Whose fault is it?


Musher Brent Sass/Wikimedia Commons


Updated: This story was updated on Feb. 14 to include a 2007 dog death in the team of then rookie Quest musher Brent Sass. 

For the second year in a row, Eureka’s Brent Sass has pushed a dog team beyond the pale in one of the state’s premier long distance races, and a lot of people are feeling sorry for him.

Here’s how the Alaska Dispatch News  headlined the latest debacle: “Concerned about dog’s safety, Sass scratches from Yukon Quest.”

Concerned about dog’s safety? If Sass was concerned about the dog’s safety, would he really have pushed them to the point two toppled and the rest of the team struggled so badly he had to use a satellite communication device to call officials of the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race to come to the rescue?

Were this a one-time thing, a freak misjudgment on the musher’s part, it might not be so troubling. But it’s not a one-time thing.

Flashback to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race just last year. Sass drove a team into White Mountain in third place in Alaska biggest sled dog event, and there the team quit. After a mandatory, eight-hour rest, it refused to leave the checkpoint.

Sass ended up spending 26 hours in White Mountain before the team was willing to go. He dropped from third to 20th in the Iditarod, and most everyone got to read about how sad it was for Sass.

“He maintained a team of 13 dogs all the way to White Mountain…but that’s where Sass’s team made their own decision to stop, something that might not have happened if Sass’s team had still included his former lead dog, Basin,” Jason Sear and John Thain at reported. 

“Sass was emotional Tuesday evening after pulling into Nome under a blanket of northern lights. He held back tears as he spoke to reporters about the dog.

“‘There were a lot of times when I was like, ‘If i just had Basin…’ You know,’ said Sass. ‘He was like a dog that rallied the whole team. I feel like my whole season would’ve been different had I not lost him.'”

Basin wasn’t there because he was dead. During a training run along the Denali Highway in the winter of 2015-2016, Sass parked his team and left it. Some dogs chewed loose from their harnesses and attacked Basin. Another musher arrived on the scene to break up the fight, but he, Sass and a lodge caretaker were unable to save the dog.

In explaining his dogs faltering in this year’s Quest, Sass suggested they had genetic weaknesses inherited from Basin. They didn’t. Basin’s death was not linked to anything genetic.

Touchy, feely, New Age guy

The 37-year-old Sass is, by all accounts, a really nice guy. He has a whole bunch of fans. He is no Rick Swenson to whom the term “gruff” was attached so many times it became the cliché description for the legendary, five-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champ.

Sass is so nice that e-blogger “Beauty and Bread” was led to wonder “Why Does Everyone Love Brent Sass?” She then proceeded to answer her own question:

  • “He cries at the drop of a hat.
  • “He laughs just as readily at himself and at situations; he’s never without a smile.
  • “He is just as genuine in person as he appears on video.
  • “He acknowledges and appreciates his friends, fans and followers.”
  • And etc., etc., etc.

All of this somehow made it not just OK, but a tragedy for Sass personally when in the 2011 Quest he arrived, as B&B decsribes, at the “Circle checkpoint with a story of the death of his wheel dog, Taco. Tears streaming down his face, he told the story of carrying his friend’s body in his sled bag until the dog drop at Slavens Roadhouse. That was the first time I’d seen even a photo of Brent, and he looked like a kid. I cried along with him.”

First there was a team dog named Melville, dead in 2007; then a wheel dog named Taco, dead in 2011;  then Basin, a Golden Harness winning lead dog, dead in 2015; and now a couple of dogs toppled over and in such bad shape that Sass thought he had to call for rescue to keep them alive.

And the reaction to this is what?

“Eureka musher Brent Sass, whose career has been plagued with a series of mishaps, absorbed another Sunday.”

That’s how Mike Campbell, a reporter and editor at the Alaska Dispatch News and before that the Anchorage Daily News since 1980, described the latest Sass screw up.

It’s all about nice-guy Sass and his “mishaps.” Forget about the dogs.

Look, when one dog goes down and a musher has to load it in the sled bag and haul it to the next checkpoint to be dropped and sent home, that’s a mistake. When two go down and have to be hauled , that’s a bad mistake. When two go down and you call for rescue, that’s a royal screw up.

“What I am struggling with is,” Quest veteran musher Sebastian Schnuelle, the on-trail reporter for during that annual race, wrote on his Facebook page Monday. “I really do not understand how any musher, who has to be hauled off the trail with 2 dogs in the sled bag, is being praised. Some go as far as calling Brent a Champion for doing that. Seriously?

“It used to be an embarrassment when you had to be picked off the tail. Where is this sport headed? What perception do the fans really have?”

Where indeed?

Schnuelle was treading lightly and understandably so. He has the reaction of fans and mushing friends to worry about.

As another musher who shall remain nameless observed in a text exchange with on Monday, “any negative reaction/criticism of races these days no matter how reasoned gets you pounced on by the Iditadefenders. Fans can be fleeced but not heard.”

Personal history

I’ve spent a lot of years defending Alaska’s long-distance races against accusations they kill dogs. I did it because I’m a realist. Dogs sometimes die in these endurance races, and people sometimes die in marathons. There are risks associated with athletic activity.

Over the years, the Iditarod in particular has become better and better at minimizing the risks while the Quest, which ran from 2002 to 2007 with a dog death, possibly a little less so. The Iditarod veterinarians deserve a pat on the back. Given the statistical realities of running mileage, dog numbers, the short lifespan of canines and dog behavior, I admit to once being skeptical the race could ever be run without at least one dog dying.

It would be like the Boston Marathon being run decade after decade after decade without a human dying. The odds say it won’t happen, and it hasn’t. There have been three deaths associated with the Boston race.

Still, the Iditarod surprised many by getting through the 2010 race without a dog death and repeating that feat in 2011, 2012 and 2014. A dropped dog sadly died of suffocation in 2013 after being left outside a checkpoint and becoming buried under windblown snow. Three dogs died in 2015. And a dog died in 2016 when it was hit by a snowmachine, an Iditarod Trail danger beyond the control of mushers.

Iditarod vets have done a superb job of both monitoring the race this decade and caring for dogs. They have saved more than a few dogs that might not have survived in years past. They have even protected some mushers from their own bad judgment – and anyone can fall victim to bad judgment.

I have personally run dogs until they dropped. In neither of those cases, did the collapses come as a surprise. In one case, running in the heat, I thought an obviously failing dog could make it the rest of the way home at my pace. He couldn’t. I pushed on; he heat stroked and ended up being taken to the vet and put on an IV.

In the other case, a young dog who’d spent a long day obviously overworking himself in the field was allowed to continue until he collapsed. A seizure followed. He had to be carried a long way back to the truck and loaded for a rush to veterinary clinic more than 40 miles away. He recovered on the drive. He didn’t need the clinic and was fine the next day. He went on to live a long, happy life that involved a whole lot more exercise.

Exercise is good for dogs. It helps them lead happier, longer lives. Andy, Swenson’s legendary lead dog, lived to just a few days shy of his 20th birthday. That’s ancient for a large-breed dog.

But it’s pretty easy for people to kill dogs with bad judgment, too. It happens all the time. Thousands of dogs are believed to fall victim to heat stroke every year because their owners aren’t paying attention. Eleven of them were police dogs in the summer of 2015.

An estimated 1.2 million dogs die on U.S. roads every year because their owners refuse to put them on a leash or allow them to escape from home or otherwise fail to care for the animals. One such death became big news in Anchorage last summer when a child trying to avoid getting in trouble claimed a dog was hit while on leash, and local media hungry for a sensational story ran with the obviously shaky tale as if it was true.

Sadly, however, Scooby-Doo was hit by a truck and died because he wasn’t properly restrained.  His young owner understood the mistake that led to the dog’s death well enough to try to hide from the responsibility.

Sass has been pursing a similar tactic.

Cry for me

“I often carry Basin’s collar on my sled,” Sass wrote on his Facebook page on Monday. “He’s tattooed to my chest, and his name tag is sewn to the hood of my jacket. When I saw his boys crash like that, I feared the worst. I’m thankful that they’re happy and healthy today! I don’t know what to think about what looks like some sort of genetic issue….”

Well, of course; it’s all a genetics issue: Melville, Taco, Basin, the team that hit White Mountain exhausted last year; the two dogs down this year.

Genetics! It must be genetics.

The reality is different. Dogs are a little like batteries. If you run them down too far, they might not recharge. And there’s a fine line between simply tired and plain worn out. Swenson had a tired team quit on him at Safety, the last Iditarod checkpoint, in 1987. 

That team was tired, and Andy – the legendary musher’s legendary lead dog – was at home enjoying retirement. With Andy at the front, Swenson might have been able to get the team out of Safety.

Without Andy, well, Swenson went into the Safety Roadhouse, had a drink, and gave the team a few hours to recover. After that, they took off for Nome. They didn’t need to camp out for more than a day. There was no rescue. This was a tired team, not an exhausted team.

Swenson ran 36 Iditarods and 1987 was the only time he had a team quit on him, and then only for a matter of hours.

Swenson never once had to be rescued, but helped rescue others. Along with winning the Iditarod five times, he finished a total of 24 times in the Iditarod top-10 and 30 times in top-20.

Over the course of those 36 races, he had one dog die in a freak accident. It got tangled up in the towline and drowned in overflow along the Yentna River in 1996 while Swenson was struggling to get the entire team out of the water.

Sass has been in the business less than third as long as Swenson and has to his record a dead dog in his rookie Quest in 2007, a dead dog in the 2011 Quest, a prized lead dog dead in training, and a rescue summoned because he apparently thought two dogs in danger of dying this year.

Swenson won his last Iditarod in 1991 by walking his dog team through a Bering Sea storm that scared a lot of other mushers enough that they turned back. By then, the rap on him was already that he wasn’t willing to push a team hard enough to compete in a rapidly evolving Iditarod.

The late Jerry Austin, a beloved Iditarod musher from the village of St. Michael on the Yukon who ended up drinking himself to death, once described Swenson as “a stupid, old dog lover.”

Swenson could, indeed, be “gruff,” but his dogs always got top-notch care and treatment, and he never asked of them more than they were capable of delivering. That has not been true of everyone running Iditarod or the Quest in recent years.

Granted, not all Iditarod teams that quit do so because they have been run too hard. There are back of the pack teams with lack of training and poor team discipline which sometimes just tell the boss (the musher) that they’re going to take the day off.

But there are teams that quit because they can’t continue, because they’ve been asked to do too much as was the case with Sass’s Iditarod team last year and that of the team of Hugh Neff (Iditarod in-house nickname “Huge Mess”) in the 2014 Iditarod. Neff’s team quit on the ice outside of the Bering Sea coast village of Golovin.

Neff is a former Quest champion, like Sass; a rescue button pusher, like Sass; and another nice and entertaining guy with a fan base.

“He is a fantastic spokesman and has an excitement for life that is infectious to all he meets,” according to former National Education Association-Alaska president Barb Angaiak. ” I have met with him numerous times and am always impressed with his positive outlook. It is a pleasure to support such a great role model as he works to be successful with his team of superb athletes.”

Neff teamed up with NEA-Alaska to encourage kids to read, a highly commendable act. He pulled on the striped hat of Dr. Seuss’ “Cat in the Hat” to entertain children and fans at the start of the Quest and Iditarod races. Being a nice guy apparenlty buys him some protection from criticism.

It is apparently OK if bad things happen to the dogs in teams of nice guys. Then, it would appear, everyone is supposed to feel sorry for the people because they’re struggling through their “mishaps.”

As for the dogs?

Quest and Iditarod like to tell everyone the races are “all about the dogs,” but sometimes a reasonable person really has to wonder because the races don’t always act like it’s “all about the dogs.”

CORRECTION: This story was revised after the true cause of Basin’s death was discovered.




143 replies »

  1. I am a dog musher. There is not a musher among us who has not made errors in judgment concerning their dogs — that is just human. But we need to learn from our mistakes – and most of us who drive dog teams do. But I think Brent Sass is an exception. With his expertise, he should know better.

    He lost my loyalty after watching on in Iditarod 2016 during his last stretch along the Yukon River and along the Bering Sea Coast, and what resulted from that in White Mountain. I remember commenting out on the Yukon to someone that his team was going to quit on him. Sure enough, it happened when he tried to leave White Mountain.

    It was not just one dog. His entire team quit. And it was not just physical exhaustion either. Mentally, his dogs checked out. I could see clearly, in one of the dog’s faces as he was raising his voice to try to get them moving that the dog felt no respect for the man.

    That is very serious, in dog mushing. Our dogs look to us who are driving the team as their leader. We gain their respect and trust by anticipating their needs and meeting them in a consistent manner, and not forcing them to go beyond what they are capable of. When we don’t do that, they no longer perceive us as their leader. When an entire team of dogs take on the leadership role like that — a clear role reversal — next to a dog dying, that is the worst thing that can happen on any dog team. And it is really hard to get that trust back once it is broken. Sled dogs do not forget.

    When Brent was interviewed at the Finish Line in Nome, I did not have the impression he had really taken responsibility for what he did to his team. It had nothing to do with him not having his favored lead dog with him. Sure — he acknowledged he got caught up in trying to outrun Dallas and Mitch Seavey who had better teams than he did — but I did not perceive him to be sincere. I perceived him watering down the fact that he was at fault and what actually happened out there.

    So when I found out about the circumstances surrounding him scratching from the 2017 Quest 150 miles short of the Finish, I was not surprised that two of his dogs collapsed out there. I don’t think non mushers and some mushers understand the grave seriousness of when a dog collapses during a race — by the time a dog reaches the point of collapsing, it is usually too late. I saw that happen to another musher’s dog at a race. And during a different race, I placed one of my dogs in jeopardy of collapsing when she could not hold her place on her side of the gang line — she looked like a staggering drunk — I pushed her too hard, in too warm conditions for a dog of her age and conditioning. But I rationalized the warning signs at least half way through that race, telling myself she would work herself through it, even though it really was clear she could not handle the pace the other dogs were running. We have a saying in the dog mushing community — you can only run your team as fast as your slowest dog — and that is the truth. If we ignore that truth, then things go from bad to worse. Thank God, I finally stopped my race before she did collapse. I felt very angry with myself, for allowing my own competitive streak take precedence over my best judgement, placing her at risk. I did not run her the next day of the race. And I never made that kind of mistake again. I knew I screwed up, and I wanted to feel that reality, so I would never again cross that line. I was lucky. Some mushers who make the choice to ignore warning signals are not.

    And one comment about PETA — don’t listen to them. I perceive PETA knows nothing about dog mushing. They do not understand that dogs know the difference between training runs and races, and dogs actually do feel really good about themselves when they are competing against other teams just as much as their mushers do. The dogs know that the race is a test of how well we trained. And their need for dominance over other dogs is satisfied when they outclass other teams that they pass. And we mushers work our butts off on the sled and dog carts — we are not being pulled for the ride like PETA claims — it is clear none of them have ever run a dog sled. I am physically exhausted after every race — it takes a lot of effort — more than what the dogs are doing out on the trail — to drive the dog team and to care for them. And we mushers do take better care of our dogs than the average dog owner does. We feed them the best food, we provide the best medical care, we provide the best form of exercise for them, and we do maintain healthy living environments for them — or they would be sickly and not be able to run. There are rare exceptions, as in any human group not everyone is good. But most are.

    Thank you for reading my post.

    • “staggering drunk” is a good description of a dog pushed into heat stress. been there. done that. bad thing. let’s hope Mr. Sass has learned from the last couple years.

      • Thanks. Well said, Craig. By the way — I did send you an email through Alaska — I was not sure you would still be reading on your blog site and I am not on Facebook. I know I am not the only musher who has done that. I am just glad I learned to make a different choice before something worse happened to my dogs. My race was not anywhere close to the level of the iditarod — so this just shows that competitiveness even at lower levels can impair our judgment — almost like a drug — if we are not careful. I don’t know if Brent will ever learn. Maybe he is, because he didn’t push any further during this last Quest. It may be like recovering from any addiction — it usually takes multiple attempts for sobriety. Certain aspects to dog mushing can become very much like an addiction — which can be both a good and a bad thing in some cases. I can honestly say my heart was not broken when he opted to not run in this iditarod. I felt a wave of relief. I was deeply impressed with the maturity of the mushers in this race, and also the strength of their teams.

      • Great article and great reply by “Dog Musher” who are both writing responsible rational statements. I am a recreational musher who gets asked a lot from co-workers if I believe dog mushing is abusive. My reply dogs are like children who can’t speak for themselves so there is always a potential for abuse just like there is a potential for abuse with children. Not all parents are abusive but some are. Not all mushers are abusive but some are. So I can’t speak for all mushers but I know from the depth of my heart my dogs love to mush, they live to mush, it is everything to them. They are not happy being a pet. Some don’t even want human touch! And I respect and listen to their body language as to what they want. They want to run! Turning a sled dog into a pet would be like telling a World Class Runners they can’t run anymore, they have to stay in the house and yard all day. These are world class competitive dogs, they thrive on running! If a person could see how excited my sled dogs get when I start getting dressed to go skijoring or mushing or pull out the dog truck to get ready to load you would have no doubt the dogs want to mush! Or if you could see them 20 miles out when I stop the team and they are still banging in their harnesses to pull forward you would know these dogs love to mush! Sure they are tired and panting after our run just like an athlete after running a track competition but within 1/2 hour they are ready to rough house around the kennel with each other or ready to play fetch with me! Like the above mushers have said, we are human, we make mistakes, but most of us learn from our mistakes. But I too have had similar thoughts and concerns about the same two big name competitors. I have been watching them compete for years and they appear not to be learning from their mistakes and worse yet not even realizing their mistakes. They continue to run with the same philosophy and pattern is every race. We all know people like this who don’t have good judgement. It’s like their frontal lobes have been damaged. I think they mean well, I think they have good hearts. I understand their thirst to win. I understand how easy it is to get caught up in the competition. Still most other experienced mushers know how to read their dogs signals and know at what level their dogs are capable of running. Look how patient Joar Ulsom was for the win! It was appalling to see Brent Sass attempting to leave White Mountain with a stiff and sore and limping lead dog. I understand teams limber up when they start moving but his team was clearly at a worse condition. What world was he living in that he thought he could compete with the Seaveys?! Dream on but don’t throw your dogs into a nightmare! Dog mushers hate it because it only takes one bad apple to make the whole community of mushers look bad and that is why mushers need to speak up!

  2. Some comments in case anyone is still following this thread:

    Craig says he twice had dogs he knew were in trouble and decided to keep them in harness. And he thinks Sass should have just bagged the two brothers and continued on into the checkpoint and that deciding to scratch from the race to get vet care for his dogs more quickly is something really negative. I gather Craig’s dogs survived, so I’m not going to say he was wrong–every day we make decisions that we hope are the best choice.

    Craig seems to think that when Sass’ two brothers collapsed without warning in a way similar to how their dad died it shouldn’t be so upsetting to Sass and it gives no reason to think there might be a hereditary problem–which would mean Sass probably needs to abandon that whole line. (From what I know about Sass, by “abandoning” he’d either keep them for their natural life or find other good homes for them, unlike many professional mushers who would get rid of them in other ways.) I don’t blame him for being upset on several levels, but I realize other mushers, while treating their dogs very well, consider them tools more than family. Others, while upset, decide to continue on with one dead dog, but maybe not two. In this case Sass seemed to decide to continue on with one dog down, perhaps seriously ill, but when 20 minutes later the dog’s brother did the same thing, for Sass that was reason to scratch. I’m not going to second-guess those decisions or condemn someone for making them on the spot.

    Perhaps Sass’ teams in White Mountain last year and on the YQ this year were exhausted vs. normal tired. Or perhaps Sass depended too much in the past on his one exceptional leader and didn’t develop other leaders to take his place.

    What does an experienced musher do when his team won’t go? They try different leaders. The right leader can get a tired and reluctant team moving. That’s one of their jobs. Those times of trouble are when “new” leaders are sometimes “discovered.” A common reason for teams to scratch is their only strong leaders have been dropped due to sickness or injury.

    Someone suggested a dog eating a collar is “obviously” negligence. Do we know if it was that dog’s collar, or was it a neighbor’s? If it was his, it was probably a limited-slip collar. Those are the appropriate choice for a dog with a small head. It allows the collar to be set to be normally a bit loose but tighten up a bit when pulled to keep the dog from slipping it’s collar. A regular collar would have to be kept that tight all the time. I have a “pin head” sprint dog I use one on and it works great. But it does mean a section of collar does extend down enough when pulled that a determined dog could grab it. And it isn’t unheard of for a flexible dog to get a tooth under a regular collar.

    (A dog that died on this year’s YQ had several booties in its stomach. Negligence for not keeping him from taking them off his own feet? Or did he grab them off the trail as he ran by? Some dogs do that!)

    I think Craig brings up some important questions, but I don’t know why he’s so nasty in condemning Sass’ choices. Does he not think Sass made what he thought was the best choice at the time? It would be interesting to hear what Sass would have done differently in hindsight. (Craig, in hindsight, do you wish you’d bagged those two dogs?)

    • Tom: i wish i’d backed off before those two dogs went down. there are usually signs before dogs fall over. as for the rest of it, i have issues with the spin. Brent does a very nice job of PR. he’s got some cool videos out there; he presents well as they say. i just don’t buy the attempt to fob this one off to genetics (it could be, but he has absolutely no evidence for that) or this nonsense about how “hard” it was to “push the button.” it takes one finger, and he’s done it before in which case we also heard about how hard it was to push the button. lastly it would all be easier to swallow all of this in the good, old “shit happens” sense if it wasn’t coming on the heals of what happened last year in Iditarod. or if he’d simply said: “look, i’m a highly competitive guy. i asked too much of the team, and when that became obvious, i decided to bag it. i should have learned the lesson in Iditarod last year. obviously, i didn’t. i already apologized to the team. we’re gonnna go home and reassess and decide what we do next.” in other words, man up. or maybe you think he isn’t competitive? that this is really only “all about the dogs” and he’s trying to win because…well…because what then?

      • Why are my Jeff King comments being censored? Look at the recent history. Craig is covering for him. What a joke.

      • i’m not covering for anyone. i tried to email you saying that if you were going to make comments about someone’s personal life away from the sport and spin his actions in the sport they way you did, you at the very least needed to attach your name to the accusations. the email came back as a bogus address. let’s see if this one works.
        and again: “Address not found
        “Your message wasn’t delivered to 463ginger$12&amp$@aol.comi because the domain aol.comi couldn’t be found. Check for typos or unnecessary spaces and try again.”
        i tried again with instead of the obvious error there and that didn’t work either. maybe you will read it here and get the point.

      • I’m sure they do. But then that isn’t a rescue now is it. Anyone who rescues only to make themselves feel good isn’t really rescuing.

    • Dogs, like people, need to live the lives they have been called to live to be happy and healthy. Dog mushers give their dogs a life – a life those dogs live for. If more people related to their dogs the way dog mushers do, you would not have to rescue dogs in the first place. Remember – you too are an animal – we all are. When you run a dog team, it is a relationship of trust between you and your dogs, the between the dogs and with you. We mushers are in every sense of the word, dog whisperers. The problem is not running dogs. The problem is when our own egos get in the way of our better judgement. And that can happen in any walk of life — to any person — including yourself and including me.

  3. Ok, just step on the brake here for a moment. It’s good to have dialogue and the expression of different points of view . If done in a thoughtful and not in anger laced emotional way, done in a way that sticks to issues and FACTS and not by personal attacks. When it gets personal constructive dialogue goes out the window. Can we all agree that there are some inherent problems in long distance sled dog racing? Can we agree that there is no musher who can travel on water? Can we agree that most social media groupies have no idea what the heck they are talking about? Can we agree that the focus of discussion should be on identifying where and how improvements can be made to promote a high standard of responsible dog care? Can we agree that we need to listen to the Vets who are tasked with ensuring a high level of dog care is both monitored and enforced during long distance races. All the anger , accusations and opinions will not result in improved conditions for the dogs. Folks ,lets focus on the dogs and let go of the animosity. Anyone who wants to hang on to the negative is blowing smoke out their ass. Focus on the positive and maybe just maybe collectively we can make a difference.

  4. Your words: “There aren’t many competitors in Iditarod or Quest who have racked up multiple dog deaths in the span of 10 years.” That is a poor attempt to make Brent sound like some kind of dog killer head and shoulders above the rest. He has had two dogs die in the Quest and he is not alone in that statistic. Your article might gain some credibility if you took a few moments to check the facts about dog deaths in the two races and if the musher scratched or continued to race. Your assumption that the other 9 dogs in Brent’s team had been pushed too hard to continue is exactly that, an assumption and not a fact at all. Brent’s decision to scratch or continue was a double-edged sword. If he continued some were saying he would be cheating and was setting a bad precedent; he scratched and you speculate he ran his entire team too hard and could not continue. That is speculation, not fact. You are also attempting to cast Brent’s statement, “too shook up” as suspicious, by twice asking, “too shook up about what?” I believe that most reputable mushers who had two dogs who were brothers collapse within twenty minutes of each other would be too shook up to continue and hopefully would not just dump their dogs off at a checkpoint and continue their race. As far as continuing a race after a dog dies, as Zirkle and others have done, once the dog has died, what is gained by not continuing the race? Your comparisons about mushers in trouble that have used the emergency button and those who have not have little merit because you are comparing mushers who didn’t have that technology to those who did. You also failed to mention that Brent won the Vets Choice Award in 2015 the same year he won the Yukon Quest. How could that happen if your assumptions about Brent’s dog care were true? It couldn’t, because according to your theories if he had won at all, his dogs would have come in drooping and exhausted because of poor decisions and terrible dog care. They didn’t, they came in happy and healthy and even with tails wagging. How did Brent win the Sportsmanship Award if he is as you portray him? Your article is filled with innuendo, assumption and speculation, and therefore has little basis in reality. I believe dog care, including how they are handled during a race is a serious concern and should be discussed, but your format of finger pointing not based on facts is not likely to produce any relevant results.

    • where to begin, Donna. so your argument is that because other Quest mushers had multiple dog deaths it is OK that Sass had multiple dog deaths? you set the bar by the mushers who have dogs die instead of by those who complete the race without dog deaths? Sass’s victory in 2015 coupled with the Vets’ Choice award, which i admit was overlooked in the original story but now appears in the edited version, is commendable. some would hope that this is the case every year: that a musher wins because he (or she) has the best maintained (ie. cared for) team on the trail. but that isn’t always the case, and this isn’t 2015. what happened this year doesn’t come immediately after 2015. it comes immediately after what happened in the Iditarod in 2016. what a driver can ask of one dog team doesn’t always translate into what a driver can ask of another dog team. Sass got into trouble in last year’s Iditarod because, by his own admission, he asked too much. given what happened in the Quest this year, it is reasonable to ask if he again asked too much. it is the danger every dog driver faces in every race. none of us know exactly why Sass scratched and we never will. all we’ll ever know is what he says. that might be the truth. it might be part of the truth. it might be something else. i’ve been in journalism a long time. i no longer believe much of anything that can’t be independently substantiated, and why Sass quit can’t be independently substantiated. he scratched because he scratched. that’s all we’ll ever know. but what we know about what preceded the scratch was that he called for rescue because he had two dogs he thought were near death. the call for rescue is a fact. the fact that calling for rescue is usually frowned upon as a failure of the dog driver lends credence to the idea he truly believed the dogs were in danger of dying. so i’ll accept that claim as probably true. beyond that, everything by any of us, starts to become speculation. i didn’t cast his comment about “too shook up” as suspicious. i said nobody knows what it meant, as in “too shook up about what?” there are a lot of things here about which he could have been shook up. you are obviously a Sass fan. that’s fine. i’m a journalist, one who has been around long distance sled dog races for more than 30 years. i’ve seen mushers bring in a couple dogs in the basket, drop them and be not at all concerned. in fact, i’d probably describe them as being more agitated at having to haul the weight for some distance. and in most of these cases, they were irritated with themselves, often observing that they had thoughts about dropping the dogs a checkpoint or two before and should have done so. i was also around when a lot of dogs died. these are not those times anymore. Susan Butcher had four dead in her 17 Iditarods if memory serves me right. we all treated dog deaths differently in that era. they were more accepted as part of the game. Butcher was one of those who late in her career tried to make them less acceptable. she and husband Dave Monson invited the Humane Society into the tent in the belief these races could be run without a dog dying, or only rarely dying. and that’s where we are today. do you think we can go back to the days when dog deaths were sort of a matter of course and yet have the Quest and Iditarod survive? i don’t think we can. i wouldn’t want to see the bar set where it has been set with Sass with a Quest dog dead every five years and now this rescue because he thinks two more dogs were in danger of dying. i think that standard jeopardizes the future of both the Quest and the Iditarod. but that’s just me.

      • Your alluding to dog drops seems to mean that dropped dogs are all due to some sort of exhaustion. It is my guess that most are dropped for injuries, rather than exhaustion, and the “lack of concern” you attribute to those mushers dropping dogs really doesn’t compute IMO. Their concern, IMO, was made prior to their loading them into their sled baskets and getting them to a proper dog drop.
        I can only speak for myself and that is for an Iditarod (82) where I was not competitive, but of the 6 dogs that I dropped all were due to leg injuries with none due to any sort of exhaustion. I did have some problem with a few dogs refusing to eat their regular food and I was able to keep them moving with (one instance) the use of raw frozen whitefish that I was able to scrounge from another competitor who had gone ahead. At that time the later teams could utilize food from competitors who had already passed through but that has since been disallowed. I did have problems with sickness but at the rate I was traveling, my dogs were able to shake it off after a few days. This would not have been possible, IMO, for a competitive team but that is another story.

      • Bill, there’s been so much back and forth here with so many people i don’t even have a clue as to what you read that had you thinking i was alluding to something. i usually don’t allude. i’m pretty frank. i’ve never seen any data on why Iditaord dogs are dropped. it would be interesting data. i have been on the trail for Iditarods where trail conditions were such that a lot of dogs were dropped for injuries. i’ve also seen a lot of dogs dropped for fatigue in other races. they just couldn’t hold the pace. i wouldn’t call that exhaustion, bu i’ve been around dogs taken to that point as well. some of dogs especially want to please. they will give too much if a musher lets them. it’s really a world of grays, as you should know, until they tip over and need to be loaded. then it becomes pretty black and white.

      • So Bill Yankee you are saying you injured 6 dogs and the rest were sick for the better part of the 1000 mile race…and that is somehow better than exhausting them? Injured or exhausted or sick, way too many dogs are being hurt during these events, and it needs to stop.

      • Nice strawman there laura.
        Five of my dogs ended up limping from ankle injuries due to trail conditions with a 6th having a swollen front leg after the night in Rohn. I ended up dropping the dog with swollen leg and he was lost for a couple of weeks after the plane taking dropped dogs out of there crashed. And I did not injure any of those dogs, though they were injured enough to probably not be having fun continuing the race. As for the sickness, probably a virus of some kind, was only for a few days per dog but it ran through most of my team over about a week.
        Nothing was mentioned whether any of this is better or less than exhausting them but if you are interested in my opinion, to intentionally exhaust your dogs would be much worse and in particular, because that would be something in your control-the others (injury or a virus) are somewhat random, due to race conditions. And, by the way, none of the injuries were anything other than a temporary lameness.

      • Whatever the “alluding to”, your “i’ve seen mushers bring in a couple dogs in the basket, drop them and be not at all concerned” seemed derogatory towards some mushers without a distinction of why they were bringing in those dogs IMO. Clearly a dog dropped for a minor injury would not warrant the “concern” that one dropped for exhaustion would and especially one that appeared to collapse for no apparent reason.
        I still maintain that you’ve taken a “cheap shot” at Brent Sass for no good reason. The guy is obviously capable of driving his dogs towards “exhaustion”, something that many would fail at, but he was moving his team “carefully” towards not allowing this to happen (according to my sources) yet still being competitive. Just what occurred to a couple of his dogs is something that all would like to know IMO but to jump first at blaming Sass (without knowing) makes no sense, to me. The buck needs to stop at someone and that would be the musher, of course, but let him explain himself.

  5. The discussion needs to be had – it is NOT a disservice to explore what can be done to better protect the four-legged athletes whose main instinct is to run until nothing is left. Question: I recall having read different versions of what actually happened to Basin, in the context of training. What was the final story?? And, I don’t think a dog autopsy was done – so that any genetic issues could be traced. Am I wrong?? I would hope there would have been a strong push to explore what actually happened to Basin.

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      A fundamental question in Alpinism is how many dead climbing partners is too many?

      IE When does it cross over from “random” gravity happenstance, to you personally being responsible for the death of the person you are with.

      I assume in the dog mushing community, the same math is applied? Is 3 dog deaths in harness a lot?

      That said I’ve known many a climber who would trade their life for a few more hours out in the mountains and a few who have.

      We were born to ski and climb, but (sled) dogs were born to run, so the math is complicated. Watch a dog jump into the air while waiting for the command and you know what I am referring to.

      It is a worthy discussion regardless, exchange Brent’s name with someone else’s and the same conversation could be had.
      The name is perhaps a distraction, the math isn’t.

  6. Craig, you just said what I’ve been thinking for the past 4 days. We don’t know what happened out there. We don’t know that his whole team didn’t just refuse to go any further. Genetics? Like the fact that they are canines not energizer bunnies….that kind of genetics? Brent is under a lot of stress to maintain his fan base (from which comes financial support), sponsors and his perceived reputation. I’m sure that can do a number on your head. I’m not a Wild and Free fan, though, tending to gravitate more towards the John Bakers of the world. In a particularly contentious thread on Jakes Berkowitz’s facebook page, I had the audacity to suggest that there seemed to be a pattern with Brent. I was attacked by rabid Wild and Free fans and was removed and blocked from his page. It’s and ingenious way to assure your own reality.

    • A fundamental question in Alpinism is how many dead climbing partners is too many?

      IE When does it cross over from “random” gravity happenstance, to you personally being responsible for the death of the person you are with.

      I assume in the dog mushing community, the same math is applied? Is 3 dog deaths in harness a lot?

      That said I’ve known many a climber who would trade their life for a few more hours out in the mountains and a few who have.

      We were born to ski and climb, but (sled) dogs were born to run, so the math is complicated. Watch a dog jump into the air while waiting for the command and you know what I am referring to.

      It is a worthy discussion regardless, exchange Brent’s name with someone else’s and the same conversation could be had.
      The name is perhaps a distraction, the math isn’t.

    • Basically your entire post is bullchit, Debramn. Whatever went on out there, the subject of Sass’ team refusing to go any further has not come up until you pulled it out or your ……..!
      I’m not surprised you were blocked as you have nothing to say. What is your expertise in this field to come up with such garbage?

  7. I don’t pretend to be an expert, just a big fan of Sled Dog Racing. However, I have done my best to educate myself on the amazing capabilities of these dogs and their training and care. I think your article was very measured and reasonable. There comes a time, when you have to question some of these long runs and the toll it takes on the dogs. I understand it’s a race and you make moves to win, but when they go wrong it’s good to ask questions. I don’t know enough to comment on the specifics of Brent’s case, but the appeal to the emotions referring to Basin did get a little syrupy. I think there is plenty of blame to go around. These mushers are super athletes themselves and super competitive. Fine if they want to push and endanger themselves, but they are only part of the team and the dogs are my concern. Maybe they get too caught up in things and can’t see the danger to the dogs. The mushers by all accounts get tired, cold and sleep deprived. Maybe they are not always making the best decisions for the team. Where are the Race Judges and veterinarians in this equation? Are they too afraid of fan reaction to reign in some of the excesses or not given enough authority? I’m not blaming them, just wondering if the mushers are given too much leeway and need more protection from themselves? I’m using the word maybe because I don’t know. I just know I’m concerned about the direction the races seem to be taking.

  8. This situation gives rise to a number of questions — first, it is always the responsibility of the musher to take care of his team.
    I have been involved with Quest teams since the early 1990s, and handled in 14 Quests. I was present once when a dog died in the yard (had not been running, was just lying in his house). Everyone was devastated. But we immediately took him to the vet for a necropsy. Why? Because dogs from the same line were in a racing team, and it was essential to rule out genetic issues (it turned out to be an aneurysm, completely unpredictable and not genetic). Taking a basic precaution like this is something that experienced and competitive mushers should be doing.

    And no matter the various rationales, when one particular team accumulates a number of issues, particularly ones that were avoidable and/or preventable, questions should be asked. It does not matter how popular the musher is, nor how “nice” he/she is — what matters is the record. Comparisons can be made — how does this musher’s record compare to that of other top teams known for good dog care — Aily Zirkle, for example. Even if the questions upset some people, or make other uncomfortable, they must be asked — for the good of the team at the center of the discussion, and for the good of the race overall.

  9. Encouraging deeper, better research by the author before publishing defamatory articles such as these and by the readers before commenting.

    • Kristin, this article is not defamatory — it is truthful. He is quite knowledgeable — he is a dog musher himself. And so am I — and everything Craig stated is spot on. There have been way too many incidents with Brent. Most dog mushers do not have any dog deaths during races and training runs — and if they learn from the mistake they made, this does not happen again unless that death could not be avoided — like an undetected veterinary condition. But having two dogs dying on two different Quests and one on the training run before Iditarod 2016 — That is a lot. And I find Brent makes excuses instead of taking responsibility. So the same behaviors continue. Craig and I are not the only mushers who perceive Brent’s mishaps this way. Last year during Iditarod 2016 his team mutinied against him at White Mountain. They would not run for him until 26 hours later after they arrived at that check point; it was supposed to be only an 8 hour mandatory rest. Brent stated that he was proud that he did not try to force them to run from White Mountain — but the truth is — he did not have a choice — they were not going to run until they were good and ready.

      We as mushers have a profound responsibility — to be the leaders of our dog teams. Our dogs only perceive us as their leader when we pay attention to their needs and respond to these consistently, and are fair to them by not pushing them to perform beyond what they are capable of. If we fail in that, then the roles get reversed — and the dogs then become the leader of the team. For us as dog mushers, next to a dog dying or injury, that role reversal where we lose the trust and respect from our dogs is the worse thing that can happen to a dog musher — and it is the musher’s fault for causing that dynamic to happen.

      You can say or think what you want to, but unless you have personally raised and trained a dog sled team and have competed in a race situation, your comments have no credibility.

  10. It’s not just the musher featured in the article, Jeff King got hauled off the trail by snow machine and had other issues caused by an inflated ego . Another 4 time champion had dog deaths and several other issues in recent years.

  11. I’ve helped at Quest checkpoint’s 6 times since 86. Neff is not over popular with vets or checkers, however Sass was well liked by both.
    That being said, the Iditarod and Quest are different animals. The upper Yukon River Valley has a far lower population density than western Alaska, resultantly the distance between checkpoints is more extreme the temperatures, being earlier in the year and in a colder area, are often lower. this results in dogs being pushed harder over longer distance in worse weather with heavier loads…
    This causes more issues with dog drops and dangers like Sass experienced.
    Swenson never ran the Quest as I recall, so knowing how he or his dogs would handle the run is impossible to know.
    I know of few, if any, repeat competitive mushers in the Quest who have not had to withdraw over dog issues due to this extra stress.
    Even this year’s champion, Hall who’s also noted for his dog handling.
    Actually the differences are so sharp it took 23 years for someone to win both races, something long considered impossible due to the sturdier, but slower dogs needed for the Quest.
    You start running these lighter more fragile dogs like that, problems are bound to happen

    • small correction, Jason; it took 23 years for someone to win them both in the same year. Jeff King, for one, won the Quest before he won Iditarod. and the first Quest was won by old Swenson trailmate Sonny Lindner, one hell of a dog driver, with guess who in lead? Andy. Joe Runyan also won the Quest before he won Iditarod. lower speeds with heavier loads are actually less stressful than fast paces. in all endurance sports, it’s speed that kills. an argument can be made that the Quest is no more stressful than in the past because the trail is better which results in a higher pace. the Quest had a five year run when no dogs died. what changed to end that?

    • I think there are issues concerning Brent Sass. There are always different ways to perceive situations — and there are mushers who approve of Brent’s methods and there are mushers who don’t — and I am of the latter. And this is based upon our personal experience with running in races. I don’t hold a personal grudge, but from what I have observed and know, I was really glad that he withdrew from competing in this year’s iditarod. I am not trying to be unkind — just honest.

  12. The Quest and the Iditarod have long been plagued by stories of suffering dogs. The “old school” breeding and culling and practices were notoriously brutal, and there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Rick Swenson helped pioneer many of those practices. Perhaps he’s changed his tune now that he’s aged out of competition, but you’d be a fool to wish yourself onto that lot back in the day.

    The “new school” distance mushers are not only better at hiding the ugly aspects of their training and breeding programs but they have also created a whole new genre of hyrid racing huskies. These dogs often have enlarged hearts, as is common in endurance athletes, and these races have evolved into a series of long distance sprints that are especially taxing on their physiology. Many kennels advertise they give “supplements” to their dogs, surely some are using steroids.

    In 2015 Lance Mackey had two dogs die in the same race a few days apart, and he too pinned the blame on genetics or, possibly, an issue with suppliments. With few exceptions (such as no one noticed the dog ate it’s harness or booties) distance racing casualties are not assigned a definitive cause of death. Despite the media portraying this as some elusive medical mystery, it’s pretty logical to deduce the animal’s hearts were simply exhausted from beating too fast for too long.

    As for Brent, it certainly is disturbing how he is spun as such a humble and compassionate man when he is clearly more in love with himself then his dogs. With some difficult sections of trail ahead of him, its doubtful his team was even capable of finishing. While his quick decision to call for aid could have been the difference between life and death for those dogs, it was he who drove the dogs to the brink and it was the least he could do to help them recover.

    Unfortunately, the whole paradigm of dozens, sometimes hundreds of chained dogs per long distance kennel has gotten way out of hand. These commercial operations should be subjected to routine inspections, and their dogs should be enrolled in year round drug testing programs. No musher should be allowed to drive a team to the point of exhaustion and if a musher has a dog die or drop from a medical emergency, they need to be disqualified from the race. Sled dogs should also be included in – as opposed to specifically exempted from – Alaska’s animal cruelty statutes, as even intentionally running a sled dog to death is not a prosecutable offense.

    Ultimately, if these races cannot be conducted humanely then they need to just end altogether.

  13. Sorry, Sass pushed his dogs over the edge two times, once this year chasing Matt Hall and last year going after Dallas Seavey. I’m new mushing fan but long time animal buddy. Of course, all of us make mistakes, and I have done a few with my own, but never in an 1000 mile arctic race…. Sorry. Sass lost me as a fan.

    • As a dog musher, I would say you are spot on, Alex. It is really clear he pushed his dogs over the edge on more than one occasion. When a dog team commits the act of mutiny against their musher as they did last year at White Mountain, the dogs are truth telling about the situation their musher put them in. I knew they would quit on him, about 175 miles from White Mountain. And sure enough, they did — and I am just glad for those dogs that they hung together and did that, otherwise something bad was bound to happen further down the trail.

  14. the Quest and Iditarod have vets on the trail to assess the condition of the teams. The teams coming into Circle would have been viewed coming in and going out. Teams have to leave on their own accord .If the re are concerns about a team then that team will be held back.there is a lot of interesting opinion here that relates to the care of the dogs. To me its not that complicated. The job of the musher is fairly straight forward. If you want to be successful, this comes through the care of the dogs. This is the priority. When anything else becomes more important than the care of your dogs, like pressure to win. The dogs will always inevitably suffer. Lance Mackey won the Quest 4 of those times he was awarded the Vets Choice Award. I think this is the only time a 1st place winner did also win the Vets Choice.With a breaking voice he held that trophy up in front of himself and said ‘this was the best trophy he had ever won” This is what long distance sled dog racing is about. Not everyone has a shot at winning the 1st place trophy. But everyone in the race has a shot at winning the vets choice award. Switch the monetary value of 1st place and make this the reward for the Vets Choice.25k for dog care would get people’s attention pretty fast , don’t you think?
    Maybe we have our priorities ass backwards if it truly is about the dogs first.
    and PS there is no question in my mind that social media has had a tremendously detrimental influence on the race. When anyone starts to believe all the hype that come from ‘their fans’ living up to the hype can only produce poor decisions for the dogs. Don’t need that extra pressure when there is enough pressure just from the race itself.

      • I applaud the idea of raising the profile of this award monetary and otherwise. I definitely think more attention needs to be paid to this award, and the fans need to be educated on why it’s so important. I don’t think many are aware of what it means. To be competitive and win the award makes one a truly outstanding musher. I choose to follow and support those who meet these standards. I don’t care if they never win a race, they are what the race is supposed to be about.

      • The intent of this idea is great. But it completely changes the event from a timed to a judged contest. It’s like changing the Iditarod from a marathon to a figure skating competition, where a handful of judges (vets) determine the winner and not the fastest time from point A to point B. The foundation of the Iditarod is to honor the 1925 serum run. Back then the point was to get from point A to point B as fast as possible. In 1925 the focus was speed and saving lives, and not to impress and ass-kiss a panel of judges. If you want to switch the Iditarod to a judged contest, then please … change the event’s name. Maybe: Alaska Dog Mushing Pageant or Mushing With The Stars.

      • Yes and no, for the Iditarod, Tim. To qualify for the Seppala award there, one must finish in the top-20. If there were significant prize money hinging on the Seppala, don’t you think it would cause some people to think about how hard they want to push at the end? I know the prize money already does that for some because Ramey Smyth has told me as much. He needed the money and was willing to take that over the chance for glory. He made rational decisions to race for position instead of going all in and racing to win, knowing the risk of failure was likely a team that blew up (as Sass’s did last year) and cost him positions and thus money.

    • Correction: Lance Mackey was not the only person to win the Quest and the Vet’s Choice Award in the same year. Brent Sass won both in 2015.

    • You have to remember Frank that dogs are pretty stoic — especially sled dogs — they do not always present symptoms of physical distress even to a veterinarian. That is why it is so imperative that we as dog mushers pay close attention to what motivates the choices we make for our dogs and what those decisions are. And when you are alone on the trail, no one sees what you are doing with your dogs except you and your dogs and Almighty God. So winning an award for exceptional dog care does not rule out the concerns raised by Craig or myself or any other musher concerning Brent Sass. As mushers we have all made similar mistakes — but the trick is to not repeat them. It seems from what happened last month at the Quest that Brent still is not getting it. We who are concerned hope he does, and soon.

  15. Sass agrees: “I’ve always believed that if you hit the botton, your race is over. I appreciate that (race officials) were willing to consider an option that could keep a team in the race, but I couldn’t accept it. I was too shook up.”

  16. So Biased, and inaccurate Craig. Backlash is popular and makes a job these days though.
    Swenson is a true outdoorsman, not captured in your prose. Yes those of today do not immerse themselves in the craft like years past — however your writing is so miss it certainly carries on the flavour of sensational. Best of sarcastic success.

    • Piet: thanks for the comment, but statements like this without specifics are so much hot air. Biased and inaccurate where? What you posted is a waste of your time to write and a waste of my time to read.

    • You’re wrong. Not biased — but informed. I need to state that as a musher myself, I am privy to information not available to you and others outside of our close knit community. There are concerns, and I think Craig expressed these very well through his blunt honesty and writing style.

  17. Mr. Medred, I didn’t care for you before this article and my opinion of you hasn’t changed. Who are you to say Jerry Austin drank himself to death. What did that comment possibly add to your story.

    • Sherry: It added nothing to the story, but he was a friend of mine. His death was a depressing end to a great life, and it happens to too many in Alaska, especially in rural Alaska. If someone reads it and thinks, “I don’t want to have some asshole journalist write something like that about me someday,” I’d feel I’d done something in life. So I guess, now that I think about it, it did add anything. Whatever the case, it was the truth, and I’m in the truth came. Jerry was told his liver was failing, and he would die if he didn’t quit drinking. He said he didn’t care. He’d spent enough time on the planet. It’s tragic, and it makes me want to put the F-word in front of tragic as an adjective, but I won’t.

  18. A fundamental question in Alpinism is how many dead climbing partners is too many?

    IE When does it cross over from “random” gravity happenstance, to you personally being responsible for the death of the person you are with.

    I assume in the dog mushing community, the same math is applied? Is 3 dog deaths in harness a lot?

    That said I’ve known many a climber who would trade their life for a few more hours out in the mountains and a few who have.

    We were born to ski and climb, but (sled) dogs were born to run, so the math is complicated. Watch a dog jump into the air while waiting for the command and you know what I am referring to.

    It is a worthy discussion regardless, exchange Brent’s name with someone else’s and the same conversation could be had.
    The name is perhaps a distraction, the math isn’t.

    • No – one dog death is too many in our community. But here’s the thing. These dogs do want to run these long distances and they are fully capable of doing so. Sometimes, just like with us, there can be hidden health conditions that present during a race, or a musher makes an error in judgement just like a parent whose child dies from drowning because they took their eyes off the child for a brief moment. Accidents happen. So do we stop living because we are taking some risks? Life is a risk — and if a person’s primary goal is to stay perfectly safe through a self manufactured cocoon, that that person is not living and they won’t feel alive either. Dogs are the same way. And when we try to superimpose our own values of this onto them, then we deny them their true nature. We make them as safe as we are able to, and we let them live their lives as they were meant to. That is loving them. We keep them safe — but that does not mean we keep our dogs risk free either. We minimize those risks and eliminate the ones which will do harm according to our full knowledge at the time. And if we do place one of our dogs at risk through a choice we made, then we have to own up to that truth and make sure we do not repeat that same action.

      And Brent’s name is not a distraction. There are mushers like Craig and myself who are legitimately concerned regarding choicese Brent makes and what may be motivating those choices. And we hope that Brent will mature and learn from poor choices he has apparently made.

  19. I think Sass chose not to continue to protect the integrity of the race, a race that he loves above all others. By scratching and requiring assistance he confirmed that he had misread his team and his ability to manage them. Since Basin didn’t die until he was 5 or so, the problem could be related to longevity/mileage of the dog. I can understand the panic he felt given his history. hopefully the vets will be able to determine what happened and if it is a lineage issue. I’d be shocked to see those boys in harness again.

  20. One more point, with respect to genetics. We once had a dog collapse in our yard (he had not been running that day). Because other dogs related to that one were slated to be in our Quest team, we took him to the vet immediately, for a necropsy. We felt it was our duty, absolutely essential, to determine if there was any genetic condition which might affect the other dogs with the same lines. This is the type of thing that responsible mushers do. It would be very poor judgement to choose not get a necropsy done on such a critical member of the team, especially when there are offspring involved.

  21. Watch out…”The Communists don’t like complaints. They prefer cheers and clapping.” The Devils Guard (George Elford)

    • I just hope you do a similar article if Jeff King’s team quits again or another 4 time champ has several dead dogs. Maybe as part of the article you could correlate mushing problems with old men enticing young women with a dog team. It’d be about as worthless as this article.

      • did you get here yesterday, Steve? i’ve written about a lot of teams quitting. Mitch Seavey is still mad at me for it. in his view, his didn’t quit; he turned it around. a lot of mushers have had teams quit. those calling for rescue on high-tech comms because they think they have dogs that are going to die is a new thing.

      • You are correct, I’m not sure King has used his help button all those times for when dogs might die or if he was concerned he might die.

      • You conflate this issue. Jeff’s team did not quit on him because he destroyed their trust and respect for Jeff. But Brent’s dogs did in White Mountain. Brent pushed his dogs beyond what they were capable of, driven by pure competitiveness — whereas Jeff’s dogs quit due to severe weather conditions — and Jeff had the common sense to not push them further.

        Craig is only speaking the truth. And as a dog musher myself, it has great depth and value.

  22. Thank you for this article. I am sure you will get lots of blowback. I have been close to the race since 1993, directly involved for 14 of those years, and I have seen a lot of teams on the trail and in checkpoints. You could add several other incidents to the list for Brent, unfortunately (the medivac year, for example). The critical point is that almost all of his “misfortunes” have been preventable. People should look to mushers like Aily Zirkle, Allen Moore, and Eddie Hopkins, and younger ones like Paige Drobny. When you compare their records, it is clear that Brent is either the unluckiest guy on the planet, or he is making poor decisions that have serious negative consequences for his dogs. The collar incident is a serious red flag, for instance. A dog first has to get their collar off… and they are almost always on a neckline while on the trail — some serious gymnastics required — or the collar was way too loose (human error). If you are still making rookie mistakes, racing hard is not an option. You don’t have to be a math whiz to see that Brent’s team slowed down after Trout Creek, and was moving very slowly after Circle. Really healthy, well cared-for teams will maintain their speed — they might lose a little speed, but they won’t drop to around 5 mph. I hope that people will take a moment to consider that the questions you raise have merit, and that we should expect excellent dog care first and foremost, especially from the top athletes. And I sincerely hope that the race organisation will tighten up their rules, and empower vets and officials to be more proactive out on the trail.

    • Well said. I too, have heard something within our mushing community that I cannot disclose here, that validates what you have written and my own observations of Brent from iditarod 2016. I knew his dogs were going to quit on him from running his dogs for such a long distance before he got to White Mountain. So I was not surprised in the least when they committed mutiny against him after their 8 hour layover in White Mountain. You know as well as I do, that it takes a lot to destroy the trust and respect between a dog team toward their musher. When the roles get reversed — where the dogs take control and become the leader of that dog team — you really don’t need a human being to state that Brent screwed up — the dogs were making that statement themselves. And what I really didn’t like was that I experienced Brent not really owning that mistake. At the Finish Line he admitted he ran his dogs too hard by getting caught up with trying to keep up with the Seaveys – but then in almost the same breath I experienced him minimizing that behavior. So hopefully, him opting ouf of the iditarod this year may be a sign that a shift is taking place in Brent — I hope so. I surely hope so…..

  23. I am with christene, you misquote, get your facts wrong and you personal do not like mushers or their kennels. I remember last year’s post and a pistol from a women musher you attack and did not get the info correct. She had to correct you. Brent is a good man, good musher who loves his dogs. I support his decision.

    • Craig did not get the facts “wrong.” You can certainly like Brent, and he may well be a good man and love his dogs. That does not alter the fact that he has been demonstrating poor judgement, and that poor judgement has had negative consequences for his team.

    • Well, I think that Craig did get his facts straight. Craig is a dog musher, and so am I. So we both understand Brent’s choices from an informed position. Last year, during iditarod 2016, Brent’s team committed mutiny against him at the White Mountain check point. I knew when Brent was 200 miles away from White Mountain that his dogs would quit on him. Sure enough, they did. You know why? Because Brent was so intent on beating Dallas and Mitch Seavey, that he over ran his dogs under warm conditions. And so when it came time for them to leave White Mountain, his entire team refused to leave. And it was not just because the dogs were physically tired. Brent lost their respect and their trust. When a dog team turns against their musher — when the leadership role reverses where the dogs take over like that — that is about the most humiliating thing that can happen to a musher — and that destroys all of the years of trust building — sled dogs do not forget.

      You think I am wrong? Think again. Listen to Dallas Seavey discussing why he would not try to catch up with his Dad during this most recent Iditarod. He did not mention Brent’s name — but anyone who watched last year’s Iditarod knew to whom he was referring, and it wasn’t Dallas. Dallas stated that he was not willing to destroy the bond of trust he had built with his dogs over their lifetime to try to keep up with a dog team that outclassed his; he said if he tried, he would end up not catching up to his Dad, and things would not turn out well. Dallas possesses the maturity to make good decisions in the best interest of his team. By the time you win a race like the Quest as Brent has — by the time you have that much expertise in dog mushing, you should not be having the kind of mishaps Brent is. So hopefully, he is learning from poor choices he has made, and he will move forward as we within the dog mushing community hope. We want to support him. But we don’t support Brent by minimizing poor choices. And that really is Craig’s goal — he is also hoping that Brent will truly learn and move forward.

  24. In response to your comment: “If the only problem here was with two dogs, why scratch? They’ve been dropped. The problem is gone. If what you’ve got left is a team of firecrackers, why not press on and win?”
    Sass scratched because he has integrity and believes that Rule No. 13, which could have allowed him to continue, is a ridiculous rule. He believes that once you “Hit the Button” your race is over, period.

  25. I am starting to feel bad for Brent, he was just trying to carry on a tradition out in Eureka. Who would have thought the ghosts of Butcher’s and Swenson’s dead dogs would come back to haunt him.

    • It was a different time, PETA, and there’s no evidence Sass was intentionally trying to harm any dogs here. And be aware that if you post any more comments like this without using your real name, I’ll probably just block you. I don’t have much tolerance for people hiding behind avatars. I’ll let it go for obvious observations such as “does that mean someone that hasn’t been president, can’t be critical of the president” because that’s sort of like asking “did you know air is made up of 78 percent nitrogen and only 21 percent oxygen?” But personal attacks like this, no. I was tempted to just kill it, but maybe someone else will read this and get the message.

    • I experience members of PETA using a conspiracy theory model to promote their goal — to try to destroy the Iditarod. I think the Iditarod presented more danger to sled dogs in the beginning, but that is not the case any longer. Those dogs are no more at risk of dying than one of your kids going swimming during a lake side vacation. If you want to wrap a cocoon around yourself to stay safe, that is not living. Sled dogs are born to run, and dogs running in the iditarod want to run those long miles and they have the capacity to do that. They receive better medical care than I do! You don’t see human marathon runners being required to have EKGs and blood panels done before competing in the Boston Marathon. But dogs running the iditarod have to. And you don’t have human running in the Boston Marathon being checked over by doctors at any water stop — but at the Iditarod, dogs are constantly being examined at checkpoints by veterinarians.

      Just like us, dogs also sometimes die while they are just living their lives. iditarod dogs are living their lives by running in that race — something they are passionate about and live for. And it is grossly unfair for us as human beings to superimpose our own human limitations onto those dogs. They have the right to compete — because they do enjoy competing — and they have the right to live their lives just as we do. To take that from them would be the greatest act of cruelty. And be assured — if a dog death was preventable during the Iditarod or Yukon Quest, the race officials won’t let that slide. The musher is held accountable for that.

  26. Thanks for the reality check, Craig.

    Blessings, Jane ~^..^~ Denali’s Legacy Arctic Dog Rescue  ~^..^~ Each day, a person who eats a vegan diet saves 1,100 gallons of water, 45 pounds of grain, 30 square feet of forested land, 20 pounds of CO2 equivalent, and ONE ANIMAL’S LIFE.   Food is GROWN – NOT BORN. Food has DIRT – NOT BLOOD. Food does NOT have a family and a heartbeat.

    • I have run sled dogs in a competitive manner for 30 years. I also finished the races mentioned here. I fully agree to everything said and can only add that it’s just too bad that the dogs can’t talk themselves… I share your view totally. It’s a huge mess that those ‘Facebook mushers’ create in order to increase their ‘likes’.

      • As a fellow dog musher, William, I think i am hearing you say you agree with Craig’s article, and if so, I stand in agreement with you. I think unless a person has competed in a dog sled race, they will not fully comprehend this.

    • Sedna101: You realize, of course, you’re posting on the site of a natural born killer, right? Who happens to live with a canine who is a natural-born hunter, and very good at it, who contributes happily to the killing.

  27. If he quit due to concern about an underlying genetic problem with his dogs I wonder if he’ll have enough non-related dogs to field an Iditarod team……

    • that is the question hanging out there, isn’t it? along with that of what went wrong in training that these underlying genetic problems weren’t detected there?

    • I think the problem extends way beyond an underlying genetic problem with his dogs. And until the true issues which I perceive are resolved, whether Brent has enough physically capable dogs to field another Iditarod team or not, in my opinion, he ought not to compete in the Iditarod or Quest again.

  28. People don’t want their choices and assembled realities questioned, they only want affirmation of what they’ve chosen to believe, support, or advocate. Write on, my friend.

  29. The number of dogs dying in the race itself is not super significant. The dogs running the race should be the best of the best, selected through training runs and careful breeding. It’s the mountain of dogs who die to support that elite race team that bothers me.

    After what I’ve heard and seen, I can’t say I am a fan of any commercial musher right now. And I came into it all starry eyed thinking mushing was a cool and mythical lifestyle. I love working dogs, but there is a huge dark underbelly to almost any dog sport and to working dogs of many varieties. There are the very good and the very bad, and unless you know a person and interact with them and their dogs personally, it’s very hard to tell one from the other.

    Any time you start going “extreme” dogs suffer.

    And, sled dogs are some of the most inbred dog “types” out there, being purebred has nothing to do with how inbred many sled dog lines are… mushers don’t do any health testing of breeding stock, figuring the ability to run Iditarod is all the information they need so no OFA hips/elbows/eyes, DM, etc., and the tight line-breeding and inbreeding might be catching up to them. They avoid many problems by simply culling the “bad” pups, but at some point, mushers will need to really revise their breeding practices to ensure genetic diversity and fitness. And this is, in part, why a successful musher churns out so many litters per year.. with only a small percentage making the race team. The rest of those puppies??? Probably take a “dirt nap”.

    Nice guys get away with a lot, and how you are perceived by media has a lot to do with blind luck. You either have it or you don’t. Those that do, have a lot of leeway and probably get a lot more sponsors.

    • Just to be clear, the health issues you cited, are not a concern in Alaskan Huskies. Hips, elbows, eyes etc tend to be reserved for the purebred world where a dog’s most “desirable” attributes have been sought after. Pups in that world are culled simply for being a shade off in color, an inch too short or tall or the wrong gait. I watched a bit of that crazy purebred show happening in NYC right now.
      In the working breed they had the Malamute. Honest too gawd, I laughed out loud. Here was this dog that was poorly muscled and poofy. Then I looked out the window at my fine, thick bodied boys whose legs are like tree trunks.

    • It depends on how you describe extreme. If a musher manages his/her team properly, in most cases, their dogs do not die during the iditarod or any other race. There are exceptions where there may be an undetectable preexisting health condition. These dogs are fully capable of running the distances they do. What creates harm is when you push them beyond what they are capable of. And there is a feeling among more than one musher that this is what Brent does.

  30. There dog drivers. There’s dog mushers.
    And there are Dogmen and Dogwomwn.
    There are lots of the first two. A rare and honored breed the latter two.
    The legend Attla once said. The dog never makes the mistake, he’s just a dog trying to please his master. Something going wrong isn’t the dogs fault. You are the one which caused it.

  31. I hope you stretched thoroughly before jumping to conclusions. Given that Healy and Caputo are Basin’s offspring why don’t you wait and let Brent work with vets to understand what might be happening with this line of dogs? Oh right, that would be a boring story. According to Brent, the race officials encouraged him to keep racing and he declined. This can be easily corroborated, so maybe you should check with a few people first before speculating. You also seem to forget that the Yukon Quest created the Silver Award because Brent helped two mushers up over American Summit. And you seem to have an almost Trump-Putin like bromance with Rick Swenson. You forget that Silver and Madonna, the foundation of Brent’s kennel are14+ and Leer lived until he was 17.

    • I really appreciate this post. You never stop learning with dogs. This incident with Sass shows that he was wiling to learn and I’m sure he’d be the first to acknowledge if and how he could’ve done things better so that others could learn. Anybody who follows this sport is a fan of what it is. We support all mushers equally through their constant learning. This is undoubtedly just as big a wake up call for Sass as it is for the rest of us.

      • Oh yeah but kicking a guy when he’s down…that’s just plain cruel intention, something I don’t believe any of these mushers have an ounce of anymore.

      • Sorry about that cruel intention comment. I back pedal. Everyone is entitled to their say and your article did elicit some very interesting discussion and thought. My apologies.

    • Connie, I beg to disagree with you. If one of my sled dogs collapsed and died during a race or training run as has been in Brent’s case, I would have ordered a necropsy — especially if I had offspring from that dog. There just have been a whole list of mishaps with Brent. There is no speculation here. And I knew his dogs were going to quit on him when he was close to 200 miles from Unalakleet, because of how he ran his dogs in the heat of the day in the full sun. And sure enough, they did at White Mountain.

      It does not matter how many awards Brent may have received. Your reference to them diverts from valid concerns within the dog mushing community regarding some of the choices Brent makes. There are dog mushers like you who are Brent Sass fans — and then there are other mushers who have grave concerns. And comparing Craig with the Trump political scene is grossly unfair and it actually is more demeaning toward yourself than toward Craig.

  32. Thank you so much for saying what needed to be said…these dogs suffer horribly and anyone who thinks any different should go see what their REAL life is like…on a 6 foot chain for most their life…so these “mushers” can have their moment of glory….but batten down your hatches mushers…cuz we are coming for you and soon everyone will see how inhumane this is!!

    • Penny, I have a dog kennel, but I know other mushers with dog yards, and their dogs have no problem being snapped onto a swivel chain. That is not a problem with animal control. They inspect dog yards all the time. And successful iditarod mushers — you know the ones who win whom you loathe — they take better care of their dogs than ordinary dog owners do. I think you are wasting your bark — er, I mean breath.

    • Wonder who this Penny person is? Odd that next race dogs get druged, attracting international attention….. who knows

  33. Great article……the problem like in any competitive sport when you are at the top of the ladder you have to worry about sponsors. Admitting that you made mistakes may cost you tomorrows money for the food that feeds your athletes. So you make excuses and you push on…..the money has to come in….no matter what……its a business and many don’t understand that. At that level its not about the dogs anymore and THAT is the sad part. Thanks for the great write up.

    • thanks, Silvia. you hit upon a good point i admit i never even thought about. or possibly it’s a reflection of my bad business sense. it’s likely not good for business for to be talking bluntly about the sled-dog sports in Alaska either, but i’ve kind of always been prone to follow my conscience and let the chips fall where they fall.

    • Silvia, admitting you make mistakes demonstrates to sponsors that you wont repeat them. Most people are intelligent enough to see when a mistake is made. People see through that. So it is self defeating to not own up to them. Making an excuse is a form of lying. Once we start covering up what we do with excuses, we then start lying to ourselves. And that only causes us to not address the mistake, and they get repeated.

  34. There’s dog driver’s, there’s dog musher’s, and there’s Dogmen and Dogwomen. There’s lots of the first two. A rare and honored breed the latter two.
    Craig. A carpenter just drove that nail with one hit. Good job.

  35. Actually, Sass had another dog die in the 2007 Quest. ‘Melville’ died prior to his arrival at Slavens that year.

    • i thought that, but couldn’t find confirmation so i left it out of the story. thanks for the lead. i found the info in the Whitehorse Star, updated the story and linked to the Star.

      • Mr. Medred,

        Why don’t you write about the whole truth! Melville died in Brent’s first 1000 mile Quest because he ate some of his collar and got caught in his intestines! Is that Brent’s faught? Taco died in 2011, was 7 years old and the vets stated The necropsy revealed no obvious disease processes or signs of trauma, results from a necropsy show no fault on the part of the musher. Was this Brent’s fault? Basin did die in 2016 and Brent was training and we don’t know the cause. Can you really blame that on Brent? Did you say anything in your commentary about all the times that Brent has helped and saved people and there dogs over the years? NO, all you did was criticize. Yes, Brent did run his dogs to hard in the 2016 Iditarod and he admitted and paid the price. His dogs all looked great but they decided they needed more rest and so that’s what Brent did! This race however, he did not push his dogs! If you watched the race, you wouldn’t jump to conclusions! He did shorter runs and rested longer! Healy and Caputo are Basins offspring and what happened to Basin happened to them on the trail! He was concerned for his dogs! He didn’t think about losing the gold or the money he would of gotten for finishing in whatever place, he thought about his dogs. Brent has such a fan base and I really do think mushers and the public just can’t cope with that! So sorry that you have to resort to not telling the whole truth and always spectulating. Instead of questioning Brent’s integrity, why don’t you look at yourself and say I could of wrote the true facts. We live in a sad political world and no one is happy unless they are complaining about someone and something!

      • Christine: It’s possible Brent is hugely unlucky. It’s possible none of these deaths or other problems are his fault. Anything is possible, well, except maybe a dog eating its collar. How exactly would a dog get to its collar to do that? The report at the time was that “the dog had swallowed a piece of fabric, possibly part of its harness, causing the perforation of its intestine.” Eating a piece of its harness would make more sense, but I wonder now what caused the perforation. Intestinal obstruction is usually the problem when dogs eat fabric, and it is without a doubt a very real problem. Plenty of dogs die from eating rugs or socks or someone’s panty hose. But that’s really neither here nor there. The substance of this discussion is simple: When dogs start dropping between checkpoints to the point a musher can’t go on, it’s because the musher is “pushing too hard.” It really doesn’t matter whether your are at the back of the pack or the front of the pack, and it really doesn’t matter what preceded the collapse. Maybe you didn’t train right. Maybe the dogs came down with a bug and needed more rest along the trail. Maybe you were just trying too hard to keep up with the competition. But when you are forced to stop because you’ve gone too hard for whatever reason – and especially when this reaches the point where it leads you to believe you need to call for a rescue – you man up. You state the obvious: “Obviously, I was asking more of the team than they had, and we’re going to go home and sort this out and figure out what we need to do to get better.” But I’m old school. The new school appears to be to come up with some excuse for why it wasn’t the driver’s fault.

  36. It’s a Catch-22 for mushers: everyone would like us to believe these races are “all about the dogs”, yet a musher can’t win if they don’t run hard and take chances. Chances with weather, with their own health, with making overly optimistic assumptions about their dogs’ capabilities. It’s the race’s responsibility to set rules that protect the dogs (and, incidentally, the humans) entered in the event. Because of the money involved, and the importance of Iditarod & Quest standing to participants in this sport, it’s disingenuous to expect mushers to compete without pushing their dogs and themselves to the limit. I’m not saying that’s an ideal situation, just that it’s human nature.

    • points well taken, Cathy. but somewhere in the mix individual responsibility does have a place. it’s hard to write rules that work. a lot of them, including adding rest, have unintended consequences.

      • I guess you know everything there is to know about dogs! Smart man! All of the rest of the dogs on his team were from his own breeding! The nine dogs were in great shape! Melville, Taco and Basin he had gotten these dogs elsewhere! Who knows what there background was! He watched Basin die and didn’t want Healy and Caputo to die too! They also had run a 300 mile race in January and did very well. Brent is noted for his dog care just like a lot of mushers are and a lot AREN’T. YOU WEREN’T THERE AND TO PREJUDGE BRENT IN THIS WAY IS WRONG!!!! As I said before, he did not push his team in this race! Go back and look at his rest times and miles he ran between the rest times. Why do people insist on knowing everything and prejudging people WHEN THEY DIDN’T WALK OR SHOULD i SAY DIDN’T MUSH IN BRENT’S BOOTS! Now, with the help of your commentary and opinions of armchair mushers, Peta has appeared again!

      • Christine: I don’t mean to be blunt here, but rest times and run times really mean nothing. I’ve been watching the Iditarod since the early 1980s. Over those years, I watched a lot of inexperienced mushers try to match the run/rest pace and schedules of race leaders and crash teams. Rest and run are relative to what your team is trained to do before the race, and it is subject to what you team is able to do during the race. Sometimes dogs get sick in these races. If you ask sick dogs to maintain the pace of the same dogs health, the result is that they crash. You say he didn’t push his team. He may well believe that, too. The evidence would indicate something else. I’ve been there; I’ve done it. I feel sorry for Brent. This is not something fun to go through. But when it happens, you man up and admit you screwed up somewhere. You don’t start grabbing at straws about how maybe there’s some genetic problem. Sorry, but I’m old school. I believe in individual responsibility.

  37. Do you have a bromance with Swenson? I have met him on the trail a few times and can tell a different story. Now Aliy, she’s a class act.
    How do you know this problem is not genetic? Are the veterinary test results in already? And you criticize others for jumping the journalism gun. Come on Craig. You are a better writer than that. I am not a Sass fan, btw.

    • veterinary tests on what? you can do what you train to do. that’s what training is about. it exposes weaknesses, genetic and otherwise. done right, it’s not just endurance and speed building; it’s stress testing. even if there was something genetic going on here, which is unlikely, the failure to catch it in training is the failure. Swenson and i have, over the years, tolerated each other and sometimes not. he was seldom easy to deal with as a reporter. same for Susan. Aliy has always been a class act. no doubt about that. but of all the mushers i’ve observed over the years, i think i’d have to say that if was to come back as a sled dog Swenson’s team is the one i’d want to be in.

      • Well Craig, I do believe Brent mentioned he is pursuing veterinary work on these dogs to determine the possibility of genetics. He would already have the results from the more thorough necropsy of the dead sire. It sounded like he was reluctant to continue the line if there is a problem.You seriously don’t believe that modern vet medicine can’t examine genetic problems can you? Does your vet practice blood letting and study vapors? Come on, vet science is every bit as advanced as human medicine.

      • Peg: Yes, there “could be” something genetic involved here. But there’s not even a whiff of evidence that is the case. All we have is Brent Sass throwing that out there. What we have for facts is that Sass scratched a couple hours (16 miles) out of Central because he had two dogs in such bad shape he wanted a rescue. Who knows what shape the rest of the team was in. What we got from the News-Miner was this: “A decision about whether to declare an emergency (and let Sass continue in the race) hadn’t been made when Sass pre-empted the decision by asking for his dog truck to be brought to the Circle Hot Springs Road instead of mushing into the Central checkpoint under the power of his remaining dogs.” The Quest officially said that “as per Trail Procedure Rule #13, he would have been allowed to continue the race but made the decision to scratch once the two dogs were brought to Central for a vet check.” I, personally, think that decision by Quest officials is a bad one, but it does beg a question: If the only problem here was with two dogs, why scratch? They’ve been dropped. The problem is gone. If what you’ve got left is a team of firecrackers, why not press on and win?

      • The musher should have had a necropsy done on the dog that died on a training run — most of the top mushers I know would have considered that a top priority, especially if there were offspring in the team/yard. The musher is ultimately responsible for the well-being of the team — blaming it on the absence of a dog, or anything else, is just avoiding personal responsibility.

      • Perhaps the question should be — why didn’t he have a necropsy done on Basin? That should have been a priority if the death was unexpected and sudden, and on the trail. If he had not other dogs from that line, a necropsy would not be warranted, but with two descendants in the team, that should be been done.

    • You’ve met Swenson on the trail and that leads you to believe different than what is written about him? I’ve met and passed him on the trail countless times, a pass does not constitute “meeting”. Talk to anyone in the mushing world, his handlers included, from the 70s-modern times and they will immediately tell you the affection and care Swenson has for his dogs. You not liking him does not change his exemplary vet care, training, and treatment of his dogs. Aliy is a class act as well but to cast doubts on Swenson’s dog care is disgusting. Any vet who has checked Rick’s team and any musher who has raced neck and neck with Swenson have only praise for him, and the stats written here about his finishes etc do not lie. I’ll openly admit I am not a big Craig Medred fan but do not attack one of the greatest dog men to ever run.

  38. I think you are reaching here, Craig. As I understand it Sass was not pressuring his dogs as much as his competition and the fact that these dogs are genetically related suggests, to me anyway, that this is a special situation divorced from pushing beyond the dog’s abilities.
    By the way, how many of these long distance races have you participated in?

    • absolutely zero, Bill. but physiology is physiology. it’s really got nothing to do with what Sass’s competition was doing. it has everything to do with what his team was capable of doing. i ran the 100th Boston. i went through halfway on pace to run about 2:40. there were lots of people going faster, but i was going way too fast – insanely fast – for what i had trained to do. the wheels came off. i think i finished in about two days. i was in a fog. i wasn’t rescued, but i probably looked like i should have been. physiology is physiology: humans, horses, dogs; it doesn’t matter.

      • Not sure what your relationship with 100th Boston has to do with anything, here Craig.
        This team was no doubt capable of being where he was-the problem was with a couple of dogs that very possibly have a similar problem. You might have a sliver of cred. if those dogs were no related. There is just no reason to suspect that this team was pushed beyond their capabilities, with the possible exception of those two related dogs.
        Just my opinion.

      • What it has to do with endurance sorts is that physiology is physiology, Bill. Talk to Doug Swingley about it. He’s now into endurance horse racing; he used to be into running, and as you might know sled-dog racing. There are plenty of parallels between these endurance sports. But here’s my simple question for you: Why didn’t Sass continue? The Quest made a ruling that said he was free to go on despite calling for rescue. If the rest of his team was in great shape, why didn’t he go on once he dropped those two dogs he’s suggesting were genetically flawed? He was still the second musher into Central. He was in contention. He had nine dogs left. He probably didn’t have a chance of catching Matt Hall, but if he had nine dogs in great shape he certainly had a good chance, a very good chance, of holding off Hugh Neff and finishing second. He had a lead of about two and a half hours on Hugh, who was exactly tearing up the trail.

      • I’m answering your question (Why didn’t Sass Continue?) posed in your below comment because there wasn’t a reply button for it.
        As reported by jake Berkowitz, in his ADN article, Sass said he was aware of the situation that would allow him to continue but he said “I was too shook up.” Nuff said IMO.

      • that’s certainly a possibility, Bill. it’s also a good excuse. the reality? only Sass knows. that said, i don’t think anyone was more upset than Aily Zirkle last year in Nulato during the Iditarod, and she continued. Sass continued after dog deaths in the past, too, i believe. near deaths are worse? i admit i don’t know the answer to that last question. and then there is the question of “too shook up” about what?

      • Really not much can be done about a dog death, relative to keeping on or quitting. Easy answer about a so-called near death? Sass had made his decision, relative to the two dogs suffering, but he could have continued (strange rule, I admit) and he felt he should quit, because he was “too shook-up.” I can just say that to have two dogs go down on me that close together would shake me up in such a race. Easy for us to armchair this but remember that Sass had probably gone long hours without real good sleep so his thinking may not be quite like ours. One concern of his could have been some sort of illness or even food poisoning that’s aside from the relationship of the two dogs in question.
        My thinking is you’ve done a disservice to Sass and mushers in general by your questioning of his reasoning, here. Just interview Mr. Sass and quit with the BS speculation. It serves no one, IMO.

    • I don’t think the bases have been covered here at all. The base is an interview with Brent Sass. Talk to the source, journalism 101. Conclusions should be based on research and fact, not just speculation. Speculation that leads to more speculation is off base. Anything less is a real disservice to journalism and critical dialogue. There is also a question of common decency. While I don’t believe Medred has said anything here that he wouldn’t say to Sass’ face, the reality is that he has not taken the time for a face to face. I don’t understand that. To me it suggest a desire to get a sensational piece in print as soon as possible. But a race to deadline doesn’t harm dogs, just reputations, and apparently that’s ok. I guess I’m old school Alaskan but I don’t think that is ok. Medred urges for better dog care, but when a musher scratches to take care of his team he defines it as a “royal screw up.” That is contradictory at best. Medred believes dog care on the Iditarod is better than the Quest by brushing off the fact that a dropped dog died in Iditarod care in 2013. The one thing a musher should be sure of is the care of a dropped dog at a checkpoint. Dogs have been killed by snowmachines on the Iditarod. Mushers being chased on the trail by snowmachines is the direct result of poor village outreach from the Iditarod. That’s not my speculation, it’s Medred’s, in his article “Third Iditarod Assault.”
      Sass has helped countless mushers along the Quest trail in his years of racing, never once passing a musher in trouble. That could lead to speculation that winning isn’t everything for him. Sass pulled himself out of the Quest this year despite Quest rules. That could lead to speculation that he cared more about his dogs and the code of the race than winning. Sebastian Schnuelle wasn’t in the Quest this year because his team was hit by a car. We could speculate about that and how it happened and how it might color his commentary, but what is the point? Being critical and writing critically are two different things, seems to me Medred has done the former here at the expense of the latter and that is disappointing.

      • John: Couldn’t agree with you more on talking to Brent Sass. Hasn’t been done, should be done. But sometimes that isn’t possible with news breaking. That said, a couple things you say need to corrected. I did not define Sass’s scratch as a royal screw up. I defined his call for rescue as the sign of a royal screw-up. When you have to push a button on a communication device to call for help, you’ve screwed up. End of story. And it doesn’t matter if you’re in the Quest or Iditarod, or climbing McKinley, or pedaling a fatbike in the White Mountains. I don’t know why Sass decided to scratch here instead of going on to finish as he did after two previous dog deaths. But one can’t really ignore the numbers. Maybe Sass is just unlucky. That’s a possibility. But there aren’t many competitors in Iditarod or Quest who’ve racked up multiple dog deaths in the span of 10 years. And as for the comparison between Iditarod and Quest dog care, there was a significant period (five years, I believe) in the early 2000s, when the Quest was run with no dog deaths. There appear to have been five in the last six years. There have clearly been five in the last six years of Iditarod (2010-2016), and that includes the Jeff King dog killed by a snowmachine (really nothing a musher can do about that) and the one that suffocated in a checkpoint (a race management issue, not a dog driving issue). But let’s ignore that and go with five versus five for the two races anyway. Over the course of the last six races, the field for the Quest has numbered about 24 mushers. The field for the Iditarod for the last six years has been about three times that. The numbers say something. To get its death rate to the size of that in the Quest in recent years, Iditarod would have to average three dead dogs a year. I’d guess that to get there, given the variables involved, the race would need to experience a range of 2 to 6 or 1 to 7 deaths per year.

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