Dog health and safety while mushing
At the start of every dog sled race or even training is the familiar sound of huskies making their presence known.
“They are screaming and pulling into their harness, trying to pop the brake. They are ramped and ready to go,” said Beargrease Head Vet Katie Neshek. “Then it is equally cool to see when they let the brake go and take them down the trail. Silence. They are just ready to work and ready to pull, and it is just amazing to witness.”
The Siberian and Alaskan huskies used for Beargrease are born to run.
“A lot of it does come down to genetics and there are a lot of them who are purposefully bred to be athletes.So that’s many, many years in the making for them,” explained Neshek. “Just like a hunting dog has the instincts to point or flush or a herding dog like a border collie has the instinct to to herd sheep and cattle, these dogs have the instinct to pull and to run. And good luck trying to stop them!”
Dog health and safety is a top priority for mushers.
“There’s a lot of myths that mushers are out there, you know, driving their dogs too hard and pushing them too hard, but the reality is that dog care is the first and foremost thing that successful mushers are thinking about,” said Beargrease musher Matthew Schmidt. “They’re taking really good care of their dogs.”
Extra precautions are taken depending on the trail conditions.
“Booties are used at certain temperatures and certain snow conditions to prevent ice balls. We also have dog jackets that protect dogs from the cold and from the wind chill,” said Schmidt. “When they get to a checkpoint, they get bedded down in straw and usually get a nice kind of a blanket over them and get all cuddly and snuggled in and try to get some fluid in them and recover and rest for the next leg also.”
With volunteers from all over the country, the beargrease vet team works around the clock to make sure the dogs are healthy.
“We have pre-race veterinary checks, so everybody gets a check ahead of time,” said Neshek. “We have multiple checkpoints along the race that are mandatory vet checks, so every single dog has to be checked there and then we are available throughout the whole race.”
Ligament, muscle injuries, and similar issues may arise along the way. If a dog is injured, musher and the vet team work together to ensure the dog gets immediate treatment.
“Everyone’s goal is the same: to have every dog be as happy, as healthy, as much as possible down the trail and I think it’s good teamwork,” said Neshek.
After the race season, the dogs rest for a few months in the summer before resuming training in the fall.
“I think it’s a perfect environment for what they’re basically born wanting to do because they get fulfilled both mentally and physically by pulling and running long distances and having mushers that are committed to them and getting them that outlet basically every day,” said Neshek.
Dog sled racing is a lifestyle for mushers and their dogs.
“It’s different than maybe what people think is what a house dog would be, but we as mushers, we take care of these dogs,” said Schmidt. ”In our minds, they’re world class athletes and they’re our best friends.”
The Beargrease statement about animal welfare can be found on their website.