Health and Welfare

What is a modern sled dog?

  • Prospectors and settlers during the Gold Rush bred their companion dogs to race for entertainment, creating the All-Alaska Sweepstakes Race (Serpell)1911 Sweepstakes dog team
  • Breeds used:
    • Siberian Husky (first imported to N.A. in 1908 for All-Alaska Sweepstakes Race)
    • Retrievers, Bird Dogs (German Short-Haired Pointer)
    • Hounds
    • Racing breeds (Greyhound, Saluki)
    • Dogs are selected for speed, hardiness, gait, and ability to work as a team
    • Dogs typically weigh 20-30 kg with long legs

Take away – sled dogs are no different genetically from any husky, pointer, hound or saluki kept as a pet

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Daily Life

  • Commercial (tourism) kennels and professional Iditarod kennels with anywhere between 50-400 dogs are typical
  • Standard practise is to chain dogs to posts or small wooden or plastic houses insulated with straw
  • Very few kennels provide enough exercise for dogs on days they do not work (letting small groups off-chain while still inside the fenced compound for 30-60 min a day is typical)
  • Very few kennels provide any mental stimulation or positive social interactions for dogs
  • Training methods regularly employ outdated fear and punishment based methods, like training puppies to pull by dragging them around by their collars with weight attached
  • A body condition index score of 1 is common for sled dogs, and is usually described as “athletic”
  • Dogs who can no longer pull due to age or injury are often culled; if they are kept around after “retirement” they usually continue to live in the same conditions
  • DIY veterinary care as a cost saving measure is regularly employed
  • Breeding of dogs is often less planned and more accidental
  • Longterm planning and budgeting for increasing dog populations does not appear to happen

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Why do they act so weird?

  • Lack of socialization

Puppies must be socialized and exposed to different environments, specifically during the “socialization window” from 4-14 weeks, otherwise they end up afraid of new things.

It is well known that early socialization to other dogs, humans, novel objects and environments is crucial to the development of young dogsSophia Yin 

  • Lack of exercise:

Chained dogs develop stereotypic behaviors like pacing, digging, chewing, rock eating, tail biting, licking etc. due to the social deprivation and stress.

Left alone for hours, days and months on a chain can cause immense psychological damage to the dog. Left alone and exposed, dogs will become fearful, aggressive, anxious and desperate, putting anyone who comes close at risk. A tethered dog can also become tangled and choke to death or be attacked by wildlife or other roaming dogs. – BC SPCA

  • Chronic pain and stress
    • Injuries from pulling sleds are common, both traumatic and chronic
    • Traumatic:
      • shoulder and fore-leg injuries
      • gastro-intestinal issues from poor quality food, C.difficile or Giardia infections, and over-exertion
      • Exertional Rhabdomyolysis
    • Chronic:
      • Arthritis
      • Diarrhea
      • Ski asthma
      • Stomach ulcers
      • Stress related autoimmune diseases (cushing’s)
      • Cancer
      • Worn and broken teeth

The combination of a complete lack of socialization, long-term confinement and the conditions in which sled dogs live results in an extremely fearful dog with learned helplessness, stereotypy’s, extreme sensitivity to handling, hyperactivity, attachment issues and in some cases anxiety/depressive disorders or PTSD. (McMillan, Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse, 2015) The majority of commercial sled dog operations with upwards of 200-400 dogs could be considered hoarding situations. Animal ownership is considered hoarding when the number of animals exceeds the ability of the owners to meet the basic needs of the animals, resulting in harm to the well-being of the animal. (Merck, 2007)

 

Chronic stress present in hoarding environments may contribute to the development of a number of the abnormal behavioural characteristics identified in formerly hoarded dogs. […] Specific factors that have been determined to be associated with stress in dogs living in confined environments include: spatial restriction; extreme temperatures; inability to avoid or regulate exposure to aversive stimuli, and limited access to positive human and conspecific social interaction. The hoarding environment exposes dogs to these stressors and more, including long-term overcrowding, insufficient or poor quality of food and water, competition for resources, exposure to and inability to escape from aggressive animals, […] and untreated medical conditions.

[…] The dogs may develop abnormal behaviours such as hyperactivity, timidity, aggression, and stereotypic locomotory behaviours. (McMillan, Behavioral characteristics of dogs removed from hoarding situations, 2016)

The isolation-reared pups in spite of being isolated for such a short period of time at the early part of the critical period of socialization behaved similarly to pups reared for much longer periods in social deprivation. They were hyperactive and showed diffuse reactions to novel objects and paid more attention to their physical environment than to their litter mates when tested in the group situation. They had the lowest emotional attachment or attraction for man and showed the most inferior problem solving abilities. (Fox, 1966)

These abnormal behavioral issues are what people generally view as “typical sled dog behaviour” and one of the main reasons why even experts in animal welfare and the rescue world believe that sled dogs are “un-adoptable” and therefore it is a mercy to just shoot them when they get old. They have a point – the transition from working sled dog to happy house pet is a long and slow transition and re-habilitation, and requires committed foster and adoptive homes with access to expert resources. The tragedy of the situation is that these abnormal behaviours are completely preventable if the dogs are properly socialized as puppies and not mistreated. Since euthanasia for population control is viewed with strong negative feelings in the majority of the animal welfare community, a preventative strategy rather than a rehabilitation strategy would seem to be a more effective strategy for dealing with fired and retired sled dogs.