When a dog team enters a checkpoint, the veterinarian on duty is responsible for examining the sled dogs for their health and welfare. Sometimes many dog teams arrive close together and they don’t plan on staying long enough for each sled dog to receive a thorough physical examination. In these cases, the trail veterinarian uses a rapid medical assessment method to evaluate the dogs' status quickly.
The rapid medical assessment used by veterinarians is very similar to that used by human paramedics, Emergency Medical Technicians, emergency room nurses, and physicians. Only the names are different.
Sled dog veterinarians use an assessment mnemonic called: "HAW-L/GEE-R" and they apply it using a technique called "OPQ" or "LAF-ing" at a dog team. These mnemonics, or letter formulas translating to various words, help the veterinarian remember what to do when there are lots of dogs to examine rapidly and it’s late at night, cold and dark, and everybody’s tired.
To "LAF" at a dog team means to Look at and Listen to the dogs (L); to Ask questions of the mushers (A) and to Feel the dogs (F). OPQ means the same thing: To Observe (O) and Palpate the dogs (P) and to Question the musher (Q). This is exactly what a human physician does in the examine room with a patient.
"HAW" in mushing lingo means to turn left, while "GEE" means to turn right. For a veterinarian’s rapid medical assessment, these letters stand for: Heart and Hydration; Attitude and Appetite; Weight; Lungs; GastroEnteric system, Extremities (legs and spine); and uRine and Rate of Recovery.
When a team enters a checkpoint, the veterinarian is immediately Looking at (or Observing) the dogs for signs of depression, lack of interest in food or water, weight loss, etc. These signs often can be seen within moments of arrival.
With her hands, the veterinarian Feels (or Palpates) for an abnormal pulse, hydration, weight loss, a tense or painful abdomen, or swelling, heat, or pain in the legs or back If there’s time or concern, the veterinarian uses his stethoscope and Listens to (Observes) the heart, lungs, and abdomen.
The veterinarian also consults with the musher, Asking (Questioning) the driver if the dogs have had any medical problems on the trail that need to be addressed. This is what a human physician would do to cover all the major body systems and organs to insure that the athlete remains in good condition.
The majority of racing sled dogs suffer few, if any, major problems and the rapid medical and trauma assessment known as HAW-L/GEE-R, when applied with the OPQ or LAF-ing technique, insures that every dog receives the attention it needs and deserves without using undue time and resources which could be better spent on those few dogs who do, occasionally, need more intensive medical attention.
When you see a veterinarian at the starting line or finish line or in a checkpoint, and from a distance they appear to be just watching the dogs or petting them or merely shooting the breeze with the musher, they are actually working hard LAF-ing at the dog team!
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.