Sled Dog Care Part 2 — A look at Caring for Sled Dogs on the Trail
Sled Dog Care: What We Do On The Trail
This is the second article in a two part series on sled dog care. Learn about how we take care of our dogs when they are in the kennel in: Sled Dog Care Part 1 – A look at Dog Care in the Kennel.
We provide sled dog care out on the trail every time we train by assessing our dogs and their abilities. Good sled dog care in training translates to good sled dog care in races. While good sled dog care doesn’t necessarily equate to a first place finish, in order to finish well you must have good dog care.
Being the recipient for a humanitarian award is one of the highest honors a musher can be given while racing. The humanitarian award is given to the musher who demonstrates the best dog care on the trail. It is generally voted on by the vets and race officials. Travis has now been the recipient of two such awards by both the Tustumena 200 and the Copper Basin 300 races.
We have tremendous respect for all of our fellow mushers out on the trail who share a willingness to talk and teach about great sled dog care. We also have tremendous respect for all the vets who volunteer their time at races. Not only do the vets assess dogs but they also play a vital role in educating mushers on ways to improve their dog care. Check out Jodi Bailey of Dew Claw Kennel‘s great post “My Not So Secret Love Affair With Veterinarians” to learn more about the wonderful thing trail vets help mushers with.
Sled dog care during training can be broken down into three distinct parts: the care and assessment you do before a run, the care and assessment you do during a run, and the care and assessment you do after a run.
Sled Dog Care: Before A Run
Good dog care starts by assessing trail conditions, the overall health of your dogs and looking at the temperature.
One of the most important things we need to take into consideration before heading out on a run are trail conditions. Depending on the time of year and weather, sometimes the trail can present conditions that force us to adjust our traveling speed so that we reduce the likelihood of a dog pulling a muscle.
Hard-packed trail, especially early on in the season, can cause more strain on a dog’s muscles and joints – this however makes some sense. Imagine if you train for 3 or 4 months on dirt roads or grass for a marathon and then suddenly switch to running on hard pavement. Your legs would not be used to it and you would feel some soreness the next day.
New snowfall also forces the dogs to break trail. Depending on the depth of the snow, mushers may not go as far. Breaking trail through two feet of snow is incredibly tough and may only be done for 10-20 miles, whereas breaking trail through 6 inches of snow may warrant further progress.
Fall Training: Dirt & Ice
Early on in the season, we have to worry about how frozen dirt will effect feet. Do we booty to protect feet from abrasive gravel or should we leave the booties off for better traction on ice? Sometimes, trail conditions are poor enough that it warrants sitting the dogs or finding alternative methods of exercising them.
These decisions are up to the musher but are important to take into account. Mushers often try to train in all the conditions they would encounter on a race so that their dogs are adequately prepared.
Trail conditions play an important part in our decision making for the overall length of a training run. Because of this, assessing trail conditions is the first step in having great sled dog care.
Our on-the-trail dog care starts before we leave on a run by paying attention to our dogs feet.
Booties are changed regularly when we are out on the trail or racing. Whenever we stop the dog team to rest for a few hours, we remove their booties. I don’t know about you, but when I lay down for a rest I enjoy taking my shoes off.
Booties help protect our dogs feet from getting cut or abrasions on the pads of their feet and inbetween the webbing of the toes.
Making sure our dogs have short nails is also a key part to having a successful run. Long toenails effect our dogs posture and gait and can lead to more frequent injuries. Ideally, the nails should be kept short. During fall training, the nails generally wear down on their own due to running on dirt. In the winter, however, we must routinely trim nails to keep them short. Long nails can result in shoulder and wrist injuries. Occasionally, long nails can also get torn off.
Besides feet, we also have to look at the overall health of the dog. How does the dog look? Have they had diarrhea or do they look sore or perhaps lethargic? Are they in a good working weight? These are all considerations we have to take in to account when we decide to run (or not to run) a dog.
Before Iditarod, our dogs also have to undergo EKG’s and blood work to look for underlying health issues that may impact their performance and health on the trail.
Temperature also plays a role in sled dog care. During the early parts of fall training, mushers must be cautious not to run their dogs too far during warm temperatures. Later in the season, mushers must watch the temperature to assess their dogs need for dog jackets and male wraps.
Cold Training Conditions
When we begin training or racing in colder conditions, we must help our dogs stay warm. We must also be keenly aware of each dog’s unique needs and metabolism during colder events.
Dog jackets are an important way to keep dogs warm when it is cold out. Although our dogs are adapted to the cold they do need help staying warm when the temperature reaches about -25F.
Male Wraps & Belly Warmers
When cold, mushers often put male wraps on their male dogs and belly warmers on their females. These important pieces of gear help the dogs stay warm in cold temperatures. The wraps are specifically designed out of fur or another waterproof fabric so that the dogs can urinate on them without the urine sticking. These help our dogs keep their undersides warm where dogs sometimes have less hair.
Warm Training Conditions
Generally warm training conditions are much harder to overcome. Warm conditions require constant stopping to allow dogs to get rid of any excess heat and lots of water. Good hydration in warmer temperatures is imperative. Generally, mushers choose to run shorter distances in warmer weather.
Sled Dog Care: During A Run
Out on the trail we must constantly assess our dogs performance to make sure they are able to continue running. Fluke injuries, muscle strains, fatigue, and illness are all things that can impact a dog’s performance during a run. We are able to assess our dogs during a run in a multitude of ways: we look at their gait, we monitor their behavior, we assess their attitudes, and we judge their performance. Our job is to constantly assess our dogs. When assessing a dog we look at their gait, behavior, and attitude as ways to judge their overall performance.
Once out on the trail with our team, we watch the gait of our dogs relentlessly. We tune in to the rhythm of our dogs movement. Over the course of a run, we may find one dog falls out of sync with the rest of the team. Unlike his teammates, this dog is no longer moving completely smoothly. This subtle change in gait could indicate a muscle strain or soreness starting up.
Gait is indicative of many things. Although gaits can vary widely between dogs, a musher training for a mid-distance or long-distance race has to spend so much time with their dogs that they can easily spot a change in gait. You’d notice, wouldn’t you, if your friend was walking funny because they stubbed a toe? Although this is a gross exaggeration, this is a great comparison for how a musher sees their team.
We also monitor the dogs behavior while they’re running– Are they eating snow a lot? Is one dog pooping a lot? Is a dog looking back at me a lot? — as another way to assess our dogs overall physical condition.
Generally, when fully trained, our dogs will run anywhere from 30-80 miles at a time, stopping only for a quick snack of fish, chicken, or beef. If, however, we see a dog eating snow a lot (an indication they are getting hot) we will stop and rest the team, allowing the dogs to cool off. If a dog has been having lots of loose stools, we would check to make sure they were staying properly hydrated and adjust their feeding. If we were on a race, we would consult a vet. At home, if we notice a dog feeling under the weather it may warrant the dog spending a night or two inside and taking a few days off from training.
Attitude is an important way we can assess our dogs while out on the trail and is easiest to do while stopped. Are the dogs barking to go? Is one dog getting cranky whenever we stop? We look at our dogs attitude as a great indication of how they are doing on the run.
Overall during a run we are looking for changes in behavior, gait, and attitude as a way to look at our dogs overall performance and determine their eligibility to continue running. This is a subject that is quite complicated as, generally speaking, a musher does not wait for a dog to stop pulling to remove it from their team.
Sled Dog Care: After a Run
When we complete a long run, whether we are on a race or at home training, there are certain things we do to help keep our dogs in tip-top shape. Because of this, it is after a run that the the work for the musher really begins. The musher has many tools to assess their sled dogs. One of the acronyms mushers and vets use in looking at dogs is H.A.W.L. — this is easily remembered because “Haw” is the command for left.
H: Heart / Hydrartion
A: Attitude/ Appetite
During races, vets will often take stethoscopes to our dogs to listen to their hearts to make sure they sound normal. Mushers may also carry stethoscopes.
Over the course of 10 to 15 days, the Alaskan sled dogs and huskies racing the Yukon Quest will require roughly 6 liters (or quarts) every day. That’s 1.5 gallons of water for a 50-pound dog. A 150-pound human would have to drink 4.5 gallons, or 72 glasses, of water every day to keep up.
Fortunately, sled dogs are able to get a lot of their water from food that they eat. Mushers try to get water in their dogs by feeding lots of fish, frozen meats, and soaked kibble. In fact, a majority of the water sled dogs drink is actually in their food!
Checking hydration can be done by observing the color of urine. Well hydrated sled dogs have a very light yellow to clear colored urine whereas dehydrated sled dogs will have bright yellow urine.
Skin elasticity or the “Skin Tent Test” is another way to check for hydration in dogs. By lifting the skin on the back shoulder blades of the dog, one can quickly tell if a dog is dehydrated. In a well hydrated dog, the skin will snap back quickly. In a dehydrated dog, it will do so slowly causing a “skin tent.” Here is a short video about ways to determine hydration in dogs:
Appetite is a great way to assess a team’s overall condition – this is why you will generally see race commentators noting how the dogs are eating. A team’s appetite hugely influences the amount of rest a musher will take during a race.
If a team is eating well, a musher may be able to afford resting less. A team with a voracious appetite will have plenty of fuel to help them get further down the trail once it’s time to take off. Getting food and water into a dog team is crucial for success.
A team that is not eating well needs to rest until they are up to eating again. A team that is not eating well may be sick or tired.
How do the dogs look when they come in? A team that is barking and screaming to continue down the trail paints an entirely different picture than a team that comes in slow and tired. Ideally, dogs look alert, confident, and ready to go.
How do the dogs look? Do they have enough fat reserve should the weather turn? Are they able to stay adequately warm? During the demands of an endurance race such as Iditarod, maintaining good body weight is key for overall success.
How do the lungs sound? Lungs should sound clear. Dogs should not wheeze.
Foot care is, without a doubt, one of the most crucial aspects of our dog care. If a dog’s feet are not in tip-top shape, there is no way they will be able to run!
The first thing we do after every run is remove booties and check feet. When looking at feet, we look for splits in between the toes of our dogs, check for abrasions on the pad of the foot, and also look at the individual toes to make sure there is no soreness. Nails are also assessed as long nails or cracked nails can be painful!
Generally, we put ointment on our dogs feet to aid in the healing of any splits (think canine blister) and gently massage it in. The The ointment is more or less a Neosporin for dogs.
After massaging the feet, we also massage the dog’s front wrist joints and check for tenderness. Every sport has an injury that it’s athletes are more likely to receive – skiers worry about their ACL, football players concussions, runner’s ankle and knee problems – and for sled dogs its problems in their wrists. We proactively take care of wrist injuries through massage and wraps.
We also massage the shoulders of our dogs and stretch them out. We thoroughly work over each dog, massaging, stretching, and, of course, loving the dog. The Yukon Quest wrote a great article on the use of massage therapy on sled dogs — it’s definitely worth a read.
Generally, if we are on a race or series of runs, the dogs would then eat a meal and rest for a few hours before going out on another run and the cycle of observe, react, care and rest would repeat itself.
Why Sled Dog Care On The Trail is Important
During training, musher pay close attention to their dogs, analyzing their gaits, their habits, and their normal routines. Learning the intricacies of our dogs helps us recognize when things aren’t right so that we can take the best possible care of our dogs. Good dog care leads to dog results!
During races, we work closely with the trail vets to assess our dogs. Dr. Tim Hunt has a great two-part article about Dr. Stu Nelson: The Work of an Iditarod Trail Vet Part 1 and Stu Nelson — Part 2: Who is Stu Nelson, What He Does In His Free Time, And What you Can Do To Keep Your Pet Health Dr. Tim is the maker of premium dog food Dr. Tim’s as well as being a veterinarian and Iditarod racer. Stu Nelson is the Chief vet on Iditarod — it’s definitely worth a quick read.
We hope you enjoyed this blog post going over the basics of sled dog care out on the trail. Hopefully, we will be able to provide more in depth articles on sled dog care in the future!