The August Foundation for Alaska’s Racing Dogs, an organization dedicated to finding homes for retired Alaska huskies, is calling on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to do more to ensure the event’s true athletes get a chance to enjoy life after competition.
The request comes at a time when the state’s trademarked “Last Great Race” is in discussions with mushers about how to improve sled-dog care beyond the two weeks it takes to traverse 1,000 miles of northern wilderness.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 1,200 dogs participate in the race every year. Hundreds more train for the event, but don’t make it to the start line for various reasons. How many are retired each year is unknown.
Though sled dogs live well into their teens, most Iditarod dogs have athletic careers that last for only four to six years. As a result, they are destined to live most of their lives away from competition – if they live.
When an Iditarod dog’s racing days are over, the August Fund said in a media release, “a majority of mushers do right by their dogs by welcoming them into their homes” or placing the dogs with family, friends, fans or organizations that help the dogs find retirement homes.
But that is not always the case.
“Others drop them on already over-burdened local shelters, or worse dispatch them with a bullet or blow to the head,” the release said.
Thanks to modern technology, the Iditarod is in a position to ensure a better outcome, according to the Fund. The Iditarod can now track every dog from race to grave if it so chooses. According to the Fund’s release:
“Each dog who runs the race is microchipped just below the left ear during veterinary checks. We recommend taking that one step farther and microchipping all dogs in a kennel during the ITC ‘Best Care’ certification process.
“‘This technology gives us a way to track dogs in ways (Iditarod founder) Joe Redington never could have imagined,’ said August Foundation for Alaska’s Racing Dogs co-founder Julie St. Louis. ‘What began as a way to insure dogs that started on a team finished with the same team, or if lost along the trail could be reunited with their mushers, is also how we can follow them through their lifetime.'”
The adoptability of sled dogs is still debated in Alaska.
“Sled dogs are work animals, not pets, and some owners regard them simply as a means of travel and don’t believe in treating them gently,” wrote the late Sydney Huntington in his classic Alaska memoir, “Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along the River.” “I have seen teams of dogs so wild and vicious that I feared to be near them. Some dogs are left tied all summer, with barely enough food to survive. Even in winter, some dogs receive little attention except when in harness.”
The view is an old one and most modern Iditarod mushers go to great lengths to socialize and train their dogs if no other reason than that it makes a team easier to manage. Largely gone is the idea, popularized by sled dog author Gary Paulsen, an Iditarod favorite, that sled dogs “love to fight.”
Fights are now rare, but they do happen. Musher Brent Sass, another Iditarod favorite, lost his best lead dog to injuries incurred in a dog fight during a training run along the Denali Highway early last year, according to the musher who broke up that fight. He said Sass left his team staked out while taking a break in a lodge along the route.
Some dogs in the team chewed themselves loose and pounced on the dog named Basin, who was still tied down. The musher who broke up the fight said Basin was fatally injured in the fight, but that Sass and the lodge caretaker made a valiant effort to save him.
Sass has never disclosed how the dog died and has ignored repeated requests from craigmedred.news asking about the incident. But he has admitted to being deeply disturbed by what happened.
“The 5-year-old dog’s sudden death last Sunday while resting on a training run near the Denali Highway was so emotionally difficult, Sass almost sat out the Kusko” 300 Sled Dog Race in Bethel, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.
One of the complaints of Abigayil Crowder, a dog handler who this fall quit the kennel of four-time Iditarod champ Dallas Seavey citing abuse there, was that Seavey had aggressive dogs, and that given the way his kennel was laid out she couldn’t walk dogs through the dog yard to their houses without them sometimes getting nipped by other dogs.
Sled dogs that are agressive towards other dogs are sometimes a problem, admitted St. Louis, but she said it is very rare to find a sled dog that is aggressive toward people. Mushers just can’t afford to tolerate that kind of behavior.
A few dogs might not do well if placed in homes with other dogs, St. Louis said, but they all do well with people. Over the last five years, St. Louis and Armour have gained a lot of experience in placing retired sled dogs and both say retired sled dogs make great pets.
“The majority of these dogs get along well with other pets, even cats,” St. Louis said.
The biggest problem, said Jeannine Armour, the August Fund’s co-founder, sometimes comes in simply helping the dogs adjust to life as a pet.
Adopting August, the sled-dog for whom the August Fund came to be named, was in some ways more like raising a puppy than adopting an adult dog, Armour said in an interview.
Armour first met him after he was hit by a car and injured. St. Louis was at the time running a pet store in the Girdwood, a ski resort community east of Anchorage. Armour was a customer.
St. Louis and Armour connected in the process of raising funds to cover the costs of surgery needed to treat August’s injuries after the accident. While he was recovering, St. Louis suggested Armour take August home until he healed.
“So we took August home with us,” Armour said.
Armour fell in love, even though “he was so skittish to begin with. It took six weeks before I could get him up on the couch.”
House training August was actually easier than turning him into a normal acting pet, she said; sled dogs are so conditioned to please people that August quickly figured out what he was supposed to do to please his new master in that regard.
It was during August’s recovery that Armour and St. Louis came up with the idea for the August Fund.
“I just fell in love of with the idea of taking care of these dogs, of giving them the best life possible after they’re done racing,” Armour said. “They work their asses off for their humans for their whole lives. ”
Since the August Fund started, St. Louis and Armour have placed dozens of dogs, and August has transitioned from racing dog to spoiled pet. He was resting on the couch in Homer when Armour was interviewed by phone on Friday.
Training a sled dog to transition from work animal to house dog is “definitely not for everybody,” Armour admitted, but all of the dogs hold the potential to become the best friends of new owners.
The August Fund wants the Iditarod to make that a goal as noted in its release:
“With the institution of an ITC best care and kennel standards program no longer should a good and faithful canine athlete face abandonment or an untimely death when its usefulness is over.
“We urge the Iditarod Trail Committee and the recently appointed musher standards advisory committee to add a dog’s life after racing to their list of considerations when crafting standards.
“Fans and others are quite proud to adopt these legends of the trail who are generally healthy, well socialized and highly trained….We stand ready to work with ITC and current and future professional mushers to connect their dogs with good homes after their racing days are done.”
CORRECTION: The present home of Armour and August was mistated in an early version of this story. They now love in Homer.