There is nothing more appealing than mixing cute animals with healthy competition. Unfortunately, whenever animals and sports are combined at human discretion, animal cruelty is too often the result. Dog sledding is no exception, no matter what Cuba Gooding Jr. would have you think. While it may seem like fun to spend two weeks on an epic journey through the Alaskan wilderness with a team of lovable canines, it's not always so fun for the dogs themselves.
The Iditarod is the most well-known dog sledding competition in the world, but even the largest and most respected events aren't free from scandal. There is a dark side to dog sled racing, one that has actually killed many dogs over the years and may now be embroiled in a dog doping scandal.
Is the Iditarod bad? It's certainly complicated. The race is unquestionably tough on the dogs, but the organization behind the competition claims it's doing everything it can to ensure the dogs make it safely to the finish line. Proponents of the Iditarod claim that dog sledding can actually be good for the dogs, but ultimately, dogs are at the whims of the humans behind them.
Alaska is the largest state in the US and is famous for its wide open spaces and vast stretches of untouched wilderness. The Iditarod takes this pristine landscape and shapes it into a hellish netherworld of frostbite and pneumonia. Mushers and their sled dogs are subjected to a 1,100 mile trail of pain through some of the most remote regions of the entire country, and the approximately nine-day journey is often depleting for both the mushers and the dogs.
While family films like Balto and Snow Dogs have romanticized the image of dog sledding, the reality is far from child-appropriate. The race is intense, even for the animals that have been specifically bred to pull sleds for hundreds of years. It's rare that an Iditarod goes by without the death of a sled dog. On average, at least one dog dies per year, sometimes from exhaustion but also from freak accidents like moose or snowmobiles on the trail. Since 1973, 152 sled dogs have perished on the notorious trail.
In 2017, a famous four-time Iditarod champion dog tested positive for the narcotic drug Tramadol. Tramadol is often used as a prescription painkiller for pets going through surgery, but is banned from the Iditarod. As a painkiller, the opioid-esque synthetic numbs physical shock that could warn animals they need to slow down or stop and, as a result, dogs who take even small amounts of Tramadol are often pushed to extremes they wouldn't be able to accomplish otherwise. The drug has also faced controversy in cycling, where cyclists use Tramadol to get through stiff races and some experts have called for the substance to be banned.
Throughout the Iditarod, there are multiple random urine checkpoints that dogs have to pass, and the top twenty dogs have to pass a final one to ensure the 1994 anti-doping rule is being followed. When the Iditarod officially released the name of the musher, he denied the allegations. Dog owner and alleged dog-drugger Dallas Seavey (whose father, Mitch, is also a champion) will be allowed to keep his prize money, and has announced that he will not compete for the time being, out of protest. But the controversy has once again stirred the pot of naysayers who claim the Iditarod gives owners a license to abuse.
Races are competitive by nature, and that's no different in the world of dog sledding which is corporately sponsored and offered a $70,000 purse for the winner in 2017. The Iditarod is the most famous and prestigious dog sled race in the world, and many trainers will stop at nothing to prove that they are the best. Unfortunately for the dogs, this means that their mushers may resort to inhumane methods to win. This includes pushing the dogs to the point of fatigue, which can often be fatal when combined of the harsh conditions of the remote Alaskan wilderness. Of course, even for winners, the generous purse essentially belongs to the mushers, not the dogs who work just as hard or harder than their human counterparts.