How the Dogs Prepare for Race Day
A Behind the Scenes Look at How Our Sprint Teams Prepare for the Start Line
Sled Dogs that are born and raised in mushing homes are generally lean, mean, pulling machines down to their core. That being said, to prepare for a race and have the dogs at their peak condition mentally and physically there is a lot of extra time and care that must take place.
Planning to attend a race and be successful is not an over-night decision. Mushers are preparing for race day months in advance as much as they possible can. Although each kennel has specific training regiments, generally no one is starting out training at the same miles they will be racing.
In the fall, mushers planning on racing in sprint classes begin “dryland” training regiments and generally with runs between 1 to 2 miles a few times per week. Our 35-mile racers start their teams on longer distanced, but run at a more slow and steady pace. These runs are not as fast as you’ll see teams running on race weekend. The goal is to help the dogs condition and tone their muscles so that they can safely run at higher speeds later on in the season.
Mileage and speeds are slowly increased as it is safe for the dogs to do so. Mushers judge safety based on the dogs’ performance during runs. Mushers look for signs like the tightness of the tug lines, if the dogs are focused and driving into their harnesses with ears and tails down, or looking around and getting distracted. They also focus on the gates of each dog to see if they’re running with ease or if they’re starting to tire. This tells them when the dogs need a short break. Sled dog teams cannot be at their prime unless all the dogs needs are met and everyone is gaining miles and strength as equally as possible.
Getting closer to race weekend, mushers spend a lot of time going over each dog’s strengths and weaknesses to create their super race teams. Things to look for in the dogs are who is getting along with who, who likes to lead and who likes to chase, which side does each dog prefer to run on, and many more fine details. Mushers watch for these traits in their dogs throughout the training season. This way by the time they are ready for a race all the dogs are in a position on the team to be the most successful and the happiest.
The dogs’ health and safety on race weekend is paramount. There is always a vet on site both Saturday and Sunday at the Kearney Dog Sled Races. Other events worldwide either have the same or have a vet on-call 24/7 for the weekend with a phone number posted openly for mushers. Larger distance races have entire veterinary teams to monitor the dogs even more meticulously. When the dogs aren’t racing each musher has specific routines and schedules with their own vets and most will have their own first aid equipment on hand with them.
Mushers keep their dogs on very specific schedules for races. They will vary for each musher, but on the whole everyone follows similar paths. In the days before a race, the dogs generally get between 2 to 3 days off of training to relax, play, and be dogs. Race weekends are mentally much more demanding for everyone with so many new sights and sounds that it’s always nice to have happy, rested dogs going into it.
Friday before a race, many mushers opt to feed their dogs approximately 24 hours before their race time the next day. This is to help ensure that a dog won’t be trying to stop the team to “use the facilities” during the run. It also helps protect against bloat and other possible injuries that can result from their systems being too full.
On race day, dogs are given a soupy mix of bits of meat, blood, electrolytes, and other possible healthy additives to water in order to help the dogs stay hydrated. This is done between 2 to 3 hours before a run so that the dogs are as hydrated as they can be for their race class. Each musher has their own preferred mix to flavour their water for the dogs, and some dogs who are a little on the picky side will only drink certain soup water. Over the course of the weekend dogs will get these water mixes several times on a schedule in between running, resting and stretching breaks, eating, and sleeping. Mushers take great care to keep the dogs hydrated as this affects their drive, their strength, and of course their overall well-being.
Foot and muscle care is another obvious but sometimes not noticed factor that mushers consider before running. There are multiple products like Musher’s Secret, Zeus Juice, Bag Balm, etc. that mushers rub between the pads of the dogs’ feet. It keeps ice from sticking to their hairs and prevents fissures from forming. It’s also a protector against salt and other abrasive rocks or chemicals that are sometimes on the roads. When all else fails, every musher has a stockpile of dog booties to put on as an added protection. If you take a close enough look at the dog trucks during race day you’ll see these types of foot care routines along with massaging and stretching before and after runs for all the dogs. Not only is it because mushers love to get down with the dogs and give them some lovin’, but also because it’s an important regiment to keep them loose and relaxed.
If you watch closely enough when the teams are taking off, you’ll notice the mushers doing last minute checks on the dogs. They are looking at clips and harnesses, at the dogs’ demeanors, and ensuring that everyone is ready to run. Our wonderful race marshal and his team of starting officials and volunteers are also checking equipment for any safety deficiencies and checking to ensure that all of the dogs are safe. Mushers running the Greg Alexanian Memorial Stage Race are required to have a long list of equipment in their sled bag for musher and dog safety out on their 35-mile runs that often take a few hours rather than minutes in the shorter classes.
We at the Kearney Dog Sled Race committee would encourage all of our followers and weekend spectators to seek out our race officials on race day or contact our race committee if you have any questions about how our competitors prepare themselves and their dogs for an exciting weekend of racing in the Algonquin wilderness. Mushers are also always happy to answer any questions our visitors may have about their dog care and race weekend routines. We ask that should you wish to speak to one of the mushers you first ask if they are preparing for their race class. If they are, please ask when a good time to come back and ask questions would be. Always remember, although the dogs all love affection and kisses, please ask the mushers before approaching or petting their canine companions.