Alaska Sled Dogs: Not Like the Movies

Missing Heidi on an Alaskan vacation, we visited a sled dog kennel and found a different kind of working dog


When my husband and I head off on a road trip, Heidi is usually riding in the back, a big smile on her face and her tall ears touching the car ceiling (on a weekend in Santa Barbara).  Let’s go-let’s go-let’s-go! But because travel involved airplanes, Heidi stayed home during our first trip to Alaska, just before the 4th of July.

Even though it was just a week and Heidi was very happy here at home, we missed her.  Pet parents may have noticed this phenomenon: When you are not with your dog (or cat, or iguana), all other animals start to look like your pet.  In Alaska, river otters and sea lions resemble lazy mutts as they sun themselves on rocks, or wet pooches as the pop their whiskery faces out of the sea.  Moose look like dogs with antlers.  Even 250-pound black bears start to appear oddly Heidi-like (long nose, brown eyes, enthusiasm for fresh salmon).

The big pink octopus we met during a behind-the-scenes tour of the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward did not look like Heidi, but we were amazed to learn that she and her fellow octopi are as intelligent as cats. Who knew? We immediately began to wonder how our gelatinous new friend might compare in smarts to a canine.  Not to Heidi of course – but to, you know, an ordinary dog.

But in Alaska, we found a key place to visit for the dog deprived:  Seavey’s Iditarod Racing Kennel in Seward. There we got our dog fix as well as being reminded of how different Heidi’s life might have been if her “working dog” career was running the famed annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race instead of co-writing an SC Patch column, occasional acting gigs and herding surprised visitors around in our home. 

The Seavey family, several generations of “mushers,” includes , who earlier this year became at age 25 the youngest to win the almost-1, 000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.  His dad, Mitch, won in 2004 and his grandfather is still racing.  

Arriving from the entertainment capital, we expected to see the kind of Huskies you see in the movies -- huge, purebred dogs with specific markings and ice-blue eyes, just like the ones at the National Dog Show. Turns out those show dogs are Siberian Huskies.  Alaskan sled dogs are hybrids of Husky and other working breeds including shepherds, with all different sorts of coloring.  Plus, those bred for racing are relatively small, weighing between 45-65 pounds. Heidi clocks in at about 70.

Where they really differ from Heidi, however, is lifestyle.  Even though we heard about the fine diet, massages, protective clothing and meticulous care the sled dogs receive on the racecourse (each sled must be equipped with a space to carry an injured dog to the next stop) the kennel’s 85 dogs-in-training live outside.  Each is connected by a chain to their water bowl and personal doghouse, fashioned from a huge plastic storage barrel.  The barrels are chosen because plastic is impervious to weather and keeps the dogs dry in Alaska’s soggy climate.  

For those of us with dogs that sleep on beds and watch Netflix while reclining on the sofa, the housing area looks like some post-apocalyptic landscape taken over by wild canines.  But the kennel’s Jill-of-all-trades Dori Hollingsworth says these dogs don’t like to come inside because it’s too hot for them. Plus they’re not bred to sit on laps, but to run.  These are wiry caffeinated mutts with a need for speed.  They even get excited about being chosen to hitch up to a heavy cart to tote tourists through down a woodsy trail, on wheels in the summer because there’s no snow.  Tourist hauling, said our guide, serves as “strength training.” I immediately resolved to eat less.

Would Heidi, with her working dog roots and cold-climate DNA, be happier in Alaska than in Studio City?  I wondered this until we met kennel resident Hugo, a big, plushy, movie star handsome Husky.  During his puppyhood, Hugo had a role as aspiring Iditarod dog Shasta in 2008’s Snow Buddies, a direct-to-video release in the Air Bud series. But the fact is, Hugo is too big and too slow for a racing career and doesn’t like to run, anyway.  Now, he spends his days getting his photo taken by visitors because he looks more like a sled dog than the real ones.  Maybe he’s the one who’d be happier here in the SC, eating salmon sushi with the stars.


























Mike Szymanski July 07, 2012 at 03:58 PM
What a wonderful story and video! *Yes, our family owns SNOW BUDDIES and we'll have to look for Hugo....but geez, I don't see where Heidi will get her blueberry facials or fancy birthday parties at the local dog shop, even if she were to want to get away from the pup-arrazzi out here.
James Dorsey July 07, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Great Story Diane, We got to spend a day mushing with two Iditarod mushers for a shake down just before they left for the race in 2010. Fascinated to see the dogs do not stop to pee or drink but grab snow from a bank as they pass it, and as for the other, just let it fly and duck!
Margery Glickman July 09, 2012 at 12:34 AM
What happens to dogs during the Iditarod includes death, bloody diarrhea, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, kennel cough, broken bones, torn muscles and extreme stress. At least 142 dogs have died in the race, including two dogs who froze to death in the brutally cold winds. Veterinary care during the Iditarod is poor. Here's just one example: Veterinarians have allowed dogs with kennel cough to race in the Iditarod even though dogs with this disease should be kept warm and given lots of rest. It's dangerous for the dogs with this disease to exercise with any intensity. Strenuous exercise can cause lung damage, pneumonia and even death. Kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that normally lasts from 10 to 21 days. Iditarod dogs live on chains that are attached to a fixed object. That's illegal in California. It's been reported that dogs who don't make the main teams are never taken off their chains. FOR MORE FACTS: Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://www.helpsleddogs.org
Christine Brean July 09, 2012 at 04:15 PM
To Glickman, why don't you ask the dog?
Diane Haithman and Heidi July 09, 2012 at 06:55 PM
Hi Margery, Thanks for your feedback. I wouldn't want to comment without the benefit of some investigative research. As I wrote in the story, the dogs I observed were indeed chained to their barrel residences (with an attached pail of water) but I don't have any way of knowing how much time they spend off their chains for training and care. Certainly I encourage those who would like to know more to check out your website as well as other sources.
Margery Glickman July 09, 2012 at 08:34 PM
Hi Diane, Thank you for suggesting that people contact my website, http://www.helpsleddogs.org. All the quotes are referenced, so anyone can find the information. Seavey's Iditarod Racing Kennel is owned by Mitch Seavey. In his book, "Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way!" Seavey encourages people to hit their dogs, not feed them until they've run 50 miles, use a blowtorch to burn the fur on the dogs' feet, etc. Margery


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