Alaskan Sled Dogs

The sport of mushing has undergone many negative changes over the last 40 years in Alaska.  Much of the new commercial paradigm is a result of the Iditarod Race culture that has developed with the help of Joe Reddington who arrived in Alaska from Pennsylvania.  Joe would go on to become a sort of “demigod” for young mushers and handlers arriving in the Arctic.

The current environment for mushers looking to compete in the Iditarod Race includes: a Dog Lot with 50 to 100 sled dogs tethered on chains…a Dog Truck complete with crate like boxes (sometimes with 2 large dogs jammed into each compartment as seen in the video above) and a rigorous training routine that begins in the fall daily with ATV’s and about 20 dogs tethered to a gang line in front of them pulling around 20 miles a day to start.

The dog yards are very “Spartan” and usually have a small plywood box or plastic barrel dedicated to each Husky for shelter.

This current culture is not sustainable or humane for sled dogs born into this lifestyle of which they have no choice.  The only time the dogs are allowed off of the chains is to run in harness and they must pull a heavy ATV, Cart or Sled.  These animals are not allowed to socialize or touch their teammates which are usually brothers and sisters from the same litter.

Older dogs that cannot perform to the high competitive level of their younger teammates are left on the chain while younger dogs are out training or are “Culled” to make way for growing puppies in the dog lot.

Surprisingly this dog racing culture has many corporate sponsors which support it.

Most of the mushers and dog lots are also independently sponsored as well with corporate sponsorships that may be as high as  $20,000 a year per musher and include many companies that are located in America.

Many spectators and fans only see this “Wag the Dog” side to the Iditarod Race and do not see the behind the scene “kennels” or witness dogs out running between checkpoints for over 100 miles a day during their 1,000 mile race to Nome.  The mushers themselves have called this brutal schedule the “tough pace”.

It is typical that a race musher starts with 16 dogs and “drops” around half of the dogs at checkpoints along the way due to exhaustion, illness, disease and injuries.

Many dogs suffer gastric ulcers from the stress of being forced to run for so many days consecutively.

Most veterinarians at the checkpoints leave the decision to keep a sore and tired dog in the race up to the individual musher themselves.

There are currently around 60 to 70 mushing teams which participate annually in this event…over 1,000 sled dogs leave the gate in Willow on the first Sunday of March each year.

Published by

Steve Stine

I moved to Alaska twelve years ago to homestead and ski after I finished my Bachelor of Arts from Green Mountain College in Vermont. I am now focused on writing and photography.