One often hears the phrase, "dropping dogs," at sled dog races. The term actually has two different meanings.
First, sled dogs are "dropped" when a musher lifts them out of their traveling compartments for feeding and exercise.
When mushers journey from race to race, or from their homes to distant training trails more desirable than their own, the dogs ride in trucks or trailers housed in snug little compartments. The compartments, or boxes, are large enough for the dogs to reposition themselves comfortably while small enough to retain their body heat in the cold and to act as the dogs' seat belts and air bags in the unfortunate event of an auto accident.
Every musher sets a routine schedule whereby they drop the dogs every few hours by lifting them out of their compartments and setting them on the ground. Once on the ground, the dogs will relieve themselves, eat, drink, shake, stretch, play, mark territory by claiming the truck's tires as their own, and occasionally growl at an annoying kennel-mate.
After the dogs have been sufficiently exercised they are lifted back into their travel berths to continue their journey.
When the dog truck is parked at a motel for the night, the dogs also are dropped before bedtime and again first thing in the morning. At the race site they are dropped at least once before being hitched up for the competition.
The term "dropping dogs" is so common in the mushing vernacular that it is even used around the home and kennel when the dogs are fed or their kennels cleaned: "Honey, if you wash the dishes, I'll go drop dogs."
The term "dropping dogs" has a second, different meaning, as well. Sled dogs are dropped along the race trail when the musher no longer feels it is in the best interest of the dog to remain with the team.
When a racing sled dog is removed from the team during the Yukon Quest, it is immediately placed into the care of the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team to be cared for by the Trail Veterinarians and Veterinary Assistants prior to being presented to the mushers' handlers for further care until the dog is reunited with its owners and kennel mates.
Misconceptions abound about why dogs are dropped from competition. Sled dogs are not always dropped from the team because they have suffered a major injury or illness. While such things occasionally happen, there are many more reasons why dogs are dropped from competition.
Some dogs occasionally suffer minor injuries or illnesses that, while not serious, could become serious if the dog continued to race. These dogs are dropped from the team for their own good and to recuperate for future races.
Sometimes the dog is older, but very experienced. He may not be fast, but he can still contribute maturity and poise to his younger teammates. The musher will harness up the older animal for the first portion of the race with plans to drop the veteran along the way after the team has settled down. This semi-retiree can strut back to the kennel having showed those young whipper-snappers how it's done.
A similar strategy applies to a young dog that the musher wants to familiarize with the trail and race excitement, but who isn't ready to pull for a full thousand miles. These youngsters’ eagerness comes in handy for the first part of the race, but as they begin to grow bored or tired they are dropped while they still have enthusiasm.
There also is the issue of time management. The Yukon Quest is a race, after all. Fourteen dogs require 56 booties and 28 wrist wraps and 56 massaged feet and 28 massaged wrists at every checkpoint, dog drop and rest stop. And then there are the blankets, food, straw, water to heat, and backs and necks to rub. The mushers seldom sleep while caring for 14 dogs.
A good musher takes between 15 and 30 seconds to put a bootie on each foot. That adds up to 14 to 28 minutes to bootie a 14-dog team. Over ten checkpoints during a 10-day race, that’s four and a half hours of just putting on booties! Now, if the race is lost by less than four hours...?
As the race progresses, good dog care mandates that rookie and older veteran dogs will be dropped before they get tired or injured, while the core of the team, with their better endurance and physical abilities, gets more of the musher’s time and attention as they run the final legs to the finish.
As often as not, sled dogs are dropped from a marathon team either as part of a long-thought-out race strategy, or to prevent a minor injury from escalating into a major one, and not because of a major injury, illness, or accident.
"Dropping" healthy dogs into the waiting arms of the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team and then on to that team's handlers can lift the remainder of the team into the winner’s circle, and prevents injuries among the less able team mates.
Dr. Jerry Vanek has been a musher or sled dog race veterinarian for the past 30 years, including five Yukon Quests. He is a former officer of the ISDVMA and he continues to write and speak widely on the subject of sled dog medicine.