The Falls Creek Sled Dog Classic, that J and I visited in the first weekend of August, got a great write-up in the Border Mail, including a great pic of E in her onesie, with her mallie team cruising through the falling snow flakes.
Unfortunately, the first person to write a comment about the racing on the article was highly critical, saying
...the racing is still cruel. If people saw how some, (certainly not all) of these dogs are treated during training, away from the public eye, they would be up in arms. And I know first hand, having lived in places overseas where this stupid racing is almost the norm in winter.
Searching RSPCA, Australian media and online resources, I have been unable to find a single example of Australian mushers being prosecuted, reprimanded or even criticised for cruelty to sled dogs. My personal experience are hundreds of sled dogs in the last two years is that it is extremely rare for people to even smack their dogs with an open palm, let alone beat or mistreat an animal. Clubs offer Humanitarian Awards for the best care of dogs. The training I have seen demonstrated by the AMCV and NVSDC have included careful instruction on correct use of correction chains and an emphasis on positive reinforcement. Every breed club I've seen includes a Code of Ethics such as:
I shall ensure that at all times all dogs under my control are properly housed, fed, watered, exercised and receive proper Veterinary attention, if and when required. Alaskan Malamute Club, Victoria.
The various clubs and their associated rescue groups require adopters to sign contracts that state:
I/we, the undersigned adopting party, understand and agree ...To treat this dog as a family pet with affection and kindness, never subjecting this dog to abuse or cruelty... To always keep this dog within a fenced yard (not on a chain), on a leash, or safely within the home. Siberian Husky Club of Victoria
Then there are organisations like Mush with PRIDE (founded 1991) that promote appropriate care of sled dogs. Mush with PRIDE provides detailed guidelines about kennel organisation, sled dog housing, nutrition and veterinary care, including guidelines for rehoming, selling and euthanizing dogs, written by mushers. Mushers have also been leaders in developing our understanding of many nutritional and health issues in working dogs, such as the involvement of Karen Ramstead, Martin Buser and Jon Little in Gastric Ulcer Studies with Oklahoma State University.
It is true that there are tragic deaths of sled dogs, both while racing and at kennels. The outcry over the death of Dorado, a five-year old dog belonging to musher Paige Drobny in the 2013 Iditarod highlighted both the dangerous conditions of the Alaskan winter and the connection between dogs and humans. There was no passive acceptance of Dorado's death as common or necessary - in fact, not a single dog died in the Iditarod in 2010 or 2011. It is also notable that the accounts listed on sites like the Sled Dog Action Coalition are heavily biased and lack detail. Photos of dogs in shelters with the lids taken off to allow the dogs to sunbathe are relabelled as inadequate. Accounts of musher distress and efforts made to save dogs by veterinarians are reduced to rumours.
It is also true that there are people in dog sledding, as in every part of the world, who are cruel, or who are driven to cruelty by desperate circumstances. In the frozen Arctic circle, desperate circumstances do occur. Mush with PRIDE attempts to offer support to kennels who may have to consider culling their dogs. But sometimes it is not possible to reach people, or individuals refuse support. This is why we have tragedies like the Whistler Sled Dog Cull of 2010. But just as dog breeders are tarnished by the terrible conditions imposed on dogs in puppy farms, and urge governments to impose proper legislation that prevents those abuses, so mushers are blamed for cruelty that, in modern times, is limited to such a tiny minority, and given no credit for trying to stop that cruelty.
For people on the outside, without an understanding of these amazing Arctic breeds and their capabilities and desires, can only talk about their perceptions. The chance of anyone who is suddenly faced with responsibility for a large kennel of dogs without the means to support those animals properly listening to an armchair musher who has never dealt with the same conditions is minimal. It is only through mushers working together, raising awareness, raising funds for research, and caring for their dogs to the best of their ability, that this sport can continue.