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Iditarod makes good on promise to change dog-drop procedures following 2013 dog death

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
Unalakleet residents cheer on the first musher to arrive at the coast during the 2013 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. After a healthy dropped dog was found dead in the checkpoint last year, race organizers have made significant changes to how dropped dog care will be handled in the future. Loren Holmes photo

After its first dog death in four years, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is making good on its promise to improve care for dogs dropped during the 1,000-mile race across Alaska.

Race organizers said those improvements include increasing the number of dog houses in the race hubs of Unalakleet and McGrath and creating a 40-page document outlining every detail on overseeing dogs left in their care. The changes stem from last year's death of Dorado, a 5-year-old husky from the team of Fairbanks rookie Paige Drobny in Unalakleet. Drobny had dropped Dorado in the first checkpoint on Alaska's western coast after he appeared to be running a little stiff.

Mushers begin the race with a maximum of 16 dogs and must have at least six in their team when they finish in Nome. Mushers drop dogs for a variety of reasons, including sickness, muscle injuries or for race strategy. Dorado was held in Unalakleet with 135 other dogs last March, waiting to be flown out of the community, which serves as a collection point for dogs dropped from other checkpoints, when a fierce coastal storm swept in. 

While most dogs were relocated to an airplane hangar out of the storm, about 35 remained tethered outside in blowing snow and below-zero temperatures. Dorado was found the next morning buried in a snowdrift. The cause of death was asphyxiation.

Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley said in an email that the race spent months after the 2013 Iditarod formalizing and enhancing protocols for managing and caring for dropped dogs during the race. Thirteen new dog boxes capable of holding eight dogs apiece were built for Unalakleet and McGrath. Unalakleet already had six boxes, each able to hold five dogs.

Head Veterinarian Stu Nelson said Wednesday that lots safeguards have been put in place to ensure a similar incident doesn't happen this year. An extensive dropped dog manual was published and distributed. It outlines specifics on everything from how to walk a dropped dog (to avoid paw injuries, don't wear ice cleats) to how to corral a dropped dog if it gets loose (first step, yell "loose dog!" and don't chase it).

The document also details protocols on how veterinarians oversee dropped dogs, including the mandatory checks and feed times. It explains how to use a new tracking system to give mushers and their handlers the most up-to-date information on their dogs.

Nelson said the race will be "more aggressive" in its routine evaluation of all dropped dogs at every checkpoint. There will be dog yard checks every two hours on all dropped dogs -- more often during inclement weather. Medically fragile dogs have always been carefully monitored, he noted. Now all dogs will be watched closely.

The biggest problem in Unalakleet last year was transportation, as the storm kept planes grounded, preventing the dogs from being flown out. The animals bottlenecked as they came to the hub community from other checkpoints. 

"When things are pushed to the limit like that, things can break," Nelson said. "We want to do everything we can to address a worst-case scenario."

Drobny said she's satisfied with changes the race made and plans to run again this year. She vowed after Dorado's death that she would not race again until changes were made in the best interest of the dogs.

Drobny was included in numerous meetings on dropped dog changes this summer. In those meetings, she was surprised that things like a tracking system and mandatory dogs checks were not already in place.

"If that one single thing had been in place then, my dog would still be alive," she said. "To let a dog sit outside for six hours in a snowstorm -- it doesn't end well."

Drobny said her race this year will be dedicated to Dorado. She plans to carry his ashes down the trail.

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