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When a sled dog dies, should its musher be allowed to continue?

Craig Medred
A dog sleeps in a snowdrift during the 2012 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Loren Holmes photo

Almost since forever, it seems, there have been issues about how people treat sled dogs in Alaska.

"Any man of feeling who spends the winters with a dog team must grow to a deep sympathy with the animals, and to a keen, sometimes almost a poignant sense of what he owes them," observed author Hudson Stuck back in 1914. "(But) there is a great deal of cruelty and brutality amongst dog drivers in Alaska. At times, it is true, most dogs need some punishment....But a very slight punishment, judicially administered at the moment, will usually suffice just as well as a severe one, and the main source of brutality in the punishment of dogs is sheer bad temper on the part of the driver."

Those observations were made almost exactly 100 years ago. They would eventually be recorded in Stuck's book "Ten Thousand Miles with a Dog Sled."

Much has changed since then. Dogs now rarely work to further commerce as they once did on a daily basis. When they work now, it is usually for competition in sled-dog races. The biggest of them all -- the Iditarod  -- jumps off on a 10-day, 1,000-mile journey from Anchorage on March 2.

In the days leading up to the start, there will be much talk about how well the mushers of today treat their dogs, just as animal-rights activists launch their inevitable attack on the Iditarod as a "cruel" sporting event. In this "media age" there’s a new form of warfare called public relations. It is a war Alaska mushers have, by and large, been winning.

No more exhausted sled dogs

Modern-day sled dog racers understand the PR implications of dog care and dog treatment in a culture that has come to value canines not as fellow laborers, but as "companion animals." No more does one see "sled dogs overworked to utter exhaustion and their lagging steps hastened by a rain of blows," as Stuck wrote. "These are the sickening sights of the trail -- and they are not uncommon."

Such sights are uncommon now to the point of being almost invisible. The last musher to be caught raining blows on dogs was Ramy Brooks, who lost all emotional control along the Bering Sea coast during the 2007 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and whose behavior thereafter would well have fit Stuck's observations from long ago:

"...The main source of brutality in the punishment of dogs is sheer bad temper on the part of the driver and has for its only possible end, not the correction of the animal's faults but the satisfaction of the owner's rage."

Brooks, an Alaska Native whose roots are deep in the history of Alaska sled dogs, was for years an Iditarod contender expected to win. The weight of the expectations, some would argue, contributed to what happened in the village of Golovin, where Brooks vented his frustration on a faltering team once more coming up short of victory. For his actions, Brooks was booted from the race, publicly humiliated, banned from Iditarod for another two years and put on probation for three more. He has never been back.

What happened to Brooks sent a clear message. There have been no reports of people smacking any dogs since.

And the Iditarod has enjoyed an unprecedented run of luck on the public-relations front. Not a single dog died in the 2012 Iditarod. It was the third consecutive year the competition had gone off without a dog death. Many veterinarians back in the day wondered if there would ever be a race without a death. All still agree that back-to-back races without a single death are a statistical accident, nothing but a bit of good luck.

Something of a miracle?

Given the number of dogs involved in Iditarod, given the 1,000 miles of wilderness trail and the life-threatening conditions to man and beast, given the relatively short life spans of dogs, a death is -- statistically -- to be expected. That the Iditarod went without one for three years might be considered some something of a miracle, especially given some miraculous events.

Musher Scott Janssen thought he had a dead dog last year. An Anchorage mortician, Janssen knows what dead looks like, and the dog that collapsed in his team on the descent from Rainy Pass looked close to it when Janssen reached the animal’s side after getting his team stopped. The dog was down in the snow, lifeless, not breathing. Janssen started emergency mouth-to-snout resuscitation and actually breathed life back into the animal. By the time Janssen brought the dog into the Rohn checkpoint below the pass in the heart of the Alaska Range, the animal was doing pretty well.

Vets never did figure out why it collapsed. They often don't, and that's where the issue of how people treat dogs in Alaska today gets difficult.

Four dog deaths this month

A bit of a debate is raging in the sled-dog community these days because of the deaths of four dogs in three races over the course of about a week early this month. One dog died Feb. 7 of a twisted intestine that blocked its bowels during the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada to Fairbanks. That dog had already been pulled from the race.  Another died of as yet unknown reasons the same day in the Paul Johnson Memorial Norton Sound 450 race in Northwest Alaska. And two died of pulmonary edema, a build up of fluid in the lungs, during the Tustumena 200 Sled Dog Race on the Kenai Peninsula at the start of the month.

Two dog deaths in a 200-mile race is unprecedented in Alaska, and sparked musher and reporter Joseph Robertia to write a commentary for the Redoubt Reporter suggesting that the deaths might have been preventable.

"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," he wrote. Experienced Iditarod veterinarians say Robertia's observation is only slightly off.

Hot weather troublesome 

Dogs actually have more of a problem with the heat than with the cold, and there is less a musher can do to deal with the former. Many Iditarod dogs are now bred with thin coats, specifically because of the problem of overheating even when running in the cold. Thin-coated dogs can be protected from 40-degrees-below temperatures with coats or blankets. There is no efficient way to cool dogs in the heat, unless you can find some place for them to take a swim.

The two dogs that died in the Tustumena were victims of pulmonary edema, but what caused that is not known. It can be linked to a number of problems with running in warm weather. Dogs only sweat through their feet, and otherwise cool themselves through their mouths, which is why they pant heavily when it’s warm.

What protects them in summer is that they are able to thermo-regulate their physiology to acclimatize to warm weather. Essentially they reset their internal thermostats to a lower level and thus compensate for heat, though even then "heatstroke is a commonly recognized syndrome," according to Auburn University veterinarians who have studied the subject.

Forty degree temperatures might not at first seem like a big problem for dogs, but the animals also acclimate to cold. Thus, Alaska sled dogs might find their bodies thermo-regulating for temperatures near zero. Asking a dog adjusted to life at zero to run at 40 degrees is like asking a dog adjusted to life at 60 degrees to run in 100-degree temperatures.

"The temperature at the start of the T200 was 36 degrees when the first team went out on the trail, " Robertia wrote, "but as the GPS (global positioning system) 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."

Quick-and-angry response 

Robertia's observations drew a quick-and-angry response from Iditarod veteran Paul Gebhardt of Kasilof, one of the two mushers who suffered the loss of a dog.

"After reading this article, I would assume you should be a vet or some sort of dog care scholar!" Gebhardt posted online the day after the article appeared. "I have been taking care of animals for 56 years and am fully aware of the seriousness 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 critically suggested. Despite 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 themselves as a know-it-all do not help the situation."

The discussion did not end there. Several others (including the author of this commentary) entered the online forum at the Redoubt Reporter, and then four-time Iditarod champion Jeff King -- the third place finisher in the T200 -- lobbed a rhetorical grenade on his Facebook page.

"It seems to me a basic premise that all sled dog races should require that all teams entered, finish their race with all dogs alive when it's over," he wrote. Mushers and race fans have been going at it on his page ever since.

The Iditarod once had a rule that disqualified any musher who had a dog die. The rule didn't last long. It was first imposed in 1996. That  same year, the race's only five-time champion -- Rick Swenson -- suffered the death of a dog. Swenson was then and remains a revered authority on dog care. An outspoken and sometimes-gruff character, he has been often been described by friends and those who know him well as a "stupid, old, dog-lover" who hides it behind a cloak of machismo.

Prior to 1996, he'd run 20 Iditarods without a dog death. When not racing, he worked with a variety of veterinarians at his kennel to study dog care. The dog that died went down after Swenson wrestled his team out of 3 feet of overflow water. He took his Iditarod disqualification as a personal insult and waged a battle to ditch the rule.

By 1998, it was gone. Since then, Swenson has run every Iditarod -- 15 in all -- without another dog death.

Case against musher hard to make 

The rule calling for automatic disqualification was replaced by a rule saying mushers with dead dogs would be allowed to continue unless there was some evidence their actions contributed to the animal’s death. Most distance races in Alaska now have a similar rule. No one has been disqualified after a dog death, although some mushers have chosen to withdraw after losing dogs.

Race officials and former race officials say, and veterinarians agree, it is often hard, if not impossible, to make a case against a musher who has a dog die for unexpected medical reasons. Iditarod teams are often asked to push themselves to the limit. This is the norm in endurance sports, whether the competitors are dogs, horses or people. Trying to determine if an animal has pushed itself beyond the limit becomes extremely difficult.

If there are 13 tired but perfectly healthy dogs in a team and one dead one, it's hard to say the evidence points toward the team being pushed too hard. Instead, it tends to point to something being medically wrong with one dog, and the studies of dead Iditarod dogs have over the years found medical problems that can be treated.

After ulcers were discovered to be a leading cause of death, mushers giving their dogs Pepcid or Prilosec as a prophylactic protection. It seems to have worked as the Iditarod's Will Peterson reported in 2011:

"The cause of ulcers is not totally clear; it could come from a high-energy diet, or a high-in-fat diet.  It could be a physiological response to exercise.  While the cause is still unclear, how to reduce ulcers is doable. (Chief vet Stu) Nelson stated, 'I knew that if we could control ulcers, we could have zero deaths.  In the past we did nothing, and then three years ago, ongoing research by Dr. Michael Davis showed that an acid suppressant could control ulcers.'

"Davis does off season research on sled dogs in cooperation with kennel owners. Stu has taken that research and encouraged mushers to give acid suppressants to their teams. Ninety percent of the mushers are giving Prilosec or Pepcid every day during the race. Stu said the results are evident. 'I’m ecstatic. Last year zero dog deaths were considered an anomaly. Two years in a row with no deaths is a statement.  (2012 was a third consecutive year). The animal rights people who attack the Iditarod and the sport are not really interested in dog care. They have not spent one cent on research, not one cent on improving animal care. They need to put their money where their mouths are.'"

And that's where things get sticky again. Some other, possibly preventable, issues that might pose a threat to sled dogs are seldom discussed, at least publicly, for fear of providing ammunition to animal-rights activists.

Very slight punishment? 

And there are animal-rights people who attack the Iditarod for no other reason than a personal belief that a dog should never be asked to do more than lounge around the house. Just as there are probably a few in the fraternity of northern mushers who cling to an old-school belief that dogs should be run until they drop, cut out of the traces, and replaced with new dogs.

Most people, however, live in the middle. As Stuck observed a century ago, "a very slight punishment, judicially administered at the moment, will usually suffice." Now, try defining " a very slight punishment." What one person might consider slight, another might view as brutal. There is even a growing school of people who think "dominance training" techniques, which invariably involve some sort of punishment, are ineffective. They argue positive reinforcement training techniques are far better.

Both Swenson and the late Susan Butcher, a four-time Iditarod winner, helped encourage the latter idea in sled dog circles. As they observed, you don't win the Iditarod by making the dogs run, you win the Iditarod by making the dogs want to run. "Butcher revolutionized sled dog training by motivating her teams with love instead of aggression," Animal People News wrote in her obituary in 2006.

Always musher's fault? 

And yet, Butcher had several dogs die in harness during the Iditarod, including two that were stomped to death by a moose in 1978.

There, again, things get tricky. Is that the musher's fault? Some would argue yes. Some would argue no. Had Butcher been carrying a gun with which to shoot the moose, she might have saved the dogs. Fellow musher Dewey Halverson was carrying a gun, killed the moose, and saved the rest of Butcher's team.

She withdrew, but if she'd decided to continue, should that have been allowed?

Or what about a musher who has a dog die after being hit by a snowmachine, as happened to Minnesotan Jennifer Freking in the 2008 Iditarod? Who is responsible for that? Freking was allowed to continue. But how was what happened to her any different than what happened to Swenson. He, too, was a victim of circumstances outside his control. He had a dog die because of the inherent dangers of the trail, not because of anything he did.

It's a slippery slope.

The policy since the Swenson dog death has been to assume that essentially every dog death happened because of things beyond the musher's control. The result has been that almost every musher who loses a dog continues along the trail.

King -- another of the Iditarod legends -- isn't uncomfortable with that. Again, writing on his Facebook page, the new forum of our time, he had this to say:

"We scratch because we cut our finger; we scratch because we fall too far behind; we scratch because our dogs don't want to go into the wind anymore. But if a dog dies, we're sure that 'Ol Roy' would have wanted us to go on? Bull crap."

Welcome to Iditarod season. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com