May 23, 2024

Bowlingual Dog

Animal Planet Directory

The Misconceptions of Dogsledding

People often ask us if dog sledding is cruel. We admit, we didn’t know a lot about dogsledding and had our doubts about how dogs react to pulling people on sleds before we ever did it. Do dogs really like mushing? Are they happy? And what steps are taken to ensure the animals’ welfare on a dog sledding tour? We are going to answer these questions and delve into the nitty gritty to answer the question, is dog sledding cruel.

Sled dogs in Greenland

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The Greenland sled dogs

While visiting Greenland, our hearts broke as we walked through “Dogville” in Ilulissat. The town has a population of 4500 people and nearly as many dogs were chained up outside of town. We didn’t like it. It was terrible seeing these dogs sitting outside on on a short tether with no shelter. As we learned more, we didn’t feel much better about the plight of the Greenland Sled Dog.

In Greenland, sled dogs are stuck in a situation where modernization and the displacement of indigenous people have taken the traditional use of sled dogs nearly out of commission.

Where they were once a part of the community and used regularly for hunting and travel, there are now 2,100 dogs chained to stakes on the edge of the town when not in use. Like many people, we were skeptical of the dogsledding industry.

So this it was a good opportunity for us to visit Haliburton, Ontario, and spend time with Winterdance and their team of sled dogs to see what life is like for their working and racing dogs.

Dogsledding in Canada

dogsledding puppy
Tanya McCready of Winterdance

We met Tanya McCready and Hank DeBruin at their log cabin in Haliburton where their kennels are located right on their property. Tanya and Hank bought their first husky more than 20 years ago when they were married and instantly fell in love with dogs.

Over time, they grew their dog family, and now they have 150 pure bred Siberian Huskies in their kennels where they run dogsled tours all winter long. Hank also has raced in the most famous dog sledding race The Iditarod and the far more arduous Yukon Quest with his beautiful team of dogs.

Their Siberian Huskies are known as the prettiest team on the circuit!.

Winterdance Dogsledding Haliburton, Ontario

dogsledding myths running
The dogs relaxing in the yard

We took a tour of their kennels and unlike our experience in Greenland, here in Haliburton, we felt uplifted. Hank and Tanya have a team of employees working with them to take care of their dogs and give them the love and care they need.

As Hank said “everyone who works for Winterdance stays for a long time.” It’s hard work and you have to love dogs so when people do join their team, they are like family”

dogsledding myths kennels
The race dogs’ outdoor kennels at Winterdance as they acclimate for the upcoming Yukon Quest

We could easily see that their employees felt like family. The day we arrived, people were over at the kennel shoveling snow off the roof with smiles on their faces. One girl said to us “There’s no place I’d rather be today.”

They heard we were going out on an overnight run with Hank and everyone offered up their services to lead the way on the snowmobile to keep an eye out for angry moose. Even after a full day of work, they were eager to get out on the trails again.

When we entered the kennels we were thrilled to see that each dog had spacious kennels and comfort. They are fed only the best food and they are let out daily to roam freely in the huge yard. A dog in the city would die for this attention and running space!

The dogs are rotated when working to make sure that they have plenty of rest. They have days off but when another group of dogs gets to run without them, they are not happy. We learned that these dogs love to run!

Dogs Can’t-Wait to Get in the Truck

dogsledding myths truck
These dogs couldn’t wait to get in the truck!

It was so much fun to watch the dog’s excitement when they saw Hank’s truck filled with kennels pull into the yard. They lined up like school children anxious to get in to their beds because they knew that this truck meant a good long run.

Animal Cruelty in the Dog Sled Industry

We asked Hank and Tanya about a terrible scandal that happened in Whistler after the winter Olympics where a company slaughtered their dogs due to the economic downturn.

Hank and Tanya said it was heartbreaking and that they didn’t understand why someone would do that. “The dogsledding community is a tight-knit community and if anyone was in dire straights, everyone would be there to help them out.”

They said if only that person sent out an email or made a call, he’d have had his dogs placed within 48 hours. They didn’t need to do what they did.

Sadly, like everything in life, there is a chance to have a bad apple in any community. There are bad people in every aspect of life and this company wasn’t only a bad dogsledding company, they were bad people.

We’ve followed dogsledding in the past and we already knew this about the North American dogsledders out there.

We’ve met dogsledding legendary mushers Lance Mackey and Jeff King while traveling in Alaska and like Hank and Tanya, you could see how much they both love and respect their dogs.

Sled Dogs Love to Run

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These dogs love to run!

We love animals and especially love dogs. There are thousands of dogs in shelters, on the street and euthanized yearly. The dog mushers that we have met, visited and toured take pride in the care they give their dogs. I have seen neighbors keep their dogs in small kennels, people lock their dogs in their apartments and keep them outside on a leash all winter long. SOme just throw their dogs in their garage and let them out to pee every once in a while. Is what they are doing better than dog mushers who take their dogs out daily for runs?

What people don’t seem to realize is that sled dogs need open space and they want to run for as long as they can.

My family grew up with a Husky and lucky for us, we lived in the country where our dog could roam free.She’d disappear for days at a time and come back smelling like a skunk or a dead animal, but that didn’t concern us, because we knew she had to run.

Dave owned a husky for a short time as a child and even though his family had the best intentions, it didn’t fare well in the city. It chewed at the fence, had anxiety and eventually, they had to give it away to a farm.

Dogsledding Huskies have the best of both worlds. They get the attention and love that they need but also get the chance to run a lot.

Dogs Are Like Children to Hank and Tanya of Winterdance

dogsledding myths dog
Hank takes great care of his dogs.

We learned a lot during our time in Haliburton by simply observing the dog’s behavior. Watching them be picked up like toddlers by Hank and his guides made us smile. These dogs literally acted like five-year-old children heading outside to play. They ran around wagging their tails, they barked with excitement and then the minute they were picked up they settled down like they were relaxing in their mother’s arms.

Once they were hooked up to the sleds, they were eager to run. You have to hold them back while they hook the entire team up or else they’d take off down the trail without you. The closer they get to take off, the more excited and loud their barks get.

You feed off their energy and become excited yourself. You know you are in for an amazing day on the trail. As the barks continue, you have to quickly get on the sled and ready to go because the dogs are chomping at the bit.

They’re pulling on the sled so hard that you have to hold on to the brakes and keep the snow hook firmly in the ground or they’ll be dragging you behind. Once you let go of the brake, they instantly go quiet and start running.

Dog Deaths in Races

Hank has taken part in the famous Iditarod race in Alaska, and the Yukon Quest. We have been on a training run with him and he suffers more than the dogs. He feeds them in the middle of the night, puts down straw for them to sleep, and he checks their paws regularly. These dogs are his family.

Over the years, the issue of dog deaths in sled racing raised significant ethical concerns and media attention. Various sled dog races, including the Iditarod, have faced scrutiny after reports of dog deaths during the events. Sadly, dogs have died in races from heart attacks, pneumonia, dehydration, and diarrhea.

Criticism has also been aimed at the adequacy of veterinary care during races, and the general welfare of the dogs involved. The controversy has prompted activists to call for increased regulations and oversight of sled dog races to ensure the safety and well-being of the participating animals.

There have been reports of some dog racers abusing their dogs. Of course, these people should be banned and have their dogs taken away from them.

The debate surrounding dog deaths in sled racing has contributed to a broader conversation about the ethical treatment of animals in sports and has led some to question the viability and morality of such events in the modern age.

I don’t think pushing dogs to race is the way to go, but then again, if people race horses and greyhounds, so perhaps we should end that too. I am not here to talk about sled dog racing, I am however her to talk about commercialized dog sledding.

The Ethics of Dog Sledding

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Ready to hit the trails!

Over the years, dog handlers have worked hard to change the landscape of dog sledding. Most of the bad apples have been weeded out sadly it took the high-profile deaths of dogs to make a sweeping change, but change has happened.

First and foremost, the dog operations that we have encountered put the animals’ welfare first. Ethical Dog Sledding Companies look after their dogs with love and affection. They have comfortable kennels, plenty of chances to run, and make sure to tell tourists about their care and practices.

It is so much fun watching them from behind. Their tails wag away as they sniff and posture for position. I’ve never seen an animal so much in their element. Whenever you hear dogsledders say “My dogs love to run” you have to believe them.

If you put on the brake for some reason like you need to fix your hat or organize your camera, the dogs look back at you with a look of “What are you doing?” Don’t you know we’ve got to keep running?” And run they did. If you have the chance to try dogsledding, we highly recommend it.

I look at ethical dog sledding the same way that ranches offer horse riding. If you book with a reputable company.

History of Dog Sledding

Dog sledding has a history that spans thousands of years and many different cultures. The use of sled dogs dates back to at least 2000 BCE, with evidence of dogsledding found in Siberia, Northern Canada, and Greenland.

During the gold rushes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dogsledding became a crucial means of transportation.

Dogsledding also has a notable place in history for its role in public health. In 1925, a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, was halted thanks to a relay of mushers and sled dogs that transported antitoxin serum over 700 miles in treacherous winter conditions, in what became known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” It was this event that inspired the race from Anchorage to Nome known as the Iditarod.

See for yourself how happy and excited the dogs are on the trail. Our skepticism melted away during our time with Winterdance. Make sure to choose your dogsledding company wisely though. Be a responsible tourist and do your research, not all companies are created equally.

For more information on Booking your own dogsledding trip in Ontario visit the Winterdance website. 

Check out more of our Ontario adventures at Dogsledding Ontario and Prepare for Lure of the North

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