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Iditarod dog died after being buried in windblown snow, race officials say

The cause of death for a dog that died while at a checkpoint during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has been determined as "asphyxiation as the result of being buried by snow in severe wind conditions," race officials said Saturday.

It was the first death of a dog during Iditarod in four years. The dog was named Dorado -- a 5-year-old male from the team of Paige Drobny. "Dorado and all other dropped dogs were last checked at 3:00 a.m. on Friday morning," Iditarod officials said in a statement Saturday. "Between that time and daylight, drifting snow covered several dogs and Dorado was found to be deceased."

Dorado's death happened in the village of Unalakleet, where a ground blizzard was blowing hard Thursday and early Friday.

Dorado underwent a gross necropsy by a board certified veterinary pathologist, which determined the dog died from being buried in snow. Histopathology studies will be conducted to complete the necropsy, race officials said.

"The entire Iditarod family is mourning this loss. We ask that you support Paige and her family during this difficult time."

ORIGINAL STORY, March 15: Before his death, a dog named Dorado had helped Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race musher Paige Drobny get her team to the Bering Sea coast community of Unalakleet, two-thirds of the way to Nome. Because Dorado, a 4-and-a-half-year old who'd successfully run the Yukon Quest, wasn't performing as well as the rest of the team, he was dropped at the checkpoint.

A March 13 blog post for Drobny's kennel, Squid Acres, described Dorado as arriving in Unalakleet "pretty stiff" and not running as "smooth" as the other dogs, so he was left behind while Drobny and the rest of the team continued to Nome.

What happened after Drobny moved on, leaving the "shy but happy guy" with the dropped dog caretakers in Unalakleet, is unclear. The Iditarod has said Dorado was "an otherwise healthy dog" before his death from a vague occurrence described only as "an incident caused by high winds and drifting snow."

Asked for clarification, Iditarod spokeswoman Erin McLarnon offered few details, other than that personnel monitoring the dropped dog lot in Unalakleet noticed a drift of snow, a missing dog, and then started "digging furiously."

Race officials are awaiting the results of an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

In past years, the dropped dog lot in Unalakleet has been located to the side of a building at the town's airport, where dogs are kept until flights to Anchorage can whisk them closer to home. Sustained high winds had prevented shuttling dogs as efficiently as usual, according to the race press release announcing Dorado's death.

Recent weather in Unalakleet has brought sub-zero overnight temperatures and gusting winds to 45 miles per hour. At zero degrees, a 45 mph wind can feel like 30 degrees below zero due to wind chill. The conditions can be poor for flying, and poor for dogs trying to keep warm – especially those who aren't racing.

News of Dorado's death came one day after Drobny, an Iditarod rookie from Fairbanks, successfully crossed under the burled arch, the race's iconic finish on Front Street in Nome.

Calls to the race marshall and chief veterinarian were not immediately returned.

This is the first race-related death of an Iditarod dog since 2009. In the three years between then and now, the races were dog death-free, a trend that race officials had hoped would continue but have in the past acknowledged is never a guarantee.

A biography of Dorado from the kennel website offers a glimpse of the athlete that met an untimely end: "He makes us laugh because he is a pogo stick at hookup and hops down the trail for the first 100 yards of a run."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com