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What do mushers feed their dog teams? What do they do during their off time? Your questions, answered

Dubstep, a dog in Merideth Mapes's team, is covered in frost after arriving in Nikolai on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As the top mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race pass the halfway point, readers have been submitting their questions about the race. Here’s a selection of questions, answered by musher and writer Blair Braverman, an ADN Iditarod correspondent this year who ran the race as a rookie in 2019.

Some pictures show dog teams running with coats. Other pictures show the teams running without coats. At what temperature do the mushers typically put coats on their dogs? — Herman V.

Like many things in mushing, this varies significantly by team (and by dog), and the calculation is more art than science; a musher decides about coats based on not just air temperature but wind direction, wind speed, fur thickness, the dogs’ body mass and so on. And because Alaskan huskies are such a variable breed, dogs from one lineage may need coats long before their fluffier cousins.

Also, not all coats are created equal. Some of them are more like windbreakers, without insulation, and help to counteract the dehydrating effects of a tailwind. Some coats, made of thin white fabric, are actually designed to keep the dogs cooler on bright, sunny days (particularly for dogs with dark fur). Again, there’s no real rule of thumb; it all depends on what each musher knows about their team.

In addition to coats, you’ll notice some of the dogs running with subtler protection: a strip of fur or fleece, typically a coyote tail, hanging around the bottom part of their waists. These garments go by many names—pecker protectors, male wraps, sheath covers, or simply “tails”—and serve to protect male dogs’ un-furry bits from the cold, particularly if there’s a female in heat around who’s apt to get them excited. In this case, real fur serves an important purpose; it cuts wind and sheds urine and ice. Think of it as a ruff for a crotch.

What do the mushers feed their dog teams, and do they carry all the food with them? — Cristi H.

Most mushers carry enough food to get the team to the next checkpoint, plus spare snacks and meals in case they get caught out on the trail, and then replenish supplies from the drop bags they’ve sent ahead to each checkpoint. What do they pack for dog food? In a word: variety. Sure, mushers bring the usual beef, beef blend, chicken thighs, chicken fat, salmon, sheefish, multiple kinds of kibble and so on — and often all of the above, because different meats provide optimum nutrition and palatability under different conditions (fish for warm days; fatty beef for cold). But under such intense activity, sled dogs can’t afford to skip a single meal — and so, even if a musher imposes a strict you’ll-eat-what’s-for-dinner policy the rest of the year, you’ll see them bending over backwards to give dogs what they want during the race. Don’t be surprised to see bacon, pork chops, steak or other treats on the trail — or even mushers sharing their human food with particularly picky eaters.

Nicolas Petit feeds his dogs before they leave Unalakleet during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race on March 10, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

How often do the dogs eat on the trail? — Cristi H.

In a long race like the Iditarod, most mushers feed their dogs snacks (or, in musher parlance, they “snack their dogs”) every hour or hour and a half. A team can run just fine for several hours without snacks or food, but when you’re trying to help each dog eat 10,000 calories a day to maintain weight, frequent treats help them to get as many calories as possible. Plus, sled dogs like snacks. Who doesn’t?

I noticed that some dogs’ front legs have a covering over the whole leg. What is this and why do they wear it? — Peggy L.

In certain snow conditions, leggings keep snow and ice from freezing in clumps onto the dogs’ fur.

Laura Neese arrives in Takotna on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

What do the dogs and mushers do on their off time? — Alicia R.

I’m guessing that by “off time,” you mean rest time — which serves as recovery time for the dogs, and is often a busy time indeed for the mushers. Each musher has their own checkpoint or camping routine, but typical tasks, upon arriving at a campsite, include making straw beds for the dogs; taking off their booties; putting on dog coats (or tucking the dogs in with blankets) to help keep their muscles warm; offering snacks/appetizers, often chunks of frozen meat; starting up the cooker to melt snow; preparing a thick stew with hot water, meat (which is packed pre-sawed into thin slices, like bread, or sticks, like French fries, so that it thaws as quickly as possible) and kibble; feeding the dogs; giving them pills or supplements, like omeprazole (which keeps their gut healthy under intense activity) and astaxanthin (believed by some to aid in muscle repair); applying foot ointment; checking in with vets as each dog gets a quick physical; and offering minor physical therapy if needed, like stretching tight muscles, massaging with liniment, or wrapping a dogs’ wrists in neoprene to keep them warm. At that point, if there’s no equipment to repair or re-pack, the musher can eat their own food and take a quick nap — before waking up and doing the whole thing again in reverse.

Karin Hendrickson puts booties on her dogs in Nikolai on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 during the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
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