Is the Iditarod Sled Dog Race Safe for the Dogs?

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.”

On Saturday, March 7, the Iditarod Trail Race begins in Anchorage, Alaska. The race will end when the last musher reaches the finish line in Nome, usually between 9 and 12 days from the start.

The famous sled dog race commemorates a 1925 rescue mission in which a series of sled dog teams carried a lifesaving diphtheria serum to the Alaskan community of Nome.

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, the race crosses frozen rivers, barren tundra, treacherous paths and steep climbs while braving 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. 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!

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