Dogs were being weighed, stretched and prodded at a Fairbanks warehouse on Saturday, but defending Yukon Quest champion Brent Sass’ mind was on another dog waiting for him back at his kennel in Eureka.
“Silver is probably sitting on the couch right now at home snoozing. He does a lot of that these days,” said Sass.
Silver has a pretty good excuse for hanging out at home – it’s his 18th birthday.
That’s a remarkable age for any dog, and it is especially meaningful to Sass since Silver was the dog that got it all started for the two-time Quest Champion. As Sass tells it, he was skijoring with a dog from his property in the Goldstream Valley when he heard a dogsled coming from behind.
He stepped out of the way, but said something sparked in him.
“I basically followed him back to his place,” Sass said. “He said come back in two weeks. I came back in two weeks and he handed me a dog and was like, here’s your first sled dog.”
That dog was Silver, named for Silver Gulch Brewery, one of Sass’ favorite haunts.
The musher who gave Silver to Sass, Curt Wald, didn’t know what kind of dog Silver would become.
“He knew that he had good dogs, but there was no race genetics, there’s no background of racing, no proof that he was going to be any kind of a racing sled dog,” Sass said.
Sass dove into the sport full bore and lined up for the 2006 Yukon Quest 300 mile race with his ambition at a much higher level than his experience. With howling winds and heavy snow at the top of Eagle Summit, Sass says he had no idea where he was going. Soon, the team was off trail, breaking through three feet of snow. Silver led the lost musher and team for twelve exhausting hours.
“It was just Silver up there, plowing through the snow, but we were up there that whole time until we came back around the other side of the mountain and found the trail again after being off it for so long,” said Sass. “That was just instinct, that was just the drive to never give up and that’s what he carried throughout the rest of his career and what he instilled in my entire dog team that I have today.”
And what Silver instilled on the team is more than just an attitude: it was also lineage. More than half of the dogs running on Sass’ team in this year’s race are direct descendants of his first leader. None quite match the patriarch in sheer mass though: Silver was a whopping 80 pounds, twice as big as some of the dogs running the race.
So what’s behind Silver’s longevity? Nina Hansen, the head veterinarian for the Quest, says that she’s noticed in her decade of practice that sled dogs tend to live longer than their more sedentary counterparts. Just as in people, she says, dogs that exercise tend to be healthier in all sorts of metrics.
“He actually brought Silver to vet checks last year right after he turned 17 and we used him as a demo for our little handheld ECG units and his ECG looked really good,” Hansen said. “His heart at 17 years old was in great shape.”
Even for larger dogs like Silver, the benefits of exercise outweigh the wear and tear on joints and tendons.
According to Sass, Silver is still mobile, moving in and out of the house on his own free will, though he is achy and no longer running.
“Bigger dogs have more pressure on their joints just like larger people, they’re putting more weight on those joints, but again if you keep them fit and healthy, then they have less chance of developing joint disease later in life,” Hansen said.
But 18 years old is a lot for any dog. So there’s one more factor that might be contributing to Silver’s longevity: the love and care of the owner.
Sass, who teared up describing some of Silver’s most harrowing adventures, said he would be rushing back from the vet check to help celebrate his dog’s 18th birthday.
“Well we just give him lots of treats, he’ll get extra pets and extra treats today for sure,” Sass said.