Without adequate dog care, marathon racing such as the Iditarod would not be possible. These athletes receive top quality care before and during the race. The dogs are trained for months before the race season starts. They are conditioned in a variety of terrains to prepare for different challenges.
These dogs receive high quality kibble along with a variety of fish and meat for energy. While on the trail, the dogs receive snacks about every 2 hours to keep their energy levels up. It has been said that a racing sled dog can burn up to 10,000 calories per day. High quality food in adequate amounts is essential. The mushers have a lot of time, energy, and money invested in their traveling partners. The mushers are not going to allow anything to happen to their dogs. Therefore, care is paramount. The dogs come first.
Mushers are required to carry a minimum of two sets of booties per dog. In actuality, most mushers change their dogs’ booties about every 100 miles. The booties protect their feet from collecting balls of ice on the pads or against sharp ice. If the conditions are extremely cold and/or windy the dogs might also wear coats for protection. Some dogs are now routinely wearing a t-shirt type of sweater. Leggings are now being worn by some teams to prevent the hair on the legs from being rubbed off against deep snow. In cold weather, the male dogs also wear sheaths to protect their private parts from exposure.
In the weeks before the Iditarod, the dogs undergo physical examinations including bloodwork and EKGs. This screening will rule out any dogs with medical issues. In a discussion with a few of the volunteer veterinarians, dogs at this top level of racing are in great physical condition.
Along with frequent feeding, the dogs are hydrated along the trail with a type of soup to which meat has been added. This ensures that they receive adequate fluids as well. Some dogs will also bite snow as they run along the trail for hydration.
Most mushers run and rest the same amount of time. For example, if the dogs run for 6 hours, they will then rest for 6 hours. When the dogs stop for a rest they have their booties removed. Veterinarians usually check the dogs at each checkpoint. The dogs have their vital signs taken, their gums are checked for hydration, and they are checked for any possible injuries. The musher reports on the dogs eating habits. The dogs have to be healthy or the vets don’t allow them to proceed. The dogs are massaged and checked over by their mushers. Heat packs are used if necessary for tired muscles. Ointment is applied to their feet. After eating, the dogs settle in for some sleep. They are often lying on straw and covered with blankets. After the dogs are taken care of the mushers will grab some sleep. The dogs are usually snacked again during the process of rebooting and getting ready for the trail.
Dogs can be dropped from the team for a variety of reasons. It could be an injury or the dog isn’t feeling well. Just like humans, they do get sick at the most inconvenient times. If the dog isn’t have fun running with his friends anymore that might also be a reason to drop him from the team. Mushers work hard to keep their dogs healthy and happy. The dogs have to have stamina and be mentally capable of making the run. Unlike a team sport such as basketball, there are no substitutions. The 16 best dogs have been selected for this journey by the musher. It is uncertain how many dogs on the team will complete the trip. The musher’s goal is to arrive in Nome with healthy and happy dogs. Without these 4 legged athletes, there is no race.
By Joy Davis, Target® Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™ Finalist