A Compelling Take On The Iditarod And Dog Owning Culture

Photos by Chris Cocoles

As a dog dad and lover of all things canine, I figure I’ve been reduced into a blubbering, middle-aged mess more often reading or watching stories on dog-related tragedies more than I have about humans (does that make me inhuman? I don’t really know, but that’s just what triggers more emotion in my soul, so sorry in advance).

I have the utmost support of dog sledding in Alaska, particularly after the interviews I’ve done with four-time Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey and the mushing sled driving twins (and Iditarod competitors) Kristy and Anna Berington.  I’ve also written about going on a short dog sled ride and visiting a kennel in Finland, and I remembered how excited the huskies and malamutes were to run and work. There’s a reason why they’re called working dogs; they love the running and working part of their lives.

But I adore dogs, and it’s tragic when dogs fall participating in races like the Iditarod, so of course I’m sad when it happens. But I also understand that safety is always considered by the mushers and race officials. And then I think back to all the despicable cases of animal cruelty I have to hear or read about as a dog lover.

I read this Alaska Dispatch News report from veteran Alaska dog sledder John Schandelmeier, who’s won the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race twice. Schandelmeier made some excellent points in his column:

While the sled dog industry is not problem-free by any stretch, most kennels are very good. Sled dogs are trained, fed and handled far better than the average house pet.

People get up in arms about sled dogs being tethered, but tethered dogs get to interact with each other. Dogs kept in kennels do not. Kennels are jail cells. Groups of dogs kept in yards without constant monitoring have a high likelihood of fight injuries or even deaths.

No doubt, how animals are kept is a source of controversy. But first, we should take a look at what is considered the normal life of many house pets.

The owner puts his dog in an airline kennel and goes to work. Some owners get to come home at lunch. They let the dog out for a few minutes then head back to work.

The lucky dog gets a 15-minute walk on a leash after work — much like a prisoner getting his time in the exercise yard.

The poor sled dog has to run. Keeping a sled dog from running is the same as stopping a Labrador from chasing sticks. Or kicking the Yorkie off your lap. Or preventing the Aussie from herding. Common sense dictates otherwise.

The editor’s dog, Emma, enjoying some outdoor time.

Right now, sitting at my desk, I’m thinking about my own dog, Emma. (above). She’s a pretty mellow Lab and German shepherd mix that’s content either going out for long walks and running around the dog park, but also lazy enough to cuddle up next to me on the couch or retreat to her dog bed on the other end of my living room. I don’t crate Emma – but I do a lot of traveling and have her boarded where many times she’ll sleep in a crate- but I know she’s miserable during the day by herself when I’m at work (fencing my backyard and having a dog door installed has allowed her to go outside since I’ll often leave her alone for up to 10 hours on days when I don’t go home for lunch). We try to take at least two walks a day, but – and sorry, Emma – sometimes we don’t get out as often as we should!

On the other hand, when I spent six years living in Fayetteville, Arkansas, I’d walk my previous BFF, Sharkie, and it appalled me how many “family pets” were chained to trees in fenceless yards. Needless to say, most of those dogs would growl and bark rather aggressively at Sharkie and I as we’d wander past, likely jealous as hell as that other dog might ask, “WTF does that guy get to walk around and I’m stuck here with no one to hang out with?” So I’m confident that my dog gets treated with love after she was rescued by a foster mom from a shelter in California (Sharkie was adopted from the Fayetteville Animal Shelter).

We live in a holier-than-thou society where Twitter and Facebook go on the attack whenever Twitter and Facebook get offended, and I’m not here to judge anyone and make it personal from the safety of my keyboard (Twitter particularly is full of cowards with a smartphone as a weapon of mass destruction), and I think that’s the point of Schandelmeier’s piece, that those who bash his sport forget about the big picture. Here’s more from the writer:

The Iditarod lost five dogs this year. They can do better, and they have in other years.

I’ve been a dog musher for decades, entering an array of Alaska races and twice winning the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. My wife, Zoya DeNure, finished 57th in this year’s Iditarod, the seventh time she’s started the race to Nome. Between us, we’ve entered 23 races of 1,000 miles — and more than 100 races of at least 200 miles — without a dog death.

Roughly 1,100 dogs participated in this year’s race. Five died.

By comparison, 25,000 dogs landed in Minneapolis/St. Paul shelters this past year and 1,300 were euthanized, according to the Humane Society of Minnesota. Additionally, there are 150 rescue shelters within 25 miles of the city. Some are no-kill, some are not.

Minneapolis has a large hunting dog population in the surrounding area. According to Last Hope Animal Rescue, which adopts out 1,500 to 2,000 dogs annually, many hunting dogs are given up when their perceived usefulness has passed.

So there you have it. Critics relentlessly attack the Iditarod and the dog sledding game for treating these athletes like pawns only competing for fans’ entertainment purposes. And I agree that five deaths is five too many, but call me naive if you’d like, I don’t think any of the dogs that passed away running the Iditarod ever dreaded what they were asked to do over the course of the 1,000 or so miles of Alaskan wilderness they run across.
Do these deaths need to be prevented at all costs? Absolutely. But let’s make a deal, people: Don’t let our dogs be neglected, don’t adopt dogs and realize you can’t handle the responsibilities before sending them back to kennels they may never leave again, adopt dogs from rescue organizations and the local animal shelters whenever possible, and stop judging the Schandelmeier’s of the sledding inner cirlce. Chances are – and it’s hard to argue with the numbers – that they care about their dogs as much as the rest of us.