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More Sad News

The Iditarod Trail committee has announced the death of Omen, an 8-year-old male, on the Rick Larson (5) team between Elim and White Mountain, and Maynard, a 5-year-old male, on the Warren Palfrey (7) team about an hour outside of Nome. There is no obvious reason for either death.

I looked at the records for both teams, and they weren’t in active contention with anyone at the times of the deaths, just cruising towards the finish. The Larson team had been in a one-for-one rest/run regimen at the time, after an extended rest to wait out the wind. The Palfrey team was just loping towards the end with no one close to them.


1 Kryten42 { 03.20.09 at 10:06 pm }

That’s really sad! 😥

It’s been a bad Iditarod this year. I hope they really look hard at moving it in line with the changing weather, and review their safety measures.

2 Bryan { 03.20.09 at 10:33 pm }

I was really surprised by the loss of Maynard, because Palfrey just finished 9th in the Yukon Quest, and his dogs are heavy coated interior dogs, who should weather the cold without problem. He is from much further North in Yellowknife.

We won’t know until the tests are complete, but it is odd that the Quest is colder with fewer rest stops and more camping, but no dogs were lost.

These teams weren’t “racing” with anyone. They couldn’t catch anyone in front of them and no one was close behind, so they were jogging to the end of the race. Larson was basically moving on an 8 on 8 off schedule, so the dogs were getting plenty of rest and regular meals.

3 hipparchia { 03.20.09 at 10:46 pm }

my first thought was virus, followed closely by are any of the dog food ingredients from china?

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4 Bryan { 03.21.09 at 12:31 am }

I hoping the find out a cause, because I understand about the two dogs caught in the blizzard, but these last two were even under stress, and all of the dogs are peak age males.

5 Bryan { 03.21.09 at 12:47 am }

Thinking about it, I hope they pay special attention to the kidneys on these dogs as that is what the melamine in the feed attacks.

6 hipparchia { 03.21.09 at 1:48 am }

or any of goodness-only-knows how many other nitrogen-containing compounds tat aren’t really food but that might have been added to up the apparent protein content.

apparently we’re still in the dark ages on ingredients testing [when we get around to actually testing anything]. from the pet food scandal, it sounds like that’s what they test for, nitrogen content, rather than actual protein content. once upon a time, nitrogen content was the only quick and affordable way to estimate protein content, but i would have thought we’d be further along by now on quick, affordable, but more-sophisticated testing.

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7 Bryan { 03.21.09 at 11:49 am }

Testing? Testing costs money, and isn’t necessary because everyone knows that the “invisible hand” of the market will deal harshly with anyone who cheats 😈

One of the big problems with sled dogs and German Shepherds is gulping food. They can ingest foreign objects which tear up their stomachs and cause internal bleeding. That problem is not limited to races.

The real puzzle is that these are not first-time runners. If there was a physical problem, you would think it would show up earlier in their training or racing. William Palfrey’s dog had passed a vet inspection within two hours of its death and it didn’t even act tired or it would have been left at Safety. It had a more thorough check during the 8-hour stop at White Mountain just before that.

8 hipparchia { 03.22.09 at 9:18 pm }


here, let me fix that for you— … the “invisible hand” of the market will deal harshly with anyone who cheats 😈

my brother’s dog is like that [no telling what breed, our whole extended family takes in stray cats and adopts pound puppies]. he sets the food bowl on the kitchen counter, carefully measures the food into it, and before the bowl reaches the floor, the dog has already inhaled all the food out of it.

my dog otoh, takes one mouthful of food out of the bowl, carries it off into a quiet corner, and thoughtfully munches on each piece for the next 10 minutes.

i hope they find out the problem too.

one of the problems with both dogs and horses is that all too often they will literally run themselves into the ground if we ask them to. not all of them of course, but a lot of them will, because for ages we’ve selectively bred them to be ultracooperative and in the process, we’ve been breeding the sense of self-preservation out of them.

it’s not a problem you find very often in cats and mules. 😉

i don’t know if we need better vetting of the veterinarians [maybe some of them are missing some subtle signs that only the best or most experienced vets would consistently spot?] or if there need to be stricter [or different] guidelines for determining if a dog is fit to go on, or what.

going back to our yukon quest conversation [apologies, i try not to let rl get in the way of blogging, but the best laid plans of mice and men blahblahblah…] i like your food sponsorship idea. i don’t remember exactly where we left off, but i’ve been thinking that maybe mushers shouldn’t be allowed to leave each rest stop without a specified minimum amount of food per dog on board. the race association would have to keep a store of food at each stop, and this would add to the expense [not to mention adding to the weight the dogs have to pull].

much as i like the romanticism of the 1000+ miles of human and dogs against the elements, all alone at the top of the world, and all that jazz, it may be that these races should be run more like the tour de france, in stages, or that at least there should be one or two additional long rest stops added. the iditarod isn’t exactly historically accurate yanno. the original serum delivery to nome was done by a relay of teams, none of which ran the entire distance.

9 Bryan { 03.22.09 at 9:54 pm }

The preliminary on the two dogs was fluid on the lungs possibly caused by a heart defect, which I find hard to believe. It was possibly caused by frostbite in the lungs, or inhaled food. We were specifically warned in Alaska not to take deep breaths unless the hood was in place, and to breathe through the nose whenever possible to warm the air.

Hopefully something more definitive will be found.

On the Quest, I think that they mushers were mislead by the Iditarod feeding schedules. The Quest is in colder weather, and the food consumption really climbs when the temperature drops. The kid who scratched admits that he screwed up, and that’s why he had to scratch. His dogs no longer trusted him, and he didn’t shy away from saying it was his fault. He packed based on the races he had run in before, and wasn’t ready for the big increase.

The same thing happened to Martin Buser. He packed based on what he used on multiple Iditarods, and it wasn’t nearly enough for the Quest. Actually I would have thought that one of the guys who run both races would have said something to Martin about that, but they apparently assumed he knew.

The Iditarod permits you to have three sleds, but the Quest only allows one. Because of all the camping, that sled has to be bigger and sturdier than an Iditarod sled. The Quest also allows fewer dogs, so, with a heavier sled they work harder than the dogs on the Iditarod and move slower.

Martin still holds the record for the Iditarod, at just over 8 days. The Quest record is two days longer, although is is nominally a shorter course by a few miles.

The Quest would probably have more checkpoints, but there is nothing built other than the current stops, and some of those are people’s homesteads. There is a whole lot of nothing in that area of the world, but it is the old mail route that they follow. After he finished, his family told William Palfrey that he had retraced to route his great-grandfather ran a 100 years ago delivering mail and freight between Whitehorse and Fairbanks.

At some point I’m going to do a compare between the two races.

Yeah. I really think an emergency kibble supply would be vital for the first checkpoints. Afterwards there should be spare food from the teams that scratched.

I’m still trying to figure out why dogs seem to die on the Iditarod more frequently than the Quest. On paper the Quest is a tougher race on the dogs. It may be the slower pace.

10 hipparchia { 03.22.09 at 11:54 pm }

i was thinking something like that, that the iditarod is more of a mongo sprint than the marathon it should be, and that this may be the big problem with it.

i’ve also been thinking that the mushers may need to rethink their breeding programs. i’ll admit up front that i’m a bit of a purist here [ok, more than a bit] but i’d to see them stick to just the original sleddog types [malamutes, siberians, samoyeds, etc], all the breeds that evolved in that climate.

if you’re going to breed purebreds, they ought to be functional first, and only secondarily ornamental. breeding for only the show ring has been a disaster for many breeds. i’m a fan of those breeds where a large proportion of the breeders emphasize both. after all, a well-constructed dog is a gorgeous dog. it’s not a guarantee of course, but if these high-profile races were northern-breed-only, then perhaps the show-ring types would be further influenced by the working types. the breed clubs for the siberian, malamute, and samoyed all already have programs promoting this, but it couldn’t hurt to have even more reason to do so.

i don’t mean that the mushers should necessarily be restricted to purebreds, but that their breeding programs probably ought to stick to northern dogs. i understand why they introduced pointers and irish setters [both wonderful breeds, but frequently dumber than a box of rocks] and the like, but we use those breeds fairly extensively for hunting down here in the south [although i see more english setters here than irish]. yes, they’re originally from cooler climates than florida, but they’re not truly cold-climate dogs.

not that i actually expect anybody in alaska to take dogsledding advice from someone living in florida 🙂 but still….

After he finished, his family told William Palfrey that he had retraced to route his great-grandfather ran a 100 years ago delivering mail and freight between Whitehorse and Fairbanks.

that’s just too cool. i do like stuff like that. and i’d love to read your comparison of the two races.

yeah, i really felt bad for the kid in the yukon quest. i don’t know enough about the mushing community to know if they’re all too competitive to share such information with each other, if they’re all to proud [or too stupid] to ask for advice, or if the information really is out there and everybody just assumes that everybody else already knows it. the fact that so many teams ran short of food [not just those 2] indicates though, that some kind of systemic fix is in order, whether mandating the amount of food a team has to carry, or setting up emergency food supplies, or at least requiring them to sign a spot on their entry forms that says they understand that their dogs will need a minimum of x amount of food.

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11 Bryan { 03.23.09 at 12:36 am }

I have to say looking at the pictures that all of the German Shepherds we had when I was growing up had thicker winter coats than I see on some of those dogs, and the dogs up in Fairbanks in the 1960s were definitely heavier coated than a German Shepherd, and bigger. They are breeding down for speed and a response to the warming. You can’t do that on the Quest, because the Yukon is cold in February and they are scheduling a week earlier next year for more separation from the Iditarod.

There is plenty of differences in the northern breeds to produce a faster dog capable of the distance that still can survive in the weather. After horses were introduced, they didn’t use dogs until it got colder than about 20 below, so they were definitely raised for the colder weather.

None of the 5 mushers who did both races had dog problems, although Hugh Neff did in his face with frostbite, which is just plain foolish for someone who lives in the interior.

They have enough veterans that someone, like Sebastian Schnuelle, ought to be able to produce a handbook for rookies that includes all of the necessary information. When you run into these kinds of problems everyone looks bad.

12 hipparchia { 03.23.09 at 1:37 am }

the malamutes and related types have always been all about freighting. you could pull a large heavy load with a few malamutes or a greater number of smaller, lighter dogs and still get there. once speed became important though, it was all smaller, lighter dogs. the big guys are tough and dependable and can go the distance, but you won’t get there in a hurry. nor can they take the heat [not for pulling anyway, though they adapt to being pets here]. my malamute friends tell me that 0 degrees is a hot day for sledding.

i’m glad to hear they’re putting more time between the two races. i was thinking maybe there should be a rule that the same team can’t enter both races in the same year, because that really is a tough schedule.

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13 Bryan { 03.23.09 at 1:56 pm }

Actually, the dogs don’t seem to mind as much as the mushers. Sab pulled a 1-2, Lance pulled 1-1 two years in a row.

I think that people should start looking at the fact that it is “middle-aged” male dogs that are dying, and see if there is something in their bloodlines that would indicate a genetic problem related to the heart. “Improving the breed” usually involves a narrowing gene pool, which leads to an upswing in normally recessive traits.

Now that they are more readily available, some DNA scans might be useful, and if they can’t come up with some answers, the sport will face growing opposition.

14 hipparchia { 03.24.09 at 12:39 am }

two words: native dancer

granted, horses live longer, and the sport has way more $$$$$ driving it, but native dancer was born in 1950, and we’ve known about his genes for fragile bones for a long time [ruffian’s 1975 death didn’t prevent eight belles’ death in 2008].

gene pool? it’s barely a puddle in racing thoroughbreds. the problem of course, is that native dancer and his descendants [particularly notable: northern dancer] are fast, and enough of them live to reproduce that the genes for both speed and fragility get passed on… and on… and on… native dancer is basically in every american thoroughbred’s pedigree multiple times [i just found this, looks like it goes back further than native dancer]

even if they find an identifiable genetic problem, it’s going to be tough to get people to stop breeding fast, fragile dogs in favor of slower, sturdier dogs.

otoh, it could all turn out to be just that the iditarod is run too late in the spring, with its alternating cold and too-warm weather.

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15 Bryan { 03.24.09 at 11:38 am }

They will eventually have to change the start date and move some of the coastal checkpoints as the warming takes it toll. There are entire villages in the Arctic that have to be relocated because of the erosion caused by higher sea levels.

Horses are running for minutes, but the dogs are running for days. A sick or injured dog is not only not pulling, it has to be carried to the next checkpoint, so it is in the musher’s best interest to use only reliable healthy dogs. Race officials can influence the process by having vets exclude bloodlines from competition. There isn’t enough money in the process for bribery to be a problem.

Years ago the Iditarod had a problem with tainted food caused by a freezer failing that no one knew about. That was the reason Susan Butcher stopped competing. They really don’t want any more problems, and will address it if they realize that there is a way to find a reason for the deaths. While the deaths from the “usual suspects” has been decreasing, there has been an increase in unexplained deaths of seemingly healthy dogs. That does make genes suspect.