Doping… Who cares?

Why does it really matter?

What’s the big deal?

It’s just some dog sled race in Alaska.

It’s a question that hangs over this year’s race like a black cloud.

Over the summer, dogs in four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey’s team were revealed to have tested positive for tramadol, a painkiller banned by the Iditarod Trail Committee.

I don’t want to wade too deeply into the debate over how the drugs got into the dogs. What is of consequence now is Dallas’ absence from this year’s race as he’s chosen to tackle the Finnmarkslopet, a 1200km race starting March 9th in Norway.

Not only has he proven to be an elite racer with his Yukon Quest and four Iditarod victories, but in my eyes he is also a premier advocate for dog care. 

I first met a 15-year-old Dallas in Nome at the finish of the 2004 Iditarod. I anxiously sat alongside his family and Jeff King’s family while their respective fathers (Mitch Seavey and Jeff King) battled it out for first and second place.

At that age, Dallas was already an astute student of dog mushing, training, and an analytical wizard. He spoke with conviction to the advantages of utilizing specific harnesses, gang lines, sleds and training techniques to maximize the health of the dogs.

He was very adamant, like many mushers, about breeding only the best dogs -- not just for improving their racing teams but also for contributing to the overall health and longevity of the Alaskan Husky breed. 

I fondly remember listening in awe and taking meticulous mental notes that I carried with me through my tenure as an Iditarod racer and handler/trainer. 

As I watched him grow into the man he is today I only came to respect him more as an advocate for the dogs, a gentleman and a stickler for following all the rules.

I take this time to share about Dallas because he is a person with an enormous heart, a passion for these dogs and the Iditarod, like many of the racers this year. 

For many of us, the countless hours spent training and living with our best friends (the dogs) is what really matters in this sport. 

The Iditarod is not just a race but also a vacation where we can get away from the constant noise of the world, focus on the dogs for a couple weeks and let the dogs show what they can do. 

As a function of their isolation during the race I believe the black cloud of doping will have very little impact on the mushers during the race and for many this will be a welcomed bit of silence.

While they will welcome the radio silence for these two weeks this does not indicate they don’t care about doping.

From the comments I’ve read and heard since the doping controversy began this summer dog mushers are very passionate about the topic.

As a musher, this is a big deal as it has not just implications on the race outcomes, but also the race as a whole, individual dogs and the breed. The act of doping is not only deceitful, and dishonest, but can be detrimental to the dogs. 

Doping may result in permanent damage to a dog since the drug could mask injuries such as lameness, and racing strain would aggravate the injury.

An inferior animal may get selected for breeding purposes based on performance while doped, and thus adversely affect the breeding line. 

The question now is how do we prevent doping, accurately test and administer appropriate sanctions.

This race started as a bare bones sled dog race across the last frontier.

I can’t imagine there was ever a thought of doping by those early mushers. Sadly, as long as there is competition there will be people who straddle the line of honesty. 

We’ve seen it with Lance Armstrong, Mark McGuire, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson. 

Doping occurs in canine competitions worldwide including agility competitions, dog shows, and greyhound racing.

However one thing has been abundantly clear to me from the beginning: there are no shortcuts to success with these dogs. No more than there are shortcuts to teaching a classroom full of elementary students. 

You must put in your time, and drugs don’t contribute to that time.


Bryan Bearss trained Iditarod race teams full time from 2003 to 2009 and raced the Iditarod in 2006 and 2015. He is currently an elementary school teacher and marathon canoe racer. 

Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of KTVA 11 News.