You know how sometimes you meet someone at a party, and after three minutes of small talk you discover a kindred spirit? You then retire to a corner and spend the next hour swapping stories and periodically yelling “I KNOW!”? This is my story with Justine. If you see us at a crowded house party, we will be the ladies in the corner, talking intensely about what to wear in Egypt. In addition to being a traveler of epic proportions, Justine is an author, a doctor of veterinary medicine and the owner of The Best Dog in The World.
So what’s the deal? What do you do?
To “get out of the office,” I volunteer as a veterinarian for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. I’m one of 40 vets who work to ensure that the sled dogs running this 1,049 mile race from Anchorage to Nome are healthy. We examine all 1500 dogs before the start of the race, and run blood work and ECGs on them to make sure they are fit and well.
Once the race starts, I’m then flown throughout bush Alaska (in small 2-man Cessna planes) to various checkpoints, where I work (with a small team of vets) to examine every dog that comes in through the 24 checkpoints. All the dogs are examined at the end of the race also, ensuring dogs are healthy. As vets, we also take care of “dropped” dogs – in other words, dogs that couldn’t continue on with the race for various reasons [like diarrhea, being in heat (and distracting the other dogs), or sore wrists].
Tell us about an average day in sled-dog vetting?
The average day of sled dog vetting includes the following: waking up chilled on the floor of some abandoned building in some small village in Alaska; grabbing a coffee and some instant oatmeal gruel; donning lots of winter gear; going outside in -20F to watch dog teams run in; approaching a sleep-deprived (often grumpy musher) to inquire about his or her dogs; performing physical examinations on the team of sled dogs (typically 14-16 dogs/team); repeating this last step for the next 80 dog teams coming in all day and night long; freezing your hands off; stepping in poop; getting your face licked by lots of sled dogs; getting covered in dog fur/diarrhea/saliva; running to a frozen outhouse to then strip off lots of winter gear; freezing your butt on a frozen toilet seat; donning lots of winter gear; running inside to drink some Tang and hot coffee; grabbing a quick bite; getting surrounded by local Athabascan kids who are excited to see non-villagers; working 18 hours a day followed by an occasional nap, a quick shower every 3rd or 4th day; repeat.
Did you go to school for this? Or get any special training?
I first developed my love for sled dogs at Cornell University, where I attended veterinary school. During my 3rd year courses, I was taught nutrition by a sprint sled dog veterinarian. The world of sled dogs immediately grabbed my attention – I was amazed to discover that Iditarod sled dogs burn approximately 10,000 kcal/day. I was instantly in love with these marathon athletes.
Since then, I’ve done advanced training at Angell Memorial Animal Hospital (associated with the MSPCA in Boston, MA), where I completed my internship, and then went on to University of Pennsylvania, where I completed a fellowship and residency in emergency and critical care. I’m currently a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care (DACVECC), which means I’m a veterinary specialist. Of course, that’s not necessary to be a sled dog vet – one just needs to have 5 years of vet training, and be adaptable to substandard Alaskan conditions!
How did you get into this line of work?
I’ve always loved animals, and knew I wanted to be a vet since I was 7. I didn’t discover the world of sled dogs until later in my life, but have always loved and respected the different relationships and roles that animals and humans have with each other – whether or not it’s for companionship (like my dog sleeping in my bed with me) to working police dogs or sled dogs, I knew I wanted to be able to provide the highest level of quality care for all of them.
Are there any drawbacks to working in this field?
Aside from being sleep deprived, constantly cold, reeking of dog, craving a salad after 10 days of ramen noodles, going 5 days without bathing, and having frost-nip on the tips of my fingers?
What are the highlights?
My two favorite parts of working as a vet for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race are my colleagues and the environment. I work with wonderful, compassionate, fun-loving, adventurous vets that I typically would never meet otherwise (like horse vets from all over the country or Texan vets trying to survive a temperature below 70F). We’re able to work together, share floor space in an abandoned, cold gym or wall tent, and bond over frozen supplies and fingers while exchanging funny work stories. Next, bush Alaska is beautiful – the trail is constantly variable – you may be at a checkpoint that is a deserted ghost town, or at a large fishing village along the frozen Bearing Sea, or at the base of the Alaska Range.
Are there any misconceptions about working in this field?
The biggest misconception is that it’s a glorious position. You’re working like a dog, 18-hours a day during the middle of the night, hungry, dehydrated (no! not the frozen outhouse seat!), sleep-deprived, dirty, cold, and sweaty, and now you’re surrounded by grumpier, dirtier, people.
What suggestions would you give to people interested in getting into this?
If you’re a vet, I’d recommend attending the annual International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA) pre-race training seminar (in Anchorage, AK). This is held just days before the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race (which starts on the first Saturday of March), and offers you the opportunity to learn more about sled dogs. I’d also recommend joining the ISDVMA (www.isdvma.org) which works to ensure the highest levels of quality care in this field. Veterinary race applications are typically available through the ISDVMA newsletters or via the chief veterinarian.
If you’re a vet tech, or just curious, I’d recommend going to the Iditarod website to check out how to volunteer – it’s competitive, but once you’re on the trail, you won’t regret it!
Any would-be vets out there? Any questions for Justine on how to wrangle Huskies?