More than 300 sled dogs have been cleared to run in this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. KUAC’s Emily Schwing stopped by the vet check in Fairbanks on Saturday to find out what it takes to become a race-worthy sled dog.
Chatanika musher Dan Kaduce pulls his truck into a warehouse in south Fairbanks as two Yukon Quest veterinarians slap on latex gloves, swab thermometers with Vaseline and grab for their stethoscopes. The four time Yukon Quest finisher has 15 race dogs in his truck. They’re here for their pre-race check-up. Kaduce climbs out and pulls a 63 pound male husky from a dog box. “This is Draco. He don’t like females or strangers. He is from Fort Yukon," says Kaduce.
Draco sniffs at the air with his huge gray and tan nose. Sled dogs that come from rural parts of Alaska are often large. Their ancestors pulled sleds and worked traplines in heavy snow and deep cold. Kaduce squats down to comfort Draco and Yukon Quest trail Veterinarian Nina Hansen moves in for an examination.
“I start at the front and work my way back and I start generally with teeth and gums. He’s nice and pink," she says, as she looks in the dogs mouth. "When you push on their gums they turn white, they should back to pink in less than two seconds. And then I pick up their skin and it should fall down immediately and his does. He’s also a four for body condition.”
Race dogs are ranked on a scale from 1 to 5. Number one means the dog is too thin. A five means the dog is overweight. Most of Kaduce’s dogs are ranked as fours. “I just feel their hip bones, you shouldn’t be able to feel their spine between there," she explains. "You should be able to feel their ribs, and I can. He seems like a more nervous dog, so his heart rate is probably going to be a little higher than average.”
Hansen listens to Draco’s heart and checks his paws. “He has big feet!” she exclaims. Dan Kaduce agrees.
Draco is definitely large in comparison to other Quest dogs. At two-years old, he’s also young, which is why he isn’t microchipped yet. All Yukon Quest dogs are required to have microchips. It’s a tiny radio frequency device, with a unique identification number. Hansen reaches for a needle and inserts the chip under the skin on Draco’s back. But Draco doesn’t even wince. The chip is smaller than a grain of rice. “Alright, let’s scan that,” says Hansen. She uses a green rectangular scanner to make sure the chip is working.
This is the third time she’s examined Draco this winter. He ran the 350 mile Top of the World sled race in December and the 300 mile Copper Basin in early January. Hansen was a vet for both races. She says he doesn’t appear any worse for the wear. “I want to say his body condition is maybe a little bit better," she looks up from the dog. "He was never thin. But there should be more weight on them now because they’re doing a thousand miles. The top of the world, they just need to go 350, but he was never too thin.”
Hansen approves Draco for this year’s Yukon Quest. “He looks great!” she calls, and Kaduce hefts the brown eyed dog back into the truck. He reaches for the next one and the whole process begins again.
Nearby, Kathleen McGill surveys the scene. This is her seventh year as Head Veterinarian. She first started working with quest dogs as a trail vet more than a decade ago. Since that time, she says race dogs have changed significantly. “The feet were not as good as they are today," remembers McGill. "There was a lot more lameness. The dogs just weren’t as toned and as athletic I think. More recently, we’re getting more of a hound-like dog and the feet are still really good, but the coats are thinner and the dogs aren’t thin, but they’re more athletic.”
Over the last two years, mushers, judges and veterinarians have all voiced concerns about dogs’ physical appearance toward the end of the race. Some have finished underweight. A rule change this year requires mushers to carry an adequate amount of emergency food in addition to what they routinely carry on the trail between checkpoints. Race Marshall Doug Grilliot will be watching to make sure dogs stay well-fed this year. “We’re gonna have a little bit more of an emphasis on the dog’s weight issues," explains Grilliot. "A lot of that comes down to communication with the mushers in a timely manner from vets and officials. You don’t wait till the last minute. Most of the dogs will get progressively better or progressively worse as the race goes on.”