Dopey dogs

dopey dogs

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Alaska’s biggest sporting events have yet to hit the trail and already there is a doping controversy.

This time it involves the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada. Dogs in the team of Quest musher Brian Wilmhurst from Dawson City, Yukon last year produced markers for a drug sometimes used as a painkiller.

The Quest’s board decided the drug had most likely come from contaminated horse meat fed the dogs, docked Wilmhurst the $3,262.10 he’d won for finishing 13th among the 27 finishers in the 2019 race, and closed the case.

As a result, the CBC reported Friday, all six members of the race’s Rules Committee quit in protest.

In a letter to the Quest, the committee charged that Wilmhurst was “able to ‘buy himself out of’ a positive drug test by paying back his winnings.”

Those who know Wilmhurst best are skeptical that he would dope a dog to finish 13th among the27 mushers in the 2019 race. One described him as an affable stoner who runs dogs for fun. He’s never won a race, according to his kennel web page, but has collected two red lanterns.

In 2015, he ran the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race – an event considered significantly more competitive than the Quest – and finished 52nd.

He did not respond to a request for comment, which was not a surprise. No one involved with Alaska sled dog sports wants to talk publicly about doping although there is a lot of talk privately.

“Special K”

The drug identified by the Quest is ketamine, an anesthetic often referred to as a “horse tranquilizer.” It was developed for use on humans in the 1960s and remains in use in emergency rooms and field hospitals around the globe, according to Dr. Steve Levine of Actify, a mental health treatment facility.

The drug is used in the mental health field to treat depression, but the drug is probably best known for its use on the street as a club and “date rape” drug.

“Special K” or “K” comes “comes in tablet or powder form,” according to the website Healthy Place, and can be “snorted up the nose, placed in alcoholic drinks, or smoked in combination with marijuana.

“Ketamine has hallucinatory effects. Similar to LSD, the effects of Ketamine are altered according to the user’s mood and environment.”

In canines, it is not used to send Fido on a trip, but instead to relieve pain. It has shown up regularly in greyhounds where doping to increase performances has been a serious and ongoing problem. 

The drug is usually injected, but is also prescribed in the form of creams, gels and liquids to rubbed on the skin to ease pain, especially nerve pain. “Ketamine works by interfering with the central nervous system,” VetInfo says.

“Because ketamine is such a powerful drug, it is hardly ever sent with pet owners to be given at home. Transdermal patches may be sent home with pet owners, however, and this has become a popular form of pain relief.”

Alaska veterinarians say ketamine is nowhere near as popular here, however, as Rimadyl, the Aleve of the dog world, or as popular as tramadol, a synthetic opioid, was before the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2014 classified it as a controlled substance.

First doper

Tramadol is the pain killer that landed four-time Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion Dallas Seavey in so much trouble in 2017.

It has never been determined how that drug got into Seavey’s team in Nome that year. The second-place finisher in 2017, he continues to insist that his dogs were somehow sabotaged, but there has never been any evidence found to indicate that. 

Publicly many of his competitors have supported him; privately many admit to being suspicious.

At a meeting of mushers, race officials and members of the race’s anti-doping team after the 2018 race, Seavey – who did not race that year – expressed anger that he was being singled out for tramadol – an over-the-counter drug in Europe where it has been regularly used by professional cyclists – when everyone knew other mushers were prepping their dogs with more potent performance-enhancing drugs.

Following that meeting, Iditarod sacked Morrie Craig, the head of its anti-doping program, and eventually apologized to Seavey for identifying him as the musher whose team was found doped in Nome despite the lack of evidence that anyone else might have been involved.

Craig, in consultation with authorities on the metabolism of tramadol in canines, later compiled a report concluding that all the evidence indicated that the drug were most likely given within an hour of the drug test in Nome. That timeline would have put Seavey representatives with the dogs at the time the drugs were administered.

The Iditarod refused to review the report, and most of the volunteers in the drug-testing team that worked with Craig quit before the 2019 race. The Iditarod has yet to appoint a new anti-doping director, and some of the old team members described the drug-testing the race carried out last year as a sham, although Iditarod claims it was a state-of-the-art effort.

Seavey, for his part, remains angry at Iditarod and has not been back in the race since he became the only musher in race history to be publicly identified as in charge of doped dogs.

More than a half-dozen sources formerly with the Iditarod doping program have told there were multiple other positives before that, and in a meeting with former Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley, chief race veterinarian Stuart Nelson Jr, and race director Mark Nordman, Nordman admitted there had been past positive tests – all linked to contaminated meat, he said – while Nelson was claiming there had never been a positive drug test before Seavey.

The confusion might have been related to the Iditarod rules which stipulate that even if drugs are found in the urine of an Iditarod dog, the test is not a “positive” unless the Iditarod board of directors declares it a positive.

As with Wilmhurst in the Quest, most past Iditarod drug positives have been written off as the result of contaminated meat fed the dogs.

help blurb

Costly, embarrassing, problematic

Given the costs of anti-doping programs, the relatively small number of truly competitive mushers with an incentive to dope their dogs, and the negative publicity spawned by the Seavey fiasco, some have suggested that Alaska’s biggest dog races – the Iditarod and the Quest – should simply get out of the anti-doping business.

The Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race in Western Alaska – a race this year boasting a purse of $160,000, $60,000 more than that of the Quest – has only one drug rule: “No injectable substances may be used on any dog at any point during the race.

The Kusko 300 starts an ends in Bethel, a remote community of about 6,100 people approximately 400 air miles west of Anchorage and just about as far from any part of the limited Alaska road system.

Other mid-distance races also forgo drug testing and seem to do fine without it.

Sled-dog racing is not the Tour de France or major league baseball or the NFL. Size-wise, it is smaller than the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP), which sponsors tournaments in eight U.S. cities from May 1 to Sept. 20.

The first of those events this year, the Huntington Beach Open from May 1 to 3, promises a $200,000 purse split evenly between male and female competitors. That climbs to $300,000 for the AVP Gold Series, New York City Open, in June.

All told, the events boast $1.8 million in prize money split equally between the men’s and women’s divisions over the course of the season.

The Iditarod this year has a “$500,000 To Be Determined” purse, according to the race rules, the Quest a fifth of that.

Before Rick Swenson left the Iditarod’s board and disappeared from the statewide mushing scene, he noted the high cost of the doping program and the limited results. The Iditarod’s only five-time winner, Swenson was around when the program was instituted in the 1980s with many mushers fearful doping had spun out of control.

The program appeared to be effective in its early year, although the mushers who were caught doping their dogs were never identified. As sports doping became every sophisticated in the years that followed, however, the Iditarod’s program remained stuck in an earlier time.

Some of the volunteers who worked for Craig have said it was pretty clear to them some teams were racing faster through chemistry, but no one ever got caught until Seavey and then nothing became of it save for Craig’s dismissal.

The former doping police, however,  also agree that overall the doping problem in long-distance sled dog racing is relatively small given that the majority of mushers are like the Quest’s Wilmhurt.

They’re not competing to win a truckload of prize money or a few minutes of fame. They’re just trying to get from the race’s start line to the finish. The $3,200 Wilmhurt won and then lost in the Quest would cover the costs of his 35 sled dogs for only a few weeks if that.

Mushers figure on an annual expense of about $2,000 per dog per year to cover food, housing, veterinary costs and incidentals. The sport makes little economic sense, and most of the people in it are there for the adventure, the challenge or “fun,” which is a tough thing to define.

Eighty percent of them are no more competitive than your average recreational runner in the local 5K, and no one worries about doping there, which is not to say he or she couldn’t be doping.

Drugs are an American way of life.






10 replies »

  1. Weeds are just plants growing in the wrong place. Dope is just medicine, used for the wrong reason.

    For the most part, it would be unethical to prevent the administration of ‘dope’ to working dogs. Or people. And if fact, most such treatments are perfectly legal, and ethical.

    It’s only in special cases & narrow contexts, that an issue or problem arises. The rest of the time, NOT ‘doping’ is like not bathing or brushing your teeth. It’s a beneficial thing to do, and stupid not to.

    There is also of course a not-so-subtle “We hate Iditarod” factor. It’s not about dope, it’s about any bugger we can flick at the Iditrod event. Sometimes ‘rationalized’ as opposition to mushing, in all forms.

    So they had these Sports Bars in San Diego. Big competitive advertising campaigns. Their main push was late in the afternoon. I was on the roster for mid-watch, no alcohol.

    Pulled into this bar, crowded, haven’t been served yet, a girl calls out ‘You from the Navy??‘, like it could be hidden. I walk over, she’s smiling real big, her friends scrunch over, grab another chair.

    Now the waiter comes scooting, ‘natch. I lean over and whisper ‘I’m on watch tonight..’, she snuggles up nice and whispers back ‘There’s nothing in the ‘XY Flip’ but pop & juice – and water’, and I order one.

    The girls are waiting for their dates, came early for grins, ‘And we’re glad we did’! I leave discretely, get a couple hours shut-eye.

    Dog yards are canine sports bars. Hello! Every time I see one, or someone bellyaches about them, I get a little flashback of this gal whispering against my face. They love it, just like we do.

  2. This is a tenuous link to the subject of the article, yet again.

    Most of the horses that are slaughters for food are not race horses and they are not doped, claiming that tainted dog feed caused by doped horse meat is also tenuous at best. “According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, when it comes to “chemical residues,” horsemeat performs as well or better than beef, chicken and pork. In random tests conducted in 2005 and 2006 – the most recent data – 99.95 per cent of horse samples showed “no detectable residues,” compared with 99.02 per cent for beef and 99.71 per cent for pork. In its eight years of testing for phenylbutazone in horsemeat, the agency hasn’t had a single positive result. And since July 31, to comply with European Union regulations, the CFIA requires horses be certified as drug-free for six months prior to slaughter.”

    The horses of North America are an introduced species as the native horses went extinct towards the end of the last ice age along with numerous other large land mammals, that means they are a feral and invasive species.

    Horse meat is extremely lean and healthier than beef, it is eaten around the world and is a delicacy in most other countries. Furthermore according to the BLM, where most feral horse are found, there are far too many of them and they are degrading the environment. With no natural predators the feral population of horses is left unchecked to grow and destroy the land they roam. The destruction of the iconic landscape of the west should not be tolerated by any environmentalist.

    • Steve Stein,

      “Wild horses” is mighty puny stuff. Free-breeding stray cats are “wild cats”? City pigeons, too? The goats in New Zealand, camels in Australia? Hogs living all across the southern US tier?!

      C’mon. You’re a bit more of a biologist than that … aren’t you?

      They’re feral, of course. Usually “invasive”, and always “introduced”.

      I say, let’s see the Receipt for that “horse meat” that triggered a drug-test in dogs.

      More likely, “horse pucky”.

  3. Mushers are not trucking up slaughtered wild horse meat to Alaska to feed their dogs. That makes no economic sense. Many people have horses in Alaska, myself included. When a horse’s time is up, it is much better it goes to a musher for food than in the ground.

  4. Why are these races allowing horse meat to be fed to dogs in the first place?
    There is not even a single slaughterhouse open in the U.S. to kill horses these days.
    Most of the horses killed are wild horses removed from federal land in places like Nevada so the cattle ranchers do not have to deal with them when there animals are grazing.
    The whole thing stinks to me.
    Dogs on chains in AK fed horse meat while the last remaining wild stocks of horses (the pure symbol of the West) are led to slaughter in Mexico and Canada.
    “Last year, approximately 80,000 American horses were trucked over our borders to be slaughtered…
    Looking at data from 2012 to 2016, an average of 137,000 American horses were trucked over our borders each year to slaughter facilities in Mexico and Canada.”

    • Steve, you are from back East. What happens if the whitetail deer population goes unchecked for a certain area? Humans eat horse meat, why shouldn’t dogs?

      • Bryan,
        I would say that killing wild horses to feed dogs on chains has very little in common with personal substance hunting of whitetail deer.
        1st off there are over 1.5 million whitetail deer in a state like PA alone…
        Compare that to only 30,000 wild horses remaining in the entire Western U.S.
        Maybe you can compare the slaughter of wild horses to the slaughter of the buffalo since along with the genocide of Native Americans in the 19th century this was an attack on an “alternative lifestyle” in the west.
        When the buffalo were nearly wiped out to extinction from a population of millions by government sharp shooters, then the native Americans (who relied on them for food) were forced into assimilation.
        What we are seeing today as ranchers destroy the Forest Service land with over grazing and “cow patties” left all over the landscape is picking the corporate agriculture paradigm over natural selection.
        We see this over and over in America from logging to fish hatcheries to beef.
        Instead of letting nature take her course, government subsidized cowboys go in and grab wild horses and stuff them on trucks for over 24 hour truck rides with no food or water.
        Some are then stuffed in crates in Canada for a long plane ride to Japan where they will be sold for slaughter.
        This is the sickness of NAFTA by allowing inhumane practices in Mexico and Canada when we have stopped slaughtering horses in the U.S. many years ago.
        “Canada is one of the only countries in the world still shipping live horses for slaughter, almost all of which are destined to be butchered in Japan, which is now Canada’s number one importer of live horses.”

      • Hello Steve stine . The horse meat eaten by sled dogs in the past was a by product or rather leftover from the human grade products sent to France and other countries. No horses were Killed for sled dogs to my knowledge it was specifically to keep the leftovers from going to a landfill or farm field . Perhaps stateside use of horses was different. I doubt there are many chemicals in horse meat human grade product. Currently for past 20 years there is no source to purchase horse meat for sled dogs in Alaska to my extensive knowledge. Various border shipping restrictions and other formal paperwork issues. Most sled dogs don’t get horse meat.Now one exception is horses raised in Alaska that died of natural causes or were put down by a veterinarian for whatever health problem the horse had . Dog mushers are often called to deal with the body as it’s large cost for burial but minimum if musher will take and feed it to their dogs . This is probably where the worst contamination of dog food comes from . ( except dog food beef/ chicken is at risk of contamination from whatever drug the farmers used in their animal husbandry because dog food meat doesn’t have the same clean out laws as human grade products to my knowledge ) So horses given drugs Equals potential for a hot drug test during a dog race race . Particularly if owner of horse lied to musher and said horse was drug free . Most injured or sick horses are taking pain relief drugs and when the horse is put down it’s given a high dose of whatever is used to put the animal to sleep. Mushers won’t take drugged horses if they are aware . Problem is when Disreputable or unknowing horse owners try to save a buck and claim the horse is drug free so a musher will take it . Bad bad deal . Dogs can get poisoned or get a hot test . It’s tough because horse meat is far superior product over dog grade beef . Horse meat is generally cleaner and frankly the dogs prefer it and perform better on it . Thus it’s very attractive to mushers . Most racing sled dogs have never had a chance to touch it . Now I’m not certain what is done with race horses that get put down or die but in recent last 40 years those dead animals did not come to Alaska to my knowledge. Of course there may have been exceptions. Hope this wasn’t to long of a write up and can clarify knowledge. By the way much as I admit horse meat is an excellent meat for dogs or humans I’m very against using them for meat animals. No one should raise a horse specifically to kill and eat it . What kind of life for a smart living companion type creature is that ? Horses are good companion or work animals and should be treated fairly and with extreme respect. I understand if they have to put some down for logical reasons then it’s also logical to use them for consumption under the concept waste not want not . That said I’m against using them premeditated as meat animals except in dire circumstances. Have a good day.

    • There are far more privately-owned horses killed every year than the handful of wild horses that are culled. And just because there are no horse slaughter plants in the US doesn’t mean that all of the horses needing to be killed get shipped to Canada or Mexico. Quite a few are just euthanized at their home or in a veterinary facility…..and then the owner or veterinarian has a half-ton disposal problem. A musher that is willing to take the carcass off their hands saves the work of digging a rather large hole, and as a result most owners and veterinarians will happily give the carcass away, and the musher gets a large amount of good quality meat for the cost of the motor vehicle fuel spent fetching the carcass.

      Sourcing meat in this manner will inevitably lead to drug residues. Few owners or veterinarians are skilled enough to perform euthanasia properly with a bullet – at least while the horse is still standing – so the preferred method is to induce general anesthesia and then either shot the very still horse in the head at point-blank range or give a huge IV injection of potassium chloride to stop the heart (the same way they do humans with lethal injection). But the drugs used for the general anesthesia – the most common being ketamine – remain in the tissues and will show up in drug tests. I don’t know whether this is how Wilmhurst’s dogs tested positive, but it is at least biologically possible and according to the CBC article, this is what the Quest Board believes happened.

      Strictly speaking, that doesn’t get Wilmhurst off the hook, since in that scenario he still is responsible for causing a prohibited substance to be found in his dogs. The officials only have his word that it was an accident, and it appears that the Rules Committee is getting tired of hearing that “excuse” when it is so easy to avoid: if you are going to feed horse meat, go to the trouble of ensuring that the horse is not loaded with prohibited substances AND don’t then put prohibited substances in the horse in the process of killing it. When you consider the vast number of horses killed every year for one reason or another, it isn’t that tough to find one that isn’t going to cause your dogs to test positive.

      • Agreed. The problem, however, comes in the “it appears.”

        These races need to set threshold levels and write some solid rules saying that if those levels are exceeded, you’re DQed. End of story. Then we could stop dealing with whole issue of “excuses.”

        Then if a musher wants to roll the dice on some possibly contaminated dog meat, so be it.

        The best than can be said here is that the Quest ended up with the right decision even if the Rules Committee didn’t think it a strong enough decision. That’s better than the Iditarod which has overlooked similar situations.

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