Humans have been taking their fluffy partners in crime on adventures since man first shared a meal with the wolves. And these days it’s more possible than ever for the family dog to become an extreme sports athlete. Social media is littered with videos of surfing dogs, dogs paragliding, sand surfing dogs, even dogs game hunting in the open wild. And, for the record, these canine thrill-seekers do look like they’re having the time of their lives (or at least don’t object).

But that means it’s becoming more important to develop those communication skills to know what your dog is telling you while exploring intense activities together. Because, as they experienced in the 2022 Iditarod, a responsible owner has to be ready to make the right choice for their dog regardless of sport.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, commonly known as the Iditarod, began in 1973 as an event to test the best of the best of dog sled mushers that evolved into the competitive race it is today. Running from Anchorage to Nome in Alaska, teams of 12 to 14 dogs pull sleds 938 miles over the course of 8 to 15 days through blizzards, white-outs and the generally rough terrain of wild Alaska with possible wind chills of -100°F.

Map of the race: ADN

It’s intense to say the least, and the thrill of the competition comes with a lot of risk requiring quick decision-making. This was the situation for female mushers, Mille Porsild of Denmark and Yukon musher Michelle Phillips, who found themselves penalized after sheltering their dogs during a heavy winter storm.

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Mille Porsild was planning to mush through at the tail end of the route when a ferocious windstorm hit. Trapped in a wind tunnel with no natural protection for her team, Porsild luckily came across a shelter cabin.

“I lined out my team to be sheltered on the west side of the cabin but quickly assessed that it did not provide adequate protection for the dogs to safely survive the winds,” Mille Porsild wrote in an email to race marshal Mark Nordman. 

Porsild brought her team inside the cabin and was joined later by musher Michelle Phillips, also caught in the winter gales without adequate outdoor protection for her team. This move, however, was considered in violation of Rule 37: ”Dogs may not be brought into shelters except for race veterinarians’ medical examination or treatment.”. Rule 37 exists to prevent mushers from taking an unfair advantage over other competitors in providing their dogs with more rest and thus more edge. As result, both female mushers were demoted in their race standings.

Michelle Phillips waving to fans: Emily Mesner / ADN

But critics point out, the Porsild’s and Phillips winter storm case, the rules also state “There will be no cruel or inhumane treatment of dogs. Cruel or inhumane treatment involves any action or inaction, which causes preventable pain or suffering to a dog.”

“There was no doubt to me that my dogs sitting unprotected in these conditions could lead to death or deaths of dog(s),” Porsild wrote.

“No doubt that Michelle and Mille did the right thing for their dogs,” race marshal Mark Nordman stated later. “But it also affected the competition for racers going forward.”

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Whether or not the ruling was fair is its own debate and truly only those familiar with dog sledding can probably properly weigh in on the subject. The lesson for all dog owners seeking thrills to share with their radical pup is to keep the focus on the dog and not the prize. Remember the golden rules. If it’s dangerous for a human, it’s probably dangerous for a dog. Before engaging in extreme activities with the family pup, do all the research on proper equipment (dog booties may look silly but it’s better than an injured paw), environment (careful of those riptides on beach day), and signs your dog may be over it or too stressed.

The Iditarod is most likely not on most dog owners bucketlist, but good puppy prep for any activity is the best way to prevent a dog day out from becoming a ruff experience.

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