FAIRBANKS — With firm, deliberate movements, veterinarian Jeanne Olson stood over Mayo, gripped him by the muzzle and moved it to the left and right until the dog’s neck made a popping noise audible across her living room.
Mayo is a 2-year-old lead sled dog who has trouble moving his head to the right. He tolerated the chiropractic movement and even appeared to relax as Olson began to massage his neck and spine. But like most of the canine athletes Olson treated Saturday, he sprinted back to the arms of his owner when Olson finished the treatment.
Chiropractic adjustments to dogs can be tough, but once the dogs feel the benefits they usually relax, Olson told a group of skijorers and mushers at her canine sports medicine class. Other animals require even more cooperation.
“It’s really difficult to adjust a horse the first time. They don’t trust you and you smell like a vet,” she said. “You can’t make a horse do anything.”
That changes when she comes for a second visit, she said. “They’ll actually put their chin on your shoulder (as if to say) ‘ooh, can you do that again?’”
Olson’s brand of sports medicine combines alternative and veterinary principles. It might look strange to an outsider, but it’s not new. It’s been part of Alaska’s state sport since she came to Fairbanks in 1988.
Special dogs, special needs
This week, dozens of the toughest canine athletes in Alaska are in the middle of a 1,000-mile sled dog race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks. Even with many top distant mushers and sled dogs occupied with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, there was plenty of interest in Olson’s animal sports medicine clinic. A group of 9 students, more than a dozen dogs and one pot-bellied pig gathered in Olson’s log cabin veterinary clinic. The class covered diet, anatomy and heat exhaustion as well as tips for recognizing and treating injuries. They had a chance to practice using a urine test strip when one of the dogs had an accident on the floor.
The pet pig, and some of Olson’s less-athletic dogs, were just inside to stay out of the cold, but most of the dogs were athletes, sled dogs or skijor dogs who have responsibilities at home beyond companionship.
Diagnosing a sled dog can be more challenging than a human athlete because you can’t ask what hurts. Olson urged her students to watch their dogs closely and not to dismiss an unusual running gait as a quirky personality.
“Dogs don’t naturally run crooked,” she told them. “Something is wrong and we just have to figure out what it is.”
Olson is a doctor of veterinary medicine who went to school at Colorado State in the mid-1980s, at a time when alternative medicine techniques weren’t widely practiced on animals. She went on to study with animal chiropractic pioneer Sharon Willoughby-Blake in Iowa.
Like human medical doctors and naturopathic healers, veterinarians and practitioners of alternative animal medicine often disagree about the effectiveness of practices like acupuncture and chiropractic treatment not vetted by the scientific community.
Olson thinks the gulf between the two traditions she’s trained under isn’t so wide as it is in the world of human medicine.
“In my biased opinion ... veterinarians are more open to different modalities. We’re just used to having to do without things,” she said.
Since Olson came to North Pole, more Interior vets have added alternative medicine therapies. Others may soon be doing more of this work. Olson told her class this likely will be her last winter in North Pole. She’d like to stay in the summer, but if North Pole’s winter air quality doesn’t improve, she said she want to move elsewhere to avoid the seasonal pollution.
Tamara Rose, another Interior vet who’s gotten into animal chiropractic work more recently, describes the growth of alternative alternative medicine as a natural progression for a society that’s willing to invest more in rehabilitating injured animals. She mentioned other examples like an underwater treadmill at the Aurora Animal Clinic and a orthopedic surgeon the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ new vet program is bringing up to teach a class this weekend.
Rose did spinal manipulation training at a school in Wisconsin because she wanted another tool to work with injured horses. In Fairbanks she’s a dog musher in addition to being a vet and has worked on several of the dogs running in the Quest this week.
For the sled dogs, the back adjustments are popular with the dogs and often asked for by mushers. But they’re seldom the cure for the injuries dogs get during a 3,000-mile racing season.
“I do back work on them and they just like it,” she said. Maybe a third of the time they might need an adjustment but I don’t know if that’s what bothers them.”
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.