Occasionally, I’m asked to compare the many sled dog races at which I’ve served as either a Chief or Trail Veterinarian. Choosing the very best race is difficult, but narrowing it down to two or three is easy, and the Yukon Quest is certainly one of the very best sled dog races from this old veterinarian’s point of view.
It might seem counter-intuitive, but what makes the Yukon Quest a great race forveterinary care and animal welfare is the extreme toughness of the trail and the event’s relatively modest purse and media profile. It scares off the weak links.
Mushers who choose to run the Yukon Quest are, by and large, serious and dedicated dog drivers. Most are not running this race to get rich quick, nor are they dreaming of their name in Hollywood lights. There are few, if any, gold diggers or prima donnas running the Quest. Those entered run the race simply because they love running the race, first place or red lantern. As a result, we Quest veterinarians find ourselves partnered with life-long dog men and women who respect their incredible canine athletes and the awesome power of the land.
We don't have to be babysitters or the dog police, and that makes our job so much easier.
The Yukon Quest limits the number of entrants, which increases the ratio of veterinarians to dogs. And, the race has relatively few checkpoints, which increases the ratio of veterinarians to dogs per checkpoint. The health and welfare of the dogs can only flourish under a system where ample numbers of veterinarians with plenty of time can give the dogs the attention they deserve. At the Yukon Quest, veterinarians can develop true doctor/patient relationships as we follow the teams along the trail. We also develop true doctor/client relationships with the mushers. That’s what we call good medicine.
The relatively smaller size of the veterinary team and the extended times between the checkpoints means that the veterinarians get to spend more time together, forming solid professional relationships with each other. During the Yukon Quest, race veterinarians can share information about problem cases face to face and teach and learn from each other as we go and grow. In addition, the efficient size of the veterinary team means that few, if any, “rookie” veterinarians need to earn their spurs in any given year, because most of the trail veterinarians return, year after year. And, to be invited to practice medicine on the Yukon Quest, a new recruit must have had a good deal of experience with sled dog medicine in one form or another. This low turnover ensures continuity among the veterinary team and fosters a trusting relationship with the mushers and race officials which ultimately benefits the dogs.
During the Yukon Quest, a pair of veterinarians will be teamed together for at least half the race, changing to a new partner for the second half. With so few checkpoints and competitors, most veterinary crews will overlap at each checkpoint with most of the other veterinary pairs, either preparing to leave for the next duty station or just arriving from the last. Similarly, most veterinary pairs get to observe, if not directly work with, most of the competitors, as they arrive at, or leave, a checkpoint. This gives the entire veterinary team a good overview of the entire population of sled dogs they’re attending to and how well the dogs are doing as a community. That’s modern medicine.
At Dawson City, the 36-hour layover also allows the veterinary pairs to assemble long enough to regroup, change partners, compare notes, restock medical supplies, eat well, and shower! Like the dogs and mushers, the judges and veterinarians also start fresh for the second half of the race. Once again, it’s the dogs who benefit.
As I reflect on the intimate relationships I’ve formed with my fellow doctors, mushers, huskies, and judges along the Yukon Quest trail, I’m convinced that the Quest’s approach to dog care and the nurturing of their veterinarians is as good as I’ve seen. I will always treasure the thousands of miles I've traveled caring for the sled dogs of the Yukon Quest, and I will treasure equally the other Quest veterinarians, far more talented than I, who always had my back.
If I were a sled dog, I would want to be a Yukon Quest sled dog, with a Quest musher coaching me, and a Quest veterinarian waiting for me by the bonfire up ahead.
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.