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Smokin’ Ace Kennels | Dropped Dogs & Racing

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With race season upon us, we thought it’d be a good time to talk about ‘dropped dogs’, or what the Iditarod is now calling, ‘returned dogs’ and why a dog would be pulled from a team.

Have no fear, a ‘dropped’ dog does NOT mean a dog is simply left on the side of the trail! ‘Dropping’ a dog means the dog is removed from the team at a designated checkpoint; The musher cannot substitute another dog into the team, nor can this dog rejoin their teammates further down the trail. The athlete is handed off to a member of the veterinary team, who signs official dropped dog paperwork, examines the dog and recommends the best method of care and recovery. In the Yukon Quest, the dog is handed over to a member of the handler team for care over the duration of the race. In the Iditarod, the dog remains in the care of the vet team until the dog is flown out of the checkpoint. The dog is always in very good hands!

Matt tends to Rohn's paws along the Quest trail

Much of what we see on the trail are minor athletic injuries requiring the dog to be pulled from the team for the best interest of the dog. So, what constitutes a minor athletic injury?

The majority of minor athletic injuries that we see on the trail are sore wrists and shoulders (most commonly, triceps). Every wrist is checked when mushers take off booties. Shoulders can be picked out of the crowd with a head bob as they mush down the trail. Musher’s tend to these ailments with massage oil, wrist wraps, shoulder heaters, ice or heat. Massaging helps alleviate knots and gets the blood flowing to the area of concern. The massage oil alleviates swelling and inflammation (made from all natural oils and essential oils). The practice of wrapping keeps the wrists straight to ensure the tendons are kept from tightening down and so shoulders are kept warm and loose--We don’t want them to stiffen up during their rest! If these methods don’t alleviate discomfort and the dogs’ performance is altered, that’s when we drop them. If they’re dropped for these reasons, wrists typically take a couple of days to two weeks (at most) to heal. For a shoulder, one to two weeks on average. Recovery for a sled dog is FAST. They’re healthy athletes and bounce back readily.

If a dog has a tight hind end, it could be any number of things causing their stiffness. After every race we like to bring our team into our dog chiropractor, Dr. Jeanne Olson. She adjusts backs and wrists and necks. Once she noted the lumbar vertebrae L7 was out of place on one of our guys by noticing a chewed spot on the dogs left knee. With a quick pop, the dog was loose and happy and discontinued the chewing. Stiff necks can also manifest into sore shoulders, wrists and elbows. Simply put, a dog is like any other athlete competing in races, but with proper care and a well trained eye, we’re able to take very good care of them and they make a full recovery from these minor injuries. We learn something new every day working hand and hand with the race veterinarians and our personal kennel vets. At the end of the month, we’re attending a Sled Dog Workshop with Dr. Olson to learn how to spot these minor athletic injuries and how to care for them

Dusty and Loki resting at a checkpoint along the trail

Beyond physical ailments, dogs can also get dehydrated. Dehydration can occur if a dog becomes a picky eater on the trail or if the musher just can’t for the life of them determine what the dog wants to eat or drink (sometimes this happens and it’s not the mushers fault!) OR if they catch a bug. Imagine you just came back from a 10-mile cool run and your craving an avocado and a milk shake and you wolf it down immediately. The following day you do 20-miles and the temperatures are hot, just the thought of a milk shake makes your face cringe. This time a cucumber and lemonade sounds like the perfect post-race snack, but you wait a half hour before you eat. For this reason, mushers carry a wide variety of foods for the dogs (beef, liver, salmon, chicken skins, beef fat). If the dog doesn’t want to eat as soon as you get in, you must try and try again with different snacks and at different times. Sometimes you carry “delicacies” with you for those picky dogs. Whatever trick you play, if they’re still be picky little buggers, you might have to leave them behind in the care of your handler team. Typically, after a mere 4-12 hours of extra rest, the dog’s appetite is back on par and they’re scarfing down everything in sight. Their metabolism just needed a reboot. Thus, extra rest on the trail or by simply carrying the dog, can be one way to help a dog’s appetite and keep your eye on the dog’s hydration.

YQ Race Vet Greta checks out Koyuk on a routine vet check

Bugs are also common on a trail shared with 1,072 dogs coming from all over the world, like in the Iditarod. This is one reason for mandatory vaccinations protecting your dogs against a wide array of viruses (parvo, lepto, adeno, parainfluenza and bordetella bronchi), but as many of you know, viruses and bugs come in all shapes and sizes and are constantly morphing. Bugs can cause a variety of symptoms, some cause diarrhea which in turn means the musher needs to keep a keen eye on the dog’s hydration. Sometimes a dog can get an upset stomach and decide they don’t want to eat anything, but soup sounds nice. Again, rest and extra care will help shake these bugs. Fiber, probiotics & antioxidants can also help relieve and prevent these symptoms--Thus we carry a wide variety of supplements on the trail. Sometimes the illness is short lived (less than 24-hrs) sometimes it may take a couple days to shake. Sometimes it may force a team to scratch. We always hope to pick up bugs before race season to build up immunity before we hit the trails on the BIG races.

Routine Vet Check

Sometimes, the musher drops a dog because they’re just not having fun anymore. If they’re not having fun, we’re not having fun. Additionally, if the dogs attitude goes sour, it can trickle through the team and then nobodies having fun! So, we try to catch it fast so we ensure that doesn’t happen. It’s especially important to catch that attitude change in young dogs, you always want to make their race experiences super positive so when it comes time to race again, they're ready and eager.

Furthermore, you’re only as fast as your slowest dog. Sometimes, you sumo wrestler that helped you up those hills has done his part and now it’s time to call upon your track stars…OR your 790 miles into the race and maintaining a string of 14 dogs is tiresome. If you drop one or two, the other dogs in the team get more attention and the musher can get more sleep, thus perpetuating better dog care.

All and all, there are many reasons to drop a dog, but if a musher decides to do so, it’s in the best interest of the athlete and it’s typically a preventative measure so not to cause permanent damage to something minor. Dogs first!