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Business News/ Specials / What It Takes to Be an Iditarod Sled Dog
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What It Takes to Be an Iditarod Sled Dog

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To race over 1,000 miles through snowy mountains and forests, canine competitors need toughness, training and unbridled enthusiasm.

FILE - Iditarod winner Brent Sass poses for photos. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News via AP) (AP)Premium
FILE - Iditarod winner Brent Sass poses for photos. (Anne Raup/Anchorage Daily News via AP) (AP)

In veterinary school I was taught that dogs are physically incapable of smiling, because they lack the necessary facial muscles. I doubt the veterinarians who determined this ever witnessed the beginning of a sled dog race.

Every year, dozens of canine competitors travel to Alaska to participate in the longest, most famous dogsled race in history, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The start is always complete bedlam. Drunk on adrenaline, the dogs whip themselves into an almost insane state of anticipation. They strain at their harnesses; some jump and leap into the air, howling with excitement. While we wait for the start signal, I scan the sea of dogs. There’s pure joy on each and every face—and absolutely no doubt in my mind that they’re smiling.Of course, I’m smiling, too; I’m one of hundreds of volunteers who work to ensure that the race runs smoothly. I first volunteered as a trail vet on the Iditarod in 2012, and I’ve only missed a couple of years since. The event is held during the first two weeks of March, when the conditions for sledding are optimal. There’s still a heavy mantle of snow on the ground, but it’s cold and dry, so the sleds can glide effortlessly, their runners hissing along the trail. Days are broken up into an almost equal period of light and dark, with frigid nights and daytime highs that won’t overly fatigue the dogs.

To say the Iditarod is tough is an understatement of the highest order. The route is 1,049 miles long, to honor Alaska as the 49th state. The dogs and the humans who drive the sleds, known as mushers, battle steep mountains, freezing streams, treacherous snowdrifts and deep spruce forests where headlamps are necessary even in broad daylight. Competitors must be prepared to go toe-to-toe with and even protect themselves against wild animals, including the occasional charging moose, which can hit a sled team side-on with the force of a pickup truck.A team typically consists of the musher—the word derives from “marche," the command a French musher would traditionally give—and up to 14 dogs, hooked together in pairs. Dogs are by nature pack animals, and even a team of untrained huskies attached to a sled will almost always instinctively bound in the direction of another team they see or smell in front of them. This, of course, is exactly what a musher wants them to do. It’s the musher’s job to seize that energy and channel it in the most effective way.Most of the dogs are Alaskan huskies. As any husky owner knows, they are proud, intelligent creatures with seemingly infinite energy, prone to bouncing off walls if they’re not exercised enough. Some of the most demoralizing howls of sadness I’ve heard in all my years as a veterinarian have come from dogs dropped from the race, watching their teammates leave without them.I’ve observed these dogs as they prep for the race. When one begins a plaintive canine song, the other dogs join in until the din of the chorus is deafening. They leap and dance in their harnesses; only the snow hook—a piece of iron about the size and shape of a hand-held garden fork, set firmly in the ice—keeps them from rocketing forward. It’s not a stretch for me to say that huskies enjoy the thrill of competition, that they want to win their race.Mushers take great care in selecting and training their dogs. Like Olympic competitors, they practice for almost their whole lives. During the summer months, the teams pull wheeled carts along dirt tracks, learning to work together and test their limits. They learn to trust each other, and, critically, the musher.

Dogs are assigned specific roles on the team. The brightest and most capable are selected as the lead dogs, the two in front. Lead dogs guide the sled and team through the wilderness, deciding how to surmount obstacles; their call, right or wrong, is final. Directly behind them are the swing dogs, whose job is to make sure that their teammates behind them work in unison. If the lead dogs go left around an obstacle, the swing dogs ensure that everyone else goes left, too.

The wheel dogs are the pair directly in front of the sled. They’re usually the biggest dogs on the team; they pivot the sled, making sure that when the lead dogs and swing dogs swerve around an obstacle, the sled is primed to change direction. The rest of the dogs—six to eight, between the lead and wheel dogs—are team dogs, and they provide the heavy power.

A successful musher must learn the strengths and weaknesses of each member of the team, strike a careful balance, and defuse often dramatic rivalries. Dogs show loyalty and camaraderie, but they also vie for dominance, and get angry, feisty, distracted, sullen, and jealous. The musher becomes the coach who not only takes the athletes to the peak of their individual potential, but ensures that they all cohere as a unit.

The musher’s job is deeply challenging. An oversight during race preparation or a moment’s lack of concentration can prove disastrous. Still, it’s the dogs who are far and away the most important participants in the race. They alone provide the forward motion as the sled powers more than a thousand miles through what can be brutal conditions. Even the mushers who are household names in Alaska admit that the real stars are the dogs.

At the ceremonial start of the race, the dogs seem to enjoy the attention, grinning at the camera in a way that only huskies can. Their eyes radiate excitement, their mouths are open and their tongues, all bright and pink, wiggle back and forth. Some appear to pose for photos, standing up straight and proud, with their tails curved over their back. Other dogs are aloof, eschewing the admiring crowd to hang out alone or with their canine companions.

When the race is about to begin, the dogs strain at their harnesses, and mushers have to firmly anchor their sleds to prevent a false start. Yips and barks fill the air as the team anticipate the end of the countdown. When the signal is finally given, the dogs know what it means. The bottled-up anticipation explodes as soon as they’re free to run. They bolt out, oblivious to anything but the trail ahead. The sled bounds forward with the motive power of 14 dogs.

Now, they’re in a state of unbridled exuberance. It is a wild, barely controlled melee. Balanced at the end of their sleds, the mushers are also elated. The metal runners hiss as they glide over the ice. Sparks fly when a patch of bare asphalt is encountered. After a hundred yards of a full-on sprint, the mushers shout, “Good dogs, good dogs!" and the dogs drop off the pace, falling into an organized trot. The dogs relax. Both man and dog share a moment of glee; the dogs are laughing. Some leap high enough that all four of their paws are hanging in space. All of Alaska is ahead of them.

Lee Morgan is a veterinarian in Washington, D.C. This essay is adapted from his new book, “Four Thousand Paws: Caring for the Dogs of the Iditarod: A Veterinarian’s Story," published Feb. 27 by Liveright.

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