While the dog drivers, or mushers, who enter the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race certainly play a role in the competition, the sled dogs are a crucial component of the team.
Sled dogs are bred for their speed and endurance. Training starts when dogs are a couple months old, and begins with getting them used to a harness and collar. As they get older, they learn verbal commands and start to pull light loads. Most sled dogs competing in the Iditarod are between 2 and 10 years old. They train year-round, with the most intense training starting in the fall before the March running of the Iditarod. Distance runs ramp up as the race nears, and by the start of the Iditarod, most dogs will have covered around 2,000 or 3,000 miles.
Because a team competing in the Iditarod must have between 12 and 16 sled dogs, most of the dogs live in kennels. A kennel might house as few as 20 or as many as 150 dogs, but a typical kennel has around 75. Living conditions at the kennels vary, but some dogs are housed outdoors, each with his or her own dog house and a tether or chain. Some kennels practice culling -- killing a dog if it is sick, too old, deformed or won't make a good sled dog. The amount of nutritional and veterinary care, exercise and the cleanliness conditions vary by kennel.
Sled dogs need to eat around 10,000 calories per day during the Iditarod race. The race rules say that "an adequate amount of food is required to be shipped" to specific race checkpoints [source: Iditarod]. It is up to each musher to determine exactly what type of food and the amount to be shipped. Volunteer veterinarians along the race route perform exams and check log books for each dog kept by the mushers.
In the Iditarod, dogs run for hours at a time over snow, over ice and through water. They are well equipped to live in cold climates, with thick coats, wide, flat feet and tails that cover their noses for warmth when they sleep. Still, they are exposed to a range of hazards, from dog fights and tangled lines to getting lost and moose attacks. In a USA Today column, Jon Saraceno wrote of possible injuries for sled dogs: "In addition to fluid in the lungs, bleeding stomach ulcers occur, as does general cramping, dislocations, fractures, muscle and tendon tears, tendonitis, dehydration, hypothermia, raw paws, penile frostbite and viruses [source:USA Today]." In addition, they can die from "exertional myopathy," or running themselves to death. It's estimated that more than 120 dogs have died during the Iditarod since its inception in 1973.
When a sled dog is about 10 years old, or has injuries or other circumstances that prevent it from racing, it is retired. Some mushers keep retired sled dogs as pets, some sell or give them to other people, and some are scooped up by rescue groups to be cared for and/or placed in a new home. Life expectancy for sled dogs is around 12 to 15 years.
While many sled dogs are well loved and cared for, there are some documented cases of sled dog abuse by Iditarod mushers, including:
- In 1985, musher Wes McIntyre kicked a dog after it bit him, and the dog later died. McIntyre was disqualified [source: Anchorage Daily News].
- In 1990, Jerry Riley, who had won the 1976 Iditarod, was banned for life from the race after allegedly hitting a dog with a snow hook. Nine years later, he was allowed back in the race [source: Anchorage Daily News].
- In 1992, Frank Winkler, a two-time Iditarod racer, was charged with animal cruelty for his alleged attempt to kill 14 unwanted puppies [source: Anchorage Daily News].
- In 2005, musher David Straub was found guilty of animal cruelty for not providing proper food, water and care [source: Anchorage Daily News].
- In 2007, Ramy Brooks was disqualified and also suspended for two years and put on probation for three years for abusing his dogs during the race [source: ABC News].
In the next section, we'll learn about where various organizations stand on the Iditarod.