The Painful Truth of Long Distance Dog Racing

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It’s Howlin’ Time! – The Painful Truth about Long-Distance Dog Racing

by – pj johnson, Yukon Poet Laureate

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mahatma Gandhi

A Thousand Miles of Hell and Ice

Back in 1983 Yukon artist Jim Robb asked me to write a poem for a poster to raise money to support Yukon musher ‘Cowboy’ Larry Smith who ran a team in the annual Alaskan Iditarod thousand-mile dog sled race. The finished poster was illustrated by Jim Robb and Chris Caldwell and went on sale that year in the Yukon and Alaska. The following year on February 25th 1984 twenty-six mushers left Fairbanks to compete in the inaugural run of the thousand-mile Yukon Quest long-distance sled dog race.

It was at about this time that I became aware of the terrible toll that long-distance dog races take on the animals involved in them and I soon realised they were neither a reasonable endeavor nor an honourable sport. The shorter races out on the river used to be great fun but then the longer races came into vogue with large purses and government and corporate funding and suddenly it was all about money and fame.

Every year I cringe when I see the dog boxes roll into town on the backs of pickup trucks and all the hoopla starts over the annual Yukon Quest’s sled dog race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks. These days it’s almost considered ‘un-Yukon’ not to support the Quest despite the fact that most years at least one dog dies. Sadly, this year yet another dog died; his name was Firefly. The necropsy report showed that he had an enlarged heart and had ingested multiple “booties” (footwear worn by the dogs). The same musher lost another dog named Jewel in 2007 when it strangled and choked to death on its own vomit.

I was raised around sled dogs; I know the difference between good clean fun and abuse. My mother operated a guest ranch in the Yukon wilderness and she also ran a dog team but the trips were never grueling long-distance ventures and she often said she preferred them to snow machines because “dogs don’t break down”.

I recently chose to comment on an article that was published in the Yukon News titled “Dog Dies on Yukon Quest Trail”. Using the handle ‘Life-long Yukoner’ I said that the dogs were not ‘athletes’ but unwilling participants who have been known to drop in their traces from heat stroke and I also mentioned I’d seen them cross the finish line with blood down their chest from sucking in sub-zero air for miles on end. Several others expressed concern for the animals and a couple of enraged race supporters also commented.

During last year’s Quest a dog named Polar died. A preliminary necropsy indicated he died from an acute gastric hemorrhage and a previous canine death took place in 2014 when a gastrointestinal hemorrhage was determined to be the cause of death. The Quest also experienced a canine death in 2013 and two in 2011. The worst Quest for dog deaths in recent history was in 2007 when three dogs perished.

Long-distance dog racing is often referred to as a sport and described in such glowing terms as “A Thousand-Mile Adventure!” when in reality the dogs are being forced to race to the point of exhaustion and even death. In terms of the races being a sport, consider that if a human dies while competing in a regulated sport there is hell to pay. Not so for the dogs who are considered dispensable and often ordered to run as much two hundred kilometers in one shot

Long-distance dog races have grown to become massive money-making machines with huge networks of loyal supporters and government and corporate sponsors as well as passionate fans willing to travel great distances to attend the events. A great romance has been fabricated and woven around them and they have become major tourist attractions that are well-televised by the media who are only too happy to provide riveting reality-show coverage.

Many of the mushers return year after year and some compete in both the Quest and the Iditarod. They are often non-northerners racing non-northern dogs – often smaller mixed-breeds that sometimes look underfed and even emaciated – rather than northern breeds with their thick fur coats that are well-suited to arctic conditions.

The Life of a Sled Dog:

The life of a sled dog isn’t pretty; a four-foot chain on a ply-board shack isn’t love. Most sled dogs are tethered for life on short chains at all times, unable to play and forced to sit, stand, and lie in the same small area in which they eat and defecate. Constrained to the end of a chain when they aren’t racing, they can become aggressive and start to fight. There is no escape.

It is common knowledge that many sled dogs are abused, enslaved, and neglected year-round for the sake of one race and every year they are routinely killed by kennels when they are no longer considered profitable in a practise called ‘culling’ that is simply considered the price of fielding a competitive team.

During the Yukon Quest the animals are forced to run a thousand miles over frozen rivers and through hazards of open water and bad ice in long hours of darkness and to make treacherous climbs over four mountain ranges in temperatures of minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit with winds of up to one hundred mph that can cause a complete loss of visibility. As a result the dogs suffer frostbite, torn muscles and tendons and sprains and have even frozen to death after being dumped at a checkpoint. At times when parts of the trail are without snow-cover the dogs are forced to drag the sled across bare ground and will run until they collapse from exhaustion, choke on their own vomit, and die.

Since the first Iditarod race in 1973 at least one hundred and forty-seven dogs have been run to death or have died from other causes. Many have died from heart attacks, pneumonia, dehydration, and spine injuries. They are also impaled on sleds, drowned, or accidentally strangled and during the off-season they are warehoused in crowded kennels with no state management or oversight.

According to the Sled Dog Action Coalition, during the Iditarod race sick dogs are dropped and removed from the race as soon as possible because it’s easier to cover up the deaths of critically ill dogs that are removed from the race. This loophole has prevented the Iditarod from having any reported deaths in some years.

The Coalition also reveals another loophole saying, Don’t be fooled by the silence of the mushers, the Iditarod is still the same gruesome ordeal for the dogs. The Iditarod has gagged mushers who will be punished for talking about dogs being beaten and suffering in the race from conditions such as  frostbite, bleeding ulcers, lung damage, and broken bones.”

Mushers claim sled dogs love to run but loving to run and being forced to run are two different things. True, they may be raring to go at the start line with all the excitement and crowds cheering but further up the trail it’s another story. A video posted on the Yukon Quest’s official Facebook page shows a team about to take off from the Dawson City checkpoint after a 36-hour mandatory layover rest stop. The dogs look tired and exhausted like they would much rather curl up and go to sleep yet they are only half-way through the race and about to head out over rugged terrain into minus 46-degree Fahrenheit temperatures.

Most mushers say they love their dogs and treat them like family however I have to wonder how they treat their loved ones. Would they risk their lives by forcing them to compete in a thousand-mile race in order to feed their own ego; overwork them to the point that they become so ravenous they will eat their own boots and die in agony? Would they make them run for hundreds of miles in a fur coat until they drop from heatstroke or leave them chained to a four-foot lead for months on end, forcing them to stand in their own waste? Would they smile and applaud a family member as they crossed the finish line with blood running down their chest from sucking in sub-zero air for miles on end?

Race participants may truly care about their dogs but that still doesn’t make long-distance dog racing a humane pursuit. Even one dead dog is one too many. The only plausible excuse for running dogs over long distances in brutal arctic conditions is in an emergency situation in an effort to save a human life.

By allowing abuse and animal cruelty to be seen as somehow acceptable it’s as if we are still in the dark ages when in fact it is an indictable offence liable to imprisonment according to the present criminal code of Canada which states in part that: “Everyone commits an offence who (a) wilfully causes or, being the owner, wilfully permits to be caused unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to an animal or a bird.”

It’s hard to believe these races are still happening and that people are so blinded by all the hype. I can only hope that one day society will finally see the light and ban this insanity. In the meantime our descendants can only look back and see it as a stain on the history of the north.

Speaking Out


Because I strongly believe that the dark side of long-distance dog racing needs to be exposed for the horror that it is I choose to speak out against it. I’ve seen what it does to the dogs. I’ve been to the dog yards; I’ve smelled the stench and seen the deplorable conditions under which they are forced to live. The truth is that no human could survive the life of a sled dog and neither can many sled dogs.

Man’s best friend – really? These dogs are not objects, they are living breathing beings full of spirit and emotion who feel love, joy, and pain much as we do. How can it ever be right to risk them freezing and scarring their lungs in a musher’s greedy bid for fame and fortune?

I challenge companies that sponsor long-distance dog racing events to question their conscience regarding their generous support for an annual event that involves the unethical treatment of animals and I further challenge people who genuinely care about the welfare of animals to question the intentions of those who sponsor long-distance dog racing events.

While many may continue to turn a blind eye to the abhorrent underside of the races, many others make big money glorifying each race; talking it up, writing about it, and filming it. Those who have a vested interest might well oppose anything that threatens to expose the shameful secrets that take place behind the scenes for although the races may enjoy a large audience, the world does not really realise the horrific reality of the stories that happen beyond the lens of the camera.

Nothing justifies subjecting defenceless animals to the abuses inherent in long-distance dog racing; the very fact that sled dogs continue to be exploited, disrespected and abused is unconscionable. Even with drastic changes to the rules governing them, I do not believe it is possible to make long-distance sled dog racing into a safe, humane and honourable pursuit; hence they need to be made illegal and banned altogether. Anything less is unacceptable. Legislation needs to be put into place to protect the animals and it’s time for those responsible for the races to be held to account.

In Alaska, British Columbia and the Yukon, sled dogs have almost no legal protections; Alaska exempts sled dogs from any protection laws by classifying them as livestock and Canada’s animal protection legislation has not been substantively revised since 1892 and is actually ranked below some third-world countries. A petition demanding that Canadian animal protection laws be improved is available for signing at

In Closing

I may be just one person, one voice, but I choose to stand up and speak out in honour of the many dogs who have suffered and died as a result of this barbarous venture called long-distance dog racing and I vow to continue to voice my support for the ethical treatment and protection of all animals as well as for the banning of all unethical practises and exploitation against them. Who will stand with me?

As fellow guardians of the creatures with whom we share this planet, I invite all who care about the welfare of animals to add their voices to expose these races for the disgrace that they are. You can make a difference by: contacting your state, provincial and federal government representatives, signing and presenting petitions, writing letters to the editors of magazines, newspapers, and online publications, organizing protests against ineffective laws that govern animal welfare and boycotting those who continue to sponsor and support inhumane animal events.

We must also ask ourselves – what are we teaching our children? Are we teaching them that the heartless abuse of a defenceless animal is ok as long as we refer to it as a ‘sport’? Or do we demand change and lead by example by speaking out for the voiceless.

In speaking out I realise that holy hell may well rain down upon my head however my conscience will no longer allow me to remain silent. It is abundantly clear that change is desperately needed and until someone speaks out nothing will change. When you pause to consider that wife-beating and slavery were once legal you realise that change is always possible. If just one person stands up and speaks the truth it can never be unheard; if many speak, it cannot be ignored. Since the dogs have no voice I will give them mine.

In the Yukon News article I mentioned earlier someone complained that people commenting on it were not using their actual names. While I understand that not everyone is prepared to take on an institution and expose the ugly reality behind it, I choose to speak out on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves and invite you to join me in refusing to support all long-distance dog races so that one day not one more dog need suffer, not one more dog need die.

I wish to clearly state that I am 100% against long distance dog races because they are inhumane.

Just Sign Me:

pj johnson

The Yukon Raven Lady

Life-long Yukoner

Poet Laureate

The Original Raven Maniac

RIP Firefly – Wake up Yukon! Let’s make some noise it’s howlin’ time!

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