The past six weeks have been a rough go for the Alaska state sport of sled dog racing. Tough times began with the Idita-dope saga and continued with allegations of neglect at four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey's kennel.
I believe we participants in the sport — dog drivers, fans and sponsors — need to put the controversy behind us and move ahead.
With that thought firmly in mind, we at the Crazy Dog Kennel have written and proposed a Best Care Guide as a method to promote transparency in dog care for the entire industry.
The idea of Best Care was initiated by Dan Phillips, who owns Krabloonik Kennels in Snowmass, Colorado. Dan took over a kennel that had a terrific public-relations problem associated with the previous owners' dog-care practices. He has followed a version of Best Care the past three years and credits much of his business success to the program.
The objective is the betterment and furthering of the sport and business of keeping sled dogs. Best Care goes hand-in-hand with the maintenance and business of tour, racing, recreational and other working dog kennels.
This proposal won't solve every problem, but it goes a long way to providing the accountability the public is demanding — without being invasive.
Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said the race intends to implement a dog-care program prior to the 2019 race. Every team would be required to participate, he said.
Our proposed Best Care guidelines are similar to those set out by the Mush with Pride organization and the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association. Oversight would be performed by an independent committee composed of diverse community interests. Veterinarian and race interests should be represented but not over-emphasized. It must be recognized that the general public has a vested interest in the welfare and care of all dogs.
Here is a summary of our proposed guidelines. The complete Best Care Guide is at the end of this story and at www.dogsleddenali.com.
— Kennel size should not exceed 30 dogs for each caregiver at a single location. A caregiver is anyone responsible for the dogs, including the kennel owner, handlers and family members.
This requirement is new to most protocols. It is proposed in an effort to promote better monitoring of dogs.
— Record-keeping. Meticulous record-keeping is the most important piece in any kennel program. Committee members and veterinarians must be able follow individual dogs. All dogs should have a kennel card with a complete physical and psychological description. Name, birth date, sex, previous owners, when acquired, spay/neuter information should all be recorded. Additionally, breeding, worming and veterinary records should be available. Deceased animals will have the cause and date of death recorded.
— A monthly training and conditioning log must be kept for each dog. When not working or pulling sleds, or for dogs no longer working, a log of days and times off-tether must be kept.
The record-keeping requirement is the most important aspect of this program. Most kennels already keep excellent records. However, in conjunction with an independent oversight committee, transparent record-keeping gives the opportunity for all who are interested to be assured that consistent care is being maintained for all dogs, from birth to death.
The committee should be composed of six to nine volunteers willing to donate several days a year to make independent and random kennel visits to check for the adherence to Best Care guidelines.
Best Care would operate much like the guidelines of other sporting entities in the world. The Olympics are a good example. The International Olympic Committee sets guidelines and the athletes must follow them or not participate.
Kennel participation in the Best Care program would be entirely voluntary, unless an event makes participation a requirement of entry. Otherwise there is no penalty for not participating, but those who meet the guidelines would get a sticker on their website indicating they are following Best Care practices.
This could be a huge incentive for a tour operator. Racing kennels could also reap big rewards in the form of sponsorship and support, especially if a race organization such as the Iditarod implements the program.
I believe the majority of sled dog kennels — recreational, competitive or touring — practice excellent dog care. However, a protocol that promotes transparency and accountability would go a long way toward soothing some of the present public ire. Sponsors, which are being lost by big race organizations such as the Iditarod, would be reassured that competitors in sled dog races are providing excellent care at their facilities.
We need to clean up the public's perception of our sport. This guide is not a finished product, but it's a good working start to what should become an industry standard.
To those who might say we don't need an industry standard need to look around and listen to the public. Transparency and accountability are the keys to a working program whether you are an Olympic athlete, a sled dog tour operator or a competitive racer.
It's one thing to have a great idea, quite another to implement changes, no matter how badly they may be needed. Those who spend most of their time running dogs are, by the very nature of their chosen profession, independent-minded souls. "Ain't nobody going to tell me how to take care of my dogs," they may say, and I understand that. I have felt the same way myself.
However, it is time to get our heads out of the sand. The world is watching.
With that thought foremost, the Best Care Guide was sent to the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, the two major long-distance events in Alaska. It was also sent to Europe's major distance race, the 1,000-kilometer Finnmarkslopet. In the Lower 48, the UP 200 was chosen to receive the proposal.
Additionally, a few of Alaska's most competitive kennels received the Best Care Guide along with a solicitation for comments. For the most part, competitive kennels wanted to do some sort of care program themselves — with no oversight except from other mushers. This seems a bit like having a fox in the henhouse. However, several kennels made valuable suggestions that have been implemented into the guidelines.
The Quest, Finnmarkslopet and the UP200 are all looking at the proposal. The Iditarod Trail Committee got an early and detailed look at the Best Care Guide and is open to adopting such a program.
"Most people know that kennel management practices and the sport of mushing have evolved greatly over the years," Hooley said. "Having said that, most would also agree that there is more that can be done to ensure a brighter future for future generations of sled dogs and mushers alike.
"To that end, the Iditarod Trail Committee is taking steps to develop a framework for a 'Best Care' kennel management program, participation in which would be required of any team that intends to enter the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The goal is to implement such a program prior to the 2019 Iditarod."
The Iditarod is the Olympics of the sled dog world. By agreeing to implement a dog-care program it has given our state sport a huge lift, and that should put a smile on all of our faces.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who operates Crazy Dog Kennel near Paxson with his wife, Zoya DeNure. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race. He has entered one Iditarod and DeNure has participated in seven.
Best Care Guide
1) Doghouses should be waterproof and in good repair with adequate lip around the entrance.
• Tethers must be 6 feet at minimum and equipped with a swivel.
• Pens should be a minimum of 100 feet for a single dog and 150 feet for two dogs. Fencing should be adequate, designed to prevent injury and without holes. No standing water in chain areas or pens.
• Indoor house should be available for older dogs and short-haired dogs.
• Dog areas should be cleaned once daily.
• Unless there is constant monitoring, no more than five dogs in one pen.
2) All dogs must have adequate caloric intake and be fed at least once daily. Fresh, clean water available in non-freezing months. Dogs fed and or baited water two times daily during winter months.
3) Dogs should have a documentable worming protocol. Coats will be free of matting, toenails at good length.
4) Socialization. Dogs must have consistent direct contact with people and other dogs.
5) Tethering. Proper tethering should allow most individual dogs to interact with one another by touching, playing and resolving conflict, while still maintaining individual space. Aggressive dogs may need to have more space from others.
It is important for sled dogs to be in a wide open area that is highly visible to each other and all dog caretakers. Mushers and guests are able to interact with each dog in their own space. Tethering allows caretakers to easily notice changes in behavior, appetite and in activeness. Each dog can be individualized to monitor eating, drinking, behavior and stool health. Humane tethering, coupled with an excellent off tether exercise program is optimum.
6) Dogs should have straw or ship bedding at temperatures consistently colder than 20 degrees.
7) Breeding. Sufficient pens to separate females in estrus. Whelped females should not be tethered.
8) Euthanasia. If a dog is no longer healthy and pain-free it may be euthanized by a veterinarian.
9) On-site care: The staff should be knowledgeable. Large kennels (in excess of 25 animals) should have constant monitoring available.
10) No more than 30 dogs per caregiver at single location.
11) Record-keeping. Meticulous record-keeping is the most important piece in any kennel program. Committee members and veterinarians must be able follow individual dogs. All dogs should have a kennel card with a complete physical and psychological description. Name, birth date, sex, previous owners, when acquired, spay/neuter should all be recorded. Additionally, breeding, worming and veterinary records should also be available. Deceased animals will have the cause and date of death recorded.
Also, a monthly training and conditioning must be kept for each dog. When not working or pulling sleds, or for dogs no longer working, a log of days and times off-tether must be kept.