Mushers talk training, checkpoint protocols, and that special bond they share with their dogs.
It’s early afternoon out at the Team Janssen sled-dog kennels and an affectionate husky named Uno has me in a hug-lock. He places his paws against my chest, reaches up, and covers my face with dog kisses. “Down, Uno,” handler and racer Kristy Berington scolds. Uno, an Iditarod veteran, excitedly licks my chin.
I’m visiting the Janssen kennel, owned by Iditarod musher Scott Janssen, to learn more about sled-dog training, nutrition, healthcare, and gear. What I quickly discover, however, is that mushers love to talk about their dogs. And while outside influences such as high-tech gadgets, expensive pet food, and dog care advances play their role in racing success, mushers and handlers stress proper care and close musher-dog relationships as more important than ever. Some go as far as suggest it may be an overall deciding race factor.
The Janssen kennel, located on the outskirts of Wasilla, houses more than 70 dogs, each of them barking, leaping, and eager to catch our attention.
Kristy is one half of the Seeing Double Sled Dog Racing team. The other half is her identical twin, Anna, and between the two of them they have 12 Iditarod finishes. They own and raise 40 dogs by themselves and also work as Janssen’s handlers. Mushing is their lifestyle, even the not-so-glamorous aspects of slicing 100 pounds of meat for dog meals and scooping and disposing the massive amount of poop so many dogs produce.
The twins, whom Janssen calls “the girls” even though they are in their 30s, rotate their dogs throughout races, to better balance physical and personality quirks.
Anna slips a harness on a sleek and energetic dog with brown splotches over its back, all the while explaining how sled dog training requires a careful balance of discipline and praise, routine and reward.
“Working with dogs is a lot like working with children,” she says.
Each dog’s gait is its fingerprint, and they’ve taught themselves to recognize the slightest discrepancy. “Sometimes when you’re racing, your eyes will keep going to, say, Bison, and you think: Why am I constantly watching him?” Kristy says. “And you realize why when you start to look closer.”
What she notices may be a change in gait or cadence so minor as to be almost unrecognizable. Yet this slight change could point to fatigue, a sore foot, illness or even the sneakiness of a smart dog that realize it doesn’t have to pull if it doesn’t want to.
“Sometimes,” Anna adds, “you’re the weakest link on the team. The dogs are doing great but you’re tired.”
The Beringtons run their dogs through the same routines, over and over. This isn’t just for the dogs’ benefit. Taking care of so many dogs isn’t easy, they both agree. It’s time consuming, and expensive.
“It’s not like a snowmachine. They need attention 24/7,” Anna says. “But a snowmachine isn’t going to lick your face and be excited to see you.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is a 1,000-mile trek across the frozen Alaska interior. Mushers start in Willow with 12 to 16 dogs and must finish at Nome with at least five dogs on their towline.
Along the way, teams race through a series of 20 checkpoints, which vary in size and amenities.
According to Chas St. George, Iditarod Trail Committee Chief Operations Officer, mushers are required to carry a Vet Log. Signed off by veterinarians at each checkpoint, the log details team’s feeding habits and general health, potential problems, things to look out for in individual dogs, and so forth.
About 55 veterinarians volunteer at each Iditarod, and they hail from across the world. They use the checkpoints to gauge each team’s health.
“The veterinarians will go through and check the dogs’ limbs, their haunches,” St. George said. “They get a very good assessment, not just visual but hands-on.”
Checkpoints are also an opportunity for mushers to feed, care, and rest their dogs. If they’re lucky, the competitors might have time to tuck in a short nap.
Karin Hendrickson runs Blue on Black Dogs Kennel in Wasilla. She also works full-time for the State of Alaska. She was hit by a truck while running her dogs back in 2014 and broke her back in three places (her dogs were, miraculously, okay). She hasn’t fully recovered but she’s still running dogs.
“That’s the focus of my life,” she says.
Hendrickson has 30 dogs and has raced in seven Iditarods, completing five. She’s raised most of her dogs herself.
“I purchased some dogs over the years but they rarely end up being as good (as the dogs she’s raised),” she says.
She believes in a one-on-one connection and modifies training to each dog’s temperament.
During races, she constantly assesses each dog.
“You can spot a change in their gait, the same way you can tell if someone’s not feeling well even if they’re not saying anything.”
Still, the decision to drop a dog isn’t easy, especially if the dog still wants to pull.
“I cry whenever I send them home,” she says. “You miss them. You get pretty emotionally attached to these guys.”
Yet she also knows they’re in good hands.
“They get to go home, lounge in front of the fire for a few days,” she says with a laugh. “I’m the one still out on the trail.”
Hendrickson keeps in touch with her dogs, even after she finds them retirement homes. One of those, Chase, still insists on sleeping up on the bed with her whenever they see each other. “
The bond with the dogs is so strong,” she says. “It doesn’t go away even with time and distance.”
The Alaskan husky isn’t a breed so much as a mixture of lineages. Smaller and lighter than the Alaskan malamute or Siberian huskies normally depicted in movies and television shows, they exhibit race speci c traits such as endurance, intelligence, and an ambitious nature.
According to Dr. Michael Davis, professor at the Oklahoma State University Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, Iditarod dogs possess a unique metabolism that allows them to adapt to strenuous exercise.