"Damn Fine Dog"

Christian Sager

© Matt Cooper/ThickStock

It's well documented that the Iditarod can be dangerous for the dogs involved. In 2013 a "dropped" sled dog named Dorado died at a race checkpoint when it was buried under wind-drift snow and asphyxiated. His human musher dropped Dorado because he was moving too stiffly to race.

Sled dogs like Dorado face a variety of life-threatening matters just by running the race:

  • Overexertion.
  • Medical problems including foot injuries, fluid in the lungs, stomach ulcers, frostbite and muscle tears.
  • Dehydration.
  • Hypothermia.
  • Heart Problems.
  • Dog fights.
  • Moose attacks.
  • Strangulation from tangled lines.
  • Getting lost.

This doesn't take into account the abuse some dogs undergo at the hands of their own mushers. Documented examples include mushers kicking their dogs, hitting them with snow hooks and not providing them with appropriate food, water or shelter.

This is grim stuff. Unless you're some sort of monster, you probably don't wish these dogs harm. It's clear despite the dangerous nature of the event that most involved in the Iditarod do their utmost best to maintain the well being of these animals. The majority of the dogs have owners that love them and the race employs dozens of veterinarians to tend to them before, during and after the event. The dogs even wear fabric booties (seen in the photo above) to protect their feet from the trail's terrain.

To get an idea of how well intentioned the Iditarod is, let's look at how the race tends to its dropped dogs.

© dmfoss/ThinkStock

There are copious Iditarod rules and they're clearly documented to demonstrate the organizers' best efforts to avoid animal cruelty. The 2008 rules define this as "any action or inaction, which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog." They are very specific about how to care for and transport dropped dogs.

Dropped dogs are generally transported by a team of volunteer pilots called the Iditarod Air Force (IAF) to two main hubs along the route, the starting point in Anchorage or the finish line in Nome. A musher can drop a dog for any reason, but the top five are: fatigue, shoulder injuries, carpal injuries, foot lesions and diarrhea.

The Iditarod has a two-tier system of evaluating each dropped dog's status. First they're labeled with a color code:

  • "Red" means the dog may have either a severe injury or a life threatening condition that requires immediate attention.
  • "Blue" dogs are stable, but require medication.
  • The "White" label means that the dog is healthy but needs to rest. They are usually dropped as part of the musher's racing strategy.

Next, the dogs are categorized on a scale of 1-4 to prioritize their transportation needs:

  • Category 1 dogs simply await transportation to their home kennels.
  • Category 2 dogs have non-serious conditions that require treatment and medication to be provided at the Anchorage headquarters.
  • Category 3 dogs also have non-serious conditions but need transportation to a separate veterinarian facility indicated by their musher.
  • Category 4 dogs require critical care and are directly transported to an emergency clinic.

The guidelines clearly outline how volunteers should treat the animals. For instance, the dogs usually lose weight during the race so their collars don't fit as well and they might get loose. Should that happen, specific procedures are documented on how to handle a loose dog situation. Another rule for volunteers: cleats and snow grippers are banned so they don't accidentally step on a dog's already tender feet.

The IAF pilots are often former mushers, born and raised in Alaska. While they're all volunteers, their outside careers range from judges and doctors, to retired software developers and correctional officers. According to their site, the IAF move over 537 dropped dogs over the course of the race, as well as food, straw/hay, lathes, heet and lumber. They also fly all the vets, administrators and volunteers stationed at hubs and checkpoints. It's a lot of work, but these volunteers are dedicated to providing a wonderful experience for everyone involved, human or animal.

When outsiders criticize the Iditarod's treatment of animals, a common response is that they don't understand the legacy of mushing in Alaska. The Iditarod commemorates the 1925 diphtheria epidemic in Nome and the dogs & sledders that saved its population by safely transporting a remedy serum derived from horse blood. This serum couldn't be allowed to freeze, so the sledders pushed harder than ever before to relay it between checkpoints until it reached Nome intact.

Despite a common "rule of 40s" for sledding that recommends against running sled dogs in weather above 40º Fahrenheit (4.4º Celsius) or under -40º Fahrenheit (-40º Celsius), musher William Shannon pressed on in perilously cold weather and lost three of his dogs on the way to Nome. His own face went black from frostbite. Another musher named Charlie Evans had two of his dogs collapse. It's said he put them on his sled, took the harness on himself and lead the way for the rest of his pack. When the final musher reached Nome he reportedly collapsed next to his lead dog Balto and said, "damn fine dog."

While I can understand the cultural argument in favor of the Iditarod, there's a major difference between the run in 1925 and today's competition. The race to save the diphtheria victims was a five-day relay, while today's sled teams run the entire 1,131 miles in just nine to 19 days. Even back then dogs were lost and overexerted, so it's no surprise that their lives are at risk today.

Beyond the increased difficulty, the event has also led to a practice of some kennels culling dogs before the race. This means they might kill a dog if it's too sick, old or deformed to make a good sled racer. In 1992, musher Frank Winkler was charged with animal cruelty after he allegedly attempted to kill 14 unwanted puppies.

So while the Iditarod team does their best to care for the dogs in the race, it seems the accusations of animal cruelty pose a larger question. Is participating in the event itself an action that causes preventable pain or suffering?