Ready and rearing to go, the more than 150 dogs participating in this year’s Canadian Challenge Sled Dog race got the veterinary go-ahead on Monday.
“We do a complete physical,” veterinarian Ruth Sims explained. “We listen to the heart, we listen to the lungs, we check their feet, we check their joints to see if they’re sore already, and we check their gums to see if they’re dehydrated.”
This is Sims’ eighth year volunteering her time for the Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race, coming all the way from B.C. to make sure canine athletes are in tip-tip shape -- not that it’s common to find a sled dog that’s not ready to race.
“I think the average sled dog gets more vet checks per year than the average pet,” she said. “We often see heart murmurs, but that’s just an athletic heart murmur that we see -- nothing to worry about.”
Alberta-based dog musher Jackie Wepruk woke up early on Monday to be the second on the list to have her eight dogs checked up.
“Preparing for the race starts in August,” she said, leading her first canine to Sims for a look-over.
“When the temperature starts to drop you start running the dogs for a really short while, and you slowly build up from there.”
The trick is easing dogs into a situation where pulling a sled for hundreds of kilometres is “fun and enjoyable to them,” she explained.
“If they don’t want to go down the trail, then you’re not going down there.”
We do a complete physical ... We listen to the heart, we listen to the lungs, we check their feet, we check their joints to see if they’re sore already, and we check their gums to see if they’re dehydrated. - Veterinarian Ruth Sims
With 21 dogs at home, she had the pick of the litter when it came to selecting a team, with Wepruk selecting only those canines enthusiastic and ready to race.
The veterinarians are available at various checkpoints along the race, which Wepruk said is a nice touch, since dogs’ muscles occasionally get sore or pulled. Dogs also take numerous breaks along the trail, which helps prevent them from overdoing it.
If muscle strains or anything else happens, the injured dogs get to ride it out in the sled.
But, with the dogs having trained for months to be in the race, it’s rare that one of them can’t make it the full run, Wepruk said.
“We tease our vet that we get a more thorough vet exam for free at the race check than we get at the veterinarian’s clinic,” she said with a laugh, noting that her dogs were last checked about three weeks ago.
“Mushers and the vets work together to ensure the welfare of the dogs, and that’s the most important thing to everyone … Everyone wants to have a happy and strong team.”
This year’s Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race will kick off with an opening ceremony at 11:30 a.m. at the Northern Recreation Centre, by Redwing School a few kilometres north of Prince Albert.
Teams will begin starting at two-minute intervals at this same location at noon, with a crowd encouraged to come help cheer them on.