Volunteerism: how does one become a member of the Iditarod veterinary staff?

by Stuart Nelson, Jr., DVM

“Volunteers” and “Volunteerism.” These words have received much media attention in the last few months. Our political leaders have been enthusiastically promoting the importance and significance of their roles in society, and the reason is obvious. Funding is not available for every good work that needs to be accomplished, and we, the citizens, have been encouraged to contribute our skills and time to worthy causes.

Just out of curiosity, I consulted with Webster’s New Dictionary for a definition and this is what it said: “ – volunteer n. one who offers service, joins a force, etc., of his own free will.”

The thirty first annual running of the Iditarod International Sled Dog Race is in the history books. Volunteers have been an absolute necessity since day one, and this year was no exception. We simply could not afford to pay for the hundreds of hours of professional services provided by the veterinary staff, let alone all the other groups of individuals who offer help and skills.

I have been continually impressed by the attitude of race volunteers during my years of association with the event. Many others have made the same observation. The Iditarod volunteers are a happy group of people, and they continue to be upbeat even when conditions are tough. It all makes sense. After all, they’re not here because it’s a job. They’re here because of their own free will; they choose to be here! Handsome salaries, health and retirement benefits, and paid vacations are all practical reasons for choosing a vocation. Unfortunately, they often become the primary reasons, and enjoyment or satisfaction may rarely occur in the workplace. Iditarod volunteers are not motivated by monetary returns, but by their desire to participate. That’s why they’re happy!

Each and every volunteer offers a valuable service. It is true that certain individuals may be better off financially, and one might logically conclude that they can more easily afford to donate their expertise than someone of a lesser economic status. However, it should be noted that their contribution is greater in absolute terms as the result of time taken away from a business environment that has the ability to generate the higher rate of return. Those who find themselves in a lower tax bracket are giving more in relative terms, because their discretionary income is less. In either case, the Iditarod is well served by their efforts, and all volunteers are most appreciated!

So, you might ask, how does one become a member of the Iditarod veterinary staff? Choosing participants has historically been the responsibility of the Chief Veterinarian for any given year. My protocol has been to mail application forms during May and June, with selection of the first team being completed in July.

Several criteria have been utilized for picking “trail vets.” Previous canine medical and surgical experience is very important, with five years of work in a clinical environment being considered minimal. Although some disorders are rather unique to sled dogs, one must be prepared to address all types of conditions that might develop. A broad based medical and surgical background is vital when taking into account that close to one-thousand dogs are traveling over eleven hundred miles during a ten to fifteen day period. Anything can happen, just as in other large populations of animals.

Previous knowledge of and work with racing sled dogs is a prerequisite. We all know the value of experience in any specialized endeavor. I can never recall a general musher meeting prior to a race when someone hasn’t expressed their concern for having their dogs examined by a rookie veterinarian. Those chosen to the Iditarod staff for the first time have worked previously in other races and/or have had dog teams of their own. The more, the merrier!

The first two criteria are fairly easy to measure objectively. However, personality traits, adaptability and innovative skills can be difficult to evaluate in an applicant, and a more subjective analysis is required. This is the primary factor in limiting the number of rookies in a race. The Iditarod is unique, even when compared to most other marathon sled dog races. Travel is strictly by air or snowmachine, living conditions are typically very crowded, meals are often haphazard, rest periods may be sparse and schedules can change at a moments notice. Many individuals do not function well under these conditions. Those with proven “track records” have already demonstrated that they are dependable even when Murphy’s Law rules! Everyone, however, must start with their first year, and it has been my goal to accept four rookies annually to allow for a smooth transition as the former generations gradually “fade away.”

Finally a candidate must be fluent in the English language. This may seem rather obvious, but there is the occasional foreign applicant who would be a great asset except for their inability to communicate! Yes, foreign veterinarians can and do participate. We have had veterinarians from France, England, Canada, Austria, Australia, Germany, just to name a few places. If you have questions about the Iditarod veterinary program or are interested in becoming a volunteer veterinarian, please contact Joanne Potts at