There’s no mistaking it: The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is a smaller race this year. Fifty-two mushers took off from Willow on March 3, a far cry from the record field of 96 teams in 2008. Among the factors likely influencing this year’s field size: The departure of some marquee sponsors, pressure from animal-rights groups, damaged relationships with mushers following the fiasco over four-time champion Dallas Seavey’s dogs testing positive for a banned substance in 2017, and a prize purse that was cut substantially starting with the 2018 race.
Given all the issues the Iditarod is contending with, it’s tempting to adopt a doom-and-gloom outlook on the race. But amid the negatives, there are some signs that the race has turned a corner on its troubles.
In perhaps the most meaningful sign that the race is serious about atoning for transparency issues that hurt its credibility with mushers, such as the dramatic saga that followed Seavey’s dogs’ positive drug test, a majority of the race’s board members have changed in the past year. Six of the eleven seats have new members since last year’s race. Former board president Andy Baker, whose resignation a mushers’ group had called for prior to the 2018 race, stepped down in August. Last summer, the race implemented new rules at the suggestion of an independent consultant to help ensure dog safety after four dogs perished in the 2017 edition of the race.
The new rules, such as the automatic withdrawal of mushers if their dogs die for any reason except “unforeseeable, external forces," will not satisfy race critics whose ultimate goal is the elimination of Alaska’s state sport. But they should give those who appreciate sled dog racing more confidence that the welfare and safety of Iditarod athletes is of foremost concern. As our understanding of dogs has evolved, so too has our expectation for what proper dog care looks like. Efforts by mushers and race officials alike to set good standards for care during the race ensure that a balance is maintained between letting the dogs do what they love most and making sure they don’t so at the expense of their health.
A less-discussed but perhaps more important rule change applies to dog care outside the race, requiring mushers to abide by guidelines established by mushing group Mush with P.R.I.D.E. Those guidelines, which govern kennel setup, food storage, record-keeping and other aspects of keeping dog teams, help ensure that dogs are well taken care of during the vast majority of the year when they’re not on the trail.
The most important positive signal for the future of the Iditarod and mushing in general, however, might be the emergence of mushers as offbeat social-media celebrities. A subset of mushers, including some of the sport’s most successful kennels, engage with fans directly on networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. It’s a personal connection that helps highlight the personalities, both people and dogs, who run the race. When mushers like Twitter phenomenon Blair Braverman livestream their sled-packing, to the delight of hundreds of fans watching online, it helps create a connection that makes following the race feel more personal. That kind of openness and transparency is instrumental in showing mushing fans from around the world just how much mushers care about their dogs — and, for that matter, how much their dogs care about getting out and running.
Alaska’s signature sled dog race has taken its share of lumps in recent years. But the changes the Iditarod has implemented during the past year, as well as work by mushers to engage with fans and put a face on the race, are helping the sport make progress. So long as those efforts at transparency and the focus on athlete welfare remain a priority for the race, it can be a fixture for our state for years and decades to come.