Are Sled Dogs Forced to Run?

Paws Along the Trail with Real News

Jeff King’s team is ready to run!

A friend recently sent me a video depicting sled dog racing in a bad light.  She asked if I had seen any of those incidents while in Alaska.  I replied with a more balanced article that showed what I have observed over the years.

Recent videos on the Internet have indicated that sled dogs are forced to run.  These people, while admirably wanting to support dogs’ well-being, have put together what I would call “Fake News.”  For older students, this can make for good discussion and a way for them to research other articles, talk to those in the  dog mushing world, and find out another side, determining the truth with facts.  

I spoke to Dr. Tim, DVM, a volunteer veterinarian for multiple Iditarod races.  He obviously loves animals and has the calling to make sure they are well and safe.  The 50+ veterinarians who volunteer for the Iditarod each year are there to ensure the canine athletes’ health is top priority.

“What do you mean I don’t want to run?”

“The only way sled dogs [in a marathon race such as the Iditarod or Yukon Quest] can run at that level is with positive reinforcement and plenty of food. Negative just doesn’t work in the long run,” observed Dr. Tim.  

He never observed any abusive behavior in any race in which he volunteered,  Iditarod or John Beargrease. In fact, quite the opposite. Throughout his experiences as trail veterinarian, he was overwhelmed with the level of care and love shown to all the sled dogs by their musher companions.   

In virtually all his experiences, he never had a situation where only he recommended a dog  be taken out of the race. What he found was that “the mushers, knowing their dogs so well, would already have a dog in the basket, or have us examine closely a dog they were concerned about. The musher was the one to recommend a dog be dropped for lack of enthusiasm, lameness, or not eating properly.” If a dog was moving with an odd gait, mushers and vets worked together to deliberately go through each joint on the dog until they could localize the problem area for treatment.

For the 2017 race start, some of us teachers trained to be  dog handlers.  There was no question whether or not the dogs wanted to run. I physically felt the excitement and power of the two dogs nearest me as they would hear the countdown for a team ahead of us, “10, 9, 8,…3, 2, 1, GO!” My dogs would go CRAZY!  They were straining to RUN!  

Teacher dog handlers running with the team toward the starting line

Mushers Cindy Abbott and Aliy Zirkle  have talked about sled dogs sensing the musher’s mood.  If the musher is getting discouraged or mopey, the dogs sense that and will also become less motivated on a long race.  The mushers have to “suck it up” and stay enthusiastic and positive.  Cindy heard that some mushers sing to their dogs.  She doesn’t sing but decided to try it.  Her dogs suddenly stopped running, turned, and stared at her.  She decided that was the end of her singing!

Musher Jodi Bailey is smiling and just as excited as her dogs!

When visiting mushers’ kennels, it is a wonder to see the dogs suddenly jumping and barking enthusiastically when the harnesses are brought out.  They seem to be saying, “Pick me!  Pick me!”  They love to run so much that they can hardly stand it.   I, too, have seen the strong, loyal, trusting bond between mushers and their dogs.

In conclusion,  sled dogs aren’t forced to run; they LOVE to run!

Other Iditarod Teacher News!

Need a boost to begin using the Iditarod or to get fresh ideas?  There will be an Iditarod teachers’ conference in Virginia offered October 14, 15, 2017.  Hear speakers give standards- based teaching ideas for incorporating the Iditarod, participate in Skype sessions with mushers, and network with other teachers who love the race and see the motivation it brings to the classroom!  Contact the ITC EDU Director, Diane Johnson, at for additional details.