Dog sledding is an ancient tradition that has been a part of modern popular culture for decades. There are famous dog sledding races, like the Alaskan Iditarod, as well as tourist outfits that promise an exhilarating ride through snowy trails while being whisked along by beautiful canines. Whenever animals are used in a commercial fashion it raises the question, is this ethical? Is dog sledding cruel? It is a question that many people ask themselves when they see someone mushing a pack of dogs along in the Arctic. The answer to that question is largely going to depend on your culture and personal sensibilities. Let’s review the history behind this.
The Working Animal Debate
Dogs that pull sleds fall under the category of working animals. Working animals have been a part of human existence since the beginning of time. From horses to donkeys to oxen, animals have been helping people complete jobs for millennia. There is nothing inherently wrong with working animals as long as the animals are treated well. Dog sledding is like any other human activity, and some people do it better than others.
Some people are very, very opposed to working animals, but that is an opinion that can only be cultivated in an urban environment. Some people live in places and societies where working animals are necessary. There are those who believe that working any animal is wrong, and for those people, dog sledding will always be unethical.
However, the debate is more nuanced than that. Certainly, there are dog handlers who mistreat their dogs. That is a sad fact, but it is by no means the norm. It is perfectly fine to be opposed to unethical dog handlers without being opposed to the art of dog sledding as a whole. Some people treat their sled dogs better than themselves and deeply respect the animals.
The art and sport of dog sledding need to be viewed through the lens of the working animals. Just like horses, there are people who treat their animals extremely well and those who treat them very poorly. Equestrianism is not inherently ethical or unethical, but practices within the practice can be. The same is true of dog sledding.
History, Necessity, and Modernity
Dog sledding has been around since the year 1000 CE. The practice was likely invented by native Inuit peoples in modern-day Canada. In the frigid northern regions of our planet, dog sledding is a necessity. There are places where no vehicle can drive and where slow travel can be fatal. In these dangerous climates, dog sledding is necessary to get around and to get from place to place in a timely manner. Dog sledding has been used to transport materials, including critical things like medicine and doctors, around places in Canada and Alaska even up into the 1960s. Dog sledding wasn’t an ethical or unethical thing. It was a necessary thing.
Today, dog sledding has seen a sharp decline due to the invention of the snowmobile and air travel. Areas that previously could only be reached by dog sled can now be reached by plane, helicopter, or snowmobile. That has moved dog sledding from a necessary form of transportation to a tradition, sport, and tourist attraction.
There is room to criticize dog sledding as a recreational activity as opposed to a necessary way of life.
Do Your Research
If you are thinking about taking a dog sledding tour or seeing a dog sledding race, do your research. Find out if the group that is participating is a humane group. Look up their history and see if there are any public complaints about their treatment of the animals. Abusing any animal is unethical, and it is prudent to avoid outfits engaging in animal cruelty. Also, realize that having a dog pull a sled isn’t in itself cruel.
When you are researching, keep in mind that some communities have been participating in dog sledding for dozens of generations. It is a part of many cultures in the world’s northernmost regions. It can be hard to realize that the people who have been participating in dog sledding the longest likely know the most about it. Try to avoid walking into a cultural situation with your affluent urban sensibilities and criticizing a culture that has been around for hundreds of years. It is always good to do a sizable amount of research about something before crafting praise or criticism about it.
In Greenland, there are isolated, impoverished villages where dozens of dogs are chained up and left out in the snow. That is something to feel consternation about. In contrast, in Canada, there are numerous husky breeding outfits that let their dogs hunt, run free on large properties, and frequently rotate for dog sledding duties. These dogs are well cared for by professionals who love them and regularly have them looked after by veterinarians.
Doing your research will unveil the differences between these types of operations and allow you to choose who and what to support when it comes to dog sledding. The internet is filled with multiple stories of skeptics of dog sledding who did research and became believers in the age-old tradition. There are also numerous horror stories that will likely turn some people off to the idea completely.
Is dog sledding ethical? The answer to that question is largely going to depend on your culture and personal sensibilities. The vast majority of dog sledding is done in an ethical way and is a part of old cultures stretching back hundreds of years. However, there are some people who will always think that forcing a dog to pull a sled is wrong. At the end of the day, sledding dogs are working animals, and working animals are a fact of life for millions of people around the world. As long as the animals are not being abused, there is nothing unethical about employing working animals in your day-to-day life.