There has been growing public concern, in recent years, about the welfare of dogs used in the sleddog industry, both for safaris and for racing. Some of this concern has just come from the average tourist wanting to know more about the behind the scenes care of animals used in tourism products linked to the growing interest in 'responsible tourism'. (People now want reassurance that the destinations and service providers they choose have taken care to protect the environment and culture they are operating in, as well as animals they may be using in the activities.)
Some of the concern, however, has also been because of scandals breaking in the popular press about the actions of certain individuals within the industry. The British Columbia cullings (we have a separate page on this subject) have been by far the most internationally publicised and widely debated of these, but they have not, unfortunately, been the only issues to have drawn negative media attention because of poor or unacceptable performance in recent years. It is not surprising, therefore, that public confidence in the industry dropped.
In order to safeguard the sport, therefore, the industry needs to be being seen to be looking proactively at this topic and ensuring that the average farm standards are high enough that the concerned consumer need have no concerns about taking part.
Our work in this regard earned us a GOLD award in the 'Best Animal Welfare Initiave' category of the World Responsible Tourism Awards, 2015..
How can we justify this need at a Finnish parliamentary level?
To give an insight into the scale of this issue and the need for higher standards, my best estimate is that there are maybe 3000 dogs living on farms within a 2hour radius of our own; 5-6000 if the nearest urban centres in both Sweden (Kiruna) and Norway (Alta and Tromso) are also considered.
If you consider the fact that sleddogs are one of the pivotal components of a healthy tourism business and if you look at the relative economic importance of tourism in the northern regional economies, the value of sleddogs within the region is immediately apparent.
In Enontekiö, where we are based, for instance, tourism equated to c. 50% of the municipality's direct income in 2011- and since this sector of the market has grown a lot since then, I believe that it is probably a higher percentage, today. Our 'region' is combined with Kittilä, Sodankylä and Muonio and collectively in the greater area, tourism is responsible for 30% of the economy. The 1000s of sleddogs and 10s of sleddog farms operating in this region are an important component of this.
Added to that, the growing trend in responsible tourism and more aware / educated consumers means that this is the kind of issue that the national tourist boards simple cannot ignore. A recent blog post by Tui examining market trends in travel consumers showed clearly that even from just a pragmatic business perspective, these issues can no longer be ignored.
How damaging have media 'exposures' of bad practice been, to date?
Media stories 'exposing' issues with the living, working or racing standards of the dogs in Europe or the US occur very infrequently. When they do, (for instance with a farm that was closed for this reason in the north of Norway in 2014), they are often accompanied by incendiary images which may or may not accurately depict the issue in question.
One reason for this is because the majority of sleddog farms actually take pretty good care of their living animals (even if there are still pretty big quality differences between many of them). If they did not feed them well, for instance, they wouldn't be able to run and then they wouldn't be able to earn the money to buy the next batch of food. etc.
The fact that the way in which the animals are looked after, whilst alive is also monitored to a degree by national regulations might also factor into this, but I am not really sure how significant this is, at present, given how vague or non-enforceable most national regulations tend to be.
Worldwide, according to Maneesha Deckha, an associate professor of law at the University of Victoria, anti-cruelty laws are generally still very narrow in scope and don't really protect against animal abuse. They tend to only protect certain animals from certain types of treatment that we, as a culture, find shocking. Whilst killing your pets is not illegal, for instance, putting them through 'unnecessary' suffering is.
The issue, when it comes to sleddogs, is that we are still at the point of identifying what (in Scandinavia in 2015), we deem an appropriate level of care / level of unnecessary suffering both when living and during end-of-life-decisions.
When we look at birth and death factors in relation to sleddog farms and associated media coverage, there is also a relatively large amount of noise, even though farm owners can still effectively choose their own policies in this regard, since nothing is mandated by any law.
It is still relatively common practice, for instance, to routinely reduce the number of old or infirm within the kennel population - for instance at the end of the working season - so as to optimise the health and age range of the working dogs and to reduce the number of dogs which need to be fed through the long summer months in which there is zero income. Many argue that this is even vital to safeguard the overall welbeing of the rest of the dogs since the old are simply a drain on the economy of the kennel and put the rest at risk. Depending on the kennel, this might mean one or two dogs being put down some years or even tens of dogs other years - particularly if business is reducing unexpectedly for some reason.
This was the case in British Columbia where, after the games, there was a surplus of dogs for the demand and kennels simply couldn't afford to keep them all without a rigorous selection policy being put in place. Clearly if just a handful of dogs are killed in a kennel, each year, it will not warrent much attention. However, when mass graves are uncovered or stories about mass killings come out, the public, not surprisingly, finds this abhorent, (even if it is just a question of scale).
Similarly, the overbreeding of pups, issue, has been discussed quite a bit in social media channels even though this too is totally within the domain of the breeder. For instance in 2014, in the South of Finland, there was a lot of social media coverage about a french-owned-kennel in which year on year, tens of pups were being born (in this instance simply because of a lack of pregnancy planning) and then, the majority, killed. Many farm owners were pretty disgusted at the serious lack of good management systems - but since the farm was not breaking any laws, there was nothing that could be done.
Clearly the vast majority of sleddog farms breed responsibly year on year and neither have many accidental pregnancies nor a high need for abortions because of accidental matings. However, when it comes to deliberate overbreeding to improve bloodline or for keeping only a high quality stock for selling purposes, the industry is a little more hesitant to speak out - even if the end result for the dogs is the same - since these practices are supported by many of the most respected characters at the top of the racing or tourist-mushing field.
They argue that if they sell or even give away sub standard 'stock', that their breeding reputation and livlihoods would be compromised. Hence, it is best for them to keep the cream of the crop, sell the next best and get rid of the rest. Only the most respected farms can really do this, since they are the only ones which can demand a price for their dogs. Going on safaris at these farms is also, certainly, a pleasurable experience, since they have kept only great dogs. However, farms which breed annually clearly have to kill off the non-functioning stock, annually, just as any farmer would. And whilst consumers might have been easily persuadable, 20 years ago, that this was a necessary way to do business, I wonder if they would be as easily mollified today.
You might ask, why is this issue not talked about more in the main European press (aka where the people making the decisions about what kind of holidays to book and where to go for that kind of holiday, live). The answer is fairly simple. The majority of reports, whilst sometimes extensive and shocking, are linguistically inaccessible to the English, french or German-speaking world. Hence, their knock-on impact on the industry has been negligible to date.
However, it is only a matter of time, in the age of social networking, facilitated communications and a growing demand for service providers to be able to show that they are responsible in their actions, before informed tourists will look at the industry as a whole more closely.
It would be good if, at that point, the regions in which the sleddog industry is a vital component of the regional economy could already be being seen to be proactively addressing these issues from within and developing reasoned and enforcable minimal standards as well as best practice recommendations for the 21st Century. The norms and practices which were acceptable 20 years ago, may just be 20 years out of date!
How has the industry responded, when there has been Negative Media Coverage?
Mush With Pride
The industry has come under attack a number of times by animals rights groups in recent years. The majority of the focus in early years was on racing kennels and races themselves (eg ). However, that changed with BC when the attention focused, rather, on the consumer sleddog business.
The first response to the attacks came in the 1990s with the development of the organisation 'Mush with PRIDE'. At that time, a working group formed which developed recommended standards for things like food, water, exercise and kennel size.
It became the leading standard (since it was the only standard) internationally, for sled dog activities worldwide. Hence, farms aspiring to high standards joined and used their guidelines as their benchmark. The organization, (which stands for Providing Responsible Information on Dogs in their Environment), has about 500 members worldwide. The vast majority of these are in the US or Canada although there are also a few member farms also in Scandinavia and even South Africa.
When farms join, they can voluntarily invite veterinary inspectors to visit their farms and to benchmark their practices against the PRIDE assessment criteria. Our farm, for instance, has taken part in its Voluntary Kennel Inspection Program and achieved 'certificate plus' rating - their highest possible standard. Unfortunately, we are very much in the minority in Europe and therefore as a tool for convincing consumers of the industry's commitment towards best practice, PRIDE is still fairly ineffective.
Other limitations with PRIDE are that, whilst a great starting point, the standards provide insufficient guidance in several critical areas and are, anyway, purely voluntary in nature. As such, they are unenforceable.
Given that the good kennels are anyway going to be good, (ie irrespective of benchmarking voluntary standards), it is the dogs in the other kinds of kennels which actually need the most 'help' and this can only come about through the development of mandatory minimum standards which are specific to sleddog farms.
Unfortunately, also, one of the people implicated in the BC cullings and at the centre of the debate that ensued was on the PRIDE board at the time and this has no doubt reduced confidence in the effectiveness of the organisation. Read more about Mush with Pride and Hetta Huskies, here.
British Columbia Case Study
When the British Columbia cullings flooded the press, animal rights activitsts in the US were so incentivised that they called for a ban on sleddogs per se. Their arguments were, not surprisingly, often fairly extreme and sometimes way off base. (Other examples can be found here and here). Clearly few, if any, had ever stood on a start line and witnessed the excitement that literally pings from dog to dog when lined up, ready to run. Regardless, this issue gained a fairly large following (in much the same way that the call for a ban on greyhound racing has raised a furore in Australia and Florida recently).
For British Columbia, this was as big an issue as it would be for northern Scandinavia. One of the most important components of their tourism market - and multiple dogs in farms following good and responsible practices - were under threat because of the highlighted actions of a few.
For them it was clear that it was time to wake up and take a hard look at what was going on behind the scenes and to bring a new working group together to develop standards that would placate the lobbying activists, reassure the concerned consumers and tighten laws applicable to living sleddogs whilst also encouraging best practice w.r.t. cullings and new litters (practices which still do not fall under any guidelines enforcable by laws).
Their task group - an extensive group of stakeholders - developed two separate levels of management:
1) A reference document containing recommended best practices (The Sled Dog Code of Practice) that provides guidance to sled dog owners and operators, veterinarians, and law enforcement officials as to optimal standards that farms should be (voluntarily) aiming towards / against which they can baseline their current management systems.
2) A new legal regulation covering 'minimumal standards of care' for those in the sleddog business (Sled Dog Standards of Care Regulations) and
Read more about why the Sleddog Task Force was set up in British Columbia (following the widely advertised cullings), here, and, linked to that, the, Codes of Best Practice and the legally enforceable minimum standard regulations they developed from these.
The extensive research that went into the development of these documents can now be capitalised upon by other sleddog regions hoping to develop their own standards and guidelines. The work provides a great springboard from which we can develop our own without having to recreate the wheel.
How ready is the European Sleddog Industry for change?
Just as in BC not all sleddog farm owners were ready, necessarily, for new regulations and just as many will not subscribe to codes of best practice, (even if they now have no choice about complying with the new care regulation standards), nevertheless, the industry as a whole HAD to respond to the need for a philosophical change in approach and many owners were glad to see it happen.
Similarly, whilst many European sleddog owners would welcome new legislation and standards that they can show their farms off against (in a positive way), some are likely to be resistant to the need for change.
And, whilst consumers sometimes assume that those who have been in the industry the longest are the best operators to work with, (many companies use their no. of years in business as a sales tool), some are quite old school in approach and for the 21st century, their attitude towards appropriate practices might just be 20 years out of philosophical date!
It would seem obvious that businesses would work best when managing stock in a way that does not compromise their genetic viability for the future, getting the best out of each individual dog by working individually with those that need special training or remedial work, living in a place where it is easy and convenient to train, working with the dog teams using the same dogs year after year, letting the old experienced dogs help you train the youngsters, instead of turning entire teams over every couple years. In other words, trying to do things in a non-stressful way for both the owner and the dogs.
However, when we would first go to industry conferences and mention, for instance, that we don’t kill off our old dogs (or our injured or lazy or small or fighting etc dogs), we would be treated by a surprising number of other owners as ‘liberal newbies’ who would 'soon learn better' once we had a better grip of economic reality. Many would genuinely ask us 'why' we would follow these or other non-standard practices.
This is by no means surprising. Historically, it has always taken a great effort by a few in society to challenge and then overcome accepted norms that are overdue a philosophy change. Obvious human examples would include slavery or even seggregation (which was commonly accepted practice in some regions of the USA even in the mid 1960s). From an animal-rights perspective, practices like elephant riding, battery farming of chickens, greyhound racing (primarily from the point of view of end-of-life care and harsh training methods including live baiting), and fox hunting were all commonly accepted practices which have been carried through to today but which, in recent times, have become contentious issues and topics of mass debate.
Hence, having laws which treat all farms equally and consistently when it comes to assessing their standards is clearly one step in the right direction towards ensuring that the dogs have at least good basic minimum living standards.
And, having a second tier of assessment linked to best practice, will generally facilitate a mindset change when it comes to responsibility towards the young and old.