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Health of canine athletes is priority at CopperDog

CALUMET — “My best friends are canine athletes, and I do everything in my power to make sure they are happy and healthy,” said long time musher Tom Bauer.

This is where the veterinarians come in, forming the foundation of safety at the annual CopperDog 150 and a key resource for the mushers themselves when the athletes’ health concerns arise.

“The veterinarians are a huge source of information for dog care for mushers, and they are there also to address any issues or problems and make sure that dogs are not continuing in the race that should not be continuing in the race,” Bauer said.

Each year the CopperDog has around five veterinarians in addition to a few veterinary technicians and two to four veterinary students, explained CopperDog 150 chief veterinarian Tom Gustafson.

Gustafson has worked as a veterinarian at around 50 races since he started in 1994.

“The thing I enjoy most about it is being able to work with these animals that are these amazing athletes, and so it’s a great change from practice,” Gustafson said.

Gustafson and the team of veterinarians conduct mandatory checkups to ensure dogs are fit to race throughout the CopperDog.

The checkups begin before the race at River Valley Bank.

“They check everything about their (the dogs) physical characteristics that they can,” Bauer said. “It’s a very thorough vet check that they do on each and every dog before they enter the CopperDog.”

Veterinarians examine fat content, hydration, split feet, muscle structure, temperature and heat rate. Additional checkups take place during the race itself.

“During the race there are mandatory checks, and it takes place up in Copper Harbor where the dogs are re-evaluated. Again we’re looking to identify any changes that may suggest that there is an issue developing,” Gustafson said.

Dogs are also evaluated by veterinary team members at the checkpoints to watch for potential issues and the mushers themselves are careful to watch for injuries, Bauer said.

“I find that the mushers are very much in-tuned with what their dogs are doing out there,” Gustafson said. “With any sporting event there’s always a possibility that…one individual may have a misstep out on the trail… and develop some lameness issue. Usually most of them are sore muscles that we find, but it’s something that they’re not going to continue to race.”

Race rules also include rabies and standard vaccinations for all participating dogs and a provision for drug testing.

Following a 2017 doping scandal at the Iditarod, the issue of drug testing has raised concerns in the sport. At the CopperDog, testing is not mandatory but an option if there are any suspicions.

“There are provisions in the race rules regarding drug testing…to do that when we feel that there may be an indication for it,” Gustafson said. “That’s pretty consistent with most of the races in the Midwest for the size races that we run and the competitors we see in this area.”

However, safety requires more than alert veterinarians and mushers. Well-trained CopperDog volunteers are key to keeping road crossings safe along with the safety rules of the race itself. Even the spectators can help keep the dogs and mushers safe by leaving pet dogs at home, Gustafson said.

“We’re there to monitor the dogs and their welfare, so our goals are in the best interest of the dogs, and we do have set parameters and guidelines that have to be adhered to,” Gustafson said.

Kali Katerberg, Daily Mining Gazette

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