Dog sledding has been in existence for an extremely long time, as it is known that humans used dogs to pull sleds as far back as 2000 BCE. Unfortunately, despite what many animal activists would hope, there are numerous dog sledding competitions that still exist in 2023. These types of events may be fun and exciting for attendees, and perhaps even a way of living for some individuals, yet they are cruel towards the animals, who are negatively affected by this type of activity.
Dog sledding competitions occur worldwide and in a number of environments, and for a variety of purposes. There are many horrific stories, some of which have most likely been intentionally kept from the public. One such example involved a dog sledding outfitter in Whistler, in which they euthanized 56 dogs after the Winter Olympics — dog sledding is, thankfully, no longer a sport in the Olympics — when they couldn’t afford to feed all of the animals. And, yet, many dog sledding companies and reputable veterinarians assert that typical sled dogs like huskies “love” mushing and that all dogs are treated well, receiving regular and comprehensive check-ups and plenty of rest and healthy food. But, because the dogs are unable to tell us how they feel about mushing, we can’t say for sure that they “love” it or even tolerate it.
The 10 dog sledding competitions listed below are just a sampling of the many still in existence in the 21st century — and we strongly believe that these competitions are wrong and should be abolished, as the negatives of this activity strongly outweigh the positives.
1. American Dog Derby
Source: Tied to Nature/YouTube
The American Dog Derby — which takes place in February in Ashton, Idaho — prides itself on being the oldest all-American sled dog race, having begun in 1917 during a “blinding blizzard.” The event consists of five different races, including celebrity and snowshoe races, as well as numerous activities in which spectators can be involved and compete. At the time when the race began, specifically in winter, mail and other supplies (and people) could only be transported via dog sled. People claim that a barber came up with the idea for the race, which has yet to be proven; however, it is known that two of the founders of the American Dog Derby were employed by the Union Pacific Railroad (UPR), and as such, the UPR was able to spend lots of money promoting this event, thereby making it as popular as it has become over the years.
This event was popular from the 1920s through the 1950s and then decreased in popularity in the 1960s, at which point it was discontinued and then revived in 1993. A couple of notable instances of potential dog abuse through the years have included when a snowmobile moved a trail marker — which forced the teams to deviate from the course for a long time — as well as when a farm dog decided to go up against a dog sledding team, and when the dog returned home, the team had followed him there. These kinds of events might be memorable for spectators and participants, yet they were clearly dangerous for all animals involved.
2. Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race
The Apostle Islands Sled Dog Race is held in February in Bayfield, Wisconsin, and is known as the largest mid-distance dog sled race in the Midwest. The race is relatively new, having only begun as an annual event in 1996. It consists of five individual races, which range from 6 to 80 miles and typically involve 8-10 dogs.
The race gets its name from the Apostle Islands, an archipelago of islands off the coast of Bayfield. Race participants usually hail from both Canada and the United States, and spectators are able to watch the races from various points along the route (as is typical). This particular race claims that, while other sled dog races are more physically demanding and competitive, this one is much more of a “fun family affair.” There is little more information available, so it’s hard to be sure of the treatment of dogs used for this purpose.
3. British Siberian Husky Racing Association
The British Siberian Husky Racing Association (BSHRA) was formed in the 1995-1996 racing season by a group of the United Kingdom’s best sled dog racers, with the goal of providing “Siberian Husky owners with a credible British Siberian Husky racing championship.” The BSHRA has partnered with TAG Heuer to measure all racers to 1/1000th of a second, and they claim that the wide variety of surfaces and terrains makes it “foot-friendly” for the dogs.
Because the BSHRA’s sole purpose is to put on the British Husky Racing Championship, it is run by a group of organizers who operate at all levels of the competition. In addition to the principal championship, the BSHRA consists of All-Bitch, Junior, Rookie Musher, and Veteran Team championships. Participants have claimed that the sledding trails are dog-safe and that the organizers make sure to “put the dogs first.” No animal abuse has been reported as of yet.
4. Canadian Challenge International Sled Dog Race
Source: Ryan Zehm/YouTube
The Canadian Challenge International Sled Dog Race prides itself on being the “premier” sled dog race in Canada, is run by the Gateway North Sled Dog Race Association, and has been in existence since 1994. This event is a 12-dog, 600-km, continuous mid-distance race that takes place in Saskatchewan, and has had teams from all over Canada, as well as Australia, Belgium, Germany, Serbia, and the United States.
An 8-dog race runs alongside the 12-dog race, and attendees have remarked on the “high energy” vibe of the event, which acts as a qualifier for the Iditarod or Yukon Quest (see below). There have been no reports of animal abuse, and it’s clear that this race values the health and well-being of all dogs involved; in fact, extra money is given to the “best-kept team who take extra care of their dogs right down to the littlest detail.” That said, events such as this do require a great deal of training for the dogs, who work longer and harder as the temperature drops.
5. Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is one of the most recognizable sled dog races in the world and takes place in Alaska in early March. The race began in 1973 as an attempt to test the best teams and mushers, yet is now an extremely competitive sled dog race. Mushers and 12-14 dogs will typically cover the distance from Anchorage to Nome in about 8-15 days, with an annual total field consisting of 50+ mushers and approximately 1,000 dogs.
The Iditarod is notorious for its brutal weather conditions — most notably, gale-force winds, sub-zero temperatures, and white-out blizzards — as well as for its difficult terrain, including mountain passes, sea rice, spruce forest, and tundra. This event is so popular in Alaska that the best mushers and their dogs become local celebrities. Ever since 1984, all dogs have been examined by veterinarians before the races in order to check their overall health, as well as to check for illegal drugs, pregnancy, and wounds that haven’t properly healed. At all checkpoints, volunteer veterinarians examine dogs’ vitals and look for dehydration, diarrhea, exhaustion, injuries, and respiration issues. However, dogs forced by their mushers to race through checkpoints will not be physically examined at these locations. In addition, the Iditarod has never revealed the results of their tests on these dogs, so it’s unclear whether or not these animals were given illegal drugs.
Animal activists claim that the Iditarod is animal abuse, as many dogs have been injured or died during the race. The race’s tragic history has included 107 dogs dying in 1997 during the event. There has also been criticism regarding the controversial chaining of dogs at checkpoints, at dog drops, and in kennels, which people say could lead to fights and/or injuries. Yet, the Iditarod Trail Committee asserts that they monitor the health of all dogs and that they even suspended a musher in 2007 for abusing his dogs. However, a number of companies have dropped their sponsorships of the Iditarod — including Exxon and Wells Fargo — often after pressure from PETA.
Thanks to an animal activist’s drone flying, it was discovered that approximately 2,000 dogs were tied to metal posts for long periods of time, which caused them to freeze, long for attention, and pace intensely. Oftentimes, sled dogs are unable to run as often as they are accustomed to (and need to), and a former dog sled tour operator claimed that, during the summer (aka the off-season), the dogs were only released from their chains for one hour per month. Employees and volunteers were also sometimes asked to underfeed the dogs in order to save money, to hide ill dogs away from the public eye, and to even go so far as to shoot and kill “surplus” dogs. For dogs in the Iditarod and other similar, grueling races, it’s particularly cruel and inhumane.
This race is like running four marathons in one day, and that’s not including the inclement weather mentioned earlier, and then they have to do that daily for up to a week. Other accidents have occurred — and really anything is possible in such a dangerous climate — such as a dog getting killed by a snowmobile, another getting buried in a snowdrift and dying of asphyxiation, and others getting stomped by moose, running to death, and dying from acute pneumonia. In fact, activists claim, a dog would be considered fortunate to finish this race alive and uninjured.
6. John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon
Source: Fox 9 Minneapolis-St. Paul/YouTube
The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon takes place in January in Northern Minnesota, and in 2024 the race will celebrate its 40th occurrence. The event consists of a number of different races, including the “longest sled dog marathon in the lower 48 states,” in which mushers have to “fend off Minnesota’s extreme winter weather and rugged terrain.” Known as the “Beargrease,” this event travels more than 300 miles and is a qualifier for the Iditarod, consisting of both mid-distance and recreational races. Their mission, they say, is to “conduct the best long-distance sled dog race in North America in a culturally sensitive manner, and to promote the sport of dog mushing.”
The “Beargrease” claims that animal welfare is the most important part of its existence, as they promote the “proper treatment” of all dogs, which includes “adequate and balanced nutrition” and regular exercise, as well as care, humane handling, and respect from their owners. And, yet, their official animal policy statement says that sled dogs’ “primary loves are to run, pull, and work together in a team,” thereby implying that they enjoy being forced to do all this work. The statement also says, “no dog will be allowed to run beyond its natural ability,” using the term “its” to refer to the animals as inanimate objects. While no specific reports of animal abuse at the Beargrease exist, people have commented on the fact that this event is “all about the money.”
7. Kusokwim 300
Source: Kuskokswim 300 Race Committee/YouTube
The Kusokwim 300 is a mid-distance sled dog race — traveling 300 miles from Bethel to Aniak — that takes place in Alaska. In addition to this race, the area hosts the Akiak Dash, Bogus Creek 150, the new Delta Championship Series, and other races. The Kuskokswim 300 began in 1980 with the mission to, for one, “further the interest” in sled dog racing, and they hope to maintain a strong mushing community in the region by attracting mushers of all ages and of varied experiences.
This event also acts as a qualifier for bigger events, such as the Iditarod. Reviews for the Kuskokswim 300 are positive, with little to no mention of the dogs’ treatment. However, this particular race is known for its difficult trail and weather conditions; most notably, the first race consisted of an intense blizzard with incredibly low windchill, followed by thaw and rain for the remainder of the race.
8. Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race
Source: Percy Dewolfe Race/YouTube
The Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race is a 200-mile race that runs from Dawson City, Yukon to Eagle, Alaska and back, following the historic route of renowned mail carrier Percy DeWolfe. This race — which began in 1977 — is a qualifier for both the Iditarod and Yukon Quest races and typically tasks mushers about 24 hours to complete. They also have Percy Junior and Percy Skijor races, which are 100 miles each.
This particular race seems to have no history of (reported) animal abuse, although one participant mentioned the fact that he not-so-wisely decided to hook up four adult dogs with six 6-month-old puppies; although, he claimed that no harness or lines were lost (aka chewed off) and that there were “no serious tangles.”
9. Race to the Sky
The Race to the Sky event takes place in February in Montana and is considered to be one of the most beautiful yet challenging sled dog races worldwide. Their races test mental toughness, physical strength, teamwork, and the bond “between man and his canine friends.” This race first began in 1986 when it was called Montana’s Governor’s Cup Sled Dog Race, and now acts as a qualifier for the Iditarod.
Currently, they organize “three races within a race,” which consist of 100-mile adult and junior races, as well as a 300-mile distance race. They claim that the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association veterinarians take great care of the dogs before and during the race, yet do not go into detail. They do, however, assert that being sled dogs is what these animals were “born to do,” even though the original length of the race was a whopping 500 miles.
10. Yukon Quest
The Yukon Quest is a 1,000-mile sled dog race taking place in February and traveling from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon. The race, which has been in existence since 1984, is often considered the most difficult (or toughest) race of its kind in the world, primarily due to the difficult trail and harsh winter conditions. It’s supposedly even more selective than the Iditarod, and typically consists of a musher racing with 6-14 dogs for 10-20 days. Mushers may carry up to 250 pounds’ worth of equipment, food, etc. for themselves and the dogs; and, as opposed to the Iditarod, which allows for three sleds during the race, the Quest race only allows one sled for the entire duration.
The race’s terrain includes frozen rivers, isolated villages in the north, and mountain ranges, and temperatures could go as low as −60 °F with winds up to 50 miles per hour at high elevations. Because this one starts earlier than the Iditarod, the days are much shorter and the nights are much longer and darker.
Source: Travel Yukon/YouTube
The Quest has enacted rules that are meant to ensure the health of all dogs — no matter how harsh the conditions become — and, like the Iditarod, veterinarians check the animals before the race and at every checkpoint. Mushers who abuse or mistreat their dogs will, they say, be asked to leave the race or even banned from it entirely. And, even though the dogs are provided with food and water in their (basic) pens, they are often left out in the bitter cold; while some dogs may be fine with the elements, and may even roll in the snow, they may be colder than they seem. Also, dogs living at Sky High Wilderness Ranch who are older are kept on the property, even though they should be available for adoption and given a chance to live out their lives in peace and safety. Animal activists have commented on the fact that sled dogs are “slaves” and not the “athletes” that they supposedly are, and that money is making others “blind” to the truth of the dogs’ cruel treatment.
When traveling, it’s important to be a responsible tourist and not Support activities that exploit and utilize animals in ways that are unnatural for them, such as elephant and horse riding, up-close encounters with big cats (even cubs), and, of course, dog sledding. Also, be sure not to buy any packages that include visits to dog kennels or dog sled rides. While it’s understandable that certain businesses rely on these practices, there’s no reason for them to be taking advantage of animals for profit. If these people cared about animals as much as they did, they wouldn’t be forcing them to do things against their will, even if it seems like they enjoy what they do.
In addition, even though many people believe that dog sledding is ethical, especially when the dogs are treated as equal members of their respective teams, there’s nothing ethical about using animals for sport and, sometimes, for-profit and exposure. Tell sponsors of dog sledding competitions that you won’t Support them unless they agree to drop their sponsorships of these races. There is, in fact, something called “human dog sledding” that features willing participants and is a PETA-approved fun alternative to dog sledding.
- Cruel Truth Behind Iditarod Dog Sled Races and It’s Time We Put a Stop to It!
- Sled Dogs Remain Unprotected From Animal Cruelty Laws in Alaska
- It Is Legal to Keep ‘Working’ Dogs in Horrific Conditions in the U.S. and Canada – Let’s Change This!
- Petition: Provide Sled Dogs with Shelter
- The Cruelty Behind Sled Dog Races
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