The Iditarod Is Worse Than A Nightmare For Dogs
“People can go out into the woods and shoot their dogs for whatever reason.”
Infected neck wounds. Starving newborn puppies. Shivering dogs chained to thin plastic barrels.
These were the conditions shown in a series of chilling photos released in October that were taken at a dog kennel owned by four-time Iditarod champion, Dallas Seavey.
The photos, which were taken by a former employee, showed conditions that were unacceptable to some mushers, vets and handlers involved in Alaska’s sled dog industry. But they weren’t surprising — because such treatment is entirely legal.
Sled dogs are considered livestock, which exempts them from the animal welfare laws that protect household pets. When an animal control officer inspected both of Seavey’s properties after the photos surfaced last fall, he wasn’t hit with any violations.
But instead of accepting the current system — which has allowed some mushers to operate glorified breeding mills, provide minimal to no veterinary care to sick or injured dogs and even kill dogs who are no longer fit to race — some mushers and animal advocates alike are speaking out.
And in the process, an industry at the backbone of the state’s identity is under massive pressure to change.
"People can go out into the woods and shoot their dog for whatever reason."
Speeding through the freezing Alaskan wilderness on a dog sled at 14 miles per hour, it’s not difficult to see the draws of mushing — and why it has become a sport so popular that thousands flock to Alaska each year to watch its reigning spectacle: the Iditarod dog sled race.
The 1,000-mile race, which begins on Saturday this year, was founded in 1973 as an event to test the endurance of top mushers and rekindle the then-declining tradition of dog sledding.
But with the introduction of corporate sponsors, increased prize winnings and more participants, critics of the race say it’s developed a dark side that allows accomplished mushers to submit their dogs to cruelty despite having enough money — and knowledge — to provide decent care.
One critic is experienced Iditarod musher Zoya DeNure, a former model who fell in love with the sport after meeting a woman in her home state of Wisconsin who had a sprint racing kennel.
“It was amazing to just get on a sled with the dogs and be so free,” DeNure told The Dodo. “I worked with a four-dog team and we’d do little sprint races. But I wanted to learn what it was like to be an Iditarod musher.”
DeNure moved to Alaska in 2002 to work as a handler at a kennel. There, her boss taught her the ropes of professionally training and caring for sled dogs for long-distance racing. She said most of her days were spent tending to the dogs — preparing fresh meals, keeping them clean and getting them ready for training or exercise sessions.
But in mushing, according to DeNure, not everyone agrees on how the dogs should be treated.
“One of the most important things he showed me was that mushers have to care about their dogs,” DeNure said. “We have to put the effort in to build special relationships with them and give them everything that they need to live comfortably and happily. He always said, ‘We’re their coach, but we’re also their friend.’”
DeNure met her husband, John Schandelmeier, a musher, a year later and they soon founded a kennel of their own. John had already won the famed Yukon Quest twice, and had been racing for 30 years. Their kennel now consists of 55 dogs, many of whom are rescues from other mushers.
Living within the center of the Alaskan dog sledding community, DeNure soon realized not everyone had high standards of care for their dogs. Sometimes she heard mushers on the sidelines joke about what they’d do to their dogs who didn’t perform well in races.
“The dogs have no legal protection here,” DeNure said. “People can go out into the woods and shoot their dog for whatever reason. Sometimes that might be injury, sometimes it’s because they’re too old to race. They’ll make remarks like, ‘This guy isn’t running so well, we’re gonna get rid of him,’ as if he’s a piece of furniture or a machine. And these people are lauded in the public eye.”
Although some rescue groups exist for retired sled dogs, such as The August Foundation for Alaska’s Racing Dogs, some mushers choose not to adopt out their dogs. While it’s unclear where the dogs end up, DeNure said it’s likely they’re killed — or “culled” as some describe it.
This is something that has been happening for decades within the industry, DeNure explained.
“At any given time, some kennels will have 100 dogs and they’re all between the ages of 2 and 7,” she said. “So what happens to the old dogs?”
At some kennels, the pressure to produce a successful team comes at the cost of overbreeding. Kennels will breed multiple female dogs throughout the year, which gives them a larger pool to choose from once the dogs are old enough to start training — but also lots of extra puppies.
Many dogs who aren’t cut out for racing are killed.
“Performance culling is undoubtedly taking place,” DeNure said. “We’ve had handlers from other kennels interview with us for a job here and have heard a lot of horror stories. People are traumatized by what they see.”
Sebastian Schnuelle is a German-born musher who has raced in multiple Iditarods, and currently lives in Alaska with his 15 sled dogs.
Like DeNure, he is critical of mushers who cull their dogs when they are too old or injured to run. It’s a musher’s responsibility to plan for their dogs’ entire life, he said, and not just when it will be convenient.
According to Schnuelle, the culling of dogs when they are old or injured is a telltale sign of an irresponsible kennel. He puts a focus on planning for his dogs once they don’t want to run anymore — so that they can easily move on to live in a home full-time.
“It’s my obligation to house train my dogs, so when retirement age comes, I can say, ‘If you take Libby, she won’t eat your couch or pee in your house,’” Schnuelle told The Dodo. “Life planning is part of responsible dog ownership. A dog who has raced thousands of miles with proper care develops into an incredibly confident, good dog. They make wonderful pets.”
“They’re only seen as dogs and nothing else.”
Although former sled dogs make great pets, not every musher in Alaska sees them this way — and since the state’s animal care laws reflect this, dogs can live in squalor.
Former musher Ashley Keith will never forget how she felt when she got her first glance behind the scenes. Raised in New York, Keith traveled to Alaska in 2003 to work at the kennel of Mitch Seavey — the father of the musher who was investigated under cruelty allegations after the photos of his kennel were released last fall.
“I was gonna be trained to one day run his puppy team in the Iditarod,” Keith told The Dodo. But she soon changed her mind when she saw the condition of his dogs. “It was financially and emotionally heartbreaking for me when I realized that it was not something I could support,” she said.
At the kennel, Keith remembers there being around 200 dogs — many of whom were puppies and youngsters. All the dogs lived outside on short chains attached to barren dog houses. The only close interaction they had with one another was when they were being trained or running a race.
“The dogs had pretty much chewed through the houses from boredom and lack of socialization,” Keith said. “The houses were not insulated and didn’t provide protection from the wind. A ton of them had exposed nails sticking out of them and none of them had straw inside. It was November and we were in Alaska, so it was freezing ... But Mitch told me, ‘Their coats are so thick, they don’t need it.’”
There was one dog who was clearly sick when Keith got there, and since one of her main responsibilities was feeding the dogs, she soon noticed he hadn’t eaten for two or three days. He was never identified by name to her, but Keith named him Frank.
Frank would only walk standing on his tiptoes and appeared to be having abdominal troubles, Keith said. It was evident he was in pain, but with so many other dogs to look after, management didn’t get him any medical help.
“I urged everyone that he needed to go to the vet,” Keith said. “On that third day that Frank didn’t eat, Mitch put him in his truck. When he came back, the dog was nowhere to be seen. He killed him.”
After just two weeks of working at the kennel, Keith quit.
“I wish I could’ve stayed to expose more of it,” Keith said. “But even then, it’s technically impossible for there to be legal violations when the dogs aren’t even [legally] protected. They’re only seen as dogs and nothing else.”
Years later, Jane Stevens, another handler who worked for Mitch Seavey, witnessed him brutally attack a dog just 10 days before the start of the 2011 Iditarod.
The musher, who was only later identified as Mitch Seavey, kicked and stomped on the dog with full force, and punched him with closed fists as the dog lay on the ground. Stevens recalls seeing the dog pulled into the air by his harness and thrown back to the ground repeatedly.
“Personally, I have never witnessed such a violent attack on a living creature before,” Stevens wrote in an open letter, which was published in the Whitehorse Daily Star. “The image of that explosion of anger and physical force of one man on a smaller animal is burnt to my memory.”
She reported it to Alaska State Police — but the other two witnesses there that day were afraid to step forward to provide their own testimony. The matter was never formally addressed by police or the Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC), the body that governs the race.
“You put them on the chain and they’ll cry for days.”
In recent years, as some mushers come forward to campaign for higher welfare standards, the Iditarod has also faced scrutiny from animal welfare organizations for the living conditions some dogs face while they’re off the trail.
In the 2016 documentary “Sled Dogs,” director Fern Levitt explored multiple kennels in Alaska and Canada that keep dogs in conditions less than worthy of man’s best friend.
Camera crews visited some of the industry’s most notorious offenders, where dogs were shown chained to crude doghouses with very little room to walk or interact with one another. Conditions were filthy.
In one location, a dog could be seen with his head buried in a rusted metal can fixed to his doghouse, presumably filled with food or water. In another, an open lot was filled with rows of dogs on short chains as far as the eye could see in the middle of heavy snow — with plastic barrels as their only shelter.
To Levitt, the conditions were heartbreaking.
“There’s no logic to thinking that animals are able to survive and thrive at the end of a chain for their entire lives,” she told The Dodo. “At one kennel we visited, the handler actually wanted us to film a puppy being put on a chain for the first time. He said, ‘You put them on the chain and they’ll cry for days.’ I know at some point he must have gotten involved with this because he loves dogs. But taking a step back and watching that happen makes you really think how someone could think it’s OK.”
The ITC has a different take. Chas St. George, chief operating officer for the ITC, denies the abuse claims made in “Sled Dogs,” calling them “unjustified libels” and “grossly irresponsible falsehoods.”
He cited Mush with P.R.I.D.E., a program every musher is required to join that outlines welfare standards, as an example of ITC’s commitment to the well-being of sled dogs. Critics of the program say it is purely nominal and hasn’t been active for years.
“The ITC honors the sled dogs that participate in the Iditarod and takes every step to ensure the canine athletes are given first-rate care and treated with respect,” St. George told The Dodo.
Sled dogs, who are usually breeds like Alaskan huskies or malamutes, have a clear biological advantage over other types of dogs, allowing them to withstand the conditions presented during sled races or sled pulls. During the Iditarod, teams usually race through blizzards with whiteout conditions, subzero temperatures and forceful winds that can cause windchills to reach -100 °F.
Advocates of chaining year-round argue that the dogs are designed to withstand freezing temperatures and live comfortably outside — but others counter that it’s not a humane practice.
“The mushers who do this want to say that sled dogs are different than other dogs, since that allows them to care for them at a lower level,” Keith said. “As long as mushers continue to make these dogs seem like they need less physical and psychological care than what the pet dog lying on the couch needs, the abuse will go on.”
While many U.S. states have laws that ban chaining dogs, others provide particular guidelines that must be followed (in Michigan, for example, dogs are only allowed on a tether if it is at least three times the length of their body). But some states don’t have any restrictions at all, including Alaska, Colorado and Minnesota, all three of which are home to dog racing or sled dog tours.
Both DeNure and Schnuelle chain their dogs, stating that it is an effective way to manage a large number of them. But they also say that dogs should be given time away from the elements, exercised multiple times per day and kept on long enough tethers to interact with the other dogs. Adequate food and shelter and cleanliness of living quarters are also priorities, they say.
“I always tell people, we treat our dogs like family,” DeNure said. “We have an indoor dog barn that holds 42 dogs and each has a spot with hay for them to cozy up for the night. We also have a cabin that our handlers stay in, and they take in another handful of dogs at night.”
At Schnuelle’s kennel, each dog comes right inside the house at night to lie on the couch and relax.
During the day, however, the dogs are tethered — something Keith and Levitt sharply oppose.
“When mushing, you have a lifetime commitment to your team,” Keith said. “To me, that means involving them in everyday aspects of your life, not keeping them outside on a chain as a tool to benefit your own finances.”
The owner of a former sled dog herself, Keith argues that chaining often sets dogs up for failure in a home setting after a lifetime of running, training and living outdoors — especially when dogs aren’t given time off their chain to interact with people indoors.
“If the dogs live outside their whole lives and their owner never brings them in, then you’re dealing with a terrified senior dog who has no idea how to walk on linoleum, climb stairs or deal with noises from a microwave or TV,” she explained. “It is really, really hard to find people to rehabilitate these dogs.”
“It’s like an Iditarod Mafia”
In the 2017 Iditarod, five dogs died — two during the race, and three after they crossed the finish line. The unofficial death toll since the race’s start in 1973 tallies at 152.
Eric Jayne, a traveling vet who practiced in rural Alaska from 1999 to 2009, witnessed mushers racing their dogs when they were sick on multiple occasions — sometimes to the brink of death.
“It’s so isolated out in the wilderness and the dogs get very exhausted,” Jayne told The Dodo. “I’ve seen many teams shooting out bloody diarrhea — and at that point, any sane veterinarian would say, ‘All right, the race is over.’ But not all of them will.”
The race’s path passes through remote Alaskan villages that typically don’t have access to veterinary care for their animals, so when sick sled dogs have layovers in these villages, the resident dogs can catch illnesses.
“The notion to let dehydrated, weak, stumbling dogs with bloody diarrhea continue on in the race — as a veterinarian — is insanity,” Jayne said. “And then they allow these dogs to be parked next to other [native] dogs in the villages who are left to deal with the aftermath after the mushers pack up and leave. My biggest concern has always been the disease.”
Since the Iditarod hosts over 50 dog sled teams each year, consisting of over 1,000 dogs, the race has a team of veterinarians who are hired specifically to give health checks to dogs and provide vet care in the case of an injury.
They also perform the autopsies of any dogs who die during the race — but since they’re hired by the Iditarod, Jayne suspects some causes of deaths are not accurately reported.
While some deaths are indeed isolated incidents, others stem from systemic issues — such as carelessness by the people hired to supervise dogs at checkpoints during the race.
During the 2013 race, a 5-year-old dog named Dorado was dropped off at a checkpoint by his musher after he had begun showing evidence of exhaustion or injury. Dorado and 30 other dogs were chained out in the cold unsupervised — and the following morning, Dorado was found dead buried under a snowdrift. His necropsy showed he had suffocated under the weight of the snow.
“There should be an independent body out-of-state investigating each of the deaths of these dogs,” Jayne added.
Keith echoed these sentiments.
“I don’t believe the Iditarod can ever be humane,” she said. “I’m not against mushing or racing at all, but I am against this industrialization of the sport.”
Last year, for the first time in the race’s history, four sled dogs tested positive for the opioid painkiller tramadol, which is banned for use before or during the race.
While the ITC initially kept the musher’s identity a secret, it was later announced that the drugged dogs belonged to Iditarod champion Dallas Seavey. He posted a rant on YouTube after the scandal broke, claiming that an animal rights protester must have slipped his dogs the drugs without his knowledge in order to undermine him. He has chosen to not participate in this year’s race.
Hundreds of supporters flooded the comments. While some speculated that a competitor could have slipped Seavey’s dogs the drug, DeNure and Jayne are skeptical. They say the Iditarod’s tepid response shows how untouchable the sport’s top racers are.
“No disciplinary action was taken,” DeNure said. “It’s prohibited to have dogs test positive in this race, and if it were any other sport, Dallas would be banned for life.”
Exceptions like this aren’t unusual, DeNure and Jayne said. When the photos of neglected dogs at Dallas Seavey’s kennel surfaced last fall, authorities reportedly gave his staff a full day’s notice before visiting the property to investigate the alleged abuse.
When asked, St. George, of the ITC, said the committee had no plans to take a harsher stance on punishing violators of the committee's own anti-drugging regulations in the future. “While it is the responsibility of the ITC to uncover these findings, it is up to mushers to ultimately care for their respective dog teams and if there is cause to suspect wrongdoing by outside parties, to bring charges or an investigation through local law enforcement,” he said.
Since mushing is so ingrained into Alaskan culture, Jayne explained, it can be outright dangerous to speak out against the race or top mushers — and that fear silences people who would otherwise speak out about instances of cruelty or cheating.
“It’s almost suicide to go against the Iditarod in Alaska,” he said. “It’s like an Iditarod Mafia. You’d be in physical danger.”
In part, that’s because the multimillion-dollar race is a huge tourism asset for the state, and it can be a financial windfall for the competitors as well. The average musher spends upwards of $15,000 to compete, and the winnings are proportionally high.
In 2017, first-place prize winnings for the race tallied in at $75,000 — supported by corporate sponsors like ExxonMobil, Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola.
Last year, the National Humane Education Society wrote an open letter to these sponsors to encourage them to end their financial support of the race due to dog deaths and the poor living conditions some dogs are forced to live in off the trail.
Between the “Sled Dogs” film, cruelty investigations into kennels and last year’s Seavey doping scandal, the pressure has mounted enough that major companies such as State Farm Insurance and Wells Fargo have rescinded their sponsorships.
Abuse not unique to Alaska
While Alaska serves as a main mushing hub, the sport is also popular in Europe, throughout Canada and even in some other U.S. states such as Colorado and Montana.
In areas where mushing is popular, a tourism industry often pops up providing tours that offer rides through the forest on a dog-pulled sled.
This sector of the mushing community made headlines in April 2010 when an employee of a sled dog tour company in British Columbia executed 100 sled dogs — he had reportedly been instructed to do so after a downturn in ticket sales following the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Robert Fawcett, the general manager of Howling Dogs Tour Whistler — and, incidentally, then-vice president of the Mush with P.R.I.D.E welfare program — shot and stabbed the dogs to death, reportedly in full view of other dogs who awaited the same fate. They were thrown into an open grave, and one dog who had been shot but survived the injuries was found crawling among the others days later.
As in the racing industry, the killing of surplus dogs occurs in some touring kennels as well, Levitt said.
The same year Fawcett notoriously killed the dogs in British Columbia, Levitt visited a kennel in Ontario named Chocpaw Expeditions — where she saw the dogs being kept outside in a muddy field on chains. Many were continuously pacing back and forth, which is a common sign of anxiety in stressed animals.
Without a second thought, she asked the owner if she could take one of the dogs home.
“They said that they had 30 dogs they were about to retire, but if they couldn’t get homes for them then they would be culled,” Levitt said.
Levitt went home with 9-year-old Slater, a male sled dog who had lived his entire life at the kennel on a chain.
“He was afraid of human touch and didn’t know how to play with other dogs,” Levitt said. “He was deprived for so many years. He’s the reason my documentary exists.”
“It was like no one noticed how bad of conditions these dogs were in.”
Expecting a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, Canadian couple Natasha Guerriero and Dylan Blake purchased tickets to go on a sled dog tour late last month at Windrift Adventures, another popular touring company in Ontario.
They had a great time on the tour — but when they returned to the kennel to visit more of the dogs after the sled ride, their outlook on the experience quickly changed.
Over 100 dogs sat chained to crude doghouses in the snow, and their living quarters were covered in feces and urine. Because the chains were so short, the dogs had no choice but to sit in their own waste. Dozens of the dogs were skinny or limping, or had open sores on their bodies.
That’s when the couple began filming.
“The dogs were absolutely filthy and went to the bathroom right where they stood,” Guerriero told The Dodo. “As we went over to pet them, the guy who worked there said, ‘I wouldn’t get too close to them; they don’t get washed very often.’”
Guerriero and Blake came across a dog who was limping and had an injury on his front leg, but when they tried to address it with the owner of the kennel, their concerns were ignored.
“It was like no one noticed how bad of conditions these dogs were in,” Blake told The Dodo. “As soon as me and Natasha saw the injured dog, we yelled back to the owner saying, ‘Hey, this one is hurt!’ She just told us that he tends to put on a show when people are around for attention and that it was nothing. The dog was clearly in pain and being out in the cold wasn’t helping.”
The couple continued walking around the property and noticed that some of the older dogs were kept toward the back. It was clear these dogs didn’t get much human interaction, Blake said.
“We were in the back by ourselves and one dog was literally hugging Natasha like he was a human,” Blake said. “Many of them had their tails down when we walked up to them. It was clear they wanted love but were very timid and nervous.”
After being contacted by Guerriero and Blake, the Ontario SPCA launched an investigation into the treatment of the dogs at the kennel. As of February 2, the SPCA was establishing care standards for the dogs including insulated shelter and veterinary care. It’s unclear whether the dogs will be seized.
As in Alaska, the chaining and culling of sled dogs is legal in Canada.
“They think we’re a bunch of tree-huggers because we like our dogs.”
Following what had been a year of controversy for the sport, DeNure and her husband approached the ITC last fall to request that a series of required care standards be put in place in order for mushers to compete in the race.
“Mushers who are so-called champions are killing dogs left and right behind the scenes,” DeNure said. “Those are the people who are supposed to be leaders within the sport. This type of stuff has been going on for decades — and they think we’re a bunch of tree-huggers because we like our dogs. We finally approached the ITC and said, ‘You’ve gotta take a stand.’”
The couple met with race officials for two hours to outline suggestions for kennel standards and recordkeeping procedures they believe would better regulate the sport and protect the dogs. They discussed things like housing requirements, kennel size, vet care requirements and on-site care.
On December 1, 2017, the ITC announced that it was developing the framework for a “Best Care” kennel management program that will be overseen by an advisory committee of people within the mushing community, including Schnuelle. The group hopes to implement the standards in time for the 2019 race.
According to St. George, of the ITC, this new program is a continuation of Mush With P.R.I.D.E, which was established in 1991. He said the new guidelines will show the public that mushers are already “innovators” in animal welfare and to “raise awareness that mushers are committed and dedicated to the well-being of the canine athletes.”
“[Our] main goal in establishing the Best Care kennel management program is to increase efforts for a standard of excellence where Iditarod mushers have a platform to educate the public on new social normals around animal care,” he said.
But others are hoping the new guidelines will manage to reform existing standards, rather than work as a PR initiative.
“I think mushers saying, ‘We need to show people what we do is good’ is not acceptable anymore,” Schnuelle said. “We need to change our ways — and if you’re willing to be part of that change, then we have a future.”
After Keith’s harrowing experience at the Alaskan kennel, she got involved with animal rescue in Cortlandt, New York, near where she grew up, and eventually became a state-licensed animal cruelty investigator. She’s now involved with the rescue and rehabilitation of sled dogs — and shares her home with a retired one named Squirrel.
Keith also founded Humane Mushing, an organization that advocates for the reform of standard practices within the sledding industry. While many animal welfare organizations call for the abolishment of the sport altogether, Keith advocates for stronger legal protections for the dogs.
“Change needs to come from legislation,” Keith said. “So many people don’t realize that these things happen and that they’re completely legal. We just need to keep talking about it until it can’t be ignored.”
While Levitt fears the Iditarod’s Best Care program is just a method to appease the public, DeNure is hopeful that it could become the first step to a new generation of mushing. But even though animal advocates and forward-looking mushers disagree in some areas in the fight for sled-dog reform, they all believe that serious change is needed — and soon.
“It’s like some people here are 20 years behind,” DeNure said. “Dog sledding is under the microscope right now — it’s time to take care of your dogs and do the right thing. And not just because the world is watching.”