Sled dogs compete in extreme conditions, including below-freezing temperatures and 10,000-calorie days. Although dog breeds suited to long-distance running and sled pulling differ from those used in hunting, athletic dogs face many of the same demands. And, many of today’s sled dogs are made up of a genetic mix that includes some gun dog breeds, such as English pointer and Irish setter. Since I have enough hunting dogs to start a dog team and often hunt them in cold weather, I asked my friend and fellow dog enthusiast, Kristy Berington, what she could tell me about cold-weather dog care from her years competing in the Iditarod Trail sled dog race and other long-distance races.
Kristy and her identical twin sister, Anna, make up the Seeing Double sled dog racing team, which has raced the Iditarod together for four years. But the twins have shared a love of dogs from a young age, growing up on a farm in Northern Wisconsin. Their first dog team consisted of a Great Pyrenees and a Border border Collie, and the dogs pulled a sled the girls built out of a pair of downhill skis and a milk crate. After moving to Alaska, Kristy trained with Iditarod veteran Paul Gebhardt, caring for as many as 80 dogs in their Kasilof kennel. I got to see their operation first-hand, and can attest that the quietest sound in the world is the silence of an 80-dog pack just after feeding time.
One of my biggest concerns about hunting my dogs is foot care. Kristy toughens her dogs’ feet in the off-season, when the dogs pull ATVs as part of their training. She recommends a good diet and supplements, including vitamin E, to aid in the repair and maintenance of their skin, coat, and foot pads. I had heard that some mushers employ Musher’s Secret, a barrier wax used, to prevent snowballing and abrasion. But many mushers, including Kristy, instead utilize booties and develop homemade salves and ointments (containing Algyval—a sports balm for dogs— or Emu Oil) to keep the dogs’ feet healthy.
Most of us who hunt with dogs have an emergency first-aid kit that includes items to staple and disinfect wounds, cut or clamp off bleeding, wash out eyes, or and remove porcupine quills. Dog care on the Iditarod Trail constantly evolves, but Kristy’s current “vet bag” includes homemade foot ointment, Algyval (a sports balm for dogs), antibiotics, vet wrap, a stapler, needle and thread, Rimadyl (a high high-strength pain reliever for dogs), hemostats, thermometer, muzzle, super glue, mole skin, athletic tape, nail clippers, styptic powder, and Betadine. Most of these things will allow you to take care of a minor problem on your own, or can help you get by until you can seek veterinary care or allow you to take care of a minor problem on your own.
We saw a 100-degree temperature swing in the 2015 Iditarod from the ceremonial start in Anchorage to the halfway point in Huslia,” said Kristy. Her dogs have a surprisingly large wardrobe for cold weather. Booties, leggings, jackets, and foxtails (worn similarly to a parka ruff, but fastened around a male dog’s belly to protect his personal parts) make up their outfits. Hydration is very important in cold weather. A well-hydrated dog is less susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite. Kristy often baits the water for her sled dogs. She adds raw ground meat and even kibble to water to make it more enticing. “Baiting the water also seems to help the dog drink all of the offered beverage. Many kinds of dog electrolytes come already flavored.
During the Iditarod, a dog can burn up to 10,000 calories a day, so Kristy’s dogs eat often. Besides a high-quality performance kibble, like Red Ppaw, she feeds her team a lot of raw meat. Kristy said, “Fish, beef, horse, tripe, lamb, beef fat, poultry skins, and beaver are all a part of their diet. ,” Kristy says. She slowly introduces these meats into their diet to ensure proper metabolic absorption of nutrients without upsetting the stomach. “The size and shape of a snack can make it more appealing to a tired dog. Breaking up a large treat into small, manageable pieces can make a big difference.”
Perhaps the best advice Kristy offers is simple: “Know normal to spot abnormal.” She recommends you know how your dog should be moving. “Has his gait changed? Lameness could be a split in a foot, a sore wrist or a tight shoulder. Regular manipulation and palpation of your dog’s muscles and body parts helps you understand how he is feeling. It can also help you detect any cancers or cysts.”
She Kristy recognizes that both sled dogs and hunting dogs are working dogs and athletes.
As an owner, you need to be their dietitian, nutritionist, physical therapist, and coach,” she says. “Seek out the advice of other hunters and professionals to see what they are doing. Being a dog owner is a never- ending learning experience. Be the best friend you can be, and take your dog to regular check-ups, annual boosters, rabies and de-worming with your veterinarian.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham