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How will Iditarod mushers decide which dogs make the cut?

Zack Steer
John Baker crosses Golovin Bay on his way to White Mountain on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Kevin Apok welcomes John Baker to White Mountain with a sign on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Checker Carl Brown, left, signs John Baker in to the White Mountain checkpoint on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker positions his sled after arriving in White Mountain on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Iditarod leader John Baker of Kotzebue shakes hands with former checkpoint checker Howard Lincoln in White Mountain.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker and Ramey Smyth talk after arriving in the White Mountain checkpoint on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker after arriving in the White Mountain checkpoint.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker rests in the Rainy Pass checkpoint on Monday afternoon.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker leads his team across the finish line in Nome.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker leaves Anvik on a slough of the Anvik River on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Iditarod fans on Front Street in Nome greet John Baker on Tuesday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker booties his dogs before leaving the Anvik checkpoint on Friday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker talks with the media after winning the 2011 Iditarod.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker changes the runners of his sled in Anvik.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker arrives in the finish chute in Nome.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker cares for his team in Kaltag on Saturday.
Stephen Nowers photo
A media pack surrounds John Baker and lead dogs Velvet and Snickers under the burled arch in Nome.
Stephen Nowers photo
2011 Iditarod leader John Baker arrives in Unalakleet on Sunday morning.
Stephen Nowers photo
A crowd surrounds 2011 Iditarod leader John Baker as his arrives in the Unalakleet checkpoint on Sunday.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker approaches the village of Golovin on his way to White Mountain.
Stephen Nowers photo
John Baker and his team cross Golovin Bay on their way to White Mountain on Monday.
Stephen Nowers photo

Editor's Note: Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, is sitting out this year's race as wife Anjanette takes the kennel's team to Nome. He owns and operates the Sheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and 2 young boys. Zack will bring a competitive racer’s analysis to this year’s Iditarod coverage. Zack maintains a small kennel of racing sled dogs, who are much happier to be taking Anjanette (100 pounds lighter than Zack) to Nome this year. Follow Zack’s race analysis at Alaska Dispatch.

The most important strategic decision Iditarod mushers make happens before the race starts. 

Every musher must choose a team of up to 16 dogs from their kennel to start the race, and for mushers with more than 16 to choose from, the decision who to take and who to leave home may decide whether they win, place or even show up in Nome. Let’s look at the Iditarod race rules and general musher strategy, and work backwards from the finish in Nome to help explain the process of how most of this years’ mushers will choose which dogs will race and which will be left home or along the trail as dropped dogs.

Mushers must finish with at least 6 dogs in harness. This rule used to say five dogs, but was recently increased to six. t does not take a large group of dogs to pull a typically loaded Iditarod sled weighing no more than 100 lbs., not including the musher. Too many dogs in your team at the end of the race can be a competitive liability. Every year there are a few teams that try to run long strings of dogs to the finish, but they rarely make the top-10. Mushers whose goal is to finish with all 16 of their starters in harness usually place their own egos ahead of their dogs’ health (maybe Rex should be dropped due to a sore wrist). Three years ago, four-time champion Jeff King of Denali Park kept his 16-dog team intact to White Mountain.  Who knows what might have happened if King dropped a few of his slowest dogs in Unalakleet. Lance Mackey ended up beating him to the finish line by only 80 minutes.

Typically, teams will have 8 to 12 dogs at the finish due to natural attrition. Some dogs get sick, tired or injured along the way. Some completely healthy dogs will be dropped at checkpoints because they are just the slowest animal in the team. Remember, you're only as fast as your slowest dog. Competitive teams hope to have a core group of 12 strong dogs left to pull them the final 250 miles along the Bering Sea coast from Unalakleet to Nome. Any more than 12, and mushers will waste valuable time and effort caring for and feeding dogs that don’t make them any faster. 

Mushers must choose up to 16 dogs for the re-start on Sunday. Most teams start with 16, a few with less. The idea is that starting with 16 dogs allows a musher the flexibility to drop sick or tired dogs along the way at the checkpoints, and still have enough dog power to finish strong. Ideally, all 16 dogs are leaders, but most mushers rely on a core group of three or four lead dogs that will rotate throughout the race. 

Mushers must choose 20 dogs for the ceremonial start, of which only 12 may run. These 20 dogs must be declared on paper and, after Saturday, no substitutions may be made. Theoretically, a musher may run only eight from the race team during Saturday’s ceremonial start, running four more from the list that have no intention to race on Sunday. Some mushers choose to save their best dogs until Sunday. Others may use Saturday’s run as a final evaluation to determine who makes the team. 

Mushers must choose up to 24 dogs in the month leading up to the race for Iditarod-mandated blood testing, micro-chipping and ECG screening.  All race dogs must undergo these evaluations, and every year a couple dogs in the entire race field are not permitted to compete due to pre-existing conditions that musher is not aware of from normal observation at home or training. 

Most mushers start the training season in the fall with at least 32 dogs, with hopes of getting the best 16 to the start.  Professional kennels might have 100 or more dogs, giving them an advantage similar to a pro sports team with a deep bench.  In the weeks leading up to the race, there is always a flurry of last minute dog buying, selling and trading, with each musher trying to assemble the best possible team possible, or at least a team capable of finishing a 10-day, 1000-mile race. 

Veteran mushers have a distinct advantage when it comes time to pick their final race teams, as some qualities in a good 1000-mile race dog don’t always show up in training or middle-distance races. Experienced mushers look for dogs that have high energy levels, insatiable appetites, quick recovery times, tough feet, and the innate ability to get-up-and-go at the end of the race when everyone else is tired.  For some rookies, a flip of the coin may determine the number 16 dog that starts the race on Sunday.

Mushers who choose the right dogs before and during the race will finish strong. Mushers who choose wrong may not even finish.

Zack Steer, a five-time Iditarod finisher, is sitting out this year's race as wife Anjanette takes the kennel's team to Nome. He owns and operates the Sheep Mountain Lodge with Anjanette and 2 young boys. Zack will bring a competitive racer’s analysis to this year’s Iditarod coverage. Zack maintains a small kennel of racing sled dogs, who are much happier to be taking Anjanette (100 pounds lighter than Zack) to Nome this year. Follow Zack’s race analysis at Alaska Dispatch.