Humorist Will Rogers said in a famous quote, “If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”

If you’ve ever had a close relationship with a dog, you understand the unconditional bond that can form between a human and his or her dog, and this bond is pushed to its limits during the second week of March each year on the Iditarod Trail. Fans follow the race through the names of the mushers, but those 14 dogs forming the team are the unwavering engine pulling the sled those 1,000 miles.

EVERYONE SECRETLY THINKS THEIR DOG is comparable to an Iditarod dog—and they are right. Every dog breed or mix has skills they excel in and were born to do. But imagine an Iditarod team of Labrador retrievers: They would all be carrying tennis balls and constantly looking for the nearest open water to swim across, despite the subzero temperatures. Years ago, someone ran the race with standard poodles, but having coats of hair rather than insulating fur exposed them to hypothermia, and the Iditarod Trail Committee outlawed their future use.


Which brings us to huskies. All the current Iditarod dogs are huskies or husky hybrids. Natural-born marathon runners, huskies possess a special metabolic magic that enables them to not only survive these long-distance races but to thrive on them. Researchers Mike Davis (Oklahoma State University) and Karyn Hamilton and Ben Miller (Colorado State University) have long been studying dogs in the kennels of Alaska’s racing elite to better understand the science of husky physiology. See the sidebar to learn what we now know.

Genetics and physiology, however, are only part of the story. How they are raised and the psychology behind making them a cohesive team is the other part. To explore this aspect, I enlisted the help of famed Iditarod musher Aliy Zirkle. Zirkle and her husband, Allen Moore, have been racing huskies since the 1990s, based at SP Kennel, outside of Fairbanks. Zirkle is the only woman to have won the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race, and Moore has won it three times. As for the Iditarod, 2020 will be Zirkle’s 20th race; her best results were three consecutive runner’s up finishes in 2012-2014. More pertinent to this story, she ties fellow musher Martin Buser for winning the Iditarod’s Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award a record five times for exemplary dog care during the race.

Aliy Zirkle’s puppy Gravy, at 10 months old, is an energetic upcoming member of her racing team.

So how do Zirkle and Moore manage and train over 40 of these canine over-achievers? I discovered that a sled dog kennel is like managing any large sports team, except the athletes range hugely in age. Each dog must be given care relative to their health, athletic ability, gender, personality, and age.

Standing in their dog yard, I see and hear a bunch of loud, eager, seemingly hyperactive, but very friendly and happy dogs. Amidst the barking and tail wagging, Zirkle would say simply “Quiet!” and the entire kennel instantly was silent and attentive. I sensed an amazing amount of mutual respect here. To achieve this, she and her human team care for each dog by recognizing its unique talents, skills, weaknesses, and needs. To better explain how it all works, Zirkle decided to introduce me to three very different dogs in the kennel.

FIRST, I MET GRAVY, a 10-month-old husky. He’s too young to be on a racing team, but he’s still an important member; Gravy is the future of SP Kennel. Right from the beginning, Zirkle emphasizes positive training for the young dogs—absolutely no negativity. The puppies get exercised separately from the older dogs, keeping the runs shorter with more rest so that they don’t lose weight or get tired and discouraged while growing and maturing. Life is comprised of exercise, fun, food, rest, and learning from the older dogs. They are fed twice as much as the adult dogs to enhance muscle growth and brain development.

Next, I met adorable Violet, six years old, slightly cross-eyed, full of energy, and in her prime for racing. She already has four Iditarods and two Yukon Quests under her belt—er, harness. As soon as the temperatures start to cool off in Alaska’s interior, generally September, Violet will help lead exercise sessions emphasizing running together in harmony. By October, the kennel moves into “racing-mode,” with the first snows bringing much excitement and anticipation.

Puppy Gravy (left) on an exercise romp through the summer fireweed with Violet, one of Zirkle’s current racing team members.

Dog team members are picked and trained to have mellow, even temperaments to avoid over-excitability or aggression. Many of the dogs in the kennel are spayed or neutered to manage the size of the kennel and limit hormone-induced bad behavior. Other mushers have been known to race only male dogs, because they believe female hormones “mess with their brains,” about which Zirkle heartily laughs. She often uses females as leaders due to their excellent decision making, with speed and drive that makes up for size and strength.

Also important for these active racers is the quality and quantity of their food. Zirkle explains that it can be tricky to create or find a mix that provides what they need, basically 30 percent protein/25 percent fat, while still keeping it palatable to the dogs. A little more protein is added during racing. Normal dog foods aim for 18 percent protein and 12 percent fat. Protein sources for Zirkle’s dogs vary from fish to chicken to red meat, depending on time of year and availability. The amount of food given is based on the dog’s size, weight, and level of activity.

Violet (far left) and Nacho (in lead on the right) enjoy a sunny winter day for the Iditarod 2017 ceremonial start in Anchorage.

LASTLY, I MET NACHO, who is 13, retired, a past team leader for both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, and a respected father of many in the dog yard. He’s earned being a life member of the kennel, spending his days in the “Plaza” with his “wife,” Olivia, and ample rawhide and squeaky toys. He gets a senior dog food mix, toning down the fat and protein and adding in elements to support bone and joint health. His exercise is limited to fun runs and disciplining the puppies.

In general, most racing dogs are retired around seven to eight years old. What happens to these dogs when they are no longer playing a vital role in the kennel? Not surprisingly, there are always friends and fans of the kennel eager and willing to adopt a “retired” dog into their own home, in Alaska or beyond.

Keeping these dogs healthy physically and mentally is a job that stretches 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The mushers center their lives around the care and well-being of these amazing athletes, which they do so out of a total love for dogs. Some mushers, like Zirkle, find fame with an amazingly large and devoted fan base, but even the most successful never earn a real fortune. Almost all must find additional sources of income, and they hunt and fish to provide meat for themselves and their dogs. Still, all are willing to teach and share their knowledge and contagious enthusiasm of running sled dogs. Truly in the end, it’s all about the dogs.

Zirkle’s team remains calm and on track while eager fans reach out to greet her at the end of
the Iditarod 2018 ceremonial start in Anchorage.

After 10 years being part of the Iditarod media team of photographers and writers, Donna Dewhurst gained a respect of the close bond between the mushers and their dogs.

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