Sled dogs are chosen specifically for sledding or running sled races. These sturdy dogs have tremendous stealth and are famous for their prowess, however a lot remains hidden when it comes to the ill treatment meted upon these dogs.
Sled dogs or sledge dogs are a distinct breed of dogs, known for their superb running speed. These dogs have been used for sledge racing at popular North American and European sports festivals where teams compete to see which team of dogs is the fastest. The practice of using packs of dogs for traveling and hunting can be traced and recorded far back to the 10th century, and may be even before. The oldest and the rarest breed of sled dog is the Canadian Eskimo breed, which is a pure breed found mainly in North America. This dog has a typical wolf-like appearance and has a very muscular built.
History of Sled Dogs
Dogs accompanied humans when they migrated into North America almost 15,000 years ago. Dogs were an essential part of the Native American culture and were kept as pets, and used for help in traveling, protection, and hunting purposes. Later on when the Europeans encroached into the Native lands, this practice was adopted by the newcomers as well.
When the Gold Rush began in 1896, the number of gold aspirants increased in large numbers. The terrains were highly inaccessible during winters, making it extremely difficult for humans to travel on foot. This is where the sled dogs came to the travelers rescue. These teams of dogs helped transport people, supplies, the injured and the ill, and even helped carry mail.
However, with the advent of technology and modernization, the sled dogs were no longer required for such purposes and instead were increasingly used for recreational sledge racing. This is how the sled dog era actually took off in a big way.
In 1925, an Alaskan town called Nome, had an outbreak of diphtheria. The town did not have the medicine needed to cure this deadly disease, and the only place the medication was available was a thousand miles away in the town Anchorage. A team of twenty sled dogs and mushers were dispatched to collect the medication. The team of sleds reached Anchorage after running for six days, with very few resting breaks. This mission helped save many lives in Nome.
Sled Dog Racing
All other existing types of dogs meant for sledding, have evolved or been bred from the Canadian Eskimo dogs or the Siberian Husky, Alaskan Malamute or the second rare breed of Mackenzie River Husky.
Sled dogs can run at 20 m/hr or 30 Km/hr and can cover almost 25-30 miles while running in a sled race!
Since dogs are pack animals, it is very essential to pick a dog which is mutually accepted by the other dogs as the pack leader. This dog acts as the tip or lead dog and is responsible for leading the team.
The point dogs are the two dogs immediately behind the leader, the pair of swing dogs come third. The wheel dogs are harnessed to the sledge and are immediately ahead of their Musher (human master).
These dogs are very precious to the musher, who will ensure that the dogs are taken care as pets and given proper training.
A sled dog, needs to have three basic requirements. It must be fast at running, must have a strong built, and must have tremendous stamina for long distance running. It is the compilation of these attributes, which form a competitive sled team.
Each dog is attached to its own harness, while the lead dog’s harness it attached to the gag line, which connects the harnesses from each dog onto the musher’s sledge.
These dogs usually weigh about 50-65 pounds and have a very dense coat of fur. This is another mark, that a musher must look for while selecting a sled puppy. The puppy’s fur must be healthy and dense.
These dogs must not be picky eaters while still young, because they need to be okay with whatever is provided by the musher while on sleds. These dogs do not prefer water, and thus, need to be fed some form of thick reindeer meat soup. This helps keep them strong, healthy and warm. Mushers also feed their dogs frozen slabs of reindeer meat, which the dogs enjoy immensely. The musher will always feed his dogs first and only then will he eat his meal.
On stopping at a place, these dogs need to be chained along with rings, which the musher fixes onto the ground. This keeps the dogs from attacking each other over food or position.
The musher has to get down and push the sled, whenever the snow is too soft. They will also need to push the sled from behind when the terrain goes uphill. This helps the dogs move forward faster.
The harness must always be kept straight at all times while sledding. A limp harness will end up getting tangled to the feet of the dogs, which can seriously injure them or even kill them, if all or any one of them trip and fall. The approaching sled can injure and trample the fallen dogs.
The Iditarod is an annual sled racing competition that is held to commemorate the swift delivery of the diphtheria serum in 1925. Many dogs have died while participating at the Iditarod sledding competition, because of exhaustion, injuries while sledding, and cruelty inflicted upon them by their mushers.
These dogs are made to live in depraved conditions, and are cramped into kennels that hold as many as 150-200 dogs at a time.
Many do not survive because of unhygienic conditions and lack of supervision or pet care. The ones that survive are thereafter selected for the annual race.
One of the most disturbing facts about sled dogs is that, these dogs are ill-treated and harmed when they do not perform well. Older dogs which are unfit for sledding are abandoned, and left to die from hunger and cold.
Unwanted dogs include the ones that are not fast enough, disabled at the time of birth, ill and weak. Such dogs are culled by being shot in the head. Rejected puppies are often drowned or bludgeoned to death.
Puppies that are chosen as sled dogs are removed from the rest, and are forced into aggressiveness. These puppies are tethered on short chains that are a mere four feet long, and are not allowed to move from their spot for years. These dogs are not allowed to mingle with others and thus begins the cycle of aggressive behavior.
Overworking these dogs, amounts to animal cruelty and must be monitored by animal right groups and citizens. Sled racing is a barbaric act and must be either controlled and restricted or completely banned. These races have thousands of dollars as cash prize, which somehow does not justify the atrocities being inflicted upon these poor animals. There are but a few masters, who truly love their sled dogs and look after them like their own pets.