Educational Series: Dog Sledding and Dog Chaining

The iditarod, a sled dog race almost 1,000 miles long, runs across Alaska from Settler’s Bay to Nome in March of every year. The race goes up and over hills, through mountain passes, and over tundra landscapes and spruce forests. Blizzard conditions with zero visibility is common, as well as wind chills of up to -100 degrees fahrenheit (-73 degrees celsius) occurring from combining gale-force winds with temperatures ranging from 40 to -60 degree fahrenheit. Over 50 mushers enter the race every year, and each team contains 16 dogs, 5 of which must be in the towline when crossing the finish line.

When the race began in 1973, it took 20 days for the winning dog sled team to cross the finish line. Today, they finish in just 8 or 9 days. To achieve this, the teams are known to race through the night, often skipping checkpoints that are set up to monitor the dogs’ well being among other things. With around 1,500 dogs starting the race every year, around a third of them are dropped off at dog drop sites located throughout the race due to illness, exhaustion or injury. These dogs are flown out to a correctional facility where prison inmates take care of the dogs until their family comes to pick them up. Every year, at least one or two dogs die from the race, with 5 dogs dying in 2017’s race. Reasons for their deaths range from strangulation to internal hemorrhaging to liver injuries, heart failure, and pneumonia. And the risks don’t end when the race ends. A study found that nearly half of the dogs tested 2 days after the race were still showing signs of moderate to severe lung damage.

While the race itself is treacherous for the dogs, their lives leading up to the race can be even worse. Sled dogs are notoriously known for being chained up to their dog houses day in and day out when not racing or training. When dogs are tethered to their houses, they live through conditions of extreme heat and extreme cold. They urinate and defecate in the same place as they are eating and drinking, and they often knock over their own water bowls leaving them at risk for being dehydrated. When the temperatures rise, the dogs can be left exposed without adequate shelter, and that combined with an empty water bowl is a recipe for disaster. Dogs are also at risk of getting their chains tangled, leaving them with a greatly decreased area to roam, and they have been known to strangle themselves when jumping off of their own houses and getting wrapped up in their own chain.

While dog chaining is the most common way of life for sled dogs, it is not only sled dogs that lead this type of life. There is some oversight to the well being of sled dogs when they are entered into races, but household pets are not guaranteed that same level of veterinarian attention. Dogs are pack animals by nature that thrive on social interaction. When a family’s pet dog is left alone outside for days, months or years on end tied to a structure they become aggressive, unhappy, anxious and neurotic. They begin to bark incessantly from boredom or frustration. The aggression that these dogs display can be dangerous for more than just the animal’s mental health. Statistically, chained dogs kill more children than firearms every year, and they are almost three times more likely to bite than an unchained dog.

There is hope though. There is a lot we can do to help these dogs live a better life. The first thing you can do is to be a responsible dog owner yourself. Bring your dog inside so that he can be a part of your family “pack”, but as a member of our community, you are probably already treating your dog as a member of your family. But if the dog you are concerned about is someone else’s dog, there are still ways to help. If you see a dog that is tethered, get to know the dog’s owner. Be friendly, offer help in non-intrusive ways such as offering to give them leftover dog food you may have. Be constructive about their pet’s condition rather than critical. The owner will be more receptive in the long run when approached in this manner. It won’t work every time, but you are more likely to make a difference if you approach the situation in this manner. If you are able to convince the owner to relinquish ownership, make sure they don’t just replace the current dog with a new puppy that they put back on the chain. Another good way to help tackle the widespread problem of dog chaining is to help inform those around you. Pass out informative flyers, write your local paper, report any and all signs of animal abuse you see, and help change the laws in your neighborhood. Staying informed and involved is always the best way to help create lasting change.

Photo credit: dyet

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