CALUMET - CopperDog 150 organizers have learned many lessons during the first three years of the sled dog race, but none as important as emphasizing dog safety. It's a lesson they almost learned the hard way in the event's inaugural year.
In March 2010, record-high temperatures and pouring rain threatened the race, with trails deteriorating by the hour. After the second stage, mushers were polarized on whether to continue on. After consulting with race planners and the chief veterinarian, a compromise was reached to run an abridged third stage.
According to CopperDog Executive/Race Director Todd Brassard, some mushers like Bruce Magnusson felt maybe the CD150 wasn't a dog-friendly race after all by threatening the dog's health to finish in sub-par racing conditions.
Photo courtesy CopperDog150
Dr. Jeff Ladd (left) checks out a dog during a veterinary presentation to CopperDog 150 volunteers last Saturday at the Jutila Center for Global Design and Business in Hancock.
"Race planners greatly benefited from insights gained and solidified their resolve to create an event that would be the most dog-friendly event in the sport," Brassard said. "The phrase 'happy healthy dogs, happy healthy mushers' was born from this imperative.
"Today, CopperDog continues to work closely with vets and mushers to make the CopperDog 150 a safe and fun event for mushers and their dog teams. There is always room for improvement and each year we work hard to make improvements."
It'll be hard to improve on the veterinary team organizers have assembled for the CopperDog 150's fourth installment.
Dr. Jeff Ladd, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Keweenaw Veterinary Clinic, is the race's chief veterinarian, and he leads a team of 11 DVMs, Certified Veterinary Technicians and Veterinary Assistants that has a combined 150 years of experience with sled dog races.
"The skills and experience our veterinary crew brings to CopperDog is absolutely essential to the operation of the event," Brassard said. "We rely on our vets, vet techs and vet assistance to evaluate the condition of the dogs and to provide medical services as needed. We also heavily rely on the chief vet to help us plan and prepare for an event that will be as dog friendly as possible. Good planning goes a long ways towards preventing injuries."
Ladd himself has been involved in veterinary care at sled dog races since 1990, including several trips to the Iditarod in Alaska, and serving as chief vet of the U.P. 200, and, of course the CopperDog 150.
"Dr. Ladd's presence has been critical to building CopperDog's credibility in the musher community," CopperDog 150 Volunteer Coordinator Brian Donnelly said. "Jeff always stands his ground when it comes to the safety of our animal athletes, and handlers can be confident that they're coming to a very dog-friendly event."
Even each of the four CopperDog "rookie" veterinarians has at minimum 10 years of experience with other sled dog races.
Which is good, because it's no small undertaking to make sure hundreds of dogs - which Ladd calls the canine equivalent of professional athletes - are all cleared for competition, tracked appropriately throughout the event and treated properly if an issue does surface.
"With the number of teams we have, just in the 150 (not including the smaller CopperDog 40), you're looking at 30 teams with 10 dogs to a team. That's 300 dogs, meaning 300 general health exams on Friday before the race starts," said Ladd, who gave a detailed presentation at last Saturday's Lead Volunteer training session. "Since we also check them orthopedically, that's 1,200 feet we look at. It's a lot of work in a short amount of time to get all these dogs evaluated."
It takes a true team effort, with vets and vet techs working in pairs, along with a scribe to do a physical and orthopedic exam on each dog before the race and at the Copper Harbor mandatory health checkpoint.
The pair follows guidelines as outlined by the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association. The team is also available at the Eagle Harbor checkpoint, though it is not mandatory for all dogs to get checked there.
"The scribe writes in a little book we call the 'dog diary,' which mushers are required to carry on the sled," Ladd said. "That way we have a paper trail for each of the dogs."
Fortunately, the vet team hasn't had to respond to any emergencies during any previous CopperDog race, but it'll occasionally need to provide intravenous fluids for dehydrated dogs or advise a dog be pulled from the race. "The most outstanding thing we've had happen is dogs eating their booties," said Ladd, which requires the vet to help the dog vomit them up to prevent digestive problems.
"Our goal is simply to help the mushers take care of their dogs," Ladd said. "Ideally what you'd like to see is every dog finish the race. I look at my job as being an advocate for the dogs."
An important point Ladd and race organizers want race spectators to be aware of is leaving pets at home, since they can be distracting to the racing dogs and create problems for mushers.
"Race dogs are a pack, and outsiders can make them unpredictable, so it's really important to leave pets at home," Donnelly said.
Since the race started in 2010, CopperDog organizers have continually worked to accomplish the goal of "happy healthy dogs, happy healthy mushers." Just ask Magnusson, who nearly left the race after 2010, but who is now one of the race's biggest proponents.
"Had I left, it would have been my loss," he said at last year's closing CopperDog 150 banquet.
For more information on the CopperDog 150, including biographies of each member of the veterinary team, visit copperdog150.com.
Check back to The Daily Mining Gazette every Saturday leading up to the race for more exclusive CopperDog 150 coverage.