Stanley: An Amazing Yukon Quest Sled Dog Story

Stanley is a Yukon Quest sled dog. During the race, in 2006, Stanley awoke from his rest at the Angel Creek checkpoint with a sore right front leg. His musher and one of the official Quest veterinarians examined Stanley and determined that he had a swollen right wrist, called the carpus, which is the joint just above the foot.

Stanley was dropped from the team, and his handlers took him to the dog truck for rest and rehabilitation. His 2006 race was over. While Stanley’s teammates continued trotting toward Whitehorse, he rode along in his box on the truck, from checkpoint to checkpoint, receiving therapy at every stop.

One of Stanley's handlers also was a veterinarian and he used a combination of six therapeutic techniques to treat the dog’s ailing wrist. First, Stanley was given one of the many new non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs, called an NSAID. Both humans and dogs use these drugs to decrease inflammation and pain without causing stomach upset. The medical art is to use the minimum effective dose for as short a duration as possible, and to supplement the drug with complementary therapies.

Because of everything else Stanley’s handlers did, the husky needed only three doses of NSAID over 24 hours.

After Stanley received his initial dose of anti-inflammatory, his veterinarian-handler began gently massaging the dog's wrist. The technique is called effleurage. This was followed by a deeper, gentle massage along the tendons of the leg (petrissage), then circular motions (circlage).

The third component of Stanley's therapy was the incorporation of massage oil from France, which is a potent anti-inflammatory solution made from the extracts of peanuts, or other nuts, mixed with the oils of rosemary and arnica. There are a number of products now produced for working and athletic dogs. It is important that the massage oil reaches the dog’s skin, not just the surface of the fur. Dogs don’t get sore fur!

Fourth, after the massage had warmed and mobilized the leg tissues, Stanley's handler-veterinarian began physical therapy by gently mobilizing the joint in what is called a passive range of motion, or PROM. Stanley's physical therapy sessions always ended with more soft effleurage. Each session took roughly half an hour.

In addition, Stanley was walked every time he was dropped to eat and relieve himself. A rapid return to minimal, but normal, activity is essential for musculo-skeletal injuries in humans and dogs.

Finally, Stanley's handler-veterinarian slept beside him on a bed of straw in full Arctic gear on that first night. Every two hours, the cold would wake the handler enough to reach over and gently effleurage Stanley's wrist while he slept. The following night, Stanley's other handler did the same. By the third day, Stanley was pain-free and walking normally. From that point on, Stanley's body would do the final healing and, after a summer in the sun, he now is back on the trail with his mates.

Stanley's treatment was aggressive and thorough; using gentle massage and physical therapy, a very short course of modern anti-inflammatory drugs, massage oils, a rapid return to minor physical activity, and constant affection. Stanley went from lame to pain-free and clinically normal in 48 hours. The ability of these canine athletes to recover is truly amazing. And, the attention they get rivals any athlete.

If Stanley had been a human with a sprained wrist, he would have called his doctor and, after working his way through the voice-messaging system and waiting on hold, would have reached a receptionist who would have scheduled an appointment for him at the first opening, perhaps in a week or two. At the doctor's office, Stan, the man, would have waited in line to check in, read a magazine or two and filled out some forms for an hour or so in the waiting room, then seen the nurse, who would have examined him and left him in the room to read the diagrams on the wall for another hour, or so. Then the doctor would have looked at his wrist and told him it was sprained and to go home and take some Tylenol.

A few weeks later, still in pain, Stan, the man, would have gotten a referral to an orthopedic specialist, whose first opening would be in a couple more weeks. He would have read more magazines and filled out more forms and then been radiographed and read still more diagrams on the exam room walls and finally been told he had a sprained wrist and to go home and take it easy.

Later still, a desperate Stan, the man, would have gotten a referral to a physical therapist, who would have attempted to release the tied-down tendon fascia in the nearly immovable wrist and then referred Stan to the classified ads for a second job to pay for it all while on disability insurance.

Luckily, our Stanley is a racing sled dog-tough, athletic, and with phenomenal powers of recuperation, who received immediate, state of the art, medical attention. And, whose doctor slept beside him!!

We humans should be so blessed.

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.

Dr. Jerry Vanek