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.