Is Dog Sledding Cruel? The Misconceptions of Dogsledding

Written By: The Planet D

People often ask us if dog sledding is cruel. We admit, we didn’t know a lot about dogsledding and had our doubts about how dogs react to pulling people on sleds before we ever did it. Do dogs really like mushing? Are they happy? And what steps are taken to ensure the animals’ welfare on a dog sledding tour? We are going to answer these questions and delve into the nitty gritty to answer the question, is dog sledding cruel.

Sled dogs in Greenland

dogs greenland
The Greenland sled dogs

While visiting Greenland, our hearts broke as we walked through “Dogville” in Ilulissat. The town has a population of 4500 people and nearly as many dogs were chained up outside of town. We didn’t like it. It was terrible seeing these dogs sitting outside on on a short tether with no shelter. As we learned more, we didn’t feel much better about the plight of the Greenland Sled Dog.

In Greenland, sled dogs are stuck in a situation where modernization and the displacement of indigenous people have taken the traditional use of sled dogs nearly out of commission.

Where they were once a part of the community and used regularly for hunting and travel, there are now 2,100 dogs chained to stakes on the edge of the town when not in use. Like many people, we were skeptical of the dogsledding industry.

So this it was a good opportunity for us to visit Haliburton, Ontario, and spend time with Winterdance and their team of sled dogs to see what life is like for their working and racing dogs.

Dogsledding in Canada

dogsledding puppy
Tanya McCready of Winterdance

We met Tanya McCready and Hank DeBruin at their log cabin in Haliburton where their kennels are located right on their property. Tanya and Hank bought their first husky more than 20 years ago when they were married and instantly fell in love with dogs.

Over time, they grew their dog family, and now they have 150 pure bred Siberian Huskies in their kennels where they run dogsled tours all winter long. Hank also has raced in the most famous dog sledding race The Iditarod and the far more arduous Yukon Quest with his beautiful team of dogs.

Their Siberian Huskies are known as the prettiest team on the circuit!.

Winterdance Dogsledding Haliburton, Ontario

dogsledding myths running
The dogs relaxing in the yard

We took a tour of their kennels and unlike our experience in Greenland, here in Haliburton, we felt uplifted. Hank and Tanya have a team of employees working with them to take care of their dogs and give them the love and care they need.

As Hank said “everyone who works for Winterdance stays for a long time.” It’s hard work and you have to love dogs so when people do join their team, they are like family”

dogsledding myths kennels
The race dogs’ outdoor kennels at Winterdance as they acclimate for the upcoming Yukon Quest

We could easily see that their employees felt like family. The day we arrived, people were over at the kennel shoveling snow off the roof with smiles on their faces. One girl said to us “There’s no place I’d rather be today.”

They heard we were going out on an overnight run with Hank and everyone offered up their services to lead the way on the snowmobile to keep an eye out for angry moose. Even after a full day of work, they were eager to get out on the trails again.

When we entered the kennels we were thrilled to see that each dog had spacious kennels and comfort. They are fed only the best food and they are let out daily to roam freely in the huge yard. A dog in the city would die for this attention and running space!

The dogs are rotated when working to make sure that they have plenty of rest. They have days off but when another group of dogs gets to run without them, they are not happy. We learned that these dogs love to run!

Dogs Can’t-Wait to Get in the Truck

dogsledding myths truck
These dogs couldn’t wait to get in the truck!

It was so much fun to watch the dog’s excitement when they saw Hank’s truck filled with kennels pull into the yard. They lined up like school children anxious to get in to their beds because they knew that this truck meant a good long run.

Animal Cruelty in the Dog Sled Industry

We asked Hank and Tanya about a terrible scandal that happened in Whistler after the winter Olympics where a company slaughtered their dogs due to the economic downturn.

Hank and Tanya said it was heartbreaking and that they didn’t understand why someone would do that. “The dogsledding community is a tight-knit community and if anyone was in dire straights, everyone would be there to help them out.”

They said if only that person sent out an email or made a call, he’d have had his dogs placed within 48 hours. They didn’t need to do what they did.

Sadly, like everything in life, there is a chance to have a bad apple in any community. There are bad people in every aspect of life and this company wasn’t only a bad dogsledding company, they were bad people.

We’ve followed dogsledding in the past and we already knew this about the North American dogsledders out there.

We’ve met dogsledding legendary mushers Lance Mackey and Jeff King while traveling in Alaska and like Hank and Tanya, you could see how much they both love and respect their dogs.

Sled Dogs Love to Run

happy dogs
These dogs love to run!

We love animals and especially love dogs. There are thousands of dogs in shelters, on the street and euthanized yearly. The dog mushers that we have met, visited and toured take pride in the care they give their dogs. I have seen neighbors keep their dogs in small kennels, people lock their dogs in their apartments and keep them outside on a leash all winter long. SOme just throw their dogs in their garage and let them out to pee every once in a while. Is what they are doing better than dog mushers who take their dogs out daily for runs?

What people don’t seem to realize is that sled dogs need open space and they want to run for as long as they can.

My family grew up with a Husky and lucky for us, we lived in the country where our dog could roam free.She’d disappear for days at a time and come back smelling like a skunk or a dead animal, but that didn’t concern us, because we knew she had to run.

Dave owned a husky for a short time as a child and even though his family had the best intentions, it didn’t fare well in the city. It chewed at the fence, had anxiety and eventually, they had to give it away to a farm.

Dogsledding Huskies have the best of both worlds. They get the attention and love that they need but also get the chance to run a lot.

Dogs Are Like Children to Hank and Tanya of Winterdance

dogsledding myths dog
Hank takes great care of his dogs.

We learned a lot during our time in Haliburton by simply observing the dog’s behavior. Watching them be picked up like toddlers by Hank and his guides made us smile. These dogs literally acted like five-year-old children heading outside to play. They ran around wagging their tails, they barked with excitement and then the minute they were picked up they settled down like they were relaxing in their mother’s arms.

Once they were hooked up to the sleds, they were eager to run. You have to hold them back while they hook the entire team up or else they’d take off down the trail without you. The closer they get to take off, the more excited and loud their barks get.

You feed off their energy and become excited yourself. You know you are in for an amazing day on the trail. As the barks continue, you have to quickly get on the sled and ready to go because the dogs are chomping at the bit.

They’re pulling on the sled so hard that you have to hold on to the brakes and keep the snow hook firmly in the ground or they’ll be dragging you behind. Once you let go of the brake, they instantly go quiet and start running.

Dog Deaths in Races

Hank has taken part in the famous Iditarod race in Alaska, and the Yukon Quest. We have been on a training run with him and he suffers more than the dogs. He feeds them in the middle of the night, puts down straw for them to sleep, and he checks their paws regularly. These dogs are his family.

Over the years, the issue of dog deaths in sled racing raised significant ethical concerns and media attention. Various sled dog races, including the Iditarod, have faced scrutiny after reports of dog deaths during the events. Sadly, dogs have died in races from heart attacks, pneumonia, dehydration, and diarrhea.

Criticism has also been aimed at the adequacy of veterinary care during races, and the general welfare of the dogs involved. The controversy has prompted activists to call for increased regulations and oversight of sled dog races to ensure the safety and well-being of the participating animals.

There have been reports of some dog racers abusing their dogs. Of course, these people should be banned and have their dogs taken away from them.

The debate surrounding dog deaths in sled racing has contributed to a broader conversation about the ethical treatment of animals in sports and has led some to question the viability and morality of such events in the modern age.

I don’t think pushing dogs to race is the way to go, but then again, if people race horses and greyhounds, so perhaps we should end that too. I am not here to talk about sled dog racing, I am however her to talk about commercialized dog sledding.

The Ethics of Dog Sledding

dogs howling
Ready to hit the trails!

Over the years, dog handlers have worked hard to change the landscape of dog sledding. Most of the bad apples have been weeded out sadly it took the high-profile deaths of dogs to make a sweeping change, but change has happened.

First and foremost, the dog operations that we have encountered put the animals’ welfare first. Ethical Dog Sledding Companies look after their dogs with love and affection. They have comfortable kennels, plenty of chances to run, and make sure to tell tourists about their care and practices.

It is so much fun watching them from behind. Their tails wag away as they sniff and posture for position. I’ve never seen an animal so much in their element. Whenever you hear dogsledders say “My dogs love to run” you have to believe them.

If you put on the brake for some reason like you need to fix your hat or organize your camera, the dogs look back at you with a look of “What are you doing?” Don’t you know we’ve got to keep running?” And run they did. If you have the chance to try dogsledding, we highly recommend it.

I look at ethical dog sledding the same way that ranches offer horse riding. If you book with a reputable company.

History of Dog Sledding

Dog sledding has a history that spans thousands of years and many different cultures. The use of sled dogs dates back to at least 2000 BCE, with evidence of dogsledding found in Siberia, Northern Canada, and Greenland.

During the gold rushes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, dogsledding became a crucial means of transportation.

Dogsledding also has a notable place in history for its role in public health. In 1925, a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, Alaska, was halted thanks to a relay of mushers and sled dogs that transported antitoxin serum over 700 miles in treacherous winter conditions, in what became known as the “Great Race of Mercy.” It was this event that inspired the race from Anchorage to Nome known as the Iditarod.

See for yourself how happy and excited the dogs are on the trail. Our skepticism melted away during our time with Winterdance. Make sure to choose your dogsledding company wisely though. Be a responsible tourist and do your research, not all companies are created equally.

For more information on Booking your own dogsledding trip in Ontario visit the Winterdance website. 

Check out more of our Ontario adventures at Dogsledding Ontario and Prepare for Lure of the North

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About The Planet D

Dave Bouskill and Debra Corbeil are the owners and founders of The Planet D. After traveling to 115 countries, on all 7 continents over the past 13 years they have become one of the foremost experts in travel. Being recognized as top travel bloggers and influencers by the likes of Forbes Magazine, the Society of American Travel Writers and USA Today has allowed them to become leaders in their field.

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38 thoughts on “Is Dog Sledding Cruel? The Misconceptions of Dogsledding”

  1. A nice post about the use of canadian dogs, and informative.

    But I have to say that almost everything that you wrote about the Greenlandic use of dog is false.

    First of there is “only” 2000 dogs in Ilulissat. Here in Ilulissat most of the dogs in town is used for fishing, most of the fishermen also takes tourist out, but actually it can be hard to find people who wants to take tourist, because they rather go out fishing with dogs. It’s true that the use for long travels with dogs doesn’t really exist anymore, and for that there is many reason. First of all, the need to go on long travels with dogs dont exist, it’s because you dont have to travel to tradestation to get steel, coffee, tobaco etc. Because you will find it in your local supermarket. You also dont have to travel to where the best hunting places is, because now it’s possible to buy the food in a supermarket. Due to global warming it’s not possible to travel on the sea ice. So they have to travel in land, which is very difficult. The long journeys was also really dangerous, and I dont think many people want to risk their lifes for that, anymore. But most people in Ilulissat use them for fishing, and further up north, they do the same and also for hunting. So the point about that the dogs ONCE was part of the community and used regularly, is simply not true. They are a very big part of their community and they are used regularly, they are a very big part of they culture and identity. Thats why you also find many people who have the dogs just for “fun”, using them for small day trips, or races because it’s part of their identity.

    I agreed that it is sad, that the dogs are chained. But by law it’s require that the chain is at least 3 meters long, and I know many of them have longer chains. I dont think that most dogs in Canada have a much bigger cage than 3×3 meter. These dogs have been here for the last 4000 years, and for most of that time, the dogs never had a shelter. And as being one of the most purest dogs breed in the world, it is in they genes to be out in cold. I personally have dogs in Ilulissat, and in the beginning we also wanted to have a shelter for every dog, but then we spoke with a Greenlandic guy, who had dogs his entire life, he told us, that dogs only needs a shelter when they have puppies, and that most dogs even if they have a shelter, dont use it, only for pissing on it. That part I have seen for my self. Many of our dogs have a shelter, but I had never seen any of them using it. They have it best in the open. I agreed with you, that it is sad the dogs don’t get to run around freely, and have to be chained, where modernization is the fault of that. Up until 1972 all dogs ran around freely in town, but after to many accidents with people getting bitting, they were chained. The solutions for that could be to build big open spaces where they could run around, but that would be extremely expensive. Also the Greenlandic dog is a much more wild dog than the huskey, a very strict hierarchy exist between the dogs, and they try to challenge each other, which in worse case can result in a dog killing another dog, or just terrible wounds on the dogs.

    One last thing to remember is that the view on dogs in Greenland is much different than the western world. Dogs are not a pet, they are a working animal. And I think as a foreigner you have to be carefull to judge the way the Greenlandic people treat their dogs, because there is no doubt that they treat them with love and respect, they maybe have a different way of shoving it, than we do, but they are fully aware of how important it is to keep them happy, and well feed. Most dogs up here have diet consisting of freshly catch fish and seal, how many Canadian dogs can say they get fresh food for dinner? None of Greenlandic people thinks that the dogs live a sad life, and I also dont think that the dogs thinks that, as you also write in your post, the dogs needs to be happy otherwise they wouldn’t run.

    I hope that people find this informative, and dont judge the Greenlandic way of having dogs as they way this post does. My knowledge about Greenland comes from living up here for a year now, as a guide, and also as a dog owner, and I got pretty annoyed about this post, because I think it only display a very small and ignorant view on the way of having dogs in Greenland. For me personally I would much rather go on dogsleding tour in Greenland than in Canada. But I totally agree that dogs should be treated with respect and good caring!

  2. My family and I are planning a trip to Alaska this spring and have been on the fence with trying the dogsledding based on the horrific reports of abuse. It’s not about the dogsledding itself because we truly believe that the dogs love to run and be able to perform a job, having owned dogs ourselves. Our issue is with choosing a company who have handlers that love and take care of their dogs like the Winterdance family. Our research is web-based right now, and we can only go by what we read, so if you know of a great company in Alaska to go dogsledding with, please let me know. Thank you for such an uplifting article.

    • Thank you Karen, I don’t know companies in Alaska, but I do think most mushers love their dogs. I am not sure if Lance Macky or Jeff King are affiliated with any companies, but I am sure if they have their names on something in Alaska, you can bet they are reputable. We went to Alaska with Princess Cruises and both of them stopped in with their race dogs. So I believe the companies that Princess uses are reputable and care for their dogs. It seemed that way when we visited the doges there. Have an amazing time.

  3. I don’t like that post as I don’t like people who take advantage of animals to make money.
    I’ve had the worst experience when I went to Ushuaia and find out they did it there.
    The dogs are not happy living in chains outside. That’s just not what they deserve either.
    They don’t simply like to run, they like to BE FREE. If running is the only moment they are free then yeah they should love running.

    • Dogs are man’s best friend and these dogs were certainly Hank’s best friend. I understand your concerns though, dogs are treated differently around the world and there are a few bad apples in every business and culture. I have seen large dogs in my elevator living downtown Toronto and I would argue that these dogs have far less freedom that Hank’s dogs. Hanks dogs run daily in a large field, they are rotated daily from running sleds and they have constant interaction with other dogs.
      Yes, that is very sad the dogs are chained outside in Ushuaia, we saw the same thing in Greenland. Hopefully as the people are educated more about animal cruelty in those destinations, they will come to understand that dogs should not be chained and neglected. The establishments we have been to here in Canada are not the case.

  4. Thank you! I’m a dog sledder myself, and it hurts to see people who mistreat their dogs. Even worse, people who have no idea what they’re talking about and say it’s cruel.

  5. Amazing article! Thank you so much! I’ve been looking into experiencing dog-sledding in Norway and one lady that I was meant to travel with made a comment to say it was cruel. It made me feel bad, so I started to do some research. Your article has really made me smile and I am now eager to see it for myself.
    You made a comment to choose dog-sledding company wisely – I am going to Norway between Oslo and Bergen, any tips when choosing would be much appreciated!

  6. My huband and I had the privledge of dogsleeding at Winterdance. It was an amazing experience and you could tell how much the dogs are love. They will take all the love you have to give! I totally agree they love to run, excitement was definitely in the air to get moving.

    I never had the privledge of meeting Hank, but their staff were great. Halaburton is beautiful and i would definitely do it again with Winterdance.

    Ps. beware of the cocking of the leg lol, but a little pee won’t hurt ya 😉


  8. I’ve gotten to meet sled dogs in Alaska, and it’s a wonderful experience just because the dogs are so obviously happy – I love watching them go wild with excitement when they realize it’s time for a run with a sled! And I’ve never met a dog handler who wasn’t completely devoted to his dogs.

    • I’m glad to hear that you have seen the dogs first hand too. It’s easy to look on from the outside and make judgements, but it’s really all about seeing it for yourself. When you see that twinkle in their eyes, you know they love it. We agree, we’ve met three guys now who we admire and respect and they all have a deep bond with their dogs that we’ll never understand.The dogs certainly do go wild with excitement eh? I’ve never seen such craziness in one place before our sled ride.

  9. I absolutely love the photo with the two howling dogs at the front of the pack. Even through my computer screen, I can feel their excitement!

    • Aren’t they the cutest? Dave stopped them so that I could run ahead and take a photo and all they wanted to do was run! They were like, “what are you doing in my way?” I gotta go don’t you know! 🙂

  10. Thank you this informative article! There are so many misconceptions about dogsledding, so thanks for clearing some of that stuff up 🙂

    • Glad we could help Nathan. It is a subject that needs more attention. People have been using dogs for transportation for centuries, it is in their breeding to do this and they love it.

  11. These dogs were born to run! I saw sled dogs in Alaska and remember how excited they get knowing they will son be set up to pull a sled. It was crazy.

    • You said it David. It’s hard to explain just how excited they get until you’ve actually seen it in person. It’s a total frenzy at the start line. What I loved was how they immediately quieted down as soon as you let up the brake. They just settle in and have fun. Many people think that they pull and work hard, but the weight is distributed between dogs and when it is too much for them, they look back at you and ask for help. You gotta give the dogs help regularly, the more work you do, the more they reward you.

  12. It’s such a relief to now that these magnificent animals are loved dearly and taken good care off! it broke my heart when the news about Whistler first came out, for anyone who grew up with dogs and have felt their love and attention towards you, Whistler was a very hard incident to digest, but to read about Winter dance – it’s amazing people and their splendid dogs, was so heartwarming. This is definitely a place I’d like to visit & an adventure I’d love to experience.

    • Yes, that incident in Whistler shocked everyone. I can never understand how people can hurt animals? Unfortunately you hear about these things in all aspects of life. I remember a terrible incident with the Toronto Humane Society in 2009. The board of directors then, were bad people and received their punishment. That doesn’t mean that I will always consider all animal shelter owners as evil, that was one terrible incident and I believe that most shelters care deeply for their animals, I even continue to give to the Humane Society because they do good things, new people are running it and I know they love animals as much we do. There are terrible people out there among us, but the reality is most people are good and care about their pets and animals. Dog Mushers have a deep bond with their dogs and something was clearly wrong with the owners of that Whistler business. I don’t feel that other dog businesses should be judged and punished for the actions of one person. Although I do believe that enquiries are good to make sure that things aren’t happening in other businesses. Places like Winterdance treat their dogs with love and respect and I know that you will find that most Dogsledding businesses feel the same way.

    • Thanks Arti, it’s a very cool winter activity to try. Dogs have been used in Arctic Regions for years as transportation and we’ve continued the tradition by using dogs in racing and tourism. They are still used quite a bit in the far North for transportation too. It’s in their blood and it is a cool experience to see them in action.

  13. Very interesting and informative post and the photos really tell the story of dogsledding, great job. I would love to try this some day, the dogs look like they are really enjoying themselves!

    • Glad we could share some information with you and spread the word on dogsledding. We felt compelled to write about our experience after seeing how the dogs are treated and drawing on our own preconceived notions. That’s what we love about travel, we are constantly learning and having our eyes opened to new ideals and truths. I hope you get the chance to try it, you will love it.

  14. I didn’t know anything about dogsledding, so it was a pretty informative read for me. Yeah, I agree dogs are really fun and adorable. I hope to experience dogsledding someday.

    • Thanks Renuka, I’m glad we could share the information with you. If you have the chance to go to a cold climate, make sure to give dogsledding a try, you’ll have a blast. Especially is you love dogs like we do:)

  15. I was hesitant about trying this as well. I’m sure there are some places who take good care of their dogs and some who don’t. It makes me happy to hear that they love running and get excited to go. I think most dogs just love being around people and they will do anything to please.

    • You make a good point with dogs doing anything to please. I have to counter that by saying, these dogs love being around people, but they have thoughts of their own. If they find the hill to steep or the pull to heavy, they’ll stop and not try to please you at all. They expect you to work with them and if you don’t, they show little respect. When you do work with them, they love you We helped them up hills by walking or pushing and they in return decided that they liked us enough to move for us. You are right though, they love people and the more we rubbed them, the happier they were:)

  16. We went dogsledding in Norway last winter. I had misgivings at first, but all the dogs looked healthy and happy … and, when they got hitched to the sleds, eager to be off. And, the love the owner and his staff had for their animals clearly showed.

    • Great to hear that you gave it a try. I think that you can tell a lot from a company by how their dogs look. Winterdance dogs have thick healthy coats, lots of muscle and meat and really clear eyes. It’s easy to see they are well fed (with the best food) and well taken care of. They don’t shy away from people, they love people.

  17. We’re always skeptical of places that use animals for sport or commerce as well. It’s easy for people to exploit the vulnerable, especially those who can’t speak up for themselves. So mostly we tend to shy away from anything that uses animals for profit.

    However, as you point out, the people running these places make all the difference in the world. It looks like you found a good one in Winterdance.

    • Good point Brian. It’s a difficult position that we are in as humans. As we encroach on open spaces and create urban sprawl around the world, animals are losing space to roam freely. So the human/animal relationships are changing. Sled dogs have always been used as working dogs, so their roles really haven’t changed over the years. Horses are used for trail rides, elephants are used for work and riding in Asia and other animals are used regularly by humans, it’s a delicate balance and the key is to find companies who love and respect their animals. I’ve been on a trail ride in the Dominican where I wanted to turn around and go back because the horses looked so skinny. (I was younger then and didn’t now to say anything, but if it were today, I would have) I was then on a trail ride last year in Alberta where the horses were beautiful and healthy and free to roam in their huge open space when not out on the trails. It was magnificent and we knew that these horses were in good hands. The same can be said for dogsledding. When dogs have freedom to run around the yard each day (as they do at Winterdance) when they are fed high vitamin, protein and nutrient rich foods (like at winterdance) and they are loved and part of the family (like at winterdance) I have no problem with dogs being used for work. I’ve seen people keep their huge pet dogs in small apartments in the city thinking that they are giving them the best love and attention that they can, but that is no life for a dog. The dogs at places like Winterdance are definitely living the life.