Over the weekend, veterinarians looked over the sled dogs that will run the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race in both Fairbanks and Whitehorse. They wanted to make sure the dogs were healthy, well-fed and ready to race on the 1000 mile trail.
Inside a large warehouse, veterinarian Nina Hansen checks the paws and teeth and listens to the heart beats of sled dogs.
“I look at their eyes make sure their eyes are bright and clear,” she explained. “I look at their mucus membranes you can get a good idea of how well hydrated a dog is by looking at their mucus membranes,” Hansen said. “I look at their teeth. They should have clean teeth that are in good shape. If there’s a lot of dental disease, just like in people that can lead to problems in the rest of the body and then I will assess body condition after that and I just run my hands along their spine, feel their ribs, feel their muscles in general,” she said.
A small reddish-brown dog stood nearby. This dog didn’t have a radio frequency microchip, so Hansen reached for a needle and inserted one in the skin just behind the dog’s ear.
“So, it’s about the size of a grain of rice,” she said. “It’s a passive identification when you run this scanner over it, it will come up with a unique number that only this dog has so we use this to identify them.”
This is Hansen’s first year as the Yukon Quest Head Veterinarian, but she’s worked on the race for the last six years. For the most part, these dogs are calm, alert and many of them wag their tails. Hansen isn’t surprised.
“When I was in small animal practice, which I did for three years, there was not a day that went by that a dog did not bite me,” she laughed, “but I have been working with sled dogs for seven years now and I have been bit one time by a sled dog and I have looked at thousands of sled dogs,” she said.
“Sled dogs are very well socialized, they’re great to work with they’re great with people they’re used to being handled, they’re used to being around people,” Hansen said.
A group of black and orange dogs surround us. They belong to four-time Yukon Quest Champion Lance Mackey.
“Mine are very personable, very opinionated, they always have something to say it seems like,” he said of his dogs.
Mackey last ran the race in 2013, but he did not finish that year. He says this year, only one of his dogs is returning as a veteran. The others are young two-year-olds he hopes to develop over the coming years.
“I want to race them like they are five-year-olds, because I feel I have something to prove because of my race season in the last few years,” he said.
The fiercely competitive Mackey is one of four returning champions. As well, he’ll face off against a few big names who’ve never raced the Quest – that includes Ray Redington, Junior.
“Don’t count me out. I want my two minutes,” Redington said.
Redington may be a rookie to the Quest, but he’s run 13 Iditarods, finishing in top ten four times. He decided to sign up after the race committee decreased the mandatory layover at the midway point in Dawson City from 36 to 24 hours this year. “I like the 24 versus the 36, I think the race is going to be definitely ran faster if we have good trail conditions because of that,” he said.
This year, mushers are also required to take two additional six-hour layovers at a checkpoint of their choosing in the first and last thirds of the race. Like most of the sled dogs signed up , Redington’s team checked out well. He says they’ve been in good shape all season. “Everyday after runs, they’re stretched out. When you’re taking their booties off, we’re going through their feet to make sure everything is good and if they have any problems then you work on it,” he said.
… And most of the musher’s set to race are confident their teams will hold up on the 1,000 mile trail from Whitehorse.