The Truth About Dog Sledding: Kind or Cruel?

Dog sledding is a historically significant and intense sport that builds trust and loyalty with handlers. But there’s a lot more to this canine sport than meets the eye.

May 24, 2024By Lisa Szymanski
the truth about dog sledding

Mushing and pulling sleds through the snow is not only a job but a way to release energy and just have fun. Mountain dogs and husky hybrids have been sledding for years to perform rescues and deliver goods to snow-covered villages from Siberia to Alaska. More recently, mushing has become an international dog sport, but despite the excitement of these events, the treatment of these dogs has come under scrutiny. To learn more, we shed some much-needed light on the truth about dog sledding: kind or cruel?

What is Dog Sledding?

history of dog sledding with mountain dogs
Dog sledding involved dangerous missions to reach snowy villages from the 1800s to the 1900s.

Dog sledding is a high-energy activity in which one or more dogs pull a sled or sleigh that is steered by their handler. Huskies, malamutes, Eskimo dogs, and Chinooks are some of the most popular mushing breeds, but today any athletic and active dog can pull a sled. But where did it all begin? Around 9000 years ago, dogs were the primary mode of transportation in Siberia. As people needed a fast way to travel across the ice, lightweight and muscular dogs were used for traveling and transporting goods.

Once traditional sledding spread to the polar regions, dogs allowed travelers to venture deeper into the icy terrain because horses were far too heavy. A fun fact is that the popular term “mush” was derived from French sledding teams who used the command “Marche,” which means “walk.” In 1925, sled dogs raced to Alaska to deliver medicine to an outlying community in desperate need of help. Heroic dogs, Balto and Togo, led the way performing a miraculous feat across the most treacherous icy mountains and lakes. Their tale remains one of the greatest life-saving missions in American culture today.

Do Dogs Enjoy Sledding?

huskies mushing in snow
Sled pulling ignites a dog’s awareness of and thrill of the chase.

Ask anyone who owns a husky or malamute, and they’ll agree that their dogs can run and play for hours without tiring. Well-equipped for the cold with their double coats and muscular bodies, these dogs have the instinct to travel. Combined with their endurance and intelligence, most of these northern breeds love to mush.

When paired with other dogs and strapped to a harness, these dogs will howl and bark with excitement. It’s as if they understand that pulling a sled is their job, and they’re ready to blast off, exploring new sights while burning off steam. Whether traveling across the slippery ice or participating in competitive events, ethical dog sledding provides mental stimulation and physical exercise for every hound, husky or not.

What’s Good About Dog Sledding?

musher with sled pulled by dogs across snow covered mountain
Sledding satisfies the instincts of these working breeds.

Despite mushing coming under fire concerning the treatment of dogs, where handlers are passionate about the well-being of their animals, dog sledding is incredibly beneficial. For active dogs that enjoy the exhilaration of pulling and running, sledding satisfies this drive. It keeps them physically fit because they’re constantly on the go, which prevents boredom and destructive behaviors, including aggression.

Sledding teaches dogs high-level commands such as “hike,” which means move, and “haw” to turn left. So not only can mushing curb high energy, but it also encourages dog obedience and stimulates their curiosity. In addition to the benefits for dogs, sledding is good for the environment. It prevents noise disturbances and pollution in the wilderness and teaches travelers about the cultural significance of the sport.

Why is Mushing Seen as Cruel?

white husky tied to a chain in snow
Some dogs are tied up on short chains for weeks before being expected to mush.

When dog sledding involves care and dedication, all animals are vet-checked, well-rested, and given ample time to play and socialize. But, according to organizations such as PETA, dogs are reportedly tied to short chains for days on end with little room to move around. There are also stories of mushers running their dogs until they can’t walk or stand anymore, which, of course, is a cruel practice. Other cases include dogs being tossed aside because they can no longer keep up with the pack, rather than being retired to loving homes.

This isn’t to say that all dog sledding activities are bad. Many reputable mushers pay attention to the condition of their dogs. This includes high-protein diets, special feeding regimes, and allowing their racers to recover from muscle sprains. It’s important to support ethical sledding practices to encourage the humane treatment of these hard-working animals.

Can Sledding Hurt Dogs?

two huskies standing in snow
Sledding can lead to major injuries if dogs are overexerted or ill-prepared.

Sledding can be more harmful than helpful if dogs are not given proper care and rest. Dogs look forward to running and working, but if they are pushed to their limits, mushing becomes a negative experience. Sled dogs not kept in healthy conditions can suffer from respiratory issues because of prolonged exposure to cold and wet weather. Their paw pads can crack and bleed with constant wear and tear, and they’re affected by joint problems because of stress on their musculoskeletal system.

Overexertion also affects a dog’s digestive system. Intense physical activity increases their appetite, and they gorge on their food. This leads to digestive upset, including vomiting and abdominal pain. Some dogs can suffer from dehydration along their travels if they aren’t allowed to stop and drink enough water. Sledding dogs require specialized care to prevent the combination of intense exercise and frigid weather from causing physical injuries and shortening their lifespans.

Finding Ethical Dog Sledding Practices

huskies mushing along forest trail
Sledding is popular in snow or along forest trails.

If you’re participating in a professional dog sledding tour, there are a few factors that should be on your checklist before choosing a musher. Consider the year-round treatment of the dogs. Are they provided with ample space to move and run when they’re not performing, or are they confined to cages? What is the general condition of the pack? They should be energetic, alert, and clean, and have their kennels or outdoor area been properly maintained?

Answering these questions can help you find reputable dog sledding teams to experience the thrill and adventure of mushing. If you want your dog to be part of sledding activities, look for local and informal mushing groups that host monthly or seasonal events. Most importantly, learn how to prepare your dogs, from their diet to their physical training, before you attempt any type of sledding or racing. Speak to your vet about a physical exam, and always prioritize your pet’s health and happiness over crossing the finish line.

Lisa Szymanski
By Lisa Szymanski

Lisa is a wildlife enthusiast who enjoys hiking and gardening and has four years of experience volunteering at pet shelters. She is the proud mom of two dogs, a Pitbull named Ragnar, a Boerboel named Blueberry, and four feisty chickens, or as she calls them, the "queens of the yard," Goldie, Gray, Peaches, and Brownie.