Dog team shows South Routt students what Iditarod is all about

A team of dogs mostly composed of Iditarod finishers rounds a corner on a snowy field next to South Routt Elementary School on Wednesday. Tami Thurston offered rides to students, helping cap off lessons they’d been learning about the dogs and the race.

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Gone to the dogs

South Routt Elementary School students go for a ride and get a taste of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

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From left, Jace Fitzgerald, Bella Story and Delaney McCoy smile wide as they're pulled by a team of dogs from Double T Kennels.

— They tugged, ran, fought and pulled, with every attempt to break from their orderly line squelched by a stern word or look from the person in charge. All that and the dogs from Double T Kennels almost made as much of a commotion as the South Routt Elementary School students, who took a little time from their school day Wednesday to ride behind a team filled mostly with Iditarod finishers.

“It’s fun to share it. People love dogs, and they love the Iditarod,” Tami Thurston said. “People have a passion for this just like we do, and it’s fun to go out and share it.”

On Wednesday, the team of eight dogs, seven of which have had a paw in tugging Oak Creek-based musher Tom Thurston across the Alaska interior, didn’t tackle a task nearly as formidable as their stints at the massive Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. By comparison, the laps around a snow-covered field next to the elementary school seemed positively easy. It still made for a ton of fun for the students, who wrapped up several days on interactions with the local kennel’s teams during the ride.

The Thurstons visited the school Tuesday, when Tom Thurston answered questions from the students about the race he’s dedicated much of the past four years to. Tami Thurston, meanwhile, showed off one of the family’s most experienced dogs and helped the students learn about sled dogs and the race.

“The kids had a million questions,” she said. “Getting the kids out for the ride then is the final hurrah.”

Many of the classes in the school plan to keep tabs on Tom Thurston’s progress in this year’s race. Thurston flew Tuesday to Montana, where he’s spent much of the winter training his team. That was the first step on his return to Alaska, where he will start his fourth run in the Iditarod on March 3.

This year’s race is expected to be yet another step for Thurston, who slowly has built up a team of veterans since his first trip in 2009. He secured a three-year sponsorship deal before last season’s race, which ensured he’d race until at least 2013.

Last year’s run was all about seasoning the dogs. This year, he hopes to train them not only to run the trail but also to run it fast.

“I’m hoping to get into the top 20,” Tom Thurston said. “The team is looking great. They all have good weight on them. The ones I’m bringing have stayed healthy all year, and they’ve been performing awesome. I’m really optimistic.”

To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253 or email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com

Community comments

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(Margery Glickman) SledDogAction says...

People who love dogs condemn the Iditarod, because the race has a long, well-documented history of dog deaths, illnesses and injuries. What happens to dogs during the Iditarod includes death, bloody diarrhea, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, kennel cough, broken bones, torn muscles and extreme stress. At least 142 dogs have died in the race, including two dogs who froze to death in the brutally cold winds. For more facts, visit the Sled Dog Action Coalition website, http://www.helpsleddogs.org .

Veterinary care during the Iditarod is poor. Here's just one example: Veterinarians have allowed dogs with kennel cough race in the Iditarod even though dogs with this disease should be kept warm and given lots of rest. It's dangerous for the dogs with this disease to exercise with any intensity. Strenuous exercise can cause lung damage, pneumonia and even death. Kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that normally lasts from 10 to 21 days.

Iditarod dogs are beaten into submission. Jane Stevens, a former Iditarod dog handler, describes a dog beating in her letter published by the Whitehorse Star (Feb. 23, 2011). She wrote: "I witnessed the extremely violent beating of an Iditarod racing dog by one of the racing industry's most high-profile top 10 mushers. Be assured the beating was clearly not within an 'acceptable range' of 'discipline'. Indeed, the scene left me appalled, sick and shocked. After viewing an individual sled dog repeatedly booted with full force, the male person doing the beating jumping back and forth like a pendulum with his full body weight to gain full momentum and impact. He then alternated his beating technique with full-ranging, hard and fast, closed-fist punches like a piston to the dog as it was held by its harness splayed onto the ground. He then staggeringly lifted the dog by the harness with two arms above waist height, then slammed the dog into the ground with full force, again repeatedly, all of this repeatedly."

During the 2007 race, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jon Saraceno wrote in his column in USA Today, "He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death."

Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, "Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective...A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective." He also said, "It is a common training device in use among dog mushers..." Former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford wrote in Alaska's Bush Blade Newspaper: "Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don't pull are dragged to death in harnesses....."

FOR FACTS ON IDITAROD: Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://www.helpsleddogs.org

Posted 24 February 2012, 10:15 a.m. Suggest removal

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