Iditarod 2009: Dropped Dogs

To everyone involved in sled dog racing, the term "dropped dogs" is a very familiar one. I've used the term here recently, and it occurred to me that those of you who are not as familiar with the sport might find a little explanation useful:

In every sled dog race -- not just the Iditarod -- mushers will often decide that it is no longer good to run a dog. This is occasionally due to injury, but the vast majority of the time it is simply because a dog is fatigued, sore, not eating well or just lacking enthusiasm. In such cases, the musher "drops" the dog from the team at a checkpoint.

For example, Allen "dropped" two dogs -- Kipper and Quito -- in Nikolai yesterday. There was nothing "wrong" with the dogs, but Allen decided it wouldn't be good for them to run any more. Specifically, both are young, hard working females. They are also both small dogs. With temperatures relatively high on the trail, some of the dogs -- including these two -- are not eating aggressively and are losing some weight. Because these two are small to begin with, they do not have any "reserve" weight to lose. Since Allen's primary goal is to give the Kennel's young racers a positive experience on the Iditarod, he didn't want to take the chance of running them any further and having their experience go sour. So, he "dropped" them.

What happens next is that the dogs are "handed off" to volunteers at the checkpoint whose sole job it is to care for the dogs until they can be flown out on the next available plane. These "Dropped Dog Volunteers" are all experienced sled dog handlers who feed, water, walk and house the dogs in a temporary kennel at the checkpoint. Like all volunteers -- and everyone involved in Iditarod -- they are "dog first" people.

As soon as space on a plane is available, the dogs are flown either back to Anchorage or on to Nome, depending on where along the Trail they were dropped. Upon arrival, the team's "local support volunteers" -- usually friends of the musher -- are notified and they pick up the dog. Our dog care support team in Anchorage is Ken & Amy Wheaton, who just called to say they have picked up Kipper and Quito and to give us the "report" on why they were dropped that I've shared with you above. Amy added, "Heeler has had our undivided attention for the past two days, so he seemed a little bummed to have company. Now that Tony is here, too, we've got four great dogs to love!"

Tony's path to the Wheatons included spending a night in prison. Before you jump to conclusions about Tony being a bad dog, let me simply explain that when dogs cannot be picked up right away by local supporters, they are cared for by select inmates of the Anchorage prison. The dogs are very popular with the inmates and they are very, very well cared for. So, when it is no longer good for the dogs to run they are "dropped" at a checkpoint and remain on site until they can be flown to supporters in Anchorage or Nome... With an occasional night in the slammer! At every step of the way, they receive loving care, lots of attention and tons of affection.

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