News of the mass killings of sled dogs in British Columbia, Canada, reported in 2010, instigated discussion about the appropriate care of such dogs. Critics advocated for the outright abolition of dog sledding, while others lobbied for more stringent rules regarding the dogs' care. Still others defended mushers' rights to care for the dogs as they see fit. The reality is that there is no one way for mushers to care for their dogs; however, humane treatment should be the guiding principle.
Sled dogs are typically kept outside to acclimatize them to weather conditions. Some mushers, particularly recreational mushers, fully integrate their sled dogs into their home life. When unmonitored outdoors, dogs must be contained for their own safety and for the safety of others. Different mushers have different approaches to the containment of sled dogs. Containment decisions may be based on personal views of the appropriate treatment of dogs, the number of dogs, the space available, the costs, or more likely, on a combination of these factors. Some build multiple small dog runs with shared dog houses and a larger dog yard for play time. Others tether their dogs with a chain and swivel to individual dog houses.
Ensuring adequate social and psychological stimulation should be a guiding humane principle for a musher in caring for sled dogs. The tethering method, or having dogs chained to individual dog houses, is the traditional and economical method of containment. Done properly, the tethering method can allow for both musher-individual dog interactions and interaction with other, closely tethered, dogs. The debate over the mass killings of sled dogs has, however, rekindled the debate over this tethering approach to confinement, from a socialization perspective. Sled dogs are social creatures and need to be able to see and play with each other and with toys to provide proper psychological stimulation.
Food and Water
A dog musher must ensure sled dogs have access to clean, fresh water everyday. Sled dogs need up to six quarts of water a day in extreme weather conditions. Similarly, sled dogs have high daily caloric requirements for their food, which varies based on their age. Sled dogs in training can use 3,600 calories a day, and some believe dogs in long-distance races, like the Iditarod, can burn up to 10,000 calories per day. Choice of food is key for a musher's proper care of sled dogs. Many choose commercial foods formulated for each training cycle: off season, pre-season, race season and post-season. High-quality commercial brands of dog food have a minimum of 25 percent quality protein and at least 15 percent quality fat. Some mushers supplement or substitute a meat and rice or oatmeal diet for a commercial diet.
In the summer, a musher may simply take sled dogs for a walk. Cooler times outside of winter might mean ATV training or dog carting with a dog team or bikejoring (one or two dogs pulling a bike and rider on a gangline). The exercise peak for sled dogs is during winter. Mushers follow a training regimen, monitoring and adjusting for, the individual conditioning needs of each sled dog. Some mushers build their dogs toward long-distance running, while others condition them for fast, short sprints. Sled dogs love to run but need to learn from their musher to maximize their potential.
Proper veterinary care should be a guiding humane principle for a musher in caring for sled dogs. Mushers must also closely monitor the appetite and water intake of sled dogs to catch any potential problems early. Changes in urine and fecal output may also indicate potential health issues. Mushers have to pay particular attention to their sled dogs' feet. Nail trimming, foot protection (booties) and crack treatment are part of a usual foot-care routine.
By Carol Strider
Mush with Pride: What's New with MWP
B.C.S.P.C.A.: Update on Sled Dog Investigation
"Mush! A Beginner's Manual of Sled Dog Training"; Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers Inc.; 1976
"Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher"; Miki and Julie Collins; 1991
Alaskan-Husky-Behavior.com: Sled Dog Care
Mush with Pride: Sled Dog Care Guidelines; 2009
About the Author
Carol Strider is a writer and a post-secondary educator in law and criminal justice, teaching in person and online since 2002. Prior to teaching, Strider was a lawyer at a community law office. Strider holds a Juris Doctor, a Bachelor of Arts, a diploma in adult education and a diploma in animal sciences.