‘Tis the season for dog sledding! The most famous and challenging dog sled races, the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, take place in February and March every year. These races are 1,000 miles long through rugged terrain and extreme winter conditions. A true test of endurance, courage, team work and skill for humans (Mushers) and their dog teams.
A Musher, the dog sled leader, starts the race with a team of between 12 and 16 dogs. Those dogs all wear, you guessed it, dog boots!
Dog boots, a subject close to our heart, are required equipment for every team. The Iditarod rules require each Musher to carry a minimum of eight boots (2 sets of boots) per dog for the duration of the race. A Musher easily goes through several thousand boots in a season for training and racing. The Yukon Quest has a similar requirement of eight boots for each dog and that these boots must be either in the sled or in use when a driver signs out of each checkpoint. Dog Boots are worn during the race to prevent snow balls from forming between the toes and to protect dog paws from injury due to ice shards and abrasion.
Dogs have a higher body temperature, 100 F (38.06 C) to 102.5 F, (39.17 C), compared to 98.6 F (37C) for humans. A dog’s resting heart rate is in the range of 100 to 102 beats per minute (bpm) compared to 60-100 bpm for humans. This means a dog’s metabolism is higher than that of humans, their blood circulates faster and they burn more calories than humans.
Because of their higher body temperature snow melts between their webbed toes forming snow balls. Anyone with a dog who has suffered from snow balls between their toes knows how irritating and debilitating it can be, even leading to severe frostbite if left unattended. The use of dog boots prevents the formation of snow balls in between the toes, and enables dogs to run at peak performance in all types of snow conditions.
Each dog requires about 10,000 to 12,000 calories of meat, salmon and kibble per day to stay healthy and working to the max during the race. In comparison, a professional cyclist riding in the one of the Tour de France’s daily stages (approx. 175K) only consumes 6,000 calories a day, half of what a sled dog requires. Mushers always feed and care for their dogs before themselves.
Dog boots and proper care go a long way to help the dogs endure the race conditions. The harsh conditions take their toll on even the hardiest and well cared for dogs. Although a Musher may start the race with a team of as many as 16 dogs, they usually finish the race with far fewer. To win the Yukon Quest, the winning team must finish with at least five dogs when crossing the finish line. Iditarod requires finishing with at least six dogs.
Dogs are identified and kept track of via a microchip. Dogs that are fatigued or injured can be dropped at "dog-drop" sites along the race route. Once the dogs are in Anchorage, the information is checked by the crew who then transport the dogs to the Eagle River Correctional Institute where a group of in-mates care for them until the Mushers handlers arrive to take them home.
Alaskan or Siberian Huskies are the most common breed of sled dogs. There’s even a school the “Alaska Mushing School” to teach dogs how to be sled dogs.
It is well accepted that without the Inuit Sled Dog, the Inuit and their ancestors could not have survived in one of the harshest and most unforgiving climates on Earth. In recognition of its vital role, the Inuit Sled Dog was honored in May 2000 as Nunavut’s official mammal, chosen above such northern icons as the polar bear, caribou, musk ox and seal.
Most of us don’t go to those extremes to enjoy the outdoors with our dogs. For those that do my hat is off to you – once I get back indoors that is. Happy trails everyone.
To find out more about the sled dog races: visit http://iditarod.com/ and http://www.yukonquest.com/