Alaska News

How the stamina of Iditarod dogs can help bomb-sniffing canines in the military

Behind of the scenes of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, one of Alaska's great living legacies, is a rhythmic cycle of stop and go. Like NASCAR pit stops, checkpoints between the long overland crossings are a methodical frenzy.

Unlike high-speed race car drivers, mushers are their own one-person, full-service pit crews. They take the dogs boots' on and off; offer massages to sore, stiff muscles; unharness and reharness; snack their teams; give meds if necessary; and put down hay for naps. Done well and efficiently, the round-the-clock chores of dog care will give the musher time to rest and keep the team finely tuned for the arduous marathon that can last 10 days or more.

A lot of science has gone into developing the best mix of food to keep the dogs at peak performance. And it turns out, this know-how about the ways to best fuel these dogs' incredible athleticism is helping build better canine soldiers. The iconic dogs of Alaska's Last Great Race are helping keep American soldiers safe in the deserts of Afghanistan.

Much has been learned about why these dogs that race nearly 1,000 miles perform so well. Enough research has been done on the physical stamina and the high-performance metabolism of Iditarod dogs that studies have led to changes in the way the animals are conditioned, cared for, fed and rested. The same science behind the training of sled dogs has led to breakthroughs in the way the military deploys bomb-sniffing dogs in wartime patrols.

"It makes me sleep at night to know that we are having a life-and-death impact somewhere down the line," explains Oklahoma State University's Mike Davis, a veterinarian who has spent years studying Iditarod dogs and now works with dogs serving the U.S. Marine Corps. In 2013, he spent time tracking Allen Moore's team on the trail of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. And he has returned to Alaska since then for further studies.

Stunningly big appetites

Davis' research on gastric ulcers, a condition that can be fatal and sometimes is exacerbated by running long distances, led Iditarod officials to allow dogs to be given Prilosec, an over-the-counter antacid, to prevent the condition. Veterinarians have also studied the amount of food dogs need and ideal protein-to-fat ratios. As more is learned, mushers -- and now Marines -- have adjusted their dogs' diets.

"The Marine Corps couldn't believe how many calories (the dogs) were eating," Davis said. While racing, Iditarod dogs can take in 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day. By comparison, much heavier humans consume an average of 2,000 calories a day.


Explosive-detection dogs were introduced to aid Marines after a 2005 command order to find a way to increase the field dog presence among human patrols without adding additional training, personnel or infrastructure, said Lisa Albuquerque, manager of the Office of Naval Research's naval expeditionary dog science and technology program. Dog noses continue to outperform any other sensor of homemade bombs, with a detection rate as high as 80 percent, while technology-based sensors have a success rate of about 50 percent. The military is increasingly embracing the knowledge of chemists, physicists, toxicologists, evolutionary anthropologists and other disciplines, including veterinarians, to inform its work, Albuquerque said.

The dog of choice for detection of improvised explosive devices is a hunt-bloodline Labrador retriever, an energetic, intelligent and disciplined breed. Labradors aren't an exceptional long-distance sled dog. But the husky-hound mixed breeds that dominate sled-dog races like the Iditarod hold secrets that are helping these very different working dogs improve their battlefield performance.

In 2010, Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates told the Washington Times the most effective tool in disarming roadside bombs is "two men and a dog," even though the military has spent nearly $10 billion on new detection and clearing technologies. "The majority of IEDs are still found by well-trained soldiers in partnership with their host-nation forces and using a dog. That is still the greatest return on investment at this point," said Oates, then the head of an Army task force charged with combating roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.??

Train the way you race

One of the biggest lessons from the trails and competitions of Alaska? Train to level at which you need to perform -- something Iditarod mushers have come to embrace in recent years, with several dog teams now entering back-to-back 1,000-mile races. The theory is the more the dogs run, the better they will do. It has worked for Lance Mackey, Aliy Zirkle, Dallas Seavey and others. The military is taking note.

"You need to train the way you are going to race. If you were going to have the dog out there running around in the heat, you need to get them to that point in training," Davis said.

Battlefield dogs don't attempt the distances Iditarod dogs cover, and their working conditions are very different. They might travel only 30 miles -- but in extreme heat without readily available water. Although desert dogs' daily routine is much different than sled dogs', the demands on their bodies are just as great. Using information gained from sled dog research, Davis has been working with the Marines to develop techniques to keep the dogs in top shape.

IED dogs need to drink about five and a half liters of water a day -- water a Marine gets to lug around for his or her animal. Davis is studying just how much water the dogs need to stay alert and capable from day to day, and whether tweaking electrolyte solutions will reduce dehydration. Some of the work on electrolytes has taken place at the SP Kennel owned by repeat Yukon Quest champion Moore and his wife, two-time Iditarod runner-up Zirkle. This summer, Davis will study how much protein top-performing bomb dogs need.

Can't beat their noses

Nearly 10 years of Department of Defense research into the capabilities of dogs, and the role sled dogs played in acquiring the knowledge, paid off when the call came in to enhance the abilities of the Marines' IED K-9 detection corps.

"As a result of us knowing all of this stuff, we were able to very rapidly improve the capabilities of the bomb-sniffing dogs," Davis said.

Davis appreciates that his work has had tangible results, and the use of Prilosec has helped make the sport of long-distance mushing safer, too. No dogs died in three of the last four Iditarod races (one died last year in frigid weather awaiting transport from the Unalakleet checkpoint), a standard previously unmatched in the four-decade history of the race across Alaska. And the bomb dogs of war are saving the lives and limbs of the Marines patrolling behind them.

"This research started as a response to a requirement from Gen. James Mattis in 2005 to do the impossible -- find a way to rapidly field hundreds of dogs that could be used by Marines for ... detection of IEDs without any increase in manpower, infrastructure or extended training. (It) has saved lives," said Albuquerque, recalling stories from Marines about how their "experimental" dog saved their patrol and helped them to come home safely.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at) A version of this story was published by Alaska Dispatch in 2012.

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.