Armchair Musher: Vets

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

CODE OF THE TRAIL: Competitive efforts in the spirit of the Yukon Quest are only valid if dog care is implemented at the highest level. A dog musher recognizes and accepts that honor on the trail is only achieved through the constant respect and care for the dogs. It is on this the mushers will be judged.

If you ever wonder how paramount a musher’s care for his or her dogs is, it’s worth noting that the central code governing this race concerns just that. Upon completing the race, too, mushers are given report cards to gain them entrance to other such events. A few notes are made about the human element of the performance, like preparedness for cold weather, familiarity with race rules, organizational capacity. & then comes an entire section on how well the musher did with the dogs. In the end, it’s what matters most.

As we approach vet checks, I wanted to take a moment to point out how central to this enterprise not only dog care is but its surveillance, assurance & status as perhaps the only thing fundamentally mandatory. The core belief of this organization is that dogs come first & people are secondary, which has proven critical, acting as a compass guiding the race’s decisions. Mike Ellis put it best when he said that at every turn, if you ask yourself if it’s good for the dogs & the answer is no, it’s not worth doing. Every one of these mushers has spent countless untold hours behind these teams, investigating gaits, scrutinizing behaviors, testing appetites & acquainting themselves with their dogs on a level that can really only be called obsessive, loving, careful in the truest sense of the word. They have to.

What may surprise some readers is how closely the veterinary team for the Quest mirrors that level of devotion. I remember Kristin asking Dr. Mercedes Pinto, long time Quest vet, why she uses her vacation time from work as (at the time) an emergency clinic vet to come lean over dogs in the frigid cold instead of laying on a beach somewhere sipping a lager. She said that every day at work, she saw animals at their worst, & that volunteering along the trail afforded her the opportunity to see the very finest dogs in the best shape possible doing the thing they love the most. It was incredibly telling & somehow not at all unique to Pinto.

The vets begin their relationships with the dogs at vet checks, examining every aspect of every dog on every roster. Watch them at vet checks & you’ll see those bonds forming palpably. A covert scratch behind an ear. A few congenial words after a dog looks deeply into a vet’s eyes. A dog leans against a leg & looks up & that vet ends up duplicating that level of care & affection weeks later in the blistering cold.

The vet team splinters into groups as the race unfolds so that the same vets stay with the same dogs. I can’t tell you what a salve & boon it is for a musher to pull into a checkpoint & have an incredibly talented vet awaiting them, armed with a full knowledge of that team of dogs, down to the toenail of each one. Without having to ask, that vet will take a look at what was a sore pad in the last checkpoint, or a stiff wrist, or a dog they knew wasn’t eating as well as they should. Or better still, they remember those dogs from last year’s race, exclaim their welcomes joyously, giving the requisite belly rub tolls.

There are vets & then there are sled dog vets. These dogs do not operate under the normal auspices of canines. They are egregiously talented, biomechanically predisposed, idiosyncratically enthusiastic athletes of the highest caliber. They are literally studied year in & year out by the DoD in an attempt to translate their powers of metabolism & endurance to humans. This vet team knows full-well what to look for, what impedes the dogs’ perfection, what a musher can do to ensure it. The dialogue with the vets & the mushers is almost always just that—a dialogue wherein the musher respects & recognizes the vets’ depth of training & knowledge while the vets pay attention to how closely the mushers know everything else about the dogs. It’s not rare for a musher & a vet to diagnose an issue together, or the musher to have a turn with the stethoscope to hear what a heart murmur sounds like, or to engage in flexions with the vets’ guidance to see precisely which part of the tricep is tight. It is a shared passion for the dogs that compels this race, & one that would simply not be possible were it not for the efforts of the veterinary team. Between the vets & the mushers, I can safely promise you that you will never in your life find so much love for dogs concentrated in one place.

It’s also worth mentioning just how much of this work is done on a volunteer basis. Dogs are number one in this race, but volunteers of every stripe are a close second. To be able to rely on this level of veterinary expertise in volunteers is an absurd piece of good fortune for the Quest year in & year out. No wonder so many of these canine athletes reach the finish line leaning into their harnesses, clamoring for the next run.  

The Official 2020 Yukon Quest Armchair Musher is Yukon Quest veteran Andy Pace, 2016 & 2019 finisher. You can follow Andy, along with YQ veteran Kristin Knight Pace and their family on Instagram at @heymoosekennel.

Andy Pace