The 2018 Iditarod will be served with whine. There will be no cheese, the whine will be enough.
The Iditarod Trail Committee's announcement last month that mushers signing up for the 2019 event will need to participate in a Best Care kennel plan has ignited a firestorm of protests from kennels focused on competing in the Iditarod.
The ITC has been discussing some sort of dog-care requirements over the past year. Separately, we at Crazy Dog Kennels in Paxson put together a dog-care protocol that requires independent oversight and record-keeping. This proposal was presented to the ITC in early November.
Subsequently, the Iditarod Trail Committee established an advisory council of experienced mushers to lay out a comprehensive Best Care program for kennels intending to compete in coming Iditarods.
The vast majority of kennel owners take excellent care of their animals. Most Iditarod kennels could be used as a working model for pet owners. However, dog mushers are a cantankerous, independent lot. A chorus of "you ain't gonna tell me how to take care of my dogs…" has arisen.
The reality of the situation is this: a top Iditarod kennel was accused of neglect. Our sport does not need this type of publicity. The dogs that pull our collective butts across the tundra deserve the very best care.
The claim "I have been taking care of dogs for hundreds of years" does not fly. Paddles have been replaced with outboard motors. We now have snowmobiles and fish wheels. Times change. The dogs of the past hauled wood and ran traplines. They did not have to travel the 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome in less than 10 days. A salmon carcass a day will not suffice for an Iditarod dog's diet.
I believe those who are whining are forgetting that Best Care is for dogs. It is not necessarily about what's best for the musher.
Personally, I can sympathize. Record keeping for our dog yard is mostly in my head. I remember my dogs' birthdays better than my wife's. That may no longer be good enough for our fan base. Kennels will have to suck it up and make the changes that the evolution of the sport requires.
It is true that implementing care guidelines may mean some increased costs. Maintaining a yard of 60 dogs plus putting a 16-dog team on the Iditarod trail isn't cheap in any scenario today.
It is possible that increased sponsorship will come on board to both the Iditarod and individual kennels with the implementation of a standardized dog-care regimen. A Best Care sticker on a kennel's website will go a long way toward assuring the general public that dogs housed in a particular kennel are well-cared for.
There have been a few productive suggestions from the mushing community. One addresses the Iditarod's dropped-dog protocol and would requires protective kennels and care records for each dog dropped at checkpoints on the way to Nome. Another suggests chipping or tattooing dogs during kennel inspections.
Other ideas are coming forth. Most intend to increase accountability and transparency in dog kennels.
Most folks who have dog yards have a great personal aversion to having some unknown person with an unknown agenda walk into their dog yard to see how their dog care is going. I am one of those guys. Paul Gebhardt and Wade Marrs have also been vocal about the subject.
The Iditarod is a big part of our winter economy. Anchorage, and in recent years Fairbanks, sees a tourist boom of Iditarod-bound visitors. A huge tour business has evolved on the shirttails of the Iditarod, and they employ a number of people year-round. Many mushers depend on their dogs for summer employment.
Dog drivers, when you get up in the morning and look in the mirror, ask if your dogs' best interests are foremost. They should be — in many cases, those dogs support you.
Remember too that when you criticize the ITC, it's because of the race that you are visible enough to have a voice. Without the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, you would just be another person with a dozen dogs living in a one-room cabin at the base of the hill.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. He has entered one Iditarod and his wife, Zoya DeNure, has participated in seven.