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Vet Gazette

Oregon State University College of Veterinary Medicine eNewsletter

Iditarod Dream Comes True for VTH Technician

March 31st, 2014

SaraShort_dogAs a Certified Veterinary Technician in the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Sara Short sees dogs of all kinds in the course of an average work day, and because many of these pets have been referred by family veterinarians, they are often seriously ill or injured. Last month, Short had an opportunity to work with dogs at the other end of the health spectrum: Iditarod athletes.

Shorts’ fascination with the Iditarod began when she was growing up in Anchorage, Alaska. Her father took her to the race almost every year. “My dad was military and the military usually sponsors one of the mushers. It was always a thing that we did together,” she says.

After becoming a veterinary technician, she had an opportunity to get up close with Iditarod sled dogs when she became friends with a client who raised them. “We went out a couple of times for different training days: hooking them all up to their harnesses and letting them run with a cart,” she says. “It sparked my interest and I started to build my experience with them.”

The Iditarod race is a big deal in Alaska. Tourists and competitors come from all over the world to participate. Mushers spend many years and thousands of dollars developing their dog teams, and pay a minimum of $3,000 just to register for the race. The Iditarod Trail Committee employs a staff of ten year-round staff, including a head veterinary technician who supervises a handful of selected volunteer CVTs. This group of technicians is responsible for collecting pre-race blood work and ECG information on more than a thousand dogs. Sara Short’s dream was to join their ranks.

“I was very persistent,” she says. “I had gone through the website and applied as a volunteer. I did that three times in a row and never got picked. Then when I came to OSU, everyone told me ‘If you want to get into the Iditarod, talk to Dr. McKenzie.’” Dr. Erica McKenzie is a sport medicine specialist who has conducted research on Iditarod sled dogs. She suggested Short contact Dr. Stuart Nelson, the head veterinarian for the race. “I called him and he set me up for a phone interview with the head technician.” Short must have had a good interview because the head technician called her the next day and offered her the job. “I booked my plane ticket right away and requested all the time off,” says Short.

For a team of dogs to pull a fully-loaded sled over 1,000 miles of mountain terrain in sub-zero temperatures, the animals have to be in tip-top shape. The volunteer veterinary technicians at the Iditarod work 12-hour days for four weeks, and travel all over the state, pre-screening the registered sled dogs. “I flew in [to Anchorage] and as soon as I hit the ground, I was picked up and driven all the way to Soldotna,” she says.

Contrary to popular belief, most sled dogs are not purebred huskies; they are a combination of Siberian husky and some kind of hound. The hound dog genes are added for speed. But all the dogs are big, muscular athletes, weighing 60 to 80 pounds. They are also very high energy, and although accustomed to lots of human handling, they are generally not indoor dogs. “It takes a special kind of patience to work with them,” says Short. “They are not necessarily used to coming into a building and having a group of people around them. I realized you have to deal with their anxiety about coming indoors. But, given the fact that these dogs don’t necessarily have a whole lot of leash manners, or commands to sit and stay, these dogs were awesome. I didn’t come across a single aggressive dog. They loved you even after you were poking them, laying them down on a table and hooking all those ECG leads on to them. The minute you let them go, they loved you.”

When the month of pre-screening the dogs is over, the veterinary technicians have one last job. At the ceremonial starting line in downtown Anchorage, the CVTs scan all the dog’s microchips and tag them to make sure the final 20 dogs for each team are the same dogs that were pre-screened. That means they have to check 20 dogs for 70 mushers in a couple of hours. “That’s a lot of dogs,” says Short. “It’s an extremely busy day.”

Short loves working with the dogs and also enjoyed being part of the musher community. “Watching the mushers and handlers was awesome to see; the relationship they have with their dogs, the bond they have with them is amazing.” She would love to go back next year and has already been offered her spot by the head technician. “It would definitely be something I would do again. If I can go, I will go,” she says.

Video interview with the head veterinary technician for the 2014 Iditarod.

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