The Most Famous Dog Sled Race, The 1,000 Mile Iditarod, Has A Major Dark Side

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. 

  • The 1,100 Mile Trek Is A Brutal Gauntlet

    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.

  • Dozens Of Dogs Have Died During The Race

    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.

  • Dog Sled Races Have Joined The List Of Sports Doping Scandals

    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.

  • The Pressure To Break Records Weighs On The Dogs

    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. 

  • Poor Living Conditions Can Be Unbearable For Sled Dogs

    While many dog sledders treat their animals like a member of their own family, the sad reality is that some owners can incredibly cruel to their dogs. They can be chained outside for long stretches of time, and the immense boredom and restriction on movement can be psychologically traumatizing for the dogs. Unstimulated dogs can experience a wide range of symptoms including lack of sleep, hyper aggression, and some will even begin to eat rocks. This is often the result of large scale breeding operations who put profits before the wellbeing of their animals.

  • A New Documentary Shows The Dark Side Of Competitive Dog Sledding

    A New Documentary Shows The Dark Side Of Competitive Dog Sledding
    Video: YouTube

    Just as Blackfish played an instrumental role in the ending of orca whale breeding programs at Seaworld, the documentary Sled Dogs might have a seismic effect on the world of dog sledding. The film, released in the US in November 2017, focuses on the life of average sled dogs after they compete. Many dogs are subject to euthanasia when their owners can find no more use in them. Post-competition sled dogs don't necessarily make good pets as they are used to roaming free in the wilds of Alaska, but most families can't give them the space and exercise they crave. Unfortunately, this means that many dogs are either abandoned or put down when they are no longer fit to compete. One training camp in Canada came under particular scrutiny after they orchestrated a mass killing of more than 100 dogs. If the sport of dog sledding has any hope of survival, it needs to turn away from these barbaric practices and start putting the animals first.