised when you spot things reminiscent of Greyhounds, Pointers, Irish Setters, Border Collies, and a variety of other breeds. I suspect most of those home doggie DNA tests would be stumped.
What about gear? The twins carry all sorts of gear for their dogs... snacks and emergency food, bowls, a pot and means of melting snow (Heet) for heating and watering their food; straw; coats, special shoulder packs, booties, leg wraps to prevent against snow abrasion (otherwise known as chicken legs), foxtails (as mentioned in a previous post, gentlemen ~ it's cold... use your imagination...); a variety of ointments, creams, approved antibiotics and antacids (the dogs suffer from this too!).
And dog food? The dogs burn an insane amount of calories each day, each needing to take in 10,000 - 16,000 calories in one 24 hour period depending on the dog and conditions. A high protein dry kibble is mixed with water and another fresh protein source (beef, chicken, tripe, beaver, lamb, horse, turkey, fish, or other animal fat). Part of each musher's strategy is determining in advance what to put in "drop bags" that are shipped out to checkpoints along the race. Which dog is a fussy eater? What gear could need replenishing or replacing?
Speaking of drop bags, let's get back to Iditarod itself. What are the rules?! There are several pages of the Iditarod rule book devoted to dog care, but I will try to sum the salient points. Teams must start with 12-16 dogs, and have a minimum of 6 on the tow line at the finish. Before the race, dogs are examined by vets, microchipped, have EKGs and blood work. The dogs must satisfy a variety of drug tests and display the physical characteristics (size, coat) required to endure an event of this nature. With all due respect, you don't enter 16 Chihuahuas into the Iditarod.
During the race, each dog is monitored at each checkpoint by vets, and mushers must carry a vet log book that acts as a means of communication between vets as teams move up the trail. No dogs can be swapped out. And with an almost military sentiment, there is a "no dog can be left behind" rule, except in qualified hands in checkpoints. You leave Ruby with 14 dogs but roll into Galena with only 13? Disqualified.
Dogs must be deemed in good condition throughout the race. The race casts a broad mandate on their treatment: "There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog."
But in any event with 1,248 participants (in this case dogs), there will be some that get injured and must bow out. If a dog can no longer continue while out on the trail, mushers will put the dog in the sled basket (this capability a requirement of any sled used in the race) and given a ride to the next checkpoint. Within a checkpoint, mushers or vets can decide if a dog should be "dropped," meaning the dog is left is in safe hands with a vet or handler and tucked away on the next flight either back to Anchorage or on to Nome. Why is a dog dropped? There are a variety of reasons, ranging from a sore wrist or shoulder to poor appetite or simply not wanting to pull with the team.
With respect to Kristy and Anna's dogs in this year's Iditarod, our Dropped Dog Correspondent Aaron Kershner, back at the kennel in Knik, outside of Anchorage, reported on a few dogs that are resting comfortably back in their dog houses. Lou and Lincoln, from Anna's team, came in with a sore shoulder and wrist, respectively. Mojo from Kristy team is also reported back with a sore wrist. Not long after two others from Kristy's team arrived home, Duchess with a limp (likely her shoulder bothering her), and Piper... who is allegedly just a young spaz (she's only 2 and this is her first Iditarod). We may get reports on a couple more dogs from Kristy's team before they start going forward to Nome.
Each year, the veterinarians volunteering for the race (who come from far and wide themselves, honored to work with this caliber of canine athlete) also vote for one musher to receive the Humanitarian Award. This award has been presented in the Iditarod since 1982 to a top 20 team. Within specific guidelines, the recipient will have demonstrated outstanding dog care through the race while remaining competitive. Anna and Kristy have each received a humanitarian and/or veterinary care award in mid-distance races in the past. A lead dog is also recognized from the winning Iditarod team each year.
And, while I hate to end this post on a dour note, there is a question that comes up that should be addressed. Do dogs die in the Iditarod?
In 43 Iditarods, I can only estimate that some 30,000+ dogs have started the race, and unfortunately there are some tragic stories. 2015 is the first year a dog has died during the race (while racing) since 2009. Lance Mackey had a dog expire this year on the 120 mile run from Tanana to Ruby. A necropsy has been performed and there were no obvious abnormalities to explain the cause of death. Also this year, a dog got loose in Anchorage and was hit by a car. Last year, one dog passed away after being turned over to checkpoint handlers. That is the extent of my knowledge on dog fatalities associated with Iditarod for as long as either of the twins have been involved.
Are these incidents regrettable? Absolutely. Do all participants and fans wish the stats were zero? Heck yes. Is that truly feasible given the number of participants year after year in a race of this nature and length, in these conditions? Probably not. Iditarod comes with risks, for mushers and dogs. That's part and parcel. But from what the twins have told me and what I have witnessed myself, I firmly believe organizers and participants do right by their dogs, going to great lengths to keep them healthy and safe.
I can guarantee Kristy and Anna do.