"These dogs are family," smiles Jeff King, this year's record-setting Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race champion, "we're dependent on each other if we're gonna win something like this."
King, who visited this area recently promoting Proclaim premium dog and cat foods, chafes at the mention that the 1,161-mile run from Anchorage to Nome is cruel to animals.
The world's premier sled-dog race has reduced its purse for 1994 winners by about 25 percent after two major sponsors, Dodge and ABC-TV, decided against renewing contracts next year, costing the event nearly $200,000.
Add to that the Humane Society of the United States has expressed concern about the canine death toll in recent years. Six of 1,240 dogs entered in this year's race, died.
Add to that in early April a scheduled appearance by King on "The Tonight Show" was canceled by NBC a few days before the musher and six of his animals were due to fly to California for taping.
King believes the real reason is that the network was cowed by protests by animal-rights activitists opposed to the sport.
According to King, his dogs were to be divided into two teams pulling little red wagons through hallways in the show's studio. Host Jay Leno was scheduled to drive one team, with King or the the program's musical director, Branford Marsalis, the other.
OBJECTED TO SURFACE
King said he objected to the producers about running the dogs on linoleum, and had been assured carpeting would be put down in the hallways, to avoid injury to one of the animals.
"Wouldn't that have been ironic," he said here. "I run those animals across mountains, tundra, frozen rivers and sea ice in Alaska without injury and have something happen to them in a Hollywood studio."
Racing is a small part of dog mushing, says King. These Alaskan huskies are bred to mush, he explains. "In fact, you won't even find them in the AKC (American Kennel Club) registry book. They thrive on the challenge of competition of first making my racing team of 20 and then staying ahead of the others.
"There is nothing more important than their welfare, however. I palpate them all several times a week, keep a close eye on them pulling, watch their gait and check them daily for cuts and bruises."
The ideal racing weight for most is 50 to 55 pounds. One member of King's team is capable of pulling 1,000 pounds across a room, but King says the key to each team's conditioning program is developing endurance not brute strength.
"There's a horrible public misconception about these dogs as a result of the Jack London novels, which portray them as fighters. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are highly skilled professional athletes."
The relationship between King and his dogs is akin to a coach and players. "It's up to me to instill confidence and general trust in them by the way I feed, condition and treat them. They all have names and thrive on individual attention, just like humans," says King, who first entered the Iditarod in 1981.
King's record-setting time this year was 10 days, 15 hours, 38 minutes, which means each dog runs more than 10 hours and 100 miles per day for 10 consecutive days - and still wags its tail. Twelve hours of each day the dogs are rested. King's team beat the old record by more than four hours, despite a rule change boosting the mandatory onetime layover from 24 to 30 hours.
Each dog burns about 8,000 calories per day, compared to some National Football Leaguers who run off 4,000 to 6,000 per game, yet have a whirlpool bath to turn to afterward.
Determining the right lead dog, or quarterback, is an art, says King, that's developed in time. "You want an animal that is a leader, strong, confident, has a clear, wide vision and keen concentration. It's difficult to find all of these in one dog, I usually put several in that role in a race as long as the Iditarod.
"There are parts of that race that require each of these characteristics to a higher degree."
The 37-year-old King is married, has three children and a two-member crew who live on five acres alongside Goose Lake near Denali Park, Alaska, with 68 dogs, including 20 pups. The facility includes a heated barn and indoor stalls.
King, who finished sixth in the '92 Iditarod, won the '91, '92 and '93 Kusko 300 races, the Super Bowl of medium-length sled-dog races, and is a past recipient of the coveted Alaskan Airlines Humanitarian Award for animal welfare. He is one of only two mushers to win both the Iditarod and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, between Alaska and Canada.
In winning this year's Iditarod, King spent three-quarters of the race trying to slow down his team, but they put an exclamation mark on the run with a speed record of 10 m.p.h. over the final 77 miles to Nome.
While beaming about winning this year's $50,000 Iditarod first prize and a new pickup truck, King adds, "I'm just as proud of the fact that since 1981 I've trained and raced dogs 80,000 miles and never lost a dog.
INJURIES DO HAPPEN
"It's a clean sport and I'm the last one to sit here and tell you that injuries and deaths don't happen. But the vast majority of us are dedicated to the welfare of our teams and know the limits of our dogs."
Six months of training goes into Iditarod. It's initiated with daily one-hour runs on a four-mile loop and eventually building up to 30- to 50-mile daily workouts. "It's like any other sport," says King, "the key to success and avoiding injuries is proper mental and physical preparation."
The second PAWS (Progressive Animal Welfare Society) Walk, designed to raise funds for abused and abandoned animals, is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 10 at Woodland Park.
The five-mile walks begins at the park, proceeds to Gasworks Park and concludes at Woodland Park. The event, open to entrants and their dogs, also include a one-mile stroll.
Pledge cards are available now by calling PAWS, 742-4142, Ext. 807. The registry deadline is Thursday.
Free T-shirts and doggy bandanas will be presented to walkers with $25 in pledges. The grand prize for the most pledges collected is two round-trip tickets to any American Airlines destination in the world.
Mail information regarding dog/ cat events to Classified Division, attn. Marilyn Fairbanks, Dog/ Cat Events, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA. 98111. All releases must be in writing and received by Monday prior to Sunday publication. Be sure to include a public phone-contact number. Also don't forget to phone in for my pet tip of the week on The Seattle Times Infoline, 464-2000, then press PETS (7387).