FAIRBANKS - Dogs from half a dozen teams set to race in the 20th running of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race got a checkup Saturday.
The free screening by a group of volunteer and race veterinarians is intended to make sure the canine athletes are healthy enough to tackle the 1,000-mile race between Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and Fairbanks that starts this coming Sunday.
"Big plans can change during a vet check, so I brought extras," said Two Rivers musher Bruce Milne.
He learned this the hard way in 2000, his rookie year, when vets in a pre-race check discovered his main leader had a heart condition and had to be dropped from the team. The dog could have died during the race if the defect had gone unnoticed.
Each race dog has to go through a thorough physical, either at the free pre-race checks in Fairbanks and Whitehorse, or from an independent veterinarian at the musher's expense.
Among the mushers taking their dogs to Whitehorse was Juneau's Deborah Bicknell, who is making her third attempt at completing the Yukon Quest. Bicknell, who has been training her team in Tagish, Yukon Territory, won the Red Lantern Award for the race's last finisher in 2000 and was forced to scratch in 2002.
While examining Milne's 16 dogs, volunteer Patricia Rasmussen, an Army veterinarian at Fort Wainwright, felt each one of them, checking for abnormalities and injuries, then looked at the dogs' paws for cracks.
Despite the hard-packed and icy trails many local mushers have covered in their training, Rasmussen said the paws she examined this year were in better shape than in the previous two years.
"That's the most important part of the dog, its feet," Rasmussen said. If small problems are found, such as minor cracks in the pads, Rasmussen will point them out to the musher and provide treatment advice.
Large problems, such as a heart defect that was found in Milne's dog three years ago, could disqualify a dog for its own good.
Mushers are ultimately responsible for the well-being of the athletes that pull them and their gear through rough terrain that includes four summits rising over 3,000 feet.
Chatanika musher Dan Kaduce said his biggest concern is the dogs' internal care.
"You have to make sure the right thing is going in and the right thing is coming out," Kaduce said. "Anybody can spot a limping dog, but the internal problems are much harder."
And if the dogs aren't mentally into the race, they'll quit running.
Kaduce had this problem in last year's Quest. Shortly after leaving Dawson City, Yukon, after a mandatory 36-hour layover, he had to return to drop some dogs.
When he tried to leave the checkpoint for the second time, the remaining dogs decided they didn't want to continue.
There are 23 teams now set to start the Whitehorse-to-Fairbanks race, the smallest field since 1995, when 22 mushers started.
The purse of $150,000 is split among the top 15 racers, with the winner getting $30,000.