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The Truth Behind Sled Dog Racing

The Truth Behind Sled Dog Racing

Having been fascinated by animals since I was a child and reveling in each story I heard of remarkable animals and their achievements, some of the stories that I found the most intriguing were those of sled dogs of the great white north.

The way the stories were always related were that of dogs who loved to pull, push and run with the sled. 

Being aware of so much cruelty against animals by humans, even as a child, I felt true comfort in the thought of a symbiotic relationship between the sled musher and the dogs in his team. The picturesque beauty of two species working together with a common interest and sharing in the enjoyment equally was one of the shining lights for me in a world where I witnessed so much dominance and abuse from stronger species to those placed below them.

I read often and deeply into mushing and the lifestyle of running sled dogs, but having grown up in the southern US where snow was a rarity rather than the norm, the dream of being part of a sled dog team, as I imagined the musher to be, remained just that: a dream.

The romantic notions of sled dogs and mushing were reinforced to me, like many children and adults, by popular films depicting happy and willing dogs with their beloved and loving sled musher. I went on believing this fairytale for years until I found myself in the interior of Alaska and faced with the harsh reality of true sled dog culture.

I had taken a job on a resort 60 miles outside of Fairbanks, Alaska and although it was summer, I was eager to meet and speak with as many real-life sled dog mushers as I could. The resort itself had a crew of dogs for pulling sleds in the wintertime for the tourists, and it was here that I first got to see the reality of a sled dog’s life.

I was initially shocked to see 40+ dogs all chained and spaced evenly on 4 foot lengths attached to their non-insulated doghouses. As I approached, I noticed how eerily quiet the scene was. The solemn-looking dogs were laying about with nothing to do.  However, when the first dog caught sight of me, the kennel, as sled dog yards are commonly referred to, erupted into a frenzy. Dogs began to bark frantically, slamming against their pitifully short chains, others ran in circles, while still others cowered or tried to hide in their houses. 

I had never witnessed  so many dogs acting so depraved. The scene was startling and heartbreaking at the same time. Knowing the sensitive and curious nature of many dogs in my life, this scene of desperation for any sort of affection was troubling at best.

As I attempted to get closer to the dogs, I heard a voice ring out “You’d better be careful!” The voice, as I turned, startled, belonged to the most quintessential Alaskan face I could imagine. His name was River Mike and he was the dog handler hired to care for the sled dogs during the off-season. I introduced myself and voiced my concern for the strange behavior of the dogs and their living situation. Mike assured me that this was nothing, as these dogs lived quite well compared to many he had worked with.

Mike had worked with and raced sled dogs for almost 20 years before giving it up. He had held records for a number of races and had worked with some of the biggest names in the sled dog world; names that even I knew as a lower 48er and southerner. He had held the possibility of racing in some of the most prestigious races with a selection of world-class dogs but had given it all up because of what he saw as the cruelty inherent in the sport.

As Mike began to describe the miserable lives that these dogs are forced to live, I chimed in “But they love to run, don’t they?” His response was clear and spoken with the patience of a parent explaining the most simple equation.

“If you lived your whole life on a 4 foot chain, you’d run when you got off it too. You’d probably love anything that wasn’t that chain. But what it comes down to is that you’d run whether you wanted to or not, because in their situation they simply don’t have a choice. A dog that doesn’t run is a dog that doesn’t live.”

Considering myself a rather conscientious person regarding animal issues, I was disappointed that I had failed to see such a simple and obvious aspect of mushing. 

Mike went on to describe the training practices of mushers on their dogs. Many carried clubs in order to beat unruly dogs back into line. Mike had witnessed dogs beaten to death with shovels and tree branches for not following commands. He had been privy to reliable stories of dogs being shot while hooked up in the team for not pulling hard enough and how the musher allowed the rest of the team to drag their companions’ lifeless bodies home to show what happens when you don’t pull. 

He had uncovered mass graves at some of the top racing kennels where thousands of dogs had been killed and buried simply because the pads on their feet weren’t black.

He spoke of the breeding of sled dogs and how only a tiny percentage of the puppies born each year will be allowed to live. The vast majority will be killed, usually by drowning, because of the tiniest imperfection in their coat or nose.  He spoke of dogs killed because they no longer were as fast as they once were, or killed just to make room for new dogs.

He had seen countless dogs die in races by over competitive mushers who simply ran their dogs to death in order to win a prize.

The world he described sounded and looked nothing like the stories I had been told or the Disney films I had seen. The world of dog mushing sounded like every other animal exploiting industry I knew of and I was sickened by it.

I was heartsick for these poor dogs, but also ashamed of myself for not questioning the relationship between musher and dogs. Part of me didn’t want to believe the horrors of Mike’s stories. I investigated the training practices of other mushers for myself, and witnessed tremendous abuse physically and emotionally, even by those who claimed to love their dogs.

I saw firsthand dogs dragged by their collars along the ground on their backs towards a gang line of dogs to be hooked up. I saw dogs hit, kicked, punched and shaken violently. I saw dogs cower before their masters and heard stories from the mushers’ own mouths of mother dogs killing her own pups after giving birth from apparent desire to spare them from this life.

I still held out hope that perhaps not all sled dog mushing was bad, but Mike assured me that any time it’s a choice between an animal’s well-being and money, the animal always loses.

He felt it was his responsibility to share with as many people as possible the true stories behind so many fantasies of sled dogs.

He encouraged people to boycott, as do I, races such as the famed and punishing 1,150 mile Iditarod, as well as any sled dog tour group. Although there are stricter laws and rules around the abuse of dogs in competitions, there are none addressing abuse during training, the hundreds of thousands of dogs who have been killed in order to make up those teams of elite dogs and the suffering they endure without a choice.

For them and all animals of the world who have been forced into what can only be called slavery, please do something.

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Photo Credit: Alaskan Dude via flickr

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283 comments

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9:55PM PST on Mar 10, 2012

-no somos dignos de llamarnos humanos,nuestro comportamiento nos delata como bestias

9:59PM PDT on Jun 8, 2011

Wow, Jean, you really are right on top of these articles, huh? This situation happened well over a year ago, the owners are being prosecuted for animal cruelty and it's very old stuff.

As for "beastiality", sled dog breeds are BRED to do what they do and they love it. Do you know ANYTHING about these breeds? They will run (with or without pulling sleds, wagons or doghouses) quite on their own, without being encouraged. They do NOT like just "hangin' out" being "dogs". Before you judge what goes on, at least have a bit of knowledge of the subject.

9:24PM PDT on Jun 8, 2011

What inhumane treatment of these beautiful dogs. Can't the lawl do something about these insane races and the dog sledding? Look what happened in Whistler......blessed are the lovely dogs. They did not ask to be born for such beastiality and suffering. Please stop the races and sports and let the dogs be happy with caring people.

6:54AM PDT on Apr 14, 2011

Do note that the BBC no longer covers Crufts (UK) because they were made aware of the ridiculous nature of dog shows, the continuous fussing and twiddling.

1:21AM PST on Feb 4, 2011

Martha, you just proved my point in that some breeds, especially Huskies and Malemutes are born to want to run in the snow and pull anything! You can handly contain them. That doesn't mean that having fun while "capitalizing" on that instinct needs to be restricted or "banned". Why throw the baby out with the bath water? Why not work harder to clean up the bad parts of the industry (yes, as long as money is involved, it's not strictly a sport, but an "industry") and let those who continue to have fun and love their dogs and treat them well, do what they love to do? My daughter has a Siberian Husky (her 2nd one) and the breed has way too much energy to be "simply" a housepet! They love to run and pull,so like many high-energy breeds, need a "job" to do. Mushing isn't new, nor is Greyhound racing. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to every "sport" and those who do it strictly to win, mis-treat their animals and that's all the animals are to them.......a "commodity" like a car. I know of people who do rescues with Greyhounds. They're a very misunderstood breed. Most people don't think of them as family pets, but they indeed can be! So can sled dog breeds, but it just takes a different mindset to control them.

8:53AM PST on Feb 3, 2011

I HAD NO IDEA, as I'm sure many of you did. Not only sled dogs, but greyhounds, and any "new" idea for sport or entertainment, that humans come up with, should be banned.

When I lived in DE, we had a Husky, and we thought, what fun to have him pull the kids! He took to pulling like he was born to do this activity, right from the start. Course he was a companion animal, not a racer. Just an aside.

Sled dog lives are abhorrent.

1:20AM PST on Jan 24, 2011

Judith, to explain a bit more about "color", some breeds have rules and regulations about which colors are acceptable according to their "breed standard". For instance, I have both a Golden Retreiver and a GSD (German Shepherd Dog). My GSD is bi-color (basically black with tan markings), but there are a dozen or more colors that are quite normal, but two are frowned upon and not eligible for the show ring.....white is one of them. Remember Jack LaLanne? He had two of the most beautiful snow-WHITE GSD's! Blue eyes is a "No No" in many breeds, but perfectly acceptable and DESIRED in Siberian Huskies. Blue eyes are frowned upon in many horse breeds, and in some breeds, would cause disqualification (from registration), yet some breeders of Paints LOVE at least ONE blue eye! They also love a lot of "color",ie., the more WHITE, the better, yet most would concede that a lot of white around the face, especially leaves the horse more prone to sunburning! Some colors have genetic defects. I won't go into that, but they have what is called a "dilute" in the genetic make-up. When you double some "dilutes", it can cause health issues, including death. Many dog breeds have genetic issues.....deafness in Dalmations, for instance, necessity to perform "C-sections" with some Bulldogs, especially the huge American breds. That doesn't mean the dogs can't be decent pets, either. I really think somebody was "starting a rumor" about the toes with sleddogs, however.

1:08AM PST on Jan 24, 2011

Hi Judith! Thanks for explaining that,as to where you got that "info". BTW, hope your pain issues have subsided!

Just so you realize, and I'm sure you do by now......the lead dog in the photo is a Samoyed. He's ALL white, including his toes. However, that's just the HAIR! The skin underneath is dark. Very few dogs have anything BUT dark skin, no matter what their "fur" color is. It would also not matter about temps, since white tolerates cold as easily as dark, and almost all the "mushers" protect their dogs feet with special creams to keep the pads soft and well lubricated, not to dry out (called Mushers Cream, actually!) and then protect them further by putting on the booties you see in the photo. It prevents ice from packing in between the toes.

Yes, of course, there are those who are going to be over-breeding (puppy mills) and produce sick pups, puppies ill-equipped to survive even normal situations, let alone those in the Arctic (which most are highly bred to thrive in), puppies that are diseased, malnourished and abused (beaten). That happens with many breeds and breeders (puppy mills) as well as even the occasional "backyard" breeder. To ban a sport because of the few bad apples is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I've heard the rumors about horses, horse showing, horse racing, and you name it, if it concerns having horses, I've heard it. Most is pure rubbish and untrue.

7:38PM PST on Jan 23, 2011

Hi Diane, Yes, I read that in an article about their raising pups to run in the Iditarod and it said they put down pups that did not have black toes. It likely was in the article that I linked. Just the arbitrariness of their choices for dogs that are determined as best to run in the races. Not sure if that was sometime about tolerating the cold more? I have not idea why they said that.

1:09AM PST on Jan 22, 2011

Judith, may I ask you a question about the comment you made referring to killing dogs because they have "black toes"? I don't understand, sorry. Not being argumentative or saying it's not true, just that I don't understand the implication. Dogs come in many colors, and what difference would the color of their toes make as far as being a "musher"? If you look at the photo in the article, it shows many different breeds, so they come in various colors, including their toes. Also, most wear protective "booties" which attach with velcro. Again, just asking a question. Thanks.

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