What’s so great about the Iditarod dogs?

What’s so great about the Iditarod dogs?

Iditarod dog sled

As I write this post, I’m getting the stink-eye from Fido. I didn’t take him to Westminster and now we’re not going to the 43rd Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

He doesn’t care so much about today’s opening ceremonies — a run with more than 1,000 dogs and 79 mushers along five blocks covered in trucked-in snow through downtown Anchorage.  He’s got his eyes on the official start Monday of the greatest of dogs and humankind 700 miles through snow, ice and wind from Fairbanks to Nome.

To console him, I’ve been feeding him factoids about the Iditarod and its dogs. But first some history:

What is the Iditarod?

The Iditarod, which means “distant” or “distant place” in the languages spoke by the Athabaskan people of northwestern Alaska, is a city, a river and a trail. The abandoned city is about mid-way through on the southern route of the race. The trail was the only way to get mail to the city in gold rush days.

In the old days, dog teams were the most reliable way to move across the snow when the rivers froze. Sled dog teams hauled cargo, passengers, gold and famously — in 1925 — serum to fight a diphtheria epidemic that threatened Nome.

Relay teams carried the serum 674 miles from Anchorage in about six days through temperatures that rarely rose above minus 50°F and winds strong enough to blow over dogs and sleds. Balto, the lead dog of the final team that ran 53 miles to reach Nome with the serum, is memorialized with a statue in New York City’s Central Park. But another dog deserving recognition for his contribution to the effort was Togo, who ran 260-miles on his leg of the relay. He is now on display at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla, Alaska.

After World War II, airplanes, snow mobiles and all-terrain vehicles began taking over the traditional tasks of dog sled teams.

The first race was held in 1973 with 34 teams starting and 22 finishing. Race founder and musher Joe Redington, Sr., named it to promote recognition of the trail as a historic site and to help keep Alaskan dog sledding alive.

How quickly the race is run depends on the conditions.  The fastest the race was ever finished was eight days, 13 hours, 4 minutes and 19 seconds in 2014 by Dallas Seavey and his dogs. The slowest winning time was 20 days, 15 hours, two minutes and seven seconds.

The Dogs of the Iditarod

The dogs who run the Iditarod are among the finest athletes on earth:

  • A typical 45- to 55-pound dog competing in the Iditarod will burn about 10,000 calories a day, according to the Iditarod media guide. On a body weight-basis, this is seven times more than a Tour de France cyclist.
  • The aerobic capacity of a typical Iditarod dog is about three times that of an Olympic marathoner.
  • According to the Iditarod website, “Pound for pound, the sled dog is the most powerful draft animal on earthy and a team of 20 dogs averaging perhaps 75 pounds each can easily match a team of horses weighing more than twice as much . . . Dogs are faster than horses over the long haul, capable of maintaining average speeds of eight to 12 miles an hour (including rest stops), and can exceed 20 miles an hour or more on shorter sprints.”
  • Only American huskies or Alaskan malamutes can compete. This rule came to pass after musher John Suter attempted the 1988 race with standard poodles on his team. Most were dropped out the race at checkpoints due to matted hair and frozen feet.
  • The dogs eat a specially formulated premium kibble with more protein and fat than commercial kibble.  They also are given fat supplements and snacks, often Alaskan salmon, which is high in nutrition and water. The intensive research by companies such as Royal Canin, Purina and Iams into the nutritional needs of sled dogs has led to improvements in pet food formulations.
  • With up to 16 dogs per team, food and supplies have to be shipped ahead to the checkpoints along the course. That can be 2,000 pounds of food for a single team over the course of the race. Each team may go through 2,000 of the booties used to protect the dogs’ feet from ice and cold.
  • Iditarod dogs are some of the most studied and documented dogs in the world. Their extensive medical testing before the race — an ECG, complete blood work, vaccinations, complete worming, microchipping and tracking at each checkpoint and to the point where owners pick them up at the end of the race is included in the musher’s $3,000 entry fee.
  • Stuart Nelson, DVM, is the Iditarod’s chief veterinarian.  He’s been associated with the race for 37 years and chief vet since 1998. Fifty-two vets will be stationed on the race trail this year performing thousands of exams on individual dogs.
  • Each dog team can have up to 16 dogs. To win, at least six dogs have to be in harness crossing the finish line.
  • While the first place musher will get a new pickup truck and $70,000 this year, the lead dog (or dogs) usually gets the Golden Harness. The winner is decided by a vote of the mushers and it doesn’t always go to the winning lead dogs.  In 2008, it was awarded to Babe, the lead dog of third-place musher Ramey Smyth. For Babe, 11, it was her ninth Iditarod.

Due to the warm, dry winter, the route this was changed from Anchorage to Nome to Fairbanks to Nome, a 968-mile route that is 16 miles shorter than usual and a little flatter as it goes along frozen rivers.

As defending champion Seavey told Fox News: “Just because it’s a flatter trail does not mean your dogs can all of a sudden do 10 times what they’ve been able to do in the past . . . In the end, this race will not be won on tricks or gimmicks.  It will be won on good dogmanship.”