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Iditarod to Develop Kennel Management Program

Aliy Zirkle, mushing into Unalakleet
Aliy Zirkle, mushing into Unalakleet on Saturday afternoon.

The Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) announced last week that it’s working on a formal kennel management program to be put in place next year.

According to a press release, the ITC aims to develop a set of standards for things like breeding, cleanliness, nutrition, and vaccination. The program will involve kennel visits and a certification process.

Chas St. George is the ITC’s Chief Operations Officer. He says this move is just the next step in a continuous process.

“The fact is that the mushers in this particular race have been upping their kennel management since its inception.”

He’s referring to the inception of an organization called Mush with P.R.I.D.E., which was founded in 1991 by a group of mushers. It’s dedicated to “enhancing the care and treatment of sled dogs in their traditional and modern uses.” Every Iditarod musher must be a member of the group.

St. George says discussion about a formal Iditarod program has been building since Mush with P.R.I.D.E. updated its standards in 2009. The release of the documentary film Sled Dogs in 2016 was also a factor.

“Those kennels, the kennels they portrayed, are nowhere near what is happening in reality here with our Iditarod mushers and their kennels.”

What’s happening, he says, is an already-high standard of canine care. One example: four-time champion Martin Buser’s kennel.

“It’s like a Walley World for sled dogs. And the same way with Jeff King’s, same way with all of them. They have all kinds of different added elements that allow for the sled dog to really not just maintain its ability to run a race like the Iditarod but to thrive. So part of our motivation to update the kennel care framework was to share what’s happening in a number of Iditarod kennels with the rest of the world.”

To do that, the ITC has assembled a team of seven veteran mushers to serve as an advisory committee. They include Buser and King, DeeDee Jonrowe and Aliy Zirkle. St. George says each has been a strong proponent of creating more formal standards and calls them “exemplars” for kennel management.

Zirkle says the work is more about drawing on these mushers’ experience than radically altering kennel management.

“It is a big deal, and it’s a new step, but most dogs that come to the finish line in Nome and maybe are dropped along the way are some of the healthiest dogs in Alaska already.”

St. George says the committee and the ITC will solicit feedback from other stakeholders like volunteers, race fans, sponsors and veterinary staff.

The advisory committee had its first meeting Wednesday. The ITC hopes to have the kennel management program in place before the opening day for 2019 Iditarod entries, June 23rd, 2018.

Image at top: Musher Aliy Zirkle approaches the Unalakleet checkpoint in the 2014 race. Zirkle is one of seven veteran mushers selected for the Iditarod’s kennel management program advisory committee. (Photo: David Dodman, KNOM)

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