Monday, May 8, 2017

Doing the Dog Drop Function

The closest most volunteers can come to the mushers and dogs is working in the Dog Drop area. Next year I will hope to do this a lot more but I did two shifts there and loved it.

For a little background, as you probably know,each musher starts out with sixteen dogs. There are  very few exceptions. That is the maximum team size allowed by the rules. In the Yukon Quest it is fourteen and some of the shorter races have varying team sizes, but for the Iditarod it is sixteen. A thousand miles is a long way to go, especially when you realize how fast they have to move to make that journey in less than nine days--including at least forty hours of mandatory rests and more as the musher may choose to take. It is no surprise that some dogs get tired, some get injured and some get sick. At each checkpoint, sometimes as early as the very first one, mushers decide or the vets advise that a dog be taken off the team or 'dropped.'

The Dog Drop Office-a Conex
Each checkpoint has a waiting crew of dog handlers who take charge of these dogs and care for them until they can be picked up by one of the aircraft of the "Iditarod Air Force", volunteer brush pilots who ferry people, supplies and dogs to and fro along the route. Sometimes this can be a matter of hours and sometimes a day or two, even more if the weather gets too stormy for flying. Generally the dogs are put into crates or shipping kennels although occasionally they are just leashed and controlled by one or two handlers on the smaller planes. They are brought back to Anchorage and there the Dropped Dog crew takes over.

Dog drop area with dogs,
big trailer in background.
Sometimes the aircraft can land on the frozen lake that sits just south and west of the  hotel headquarters. This year most of them came instead in larger aircraft to the general aviation airport at the south end of that small lake. Some of the Dropped Dog crew drives over in a dog truck to pick them up. Below is a photo of a typical dog truck such as almost every musher has to haul his or her team. This year there was also a trailer with even more boxes for the dogs--a total of forty! Back at the hotel, an area has been laid out in a staff parking lot--a long line to which the dogs can be fastened and most of the snow cleared. The dogs are unloaded from the truck one by one and clipped in place, just far enough apart they cannot fight, attempt to mate or get tangled up.

A typical dog truck 
Almost at once, a team of two or more volunteer veterinarians and their assistants careful check over each dog, checking any wounds, taking vital signs and noting their general condition. Meanwhile other volunteers spread straw so each dog has a little nest  just as they use out at the checkpoints to give them some insulation from the cold wet ground. The old time Malamutes and Siberians could sleep comfortably on a snow bank but the modern racing dogs have much thinner coats and can get chilled, especially if they are weary or not well.

A dropped dog--they come in all colors!
Once the vets have checked them and taken any dog needing urgent care into a small Conex that is the temporary clinic, each dog gets a bowl of kibble and water. Most of them gobble and lap this right up but a few are finicky, maybe preferring another flavor of dog food or feeling anxious. This style of feeding is common in the mushing community and used at most kennels. Putting the dry food into water--warmed if it is cold enough to freeze very fast--helps insure the dogs stay hydrated.

Meanwhile another volunteer is contacting as many of the designated handlers for each musher as possible for them to come and pick up their charges. If the dogs cannot be picked up within a few hours, they are reloaded and taken to the women's prison at Eagle, just north of the city on the Parks Highway, where they will be cared for by inmates, who love the privilege, until the race is over and their folks can come for them.

Selfie at the Dog Drop Office
The afternoon I worked, I helped to spread straw, feed, scoop up any messes quickly and then just talked to the dogs that seemed anxious, maybe get down close to rub and massage them. Not only have they been separated from their musher and teammates but they have been hauled around from pillar to post and some of them are feeling a bit of trauma. A calm voice and a gentle touch can make a big difference. These dogs are mostly very people-oriented since they are socialized extensively from early puppyhood.  A few are aloof but most of them are friendly. I fell in love with several and would have spirited one or two away if I could have. It was another great experience!

I was well assured that each dog is cared for with much TLC. Any sickness or injury is dealt with promptly and those with no serious issues get food, water, attention and their needs are met as well as possible. That was heartening indeed and I wish those naysayers who feel these dogs are abused or unloved could witness the love and attention lavished n them. It truly is "all about the dogs."