By Nikki Allen, Finalist for Target®2010 Iditarod Teacher on the Trail™
Ask any musher what the Iditarod is all about and they will likely say, “It’s about the dogs.” These very special athletes are what draw us to the race. From the very beautiful, but slightly slower, Siberian huskies, to the faster mixed breeds called Alaskan huskies, Iditarod sled dogs are top-of-the-line world class athletes that have capabilities far beyond any human ability. Sled dogs have an amazing ability to adapt to stress. Where a human body would experience fatigue during a long endurance race, sled dogs have the ability to maintain a high level of caloric burn without depleting their reserves of fat and glycogen. This is what makes their metabolic process special and allows them to be able to run for long periods of time without experiencing fatigue. The key to this process is their diet. Sled dogs burn 10,000-12,000 calories per day during a race which is why they are fed top-of-the-line kibble supplemented with fish and other meats that are high in fat. Can you imagine getting to eat salmon on a daily basis? These sled dogs have a higher quality diet than most humans! Iditarod mushers are very particular about the food and quality of care given to their dogs, which creates a loving and trusting bond between musher and dogs. Visit an Iditarod kennel for any period of time and you will feel the warm affection that exists between the mushers and their canine athletes. Because sled dogs have constant interaction and attention from humans from the time that they are born, most of the dogs that run the Iditarod are extremely friendly. They are always interested in giving licks and wrapping their front paws around you as they stand on their hind legs to give you a hug.
Of course, the favorite pastime of a sled dog is running. It is so exciting to see the reaction of Iditarod dogs at the first sign that they will be put in harness for a race or a training run. The synchronized howling and barking is as if they are trying to make themselves stand out so that they will be chosen to be hooked to the line for a run. Once the entire team is chosen, harnessed, and hooked to the line, the excitement that they show is electrifying! Some take a roll in the snow, some begin to try to pull (although the brake is still on), and some will spring up and down off the ground repeatedly. All in an attempt to say to their musher, “Let me run, and let me run NOW!” As the brake on the sled is released and the dogs lunge forward with their sled and musher in tow, they are obviously happy dogs. As they travel their designated trail they quietly operate in sync with one another; each dog focused on going forward. They are in their element and are content with doing what they love and what they do best. These are Iditarod sled dogs who are always ready to run!
Images courtesy of Nikki Allen. Thanks, Nikki!