“Close Encounters:” Studying Animal Behavior with Ethology

This year’s Iditarod is notable for a scary moose encounter. Champion Dallas Seavey was coming down a hill around a blind corner between the Skwentna and Finger Lake checkpoints and a moose was in his path.  This is not the first time moose have attacked sled dogs on the Iditarod Trail. During my time on the trail, I saw a couple of moose, and I feel lucky that I got to see them—from a distance.

A moose hangs out in the forest. Photo: Iditarod Media

Animal encounters happen every day on the Iditarod Trail between dogs and their mushers! As I met and talked with mushers, the number one thing they love to talk about is their dogs. Mushers know so many facts and details about each dog, such as its personality, food preferences, and sleep habits. Mushers know which dogs like to run next others and each one’s familial relationships.  Mushers study their sled dogs’ behavior as if they were scientists.  The science of animal behavior is called ethology. Jane Goodall, Steve Irwin, and David Attenborough are all scientists who study animals and bring this fascination to us. Mushers have a specific purpose for studying their sled dogs’ behavior: so they can do what they love to do together, run trails and race. 

Teachers at the Iditarod Summer Conference work together to get a canine athlete ready for training. Photo: Terrie Hanke

Students are wonderful ethologists. In our district, we have an animal resource called the Living Materials Center.  Animals can be checked out by teachers for 3-day periods for their classrooms. Over the years I have checked out ferrets, birds, snakes, frogs, a guinea pig, a red-footed tortoise and rabbits. The “close encounters” which  students get to have with these animals are positive and rewarding (unlike stumbling onto a moose). 

Students love to share their stories about animals they have come into contact with.

“In our class we had a rat visit from the LMC. It was hard to take care of because it had a strict diet. It was fascinating because it didn’t look the same as a stereotypical rat. It was all white and had red eyes. It ran really fast, probably to hide from predators.”

“In the LMC they have four ferrets. One tiny one is named Carrot. It has a little shark plushie that it drags around when it runs around the LMC.  It keeps it in its mouth, but if you hold it, or throw it, Carrot chases it. It’s so cute!”

“I was in a meeting to join the LMC as a volunteer and I met a red snake and two ferrets. The snake was lying down watching us, its head was facing toward me, and its tongue was coming out. The ferrets were taking a nap, they were in their bed, curled up next to each other.”

“My mom’s a teacher so I got to hold different animals, mostly snakes. I got to hold Draco (the snake) once, he was just resting on my hands, staying still or moving a little. The last animal we had from the LMC was Julius Squeezer, the boa, he was slithering around, and he was hard to hold onto.” 

“I got to meet Lilo the Chinchilla. My teacher would put up a little fence so the chinchilla could run around. It was fun because it was going everywhere running in circles, looking at everything. My teacher gave her a ball and she would chase it.  Another chinchilla hid under the shelter in her cage, and underneath her bedding. If you got near it, he would hide because he was shy.”

I think my students would talk about sled dogs as much as mushers do! 

Zola the hedgehog visited my class from the Living Materials Center. Photo: K. Newmyer

These observations show that students are paying attention to animal behavior. The Living Materials Center provides an invaluable resource for students that helps them gain confidence, empathy, and knowledge.  Director Ande Smith provides students aged ten and up opportunities to care for and interact with the animals on a daily basis. The work she does as an ethologist studying the animals’ behavior inspired the May lesson plan about why we study animal behavior and how to do it. 

In this lesson, students of all ages will learn how to observe and record sled dog behaviors and those of many other animals. They can use the sled dog videos and other animal videos embedded in the lesson or seek out opportunities near them to observe wildlife or animals in a zoo or nature center. Students will learn the reasons why observing sled dog behavior is important and fun! They will learn how innate and learned behavior is interconnected. And they might even get to know their own pets a lot better by studying their behavior. 

KattiJo Deeter interacts with dogs prior to the Ceremonial Start in 2024. Photo: K. Newmyer

I hope you have so much fun with this lesson.  Tell me about the animals you studied! Email me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com