By Tyler Pollard
There is perhaps no sport that has as much romance and grace associated with it as dog sledding. Over 4000 years old, many believe that life up north would not have been feasible without this ancient mode of travel, because the dogs delivered medicine, supplies, and news, while allowing mobility for hunting and fishing. And although modern day continues to witness the sight of strong, sleek huskies running across crystal white snow in the open expanse of the north, while pulling a musher on a sleigh, often times reality can be far from this romanticized scene. Beneath the idealization of people and animals working in sync lies a dark underbelly of the dog sledding world. Like all sports, there is in fact the good, the bad, and the ugly.

 

The Good: Mush Fun!

Today survival isn’t the main reason for dog sledding; now is that of sport. The first recreational dog sled race was held the 1800’s and continues to be used for fun today.
“As Canadians, dog sledding is a huge part of our heritage,”says Gavin Baker, owner of Trail Dancer Kennels. “When people from outside our country think of Canada, they think of hockey, maple syrup, and dog sledding. Yet, most Canadians haven’t ever even tried it.”
There are many local and international races hosted here in Canada every year. There are also several holiday escapes that offer dog sledding tours, so everyone can easily experience the thrill of this historic pastime.
One way to truly experience all that dog sledding has to offer is to own a dog sled team. Baker does just that. Like many dog sledding buffs, he started out owning one dog and quickly realized that it would be far more fun to own another, and another, and…you get the idea. Now Baker is gearing up his sled dog team to compete in the 1,635 km Yukon Quest in 2012.
However, it is a good idea to volunteer at a local kennel to first test out the chilly waters if you’re dabbling with the idea of starting a dog-team. This is exactly what Alex Burnet is doing at Trail Dancer Kennels. “The best part of my experience is the amount of knowledge I’m able to soak up. I’m getting to see first hand the amount of commitment and work that goes into operating a kennel,” Burnet says. “I would recommend this as a starting point to anyone who is interested in getting into the sport.”
Not ready to train a team of dogs yourself? Book a dog sledding winter escape instead! Cold Fire Creek Dogsledding, located in Valemount, BC, is the perfect place to experience a Canadian winter getaway for a day. The tours, such as, Ghosts of Cold Fire Creek and Moonlight Run, take people deep into the heart of the Rocky Mountains with nothing but a sled between them and the snow. If you are are not able to make your way out west, however, there are places elsewhere in Canada to rub noses with sled dogs. For instance, for Ontarians, Winterdance Dogsled Tours runs dog sled tours alongside Algonquin National Park that range from 2 hours to full on multi-day excursions.
Another great way to get a taste of this unique sport is to simply watch a race. Check out Sled Dog Central to find races near you.

By Tyler Pollard

The Bad: Mush Madness…

It is important to note that this graceful and impressive sport is not without challenge, risk or danger. Many races are grueling and treacherous, making them risky for both the dogs and the musher alike.
Dangers and Injuries

The last thing you want to happen is to let go of your sled when you are out in the middle of nowhere, for often times the dogs simply will not wait. Deep freeze temperatures, frost bite, hypothermia, and getting lost are all frightening concerns. If unattended, the dogs could get caught and tangled in trees, hit by a car, hurt or in a fight. Exhaustion and malnutrition can be additional risks for dogs separated from their musher and sled. So in short, the musher must always hold on and stay with the team for mutual protection.
Just like any competitive sport injuries can also occur in dog sledding. The wrists and shoulders can sometimes get hurt, but more often it is the feet. Snow can get pushed up between the pads of the foot causing pressure splits. Dogs cannot race if their feet are not in top form, so prevention is a main priority. Apart from which, any foot injury causes pain which is important to avoid.
“I end up spending much more time down on my knees caring for the dogs than I do out running them,”Baker remarks about the importance of providing the proper care for the dogs. “All of [the risks and injuries] can be avoided with due diligence. You and your team just need to be prepared.”
Cost and Commitment
 
The cost and commitment of dog sledding is another downside that can’t be avoided when it comes to this sport. “It is like having 20 Olympic athletes to take care of,” Baker explains.“You are the coach, parent, trainer, vet caregiver, maintenance guy, and everything else.” When it comes to dog sledding, you are much more than a musher driving a sled. It is a full-time job and consequently a large expense.
“There is so much more work, time, and money that goes into it. Dog sledding is not a sport. It is a lifestyle. This is why many people don’t continue with it once they start. They don’t do their homework or budget for it,” Baker remarks, once again believing that preparation is a key ingredient for success.
Keeping the dogs healthy and happy is a significant cost. Racing is another one entirely. Baker and the team at Trail Dancer Kennels are always looking for sponsorships in order to continue racing competitively.

The Ugly

While most sled dog owners take better care of their dogs than they do of themselves, unfortunate instances of neglect do arise from time to time and it is sadly the dogs who suffer. For example, in late November 2009, about 100 sled dogs were rescued from a kennel in rural Quebec, because they were found to have inadequate food, water, and shelter. 
The fact that the dog sledding industry is largely self-regulating, makes it is difficult to know how often similar cases of neglect or abuse occur; although non-profit organizations do encourage a watchful eye.
“Animal neglect and abuse is a community problem, and it takes a community to solve it,” stresses Rebecca Aldworth, the Executive Director of Humane Society International/Canada. To do your part, you can pressure the government to form stronger animal protection laws, donate to animal protection groups, report known abuse or neglect, and educate yourself and others of the responsibility that comes with owning animals.

Despite it being widely recognized that the majority of dog sledders take impeccable care of their dogs both on and off the race trail, authorities at HSI and the SPCA remain nonetheless concerned about the strain that long distance races can have on dogs. “Dogs run incredible distances under grueling trail and weather conditions, and that combination of factors has typically resulted in injuries and death in each year’s race,” Rebecca Aldworth. As a result, there are continuous efforts afoot to ensure the health and safety of sled dogs throughout the nation.

To the Finish Line?

If done responsibly, ethically and knowledgeably, taking a little time to experience what fellow Canadians have been doing for a long time can be a rewarding and exhilarating ride. Just be sure to treat the dogs with the utmost respect, so that both the animals’ well-being and future of the sport can be preserved.
By Claire Rowsell