Sorrow of the sport — Dog deaths as difficult to sort out as they are distressing

By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter

The death of two dogs during this year’s Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race mar what should have been another outstanding year of competition provided by one of the most professional organized and well-run mid-distance race organizations in the state.

The official cause of death for both dogs has been determined by veterinarians to be pulmonary congestion/edema leading to hypoxia. Both mushers have been cleared of any misconduct or abuse.

Any death of a sled dog in a race presents a difficult and dismaying situation. Determining what happened  can be a challenge. Even more challenging is determining whether, how or when a situation could have been noticed and a death prevented.

The death of these dogs, at the very least, should illustrate how temperatures in excess of 40 degrees, combined with shining sun, can be just as dangerous to dogs and require just as much diligence as 40 below with biting wind.

The temperature at the start of the T200 was 36 degrees when the first team went out on the trail, but as the GPS units the mushers all carried revealed, they spent a large portion of the race in temperatures that got as high as 43 degrees. This is extreme weather for dogs that spent the better part of the start of this winter in temperatures from 20 below to 40 below, depending on the part of the state in which the teams trained.

Warm weather requires an entirely different race strategy. Mushers need to be vigilant with their hydration before, during and after each run, and look for signs of heat stress or dehydration during each run. They have to balance if the booties the dogs normally wear for foot protection are worth putting on for all or a part of each run, since the booties can also inhibit a dog’s cooling ability.

Mushers may have to snack their dogs more often, or vary their snacks to something wetter. Carrying a cooler of water or broth may even be necessary. And most importantly, mushers may need to do something that is inconceivable to many of them — slow down, not running the dogs as far or hard as they could or normally would.

When mushers don’t or won’t do right by their teams — whether rookies not yet experienced enough to know all these things, or professionals who do know but are willing to risk dog safety to eke out a better place in the final standings — there has to be an infrastructure of race officials and veterinarians who have the knowledge, ability and backbone to stand up to mushers to protect the dogs.

There needs to be more people standing up to do the right thing for sled dogs, particularly in a race environment. Part of the problem is, in small-town races that are almost solely volunteer driven, there are few people who would know enough about the physiology of sled dog racing and husbandry to notice the subtleties of a dog in distress. Fewer still are people who can make these identifications in the brief snapshots of time the dogs are at checkpoints, and are willing to stand up to what, in many cases, might be hometown heroes or celebrities of the sport.

In the larger races the problem is further compounded by the lack of desire to make public the actions of mushers driving their teams beyond their limits. Worse still is bringing to light a dog’s death during an event. The big race organizations know that few things can cause sponsors to pull funds or public opinion to turn like a sled dog death.

There also is the concern that an ousted musher may sue the race organization. With most races surviving on a shoestring budget as it is these days, they don’t have the funds to endure lengthy litigation.

But no matter what the fallout for disqualifying a musher putting performance ahead of their dog’s health or well-being, it’s the right thing for a race organization to do. The dogs deserve that protection, and some races have made steps in the right direction. Four-time Iditarod champion, Jeff King, has a non-negotiable rule in his 265-mile Denali Doubles race — if mushers have a dog die for any reason, they are immediately disqualified. Perhaps the T200 board will consider implementing such a rule.

Accidents can and do happen in mushing, like any sport, and the causes and circumstances surrounding a death can be difficult to settle definitively. But there should be no gray area in how race deaths are handled. If mushers know they will be scratched from the race in the event a dog dies, no matter the cause, there will be less temptation to push dogs beyond their limits. Sled dogs shouldn’t have to die for mushers to win a few bucks or have an adventure. If enough mushers putting competition before compassion are ousted from the racing roster, eventually all the people left will be positive ambassadors of the sport.

Winners should always be the ones who have the best run based on their dog care, their individual teams’ fitness level and the mushers’ own adaptability to change their race strategy to meet the environmental conditions being encountered, not a person who ran a team to the brink of exhaustion without any casualties. And mushers should always be the best representatives of dog care that they can be, so fans can feel good cheering for them, and sponsors can feel good enough about supporting them to give money to a racing event for them to compete safely.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Redoubt Reporter. He and his wife, Colleen Robertia, are mushers who own and operate Rouges Gallery Kennel in Kasilof.

17 Comments

Filed under mushing, Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race

17 responses to “Sorrow of the sport — Dog deaths as difficult to sort out as they are distressing

  1. Paul Gebhardt

    After reading this article I would assume you should be a vet or some sort of dog care scholar! I have been taking care of animals for 56 years and am fully aware of the seriosness of the high temps for a dog team and if you took the time or consideration to ask the mushers in question They would have told you that they took all the precautions you so criticaly suggested. Dispite all efforts and good intentions dogs,other animals and even people still do die! and it is a very VERY sad thing when it happens But armchair mushers who try to appoint themseves as a know it all do not help the situation. They only shoot off their trap about things they think they are experts at instead of helping the situation.I thought it was a GOOD journalists responsability to report the facts not just one persons opinion. I would expect a lot more from a fellow musher. But that is just my opinion!

  2. Jane Fuerstenau

    Thank you to the Redoubt Reporter for tackling such a difficult and controversial subject. When dog deaths are reported in the news (and this story has gone nation-wide) it gives our local sport a black eye. The fact is that dog mushing and sled dog races are sponsored by “armchair mushers” and dog lovers. We all need to understand why these deaths are happening and be assured that they won’t become more frequent.

  3. Jeff Bell

    If Gebhardt cares so much about his dogs, why did he only spend a few minutes tending to his sick dog before jumping back in the race to take 4th place and a bunch of money? I found the evidence on theT200 facebook page. He was traveling in a fast group of mushers that left the last checkpoint within 10 minutes of each other, and finished within 10 minutes of each other. So nobody saw him? Nobody passed him while he was stopped? How did he finish less than a minute before Marrs if he gave cpr to his dog? It doesn’t add up!! Maybe the other dog sled racers can speak up and tell us what really happened.

  4. Danny Seavey

    Joseph,
    I think I feel the same way as you do about dog deaths, and I like to think it’s not just luck that has gotten my family 50 years without one. That being said, journalism is supposed to be about presenting facts and perhaps offering solutions or answers, not playing judge and jury.

    You article provides no facts. I wasn’t at the race, and I have no idea if anyone did anything wrong. Who should have done what differently? Your warm weather mushing suggestions are elementary, and I would assume every musher took all those steps and more.

    Did you see Paul or Nick fail to do any of the above? Did they ignore warning signs? Did volunteers not “stand up” to mushers? What are the warning signs of pulmonary congestion? Could a better vet check have prevented this? Did Paul or Nick do anything differently than you or Colleen would have?

    Worse, to automatically accuse two mushers of running dogs to death for a 4th place T200 paycheck without mentioning that the paycheck is $2,000 and the dog is worth $3,000 is terribly misleading.

    I’d agree there is probably something that could/should be done in this case. A race that has never had a dog death that all of a sudden has two is cause for alarm. I’m all for more education, better vet checks and have no problem with an “automatic disqualification” rule. Maybe listening to lungs every hour would catch this, every musher would do it if someone suggested it, look at the prilosec craze.

    But I’m not ready to accuse two friends and mushers of about the worst accusation you can make, and then accuse the race of covering it up, without a little more research, proof, facts, and those other things that go into journalism.

  5. Joseph Robertia

    To be clear, at no point did I accuse Paul or Nick, specifically, of any wrong doing. In fact the column states they were both cleared of any wrong doing. But still, I am sorry if this was hard for them to read at a time when they are grieving.
    My point was broader and at its core, written to advocate more safety measures, and more protection for sled dogs, and that’s something all mushers should be able to get behind. Your comments here are proof this column was worth writing as it is starting dialgoue and spurring suggestions that may help dogs in future races.
    More than trying to get mushers, in this race or others, to ask if they have deliberately caused harm to their team by running too hard, too long, etc, I was trying, in part, to get mushers to ask themselves have they always done everything possible to protect their dogs while racing them.
    I wanted mushers thinking about if it is as hot as it was, even if you train 100 mile runs and that was your race strategy, maybe pulling back a little or slowing down, or resting longer and placing a few positions further back or out of the money, would be better for the dogs. And this IS something Cole and I routinely do while racing, and it has often cost us positions and prize money. In that same time, I have seen my fair share of mushers putting competition ahead of the health and well being of their team, but I have seen few who would admit it after that fact.
    While there are a lot of mushers doing right by their dogs, there are an equal number who are not. I have been in post-race meetings where the officials said they were embarrassed by the conditions of the top placing teams, yet didn’t exercise their authority to disqualify them for their lack of dog care. I’ve had the handlers of professional mushers call me to ask if there was anyone they could call to stop the beating or the secret culling of dogs at that kennel. And, I’ve had mushers I or my wife have beat in a race tell me they would be shooting the dogs they had in that race when they got home because if our dogs could beat theirs, they weren’t dogs worth keeping.
    So as indelicate as this column may have seemed, try to understand it was actually written quite delicately considering how many dark secrets of the sport there are that the average fan isn’t aware of. I am a dog lover first, a musher second, and I will always champion what is best for the dogs, even if it is to the detriment of a musher’s reputation or the sport.

  6. When I heard one dog died in the T200 I was astonished – for such a short race it was hard to wrap my head around. I thought as many did, the high temps had much to do with it. Then when you add in the lack of snow contributing to less than ideal training for sled dogs in Alaska this season I started to think the two may have been contributing factors. When I heard a second dog died I was blown away. When the necropsies revealed the two died from Pulmonary Edema the idea that conditions external to the dogs/kennel exposure had to have played a part. Pulmonary Edema is a symptom always caused by something else. In this case it may never be resolved as to what caused the deadly lung condition in these two dogs. But what strikes me the most is how does a race organization allow any musher (rookie or veteran) with a dead dog continue on? Its deplorable ethically. As a musher it is my job first to make sound decisions for my team. Dogs will run themselves to death – not just sled dogs, I’ve heard of labs so eager to please they drop dead alongside their human running companions. Running dogs who are not conditioned to high temps can be dangerous. Whether these dogs were conditioned or not I have no right to say. But I will say the Mushers should have known how their dogs were handling the temps. They should have noticed labored breathing, coughing or pink frothy sputum and stopped their personal race to allow the dogs to get enough oxygen to their bodies. The race officials knew it was warm – did they or the vet crews check temperatures on the dogs at any point to screen out for heat exposure? I don’t know the answer to that – but I do know that it is standard practice by some race organizations.
    I found it not ironic at all that Seavey dogs dominated the weekend. They lead the way for high temp conditioning by keeping their dogs running in some capacity all year – Travis Beals’ dogs came over the finish line banging harnesses and barking for more – another musher who runs tours and therefore conditions his dogs all year. Another musher Leon (T100) specifically dropped a dog because it doesn’t run well in higher temps – he didn’t wait for it to develop problems – he did so preemptively to protect the dog at his own expense. He did that because he knew the team and knew enough to draw the line.
    Did these two mushers over bootie under hydrate or even over hydrate which can cause Pulmonary Edema – I don’t know but the bottom line is what will the T200 as an organization do in response? Will they change their rules and standards? Should there be added assurances in place when a race falls on a weekend where temps are soaring. In sprint racing we have temperature cut-offs why not have some policies in place in the distance field?

    • Craig Medred

      Jill:
      A little history. The Iditarod once had a rule banning mushers from continuing if a dog died. The rule became hugely contentious when Rick Swenson, who hadn’t had a dog die in 20 years and who is a master of dog care, was disqualified after a dog strangled in harness when he was trying to get his team out of overflow on the Yentna River.

      It was a nasty scene on a nasty night. I and an Anchorage Daily News photographer actually went out behind Rick and remarked a trail around the overflow. Swenson was pretty upset about what happened. Everyone agreed the death wasn’t his fault, that given the circumstances it was what you might call an act of God.

      But Rick was disqualified per the rule. He considered it an insult to his reputation. And the shit hit the fan. Behind the scenes, to set the background, the guy had been a tireless advocate for better dog care, which made it hard to argue against his position that the rule was unfair to him.

      Needless to say, the rule went away. In its place came a rule which left it up to race officials to decide if a musher could go on after a dog death. I don’t know that it has ever been officially applied, but after two of Lou Packer’s dogs died of hypothermia in 2009 (?), he left the race.

      Ideally, of course, if there are dog care issues the best thing is to get mushers out of the race BEFORE dogs die, and Iditarod vets have become of a lot more proactive in that regard over the years. I know of some cases of teams that have been eased out because dog care wasn’t good, or because the dogs had simply been asked to do too much.

      The Iditarod, of course, is unique in that it has vets at every checkpoint. And the checkpoints, by luck of accident, are pretty close together on the section of trail where heat stress is most likely to be an issue. I don’t think any middle-distance race can afford to match what the Iditarod does vet wise.

      That, however, might only make it more important someone do more to try to determine what exactly happened in this year’s T200. There might be something mushers could learn from these deaths to improve dog care in warm weather, if indeed the deaths are warm weather related.

      All anyone really knows for certain now is that in a 200-mile race run in unusually warm conditions there were two dog death among the approximately 550 dogs to start, which is certainly outside the statistical norm.

    • Jill,
      We too were astonished, I would ask that you speak to our vets, any of them to get the answers to your questions regarding the Pulmonary Edema findings.

      The T200 does take measures to ensure the safety of both the dogs and the mushers, the changes we’ve made over the last few years will show that. And to be clear our rules state that; “If necropsy shows musher abuse, musher forfeits all earnings and is permanently banned from any future Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race Association races.” No abuse or misconduct was found, both mushers were distraught and neither continued on. Nick withdrew after a long rest and Paul had finished the race. Paul’s dog Sox passed very close to the finish line and was immediately taken by our head vet for a necropsy. The T200 will be looking at our rules and standards as we always are but to be perfectly honest I personally don’t believe that changing our rules on dog death will matter. I might be naive but I don’t believe that an automatic disqualification will deter a dog from dyeing. Sure it makes the decision so much easier on the race and officials but would it really change the way mushers run a race? Our first rule in dog care is much more valuable, “Mistreatment of dogs will cause immediate disqualification from any Tustumena Race. Such action will be reported to all major race organizations. The race marshal and judges will have authority over this matter. If further arbitration is required, it will be handled by a quorum of the board of directors in a timely manner.”

      And yes of course our vets kept a vigilant eye on all the dogs checking for warning signs of all kids including temps. With the larger field of mushers we had 2 vets at each checkpoint and every team was looked over when they arrived and before they left.

      When the T200 Board of Directors meets again you can be sure that the passing of these 2 dogs will be a the top of the agenda. If you have any questions or want the facts please feel free to contact me.

      • Jane Fuerstenau

        I think we need to stop making race organizations responsible for every event that occurs along the trail, and pretending that the volunteer vets are magicians with cradle to grave knowledge of every dog running the race. The truth is, dogs come to this race with a variety of health issues and levels of training. How can a vet, while examining a dog that is not one of their regular patients, completely diagnosis that dog’s ability to run another 100 miles ? Mushers know their dogs best. I see the vets as a valuable tool to assist mushers in taking better care of their dogs. If the musher is unwilling to share pertinent information with the vets, then the vets can’t do their jobs.
        And a vet should never be put in the position of “race police.” The T200 vets are volunteers that may only see sled dogs once a year. After the race, they need to be able to return to their practices without prejudice. Let the Race Marshall make the tough calls with the vets as advisors.

        The race organization itself is doing a great job if they can provide a safe trail and sufficient volunteers to allow the race to run smoothly. Do we really expect them to be able to control what happens on every mile of trail? Is it their fault if a musher, spectator, or Mother Nature misbehaves along the way? How are they going to decide what is and isn’t abuse? I notice the T200 rules have a loop hole that reads: “Beating or abuse of a dog must be distinguished from cuffing or appropriate discipline of a dog.” which means that “abuse” is subject to interpretation and sometimes mushers can hit a dog if they think he deserves it.

        Race organizations may be willing to take on all this added responsibility, but I don’t think it is reasonable. A dog death along the trail is more likely to be caused by neglect than by abuse, and the list of non-actions that lead to neglect is infinite.

  7. Craig Medred

    I saw no one accused of any wrongdoing here, though I did see one small error. Robert’s observation that “temperatures in excess of 40 degrees, combined with shining sun, can be just as dangerous to dogs and require just as much diligence as 40 below with biting wind” isn’t quite accurate.

    The warm weather conditions are inherently more dangerous, which is why the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race no longer has an Anchorage start. Back when it did, there were a lot of dogs that came close to death on the 20-mile run to Eagle River. Dogs, as everyone here knows, do not do well in heat, most especially sled dogs that have spent the winter outdoors and acclimated their thermoregulatory system to life in the cold.

    With a thin-coated dog at 40-below, you can alter the situation with a coat or blanket. The same is not true for a heavy-coated dog at 40-above. There is no field-efficient way to cool dogs down in the heat.

    If there is a member of the ISDVMA reading this, I’d love to read his or her view on adjusting run times to temps. As someone who has put a dog in serious hurt running in the heat, and as someone who had another a dog drop and nearly die from heat stroke, I know personally the problems heat can cause.

    The first case of heatstroke was remedied with an ice-water bath. The second involved a dog that had overheated so bad the ice-water bath only caused him to start losing fluids at both ends, which resulted in a quick trip to a vet to have him put on IVs, which saved him.

    All of this is why I’d like to see someone answer Danny’s questions above, because the rest of what I’ve seen here just raises more questions. It’s my understanding the causes of death on these two dogs was pulmonary edema. So what caused the pulmonary edema? There are a lot of possibilities.

    One among them is hyponatremia (low sodium in the blood) due to prolonged exercise. It has killed human runners (who were thought to have been drinking “too much” water) and Ken Hinchcliff, DVM, documented hyponatremia in sled dog dogs back when he was working with Rick Swenson in the late 1990s. I believe he attributed this to urinary sodium loss and higher respiratory rates, which is what is seen — pant, pant, pant — in dogs going hard in warm weather.

    There are also issues as to hyperthermia which kills dogs here (yeah, even in Alaska) every summer. I know people who’ve had dogs die that way. They were good people who would never even think of abusing a dog in anyway.

    All of which is meant to underline that this is not meant to point a finger at anyone. It is meant encourage someone to further investigate why these dogs died. That might lead to some knowledge on better ways to run dogs in warm weather.

    It could be the two deaths were just an anomaly. It could be that all that this was bad luck for two teams. Shit happens. Ask Swenson.

    But two dead dogs in a mid-distance race contested in unusually warm weather certainly does raise questions, and I’m sure Paul would be among the first to want to know if there is a safer way to run dogs in warm weather.

  8. Jill Kramer

    This article has successfuly brought to the table several issues, for that Josesph Robertia should be congratulated. Unfortunately his article is weak on factual reporting and perhaps could have been more substantially discussed with more medical/vet facts. Hundreds of dogs are venturing onto glacier living for tours every summer in Alaska…are any dying? are they dealing with heatstroke? or perhaps simply overheating (once or maybe twice per summer) and what does that do for the dog’s ability to race in the future under “warmer” temps? Genetics related in dogs dying of the same cause in the same local area? Lots of dogs are related in AK!! Instead of blaming mushers, lets as a dog loving community of people try to learn from these dog deaths and figure out how to prevent them in the future….policing races is not the answer, nor is dq-ing mushers for dog deaths but there are lots of opps here to perhaps change up some rules and create more substantial and available information on dog’s running in warmer, wetter conditions.

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