Dogs With Jobs

Is the Iditarod Sled Dog Race Safe for the Dogs?

iditarod

Every winter since 1973, men and dogs face what has become known as “The Last Great Race,” the Iditarod, pronouced “Hi-dit-a-rod” from an Athabaskan Indian word meaning “a distant place.”

Not only does the race live up to it’s name, as it is run on one of two desolate 1,000 plus mile trails between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska, the race crosses frozen rivers, barren tundra, treacherous paths and steep climbs while braving what is, at times, the meanest weather on earth. Temperatures during the day are considered mild at 0 degrees, averaging 20 below at night, sometimes dropping to -40 or -50 below. Plenty of rain, snow and freezing winds are expected this year. Weather can be harsh and bitterly cold, yet the dogs seem to love it. Stay informed of the weather along this year’s trail here.

Although several breeds of dogs run the race, the most common is the Alaskan Husky, a mixed-breed with Siberian Husky stock, born and bred for their stamina against cold and their love of running. Each sled is pulled by a highly trained team of 12 to 16 canine athletes, with 4 to 6 of the team being specialists – dogs who are particularly strong under certain conditions. Two lead dogs head up the pack while the “ballast” members of the team are the wheel dogs at the very rear of the pack.

To develop a performance team requires a long-term commitment of both human and dog. Training begins at puppyhood and becomes the dog’s life. The Discovery Channel interviewed Chas. St. George, director of public relations for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, who describes the importance of socialization among the dogs and provides a great description of what it’s like to be a dog sled athlete, here.

Is the Iditarod race cruelty to dogs? Some would have you think so. The Sled Dog Action Coalition says:

In almost all of the Iditarod races, at least one dog death has occurred. The first race is reported to have resulted in the deaths of 15 to 19 dogs. In 1997, the Anchorage Daily News reported that “at least 107 (dogs) have died.” In the years since that report, 35 more dogs have died in the Iditarod, bringing the grand total of dogs who have died in the Iditarod to at least 142.

Although even a single death is grave and worthy of investigation, considering that over 1,000 dogs have entered each year, the percentage of canine athlete fatalities from the Iditarod is low in comparison to deaths of human athletes participating in auto racing and contact sports. Perhaps the fairness is more in questioning whether the dogs, unlike their humans counterparts, are given a choice to participate.

Dagny McKinley of Wild Hearts Dog Sledding the Rockies, writes:

… I received an email from Sled Dog Action asking me to please stop supporting the ‘cruel’ sport of the Iditarod. This is a topic that is very close to my heart as I worked for three years at a dog sled touring operation. The email says that the mushers are cruel and routinely beat their dogs, that dogs are not checked for health at checkpoints, etc.

My boss, Kris Hoffman [raced the Iditarod] with dogs I have known since birth. There is a running joke at the kennel that Kris doesn’t need to have children with his new wife, Sara because he already has over 100 kids; the dogs. These dogs are his children and I consider each of these dogs to be my friends. These dogs are never starved as Sled Dog Action would have you believe because starving dogs don’t have the energy to run. These dogs live to run. Many people think sled dogs look too thin, but they forget, these dogs exercise every day and are in top athletic shape. These are not house dogs and as a society, we are too used to seeing obese dogs or heavy dogs and that is unhealthy. The sled dogs at Grizzle-T can live up to 20 years old because they are in such good shape.

Take for example Honeycut. Honeycut is a shy dog who prefers the company of dogs to humans. He often hides under his home when we come around to feed him and will come out only for the briefest love with a select few people. But when it comes time to run and the harnesses are brought out, Honeycut will climb on my lap and give me kisses so he can run. It is clear these dogs love to run.

After investigating both sides of the argument. It appears the Iditarod has become big business, built on the ever popular story of man and beast challenging the extreme. Extreme sports. And along with big business and big money, comes professionalism. More veterinarians, better conditions, more regulations. But of course, there’s no way to really know what goes on prior to race day in kennels and training camps isolated in remote wilderness areas miles from public view.

However, it’s safe to say that most trainer/mushers respect the incredible abilities of these great dogs and likewise, the respect of the dogs themselves. Anyone that has watched dog sledding first hand, taken part in a sled team, or has owned one of these amazing dogs knows how much they love to work. And, while the Iditarod may have been less than safe in its early years, rules and regulations in place today ensure that the dogs are happy, healthy, and having fun!

39 Comments

39 Comments

  1. Jason C

    Mar 10, 2017 at 10:12 pm

    Its been minus 38 degrees and ive owned racing huskies and that is too cold for them! The race needs to be resheduled. Otherwise dogs are going to die and the long-term effects on the lungs of the dogs are unknown and certainly not good

  2. SledDogRacer350

    Nov 4, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    I think, with the information I have replied to ALL of you that have disagreed with me will now understand: Sled Dogs aren’t abused. You may be sad because they aren’t obese, pampered princesses like your Rat Terrier or your Poodle, these dogs are four-legged running machines. They love every bit of it! You all have your opinions, I have mine. Alas, most of us know the actual truth because we either do sled dog race, we actually researched and watched videos and been to kennels, or are veteranarians, animal geneticists and breeders. Do I agree that we should spay and neuter? Yes. And that’s why there have been several Animal Planet series where they spend 22 minutes of broadcasted television spaying and neutering hundreds of healthy sled dogs. The sled dog is descended from the Wolf, which is known for it’s phenomenal stamina, and thick coat that repels water and dirt, as well as trapping body heat.
    You can see what the AKC (American Kennel Club) has to say here: http://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/siberian-husky/detail/

    Oh and by the way, I was Anonymous on a few comments.

    I think it’s safe to say, have a nice day. And next time, do your homework! 😉

    • Alex Perryman

      Mar 28, 2017 at 4:44 pm

      It is not a matter of if the dog can handle it, but a question of whether or not it is Man's prerogative to bend other creatures to his Will.

  3. Abby

    Mar 31, 2016 at 11:24 am

    I think there has to be a certain breed of dog to run the Iditarod. Like a Husky. A Labrador would NOT be able to run the Iditarod trail because that is not what that breed is bred for. A husky or a dog who is associated with snow like a Bernese Mountain Dog, would because they are snow dogs. _Abby

    • Anonymous

      Nov 4, 2016 at 8:41 pm

      Huskies were indeed bred for pulling large, heavy sleds with whale and seal hides across frozen terrain. However, any dog that is over 50 lbs and doesn’t have any health concerns that relate to hip displeasia and loves to run make great sled dogs. No matter the breed, all dogs have one thing in common- they descended from wolves. Why does this relate to sled dogs? Wolves are well known for their stamina, and this has been found in almost all dog breeds. Some people race Pointers, Labs, Malinois, and Border Collies! I personally use three Lab mixes, a red heeler/cattle dog and a German Wirehaired Pointer. While Labs certainly weren’t bred for sled dog racing, let me ask you this: was a Doberman? Some of the earlier sled dogs were! Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion!

  4. yazmin

    Mar 21, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    i agree that it is good for dogs

  5. yazmin

    Mar 21, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    i agree

  6. dámská obuv nike

    Mar 14, 2016 at 8:52 am

    I think, you will find the correct decision.

  7. Frances

    Mar 4, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    Ask the at least 142 dogs that have died if is cruel. Oh that’s right you can’t, they gave their lives for a race and for people to make money. When human’s enter a race that is their choice, the dogs don’t have a choice, they do what they are told by humans.
    Let humans train to pull the sleds at the end of the race ask them if it is cruel, at least they can make the decision themselves and not be forced into it.

    • RENE

      Mar 8, 2016 at 10:23 am

      I Agree with you..

    • do your homework

      Mar 12, 2016 at 11:21 pm

      If you consider the tens of thousands of dogs who have run the race, 142 is a drop in the bucket. More dogs die in pet homes than do dogs die in the race in the same span of time that the race is run.

    • Anonymous

      Nov 4, 2016 at 8:55 pm

      These dogs were bred and trained to run- if you actually watched these dogs train you’ll find they love it! You may think it’s cruel: the dogs experiancing emotions such as tiredness, stressfulness and even depression. However, most of the time the dog expresses body language of happiness. When I said most of the time? Of course the new pups will be scared! What dog (or human) wouldn’t be? I’d be worried for my dog’s health if that was the case. The 142 dogs that died? THAT WEBSITE SAID HUSKIES GOT FROSTBITE! Anyone with enough common sense know for a fact that huskies have 2-3 layers of coating that repel dirt, water and trap body heat! That website this author got their information from talks more than they study. As soon as I whip out a harness my dog goes nuts and runs full pelt to the door. This is a fact- dogs love to run! Especially sled dogs, with their enlarged lungs and hearts so they can pump oxygen and blood faster throughout their body to keep them toasty warm and running. These dogs are also highly trained athletes, as the article said, and can run these long races. To them, this 1,000 mile race is almost the equivalent of an Olympic cycling race. And you considering the ESTIMATED (view the website, they guessed how many dogs!) 142 dogs over the past 43+ years? It is not comparable. Your going to find signs of abuse in every race, sport or animal ownership- that’s part of people acting ridiculous.

  8. The reckoning

    Oct 8, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    They better stop breeding all these dogs just to pull these thrill seekers around the snow. I will take it upon myself if I have to, visit alaska and end this for good if something is not done within a year. Mark my words, it will stop. They will stop breeding dogs for their pleasure, and if they disagree, I have 1000’s of dogs who agree. Fuck yourselves Alaska.

    • do your homework

      Mar 12, 2016 at 11:24 pm

      I encourage you to visit Alaska and visit actual dog kennels. Many professional and recreational mushers have kennels open for tours and even rides year-round. Do your homework yourself rather than take the words of those participating in blind fear-mongering. Animal cruelty exists in all walks of life, including dog mushing, but it is not indicative of the majority of those who keep and run sled dogs.

    • Anonymous

      Nov 4, 2016 at 8:58 pm

      Hey, watch your profanity, first of all! Second of all, you’d have to stop the entire world from sled dog racing, because there are races in Switzerland, New Zealand, Norway, Canada, Alaska, Michigan, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and many other places.

  9. Barbara Noon

    Mar 20, 2015 at 8:31 pm

    How would you like to be chained together so there is no way you can stop? Have you ever seen how dogs actually act when they are given a nice life? They stop and sniff everything! These races cause many dogs to die after the race from bleeding ulcers, kidney failure and heart disease that gets worse a few weeks after the race.
    The blind dog? It should be in a warm, loving home instead of running when it cannot see if there are rough spots on the ground or sharp edges. These dogs get hemorrhages from running the distance of Miami to New York. Sure they take small breaks, but they don’t get enough sleep and the cold conditions are brutal. How can anyone say the dogs are made to do this? Selfish humans in heated homes delegating sled dogs to harsh lives in huts and short chains.

    • Anonymous

      Nov 4, 2016 at 9:03 pm

      Did you read this off that one website? The one that said huskies can get frostbite? Give me a break! Do some research, why don’t you? And read a couple comments I made! They play with the mushers and their pack all the time while most obese dogs die because their too overweight from being spoiled! Besides- these “harsh conditions” are the whole reason sled dogs typically have 2+ coats of fuzz! and these huts? The kennels have plenty of hay and bedding. If you want to know why their chained up, look at the temperament of huskies! They are stubborn, and run away frequently, so ALWAYS HAVE A FENCE!

  10. Jay

    Mar 17, 2015 at 12:31 am

    “And, while the Iditarod may have been less than safe in its early years, rules and regulations in place today ensure that the dogs are happy, healthy, and having fun!”

    The article’s conclusion pretty much sums up what I want(ed) to believe after puzzling over how opinions differ SO dramatically, completely polarized re: sled dog racing. Either it’s all an inhumane sham that should be shut down immediately(?) or it’s the coolest human competition since ice sculpting(?) Where lies the truth? Most likely it’s somewhere in between, and we’re happy with that compromise; -There’s always a few bad apples out there and, when it comes to dogs, there’s always some strong and vastly differing opinions. Plus, anyway, we’re sure the races will police themselves, right? (at least for the 1-2 week durations, anyway.)

    But then it occured to me, the Idit began only 40some years ago. There are a few other sled dog races (only one other as long and grueling) but they’re not nearly as well known, funded, or attended. Otherwise, sled dogs and sled dog culture existed for real work and necessity (the real tradition) and for those people who relied on and needed these marvelous dogs for survival in the harsh environment. Now it seems, looking through recent musher/racer profiles, they are almost all kennel owners and their livelihoods come from sled dog industry… and there are almost no indigenous people -Alaskan Native racers! (very few or 1) In fact, everyone involved in this race; the mushers (all ~75 of them – a small group really), vets, race photographer, the communities along the routes, major sponsors, major Alaskan newspapers (also a sponsor), the limited blogs/website coverage, volunteers, the state of Alaska, etc. all have deeply (in)vested interests in the success and popularity of this 40 year old sporting event, ($5million in tourist dollars in Fairbanks or Anchorage, for ex.) So, if you ask any of these folks (the only ones to ask), of course everyone is “Healthy, Happy, and Having Fun!” and the pictures back that up…

    Bear in mind, it’s not easy to infultrate the behind-the-scenes of these events or the year round workings at the remote kennels. How many dog deaths occur days/weeks after the races? What happens to ‘retired’ dogs or those with perm injuries? How come I saw the Yukon Quest (another 1000 mile race run in Feb), while reporting live on their Fakebook page, remove a video immediately after realizing the dog team shown was in questionable condition (limping) and the critical comments began to pile up? When I witness deliberate supression of undesirable sides to smthg, I get suspect, especially when this lack of transparency &objectivity concerns smthg I want to embrace.

    If all we are shown is “happy, healthy, and having fun”, that is what we’ll (choose to) believe. I saw some impressive documentaries and inspiring profiles about some of the teams and some very well run kennels, and thus my interest was piqued. And many of these people are colorful characters doing extraordinary things, -and for the best of reasons: because they can. That’s cool, and so is crossing some of the most forbidding and beautiful country on earth with ~14 dogs and sled. But I also see the lack of transparency in these races, conflicts of interest, and the behind-the-scenes motivations ($ mostly). There are well documented cases of animal abuse at some sled dog kennels (across the U.S.) and it’s common knowledge how these dogs live (and die) in this industry, much of which aparently exists for one reason: Sport + tourism + niche market = $. How would an increase in popularity, sponsorship, purse size, etc. ensure any better oversight of this race and those involved? It wouldn’t.

    It’s in everyone’s best interest that this great ‘tradition’ with incredible history and coolness factor of 10 (and a rising sexiness factor now) flourishes and grows in popularity… I’d caution, be careful what you wish for – I’m surprised to find out it’s not already corporate and more sensationalized. There are so many points and claims and stats and cases and stories out there that tear the facade down, but it’s hard to sort it all out, and just so easy and tempting to instead embrace it, like meat. I call bullcrap on it all but Ill probably continue to look on.

    • Jay

      Mar 21, 2015 at 3:47 am

      2nd dog dies on trail in 2015 Iditarod, both on Lance Mackey’s team. What gives? Nothing reported on the race website so far. The Alaskan news and articles have ONLY public comments that are sympathetic and full of nothing but praise for Mackey (without knowing anything yet about how the dogs died). His is a good example of the cost of pride and denial involved in this race; a 4 time champ and legend in possibly his last race, he just might push his team too hard to finish. Same goes for the rest of the field, many rookies, still out there with 8, 9, 10 dogs, 100 miles to go, cloudy thinking after 12+ rough days racing, a year training… swallow pride & scratch now? Probly not, despite any reason.
      Of note, this year Deedee Jonrowe (sp?) in her 33rd Idit, finished with 15 dogs. Much praise to her and her example.

  11. joyce england

    Mar 4, 2013 at 10:04 am

    Those dogs train for years to do their job.I believe the crulest thing to do would be not allowing them to run,They are breed and raised for it.A sheep dog needs to herd and a sled dog needs to run.

  12. Marcia Eveleigh

    Mar 11, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    The people and the dogs involved in dog sled racing are well cared for and very fit. Prior to the sled dog race season, the kennels are open for tours, various events, and the mushers and their dogs often make public appearances to share their experiences with others. Dee Dee Jonrowe and Lance Mackey, two well known mushers, have both survived cancer. They work closely with their dogs year round. They are not alone in having an active open to the public kennel. Most mushers encourage people to visit. They want you to see the animals at home as well as on the trail.

    Furthermore, at least one sled dog is also a champion AKC show dog. Several of the dogs that run the race are house pets. Some are working dogs off season. They all have some things in common…a desire to run, a love for the outdoors, and a happy loving home environment.

  13. Brenda Larkin

    Feb 29, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    I don’t believe sled racing to be cruel to dogs. And as for cruel trainers, should 1 bad/mean trainer be used to judge all? I think not! And here’s a helpful hint to anyone who thinks the training is cruel…NEVER watch any athlete, with four legs or two, in training. And don’t watch them at game time either!

  14. Julie.Tucker.Goldman

    Feb 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    The dog is not equipped to run none stop like they do in the stupid race, ask a human to do the same as were asking our dogs to do and they won’t make it past the first few hundred feet

    • tami thompson

      Mar 5, 2012 at 7:05 am

      I live in one of the villages that the race goes through…I have never seen anyone ever abuse the dogs…the vet care provided during the race is phenomenal and the dogs love what they do.They rest soundly at stops and are raring to go when they leave after a rest. What i really want to address is your comment “ask a human to do the same as were asking our dogs to do and they won’t make it past the first few hundred feet” and let you know that there are indeed human athlics that complete the iditarod trail…under the same conditions as the dogs…The “Iditarod extreme racers” is a bike race that runs at the same time and follows the same rout as the sled race.there are also skiers and joggers that follow the same trail. I wanted to point out that there are humans that are doing the same thing as the dogs and doing it successfully.
      http://www.alaskaultrasport.com/race_stats.html

      • MEEEE

        Apr 15, 2015 at 3:04 pm

        I agree

        • MEEEE

          Apr 15, 2015 at 3:04 pm

          YAS

          • Noah

            Apr 24, 2015 at 4:58 pm

            I’m against dog racking because since 1973 140 dogs have died in the iditarod

      • The reckoning

        Oct 8, 2015 at 1:28 pm

        You are full of so much it its almost funny. If the vet care is so phenomenal, there wouldn’t deaths EVERY single race. Culled by their master, man I really love Karma for the fact that those owners have to face these actions eventually.

        • Anonymous

          Nov 4, 2016 at 9:14 pm

          There are deaths in Marathons many years for us too! These mushers love their dogs and are crushed if they die- they vets can’t save them all though. Most years there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of dogs running the Iditarod. Can doctors save everyone from cancer? Not in the slightest! For vets, the experience is nearly the same.

    • Amanda

      Mar 23, 2012 at 3:12 pm

      Julie I really wish you would do your research before you comment. The dogs do not run non stop. In fact a human running a marathon runs more consecutive hours than the dogs. Most mushers rest the dogs every four to six hours of running where the dogs will be given a high protein steak fish and chicken hot meal along with a massage. That’s the truth. Plus mushers must stop for two mandatory eight hour rests and a twenty four hour rest during the race. It is ignorance that fuels the argument against one of The greatest races on earth.

      • Jane Cobalt

        Oct 8, 2015 at 1:30 pm

        Amada go away. Dogs aren’t built for this, snowmobiles are built for this. You cruel human beings.

        • do your homework

          Mar 12, 2016 at 11:29 pm

          There are many breeds of dogs, all bred for completely different capabilities. Newfoundlands are great swimmers, bulldogs not so much. Sled dogs ARE built for cold temperatures and running. When temperatures are too much above freezing it is often far too warm for them to run long distances for long periods of time whereas they thrive in cold temperatures. Why is this? Their fur, metabolism, fat deposits, and more are made for it – just like polar bears can’t live far from the ice pack and grizzly bears can’t live too close to it. I’m not a musher but I have been to several kennels and have had the opportunity to help hook up dog teams and mush with them. It was a mind-opening experience to see such powerful animals so easily and EAGERLY running, no encouragement needed. It’s what they DO, naturally and often without training.

        • SledDogRacer350

          Nov 4, 2016 at 9:21 pm

          Hey Jane, wanna know a secret? Good. Let’s go back, oh I don’t know, 1919. Balto was born this year, did you know that? Oh! And what’s this? Hmmm… An American Kennel Club quote? Let’s have a look Jane and The Reckoning, shall we?

          “Bred in Northeast Asia as a sled dog, the Siberian Husky is known for its amazing endurance and willingness to work. Its agreeable and outgoing temperament makes it a great all-around dog, suitable for anything from sledding to therapy work. Because it originated in cold climates, Siberians have a thicker coat than most other breeds of dog, made up of a dense cashmere-like undercoat and a longer, coarse top coat. All colors from black to pure white are allowed, and a variety of markings on the head is common.”

          Want a link? Here ya go! Have a splendid day!

          http://www.akc.org/dog-breeds/siberian-husky/detail/

          And now, what I have to say:

          hese dogs were bred and trained to run- if you actually watched these dogs train you’ll find they love it! You may think it’s cruel: the dogs experiancing emotions such as tiredness, stressfulness and even depression. However, most of the time the dog expresses body language of happiness. When I said most of the time? Of course the new pups will be scared! What dog (or human) wouldn’t be? I’d be worried for my dog’s health if that was the case. The 142 dogs that died? THAT WEBSITE SAID HUSKIES GOT FROSTBITE! Anyone with enough common sense know for a fact that huskies have 2-3 layers of coating that repel dirt, water and trap body heat! That website this author got their information from talks more than they study. As soon as I whip out a harness my dog goes nuts and runs full pelt to the door. This is a fact- dogs love to run! Especially sled dogs, with their enlarged lungs and hearts so they can pump oxygen and blood faster throughout their body to keep them toasty warm and running. These dogs are also highly trained athletes, as the article said, and can run these long races. To them, this 1,000 mile race is almost the equivalent of an Olympic cycling race. And you considering the ESTIMATED (view the website, they guessed how many dogs!) 142 dogs over the past 43+ years? It is not comparable. Your going to find signs of abuse in every race, sport or animal ownership- that’s part of people acting ridiculous.

    • James Whiteman

      Aug 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      i Live in Fairbanks, AK. and most of the mushers treat those dogs good, only a few abuse, plus you need to look into the rules of the race it is not nonstop there are mandatory stop points vet check points and drop points for food and items for the dogs. I have watched this race and the animals are treated well and want to do the running they are not forced to. so get a clue!!!

    • Carol

      Mar 10, 2015 at 2:29 pm

      I agree! there are better ways to run a dog that likes to run, and not for sport or financial gain.

      • SledDogRacer350

        Nov 4, 2016 at 9:23 pm

        You guys know you don’t win a lot if you win the Iditarod, right? Like, a couple of gold nuggets and a red lantern? Cool beans, but I wouldn’t call if financial gain. Sometimes $50k here, and a truck. *Shrugs*

    • JonDoheny2021

      May 5, 2015 at 9:07 am

      Non-stop is incorrect, there are many different checkpoints along the way for dogs to regain their strength and rest. People that run in the Boston Marathon run for longer periods of time than the dogs in the Iditarod. Also, dogs that are weak and may not be able to finish the race are left at checkpoints to be brought back safely and heal. The Iditarod is traditional event and is in no way cruel to dogs.

    • Aren

      Mar 18, 2016 at 3:32 pm

      Yes ask a human being with a life style of fast food and TV to run the same distance as a dog who was born and raised to run not as for. The point of the temperature all of the dogs are a far cry from the runt or behemoth that you or I may own
      The cold chili at is a boon to the dogs as it lets them lean a better pace with less risk of overheating not to mention that many of the dogs receive better medical care then some pro athletes. In the end I can’t think of a way to rap this up so have a nice day

    • Anonymous

      Nov 4, 2016 at 9:11 pm

      Humans run MILES in marathons! And your all forgetting: the closest domestic dog breed to the wolf is a husky! Wolves are well-known for running for hundreds of miles on end. And the dogs do get breaks! They stop at checkpoints each night where they are fed, rested and loved, as well as examined by veteranarians.

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