Recently the dog sled sport and tourism activity has been under a lot of scrutiny. At present there is no law enforcement who inspect, license or regulate companies that offer sled rides (although several organizations recommend food, water, exercise and kennel size standards). Many operators are pushing for new legislation that enforce an industry standard.
So are there reputable dog sled companies out there? Should the industry be banned? What type of conditions are sled dogs kept in? Are the animals healthy and happy? Do they enjoy their work?
With my nine year-old niece in tow, I set out to Skytop Lodge in the Pocono Mountains to discover more about dog sledding operations. Dog sledding was a popular activity at this historic hotel until the 1940s when the U.S. government confiscated the dogs to help with the war effort. And it wasn’t until last year – almost seventy years later – that the sport returned to the Pocono Mountains through a contracted Colorado-based company, Snow Caps Sled Dogs.
We arrived at the property on a thirty-degree morning in February. Owner Jared O’Neill greeted us, presented waiver forms, and introduced us immediately to the dogs. There are twenty-four pure-bred Siberian huskies on site at this Pennsylvania-based location, and all of them were transported from Breckenridge at the restart of the Skytop Lodge program.
Classified as a member of the Working Group by the American Kennel Club, the Siberian husky has a desire and willingness to work. It’s believed that huskies originated from within the Chukchi Tribe off of Siberia. These dogs have a soft, silky undercoat and coarse top layer of fur.
“Huskies can withstand temps to sixty, seventy below – really that extreme,” Jared told me. “But like any dog, they’re going to adapt to their surroundings. If I brought them inside too much, their coats would thin out – they would adapt to being in a warmer climate. Then it wouldn’t be fair to have them out in the cold. The reason that they’re so well-suited for this is because they live outside, and Mother Nature prepares them for whatever season is around the bend.”
A high-energy animal that requires stimulating daily activity, huskies have been historically linked to the dog sledding sport. “This is a dog that really needs exercise,” owner Jared said as he prepared the sled for our ride. “That’s why these guys are in shelters all the time… people get them and then don’t run them. Huskies are easily bored because they’re so intelligent… they’re notorious for chewing up the house. Here’s a dog that you can’t just put in the backyard to tucker himself out… you literally have to put them in a harness and have them pull you in a bicycle for five miles. That’s the proper way to own this type of dog.”
According to Jared, their AKC-registered huskies have diverse bloodlines. “When we breed, it’s always about the health and brains of the dog,” Jared said. Even at quick glance, it was obvious these huskies weren’t bred for show-quality characteristics, as several had bi-color eyes and one displayed floppy ears…
The male and female huskies at this facility live in outdoor separate, fenced areas, as most of them are intact. In each enclosure, the dogs have their own roofed house filled layered straw bedding. The dogs were chained to a center pole secured just in front of their house. This pole had a rotating top, allowing the dog to move in all directions without entangling its chain.
All the huskies seemed healthy. Their eyes were clear, coats were shiny. They were full of energy and personality. Jared told us that a veterinarian examined them just two days before.
Perhaps most of all, the dogs adored people – so much so, in fact, that they licked my niece’s face and cuddled into our open arms…
When conversation turned to the Whistler event, Jared commented that “it’s truly unfortunate that kennels out there would do such a horrific thing. The best thing for our guests to do is to come out and see how we operate because the health and happiness of our dogs is our number one priority. Just one tragic incident shouldn’t taint all the quality businesses out there – we are raising pet-quality dogs. They retire and become house pets. We would never think of destroying one of our own kids.”
Retired Snow Caps dogs, according to Jared, are always adopted by the public. Period. “We make sure they’re friendly, socialized. We train them with positive reinforcement, and they learn to love their work and love people. At around eight to ten years of age they retire,” explained Jared.
If a dog is not adopted, for whatever reason (which has yet to happen in Jared’s experience), he said that he’d take ownership of the animal himself. When a husky is up for adoption, Snow Caps sets up a meeting with the potential owner to determine if the dog and individual are a good match. There is no adoption fee, but owners are required to return adopted huskies to Snow Caps if they need to relinquish the animal at any time.
As Jared determined the six dogs to join our sled team, the facility became alive with barking and howling, as if raising their voices to volunteer. The dogs are rotated on runs, and only a few display the Alpha leadership required to properly guide a team from the front. The chosen animals, harnessed two-by-two – Diesel and Simba in the lead, followed by brothers Gimlei and Sherpa, and then Mongo and Sumo – were anxious to get moving down the trail.
Unlike some other companies, Snow Caps allows guests to drive the sled dogs yourself. Dog sledding involves lots of balancing and, at times, breaking. While I had anticipated calling out “Mush!” to the team, the huskies in fact follow other commands: hike (go), haw (left) and gee (right). “These are all commands used for draft animals – this dates back to the Gold Rush,” Jared explained.
I found my equilibrium on the sled, just as excited as the huskies to get started. I was unsure how fast they would run and relied on my balance beam experience as a youngster to keep me steady while on the move. Even with both feet planted firmly on the brake, the dogs were collectively strong enough to drag me an inch or two while we waited for our command.
As they ran and hugged the curves, slopes and straightaways of the trail, I bent at the knees, shifting my weight with theirs, tightly grasping the sled’s worn wood handles to avoid tumbling off…
These particular dogs seemed to love their work. As a dog lover and owner of two adopted pooches myself, I kept thinking how much my Shepherd/Lab/Rottweiler cross would enjoy pulling a dog sled. After a few short-distance runs rotating between myself and my niece as musher, the huskies were given a break to rehydrate and rest.
In total, the sled dogs ran about three miles during our ride. When we returned to the main base, the dogs were given about 2 cups of high-carb broth and beef soup, which they happily slopped up.
Learn more about the Siberian husky and the 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And check out this amazing photo of a Husky in Iceland. You can also go visit these dogs and Snow Caps Sled Dogs at Skytop Resort.
Photo Credits: Jodi Kendall, Royce Razgaitis
Video Credits: Jodi Kendall, Royce Razgaitis