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John Schandelmeier: Iditarod needs to speak up on racing, kennel issues

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: October 14, 2017
  • Published October 14, 2017

The Iditarod is in hot water — again. Or maybe it should be said, still.

This time the issue is drugs. The current problem, which deals with dogs testing positive for a prohibited drug, certainly warrants discussion. But the ongoing attitude of the Iditarod race organization exacerbates the problem.

The Iditarod Trail Committee has never publicly addressed the dropped-dog care protocol which drew criticism during the 2017 race. Nor has it broken its silence on the issues raised by a independent filmmaker about how some kennels train their dogs for long distance events.

The highly promoted Iditarod is far and away the most visible sled dog event in the world. It is easy to make the argument that it is the duty of the ITC — the leader of our state sport — to weigh in on all issues that come in front of the public regarding the treatment and welfare of sled dogs.

Poor publicity affects the Iditarod and its bottom line. It also impacts all sled dog kennels by association.

Reactions to the news that several dogs from a single musher's team tested positive for a banned substance — and to the Iditarod's subsequent rule change that makes mushers "strictly liable" for any positive drug tests — have been on both ends of the board.

But not many folks expressed surprise. Most professional sports have grappled with the use of banned substances over the past decade. Now sled dog racing is taking its turn.

In all cases, openness has proven to be the best course. The ITC's stated policy of not wishing to release the name of the musher associated with the dogs that tested positive is laudable. Its reasoning is sound, given the current substance-abuse rule.

However, something would be gained by naming the prohibited drug involved.

There is a vast difference between a substance that possibly could be found in a commercial beef product fed to an animal inadvertently and one that could only be introduced to a dog with intent.

Saying where on the trail the positive drug tests occurred could also be helpful.

Speculation will run rampant no matter what course the Iditarod takes. But it is the duty of the ITC to negate the impact of such speculation on other kennels.

Conjecture and theory tar everyone with the same brush. As in every sport, there will always be competitors who cut every corner to do well. The goal of winning is not in itself a terrible aim. It goes back to how you play the game.

I believe the majority of mushers run a 1,000-mile race with the trip in mind. They love their animals and treat them like treasured children. It is not an easy task to navigate 16 animals over hills and down rivers in the Alaska winter. It requires teamwork and patience. Competition is always present — after all, it is a race.

Only rarely does someone compete without regard for the consequences. There are definitely kennels that do not treat their animals with compassion. This is not the mainstream. But the rarities are highly publicized because they makes good stories for the media.

The ITC needs to stand up and be the leader in our sport. Don't duck your head and hope this blows over. Look at how well the dropped-dog controversy of 2017 blew over — major sponsors vacated and the 2018 purse had to be cut by $250,000. Or go back to 1994, when dog-death controversies cost the Iditarod its Timberland and Iams sponsorships.

It's difficult for individual kennels to address issues that affect the entire sled dog industry. None carry enough weight to speak for all who are involved in the dog racing community.

The Yukon Quest organization, which could have a voice, ducks its head in the hope of avoiding negativity.

No, it is up to the Iditarod Trail Committee to stand up and tell the public where it stands on any and all sled dog racing and kennel issues. Silence and avoidance are not acceptable.

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.