Is Dog Sledding Cruel? Is It an Ethical Activity?

Dog sledding became popular during the gold rush in the late 1800s. The prospectors needed transportation to get into the wilderness; the only way to get there at the time was by dog sledding. In the early 1900s, it became a common mode of transportation during the winter throughout much of the northern areas of the United States and Canada. It eventually grew to become a form of recreation and a sport.

Like many sports or activities centered around animals, there are concerns about how ethical something like this can be. Is it cruel to force dogs to pull heavy sleds? Do they like doing it? How are the dogs treated?

If you’re curious about the ethics of dog sledding, you will want to keep reading. We’re going to dive deep into the history of this sport and what it looks like in modern times so you can decide if you’re willing to support such an activity.


What Does Dog Sledding Look Like Today?

Dog sledding isn’t an activity that fizzled out after the invention of the automobile.

Sled dogs are still used as transportation today by rural communities throughout Russia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland. The Iditarod, the annual long-distance sled dog race that occurs every year in Alaska, still occurs annually as it has since 1973.

Dog sledding is a popular winter tourist activity in Canadian provinces like Quebec, Northwest Territories, the Yukon, Manitoba, and Alberta. You can also take tours in U.S. states like Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, and Colorado. In Europe, tourists can go on dog sledding excursions in Norway, Andorra, Greenland, Finland, Iceland, and Sweden. Most tours are an hour or two long, though some companies offer multi-day excursions.

Dogs in the snow
Image Credit: pixabay, Pexels

Is Dog Sledding Cruel?

So, is dog sledding cruel or unethical? It depends on whom you’re talking to and what the situation is.

Animal Activists Against Dog Sledding

Animal activists are staunchly against dog sledding.

An investigation mentioned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) spied on dog sledding operations via drones. The analysis shows that some operators tie their dogs up to posts, leaving them in the cold, desperate for attention.

The following YouTube clip is from a CTV W5 segment called Dogs in Distress. CTV W5 is a Canadian current affairs and documentary program that tackles major stories and investigations. The Dogs in Distress segment originally aired in February of 2022. It contains disturbing scenes that can be triggering for some viewers. However, you can watch it below if you so wish.

The reporter for the investigation spoke with a former dog sled tour operator who revealed that dogs were given only one hour a month off their chain during the off-season. Other than that, they’d spend their entire summer tethered to one spot, barely able to move more than just a few feet. The former operator also spoke about how her boss instructed her to euthanize animals and feed them as little as possible.

Dog Sledding Tour Operators

On the other hand, many folks who own sled dogs believe the activity is not cruel or unethical. They look at their animals not as their slaves but as their best friends. They have a relationship based on love and respect, not fear or intimidation.

Sled dogs are purpose-bred to run and pull and thrive the most when working. Well-treated dogs will jump up and down excitedly when their owners come towards them with a lead in hand. Many dog sledding dogs live the best of both worlds—a life where they get the chance to run to their heart’s content while also receiving the love and attention they need to stay happy and healthy.

Of course, you will always find exceptions. There are people out there who keep sled dogs for the wrong reasons, only using them to make money. They may treat them poorly or even abuse them. But the same can be said about the general population of animal owners. As sad and disheartening as it may be, there will always be a bad seed or two.

Dog Sled Races: Cruel or Ethical?

The Iditarod is the most famous dog sled race in America. The race started in the early 1970s and has been run annually every March since. The race covers hundreds of miles between Anchorage to Nome. It is a popular sporting event in Alaska, with the top mushers and their dog sled team becoming local celebrities.

Animal activists have always criticized the Iditarod. Over 150 sled dogs died during the race, but there are no official counts of how many were severely injured.

The intense competitive side of the race can push the sled dogs far beyond their endurance or capabilities. Racers and their sled dog team often experience inclement weather during the race. Blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, and extreme winds aren’t even enough to stop the race.

The Iditarod has slowly begun losing corporate sponsorships. In 2017, Wells Fargo stopped sponsoring the race, and Exxon pulled its financial support after the 2021 race. It is believed that these corporations are pulling out due to the implications of animal cruelty and pressure from PETA.

huskies dog sledding
Image Credit: Viola, Pixabay


How to Find an Ethical Dog Sledding Company

If you’re concerned about the ethics of dog sledding but are dying to try it, all you need to do is find a reputable company. Many tour operators look after their dogs very well, but how can you separate the good from the not-so-good?

1. Take a look at the tour company’s website.

Look through their images and the information available online about their standards. Reputable operations will always offer up detailed information about how they care for their sled dogs. There will be many pictures of the dog and the farm they live on since ethical companies will take pride in how well-maintained and clean their facilities are.

Reliable and trustworthy operators will proudly talk about their efforts in ensuring their dogs are well taken care of. They should talk about housing, tethering, cleaning, veterinary care, and exercise and go into more detail about their dogs in general. If there is no mention of ethics or a sense of pride in how they care for their animals, there is a red flag that there could be a problem.

3. Reach out to the company directly to ask them questions.

Ask questions such as:

  • How are the dogs cared for during the off-season?
  • Who is caring for the dogs? What experience do they have?
  • How long has the company been in operation?
  • What regulations do you need to follow from the local government or SPCA?


Final Thoughts

Dog sledding has a history of being cruel and unethical, especially where dog sledding tours and races are considered. Animal rights groups are actively against the sport, and many documentaries are available to explain in further detail why.

That said, many tour operators and racers treat their dogs like gold. These sled dogs thrive on a life of doing what they were bred to do, so it’s unfair for us to say that dog sledding is entirely unethical and cruel.

It seems, then, that there is no straightforward yes or no answer to the question, “Is dog sledding cruel?” The ethics surrounding the activity will depend heavily upon the morality of the people behind the sled.

Featured Image Credit: Beate, Pixabay

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