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Nothing like an Iditarod dog.
It’s an athlete with the desire to train, compete, perform at peak and accept its reward.
And it likes to run, and, if given the chance, will run all the way from Anchorage (or Willow) to Nome.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race started in 1973 under the guidance of Joe Redington Sr., who 25 years later ran the race at the age of 80. He’s since passed, but the race continues.
Not without incident.
It wouldn’t be worth competing if not for the challenge of it. The mushers compete as much against the climate as they do each other. They wreck sleds, lose dogs, encounter wildlife, and endure injuries and illness, all the while taking care of their teams of dogs.
This year 67 teams are competing in the Iditarod that started over the weekend. If all teams have at least 16 dogs, that’s 1,072 dogs on the run and 4,288 paws making a path to Nome.
This year the race has drawn increased criticism because of allegations of inhumane treatment of the dogs, in part because eight dogs have died during the race in the past five years. Those deaths, while few compared to the number of dogs who ran in the race’s 46-year history, are gut wrenching for mushers, the race itself, fans and sponsors.
Mushers and others connected with the Iditarod are talking about disqualifying teams of which one of the dogs dies. They’re also thinking about increased rest periods along the trail and fewer than the 16 dogs allowed per team to reduce carelessness (the winner must cross the finish line with at least five dogs and can leave others at checkpoints along the way).
Iditarod dogs are some of the most well cared for dogs; they’re treated like two-legged Olympic Games athletes in most cases. But, if rules can be adopted to eliminate dogs’ deaths, it would be well for not only the dogs but the Iditarod’s reputation and Alaska tradition of racing sled dogs.
Of the ideas proposed, one resonates. As with teams in the Olympics, it is the whole team that wins or loses. So it should be in the Iditarod. Let mushers drop dogs off with handlers along the trail; those dogs are still part of the victory.
But if a dog dies, then the team should be disqualified — at least for the current race. With a rule like that, if the dogs aren’t sufficiently pampered to date, they would be in Iditarods to come.