As a company that cares so much for the natural environment and the diverse animals that call it home, we sometimes get asked why we include dog sledding on our Canadian polar bear trips. We love having the opportunity to answer! It’s an activity we have vetted thoroughly with our on-the-ground operators, and we stand strong in our decision to share this activity with our travelers. Here’s why:

Not All Dog Sledding Experiences Are the Same

There are horror stories of mushers who run their dogs into the ground, pushing them well past any sensible limit. We in no way support this type of treatment of any animal. But we would put conscientious dog sledding in the same category as riding a horse through nature. Sustainable dog sledding is comparable to working with animals on a traditional, sustainable farm. When the dogs are treated kindly and with respect at all times, they work happily in harmony with humans. Dog body language is pretty direct and easy to read for those who spend a lot of time around them. In sustainable and ethical dog sled operations, you can see for yourself that the dogs love to run and enjoy the dog sledding as much as we do.  

Dog sledding in Churchill, Canada

© Lianne Thompson

Sled Dogs Are Uniquely Adapted for the Task

And it’s best to not think of northern sled dogs as the same as other domestic dogs. They are uniquely adapted to thrive in harsh Arctic conditions. They have a particular metabolism regulation and also fur between their toes to keep ice from clumping on their paws as they run through the snow. And like many other Arctic animals, such as polar bears, seals and Arctic fox, they have two coats of fur—an outer coat of coarse guard hairs over a thick, insulating undercoat. 

Sustainable Dog Sledding Aligns With Our Commitment to the Planet

A well-managed dog sledding operation can offer travelers sustainable access to pristine settings without polluting those environments. In the Arctic, for example, the carbon cost of exploring by skidoo or snowmobile is obviously higher because of the need to burn fossil fuels. As the world’s first 100% carbon-neutral travel company, this is an issue we take very seriously. Quietly gliding over the snow also has much less negative impact on the wildlife that lives in the area we want to visit. Loud motors can disrupt the breeding cycles of a range of species, force them to flee traditional feeding grounds, or prompt them to go to ground when they should be out hunting or feeding.

We understand many people automatically say it’s better if people just don’t visit such pristine natural environments. And we do believe in maintaining regulations and control around tourism—but there are also many benefits to letting travelers experience the natural wonders of Earth. If people can see for themselves the beauty and fragility of nature, we think they will be more motivated to appreciate and protect it. 

Dog Sledding Is an Interactive Way to Understand More About Local Culture

For the Inuit, Dene and Metis peoples of northern Manitoba and Nunavut where we visit on our Churchill Polar Bear Tours, working with sled dogs is a central part of their heritage. Indigenous cultures in the Arctic have lived in harmony with sled dogs (qimmiit in Inuktitut) for countless generations; in fact, sled dogs have been used as a traditional mode of travel since 800 A.D. The dogs pull qamutiik, traditional Inuit sleds, to transport people and cargo. In addition, the sled dogs use their highly-attuned sense of smell to help track down prey for hunting parties and also are very valuable in helping to retrace routes lost under heavy snows.

Howling sled dog with white fur and bright blue beautiful eyes

© Brad Josephs

But in a tragic turn of events, Canadian Inuit dogs (Canis familiaris borealis), nearly faced extinction by the mid-1970s. As Inuit were forcibly relocated from their seasonal camps to permanent settlements by the Canadian government, many people were forced to leave their dogs (and almost all of their other possessions) behind. After arriving in the settlements, thousands of dogs were shot by police and hunters, while many others died from disease due to the newly close quarters. Some people believe the Canadian government actively gathered and euthanized sled dogs in an attempt to destroy the semi-nomadic traditional lifestyle of northern communities.

Regardless, the devastating loss of their beloved sled dogs did in fact impact the traditional way of life of Indigenous peoples, further cutting them off from the nuna, Inuktitut for “the land.” Without the sled dogs for transportation, many had to abandon their seasonal hunting grounds and ice fishing spots.

Only a few hundred sled dogs were left in northern Canada before a recovery program stepped in to help to bring their numbers back up. The federal government issued a formal apology in 2019 for their actions, and today, the Inuit governing body of Canada’s newest territory, Nunavut, even has the qimmiq as their official animal symbol. Sled dogs are once again able to be a vital part of Inuit, Dene and Metis culture.

How to Make Sure Your Dog Sled Operator Is Ethical

Two Nat Hab travelers smiling and petting a sled dog inside their shelter

© Jeremy Covert

We do our part to vet all of our on-the-ground guides and partners, but every traveler should be able to do their own homework and feel good about the activities they partake in. A few things to consider when choosing a dog sled operator:

  • How are the dogs treated year round? It’s one thing to see them well fed during the main dog sledding season, but how are they treated the rest of the year? Some dogs spend the summer months in small cages or chained up—a definite red flag for a breed that needs a lot of physical activity  to thrive.
  • How and what are the dogs fed? The dogs should appear strong and healthy, not gaunt. Ideally, their diet will include ethical, locally sourced food.
  • Is there a strong connection between the dogs and their handlers? It is often easy to see when a dog and handler have mutual respect.
  • Do the dogs get adequate rest time between runs? Ask! Responsible handlers keep a close eye on the work rotation to make sure the dogs get plenty of time to rest and recover between runs.

Experience Sustainable Dog Sledding for Yourself on One of Our Arctic Adventures

On our Churchill Polar Bear Trips, you’ll have the chance to meet a local musher, visit with the dogs, observe the team as they prepare for the run, then head out with them for an unforgettable ride through the boreal forest behind a happy and eager team of dogs. The Arctic tundra is an absolutely magical place where polar bears meander, snowy owls soar in the moonlight and Arctic foxes roam. We don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that an adventure to this winter wonderland wouldn’t be complete without an authentic dog sled ride led by a local Metis musher.

Sled dog puppies in Canada

© Emily Kautz