Ethical husky safaris and husky welfare

Picture this: you’re mushing a team of huskies across a pristine Lappish landscape. There are snowflakes stuck to your eyelashes, and all you can hear is the whoosh of the sled under your feet. If you think that sounds dreamy, you’re not alone. Husky sledding is a growing industry and it’s now one of the most popular activities to try in Lapland. There are heaps of holidays offering husky safaris, but not all ‘husky farms’, the kennels which supply the sled dogs for your trip, are created equal.
It’s easy to fall for a cuddly team of huskies – just make sure you’re picking the right trip, and giving these beautiful creatures the care they deserve.
Here at Responsible Travel we sell a variety of husky tours, and guests love them. If they book winter activities holiday, the overnight husky safari is often the highlight of their trip. We believe that this popular activity can be done responsibly and with the best interests of the husky at heart. Case closed? Well, maybe not. Lack of legislation leaves husky sledding open to potential problems, and the industry is growing fast.

Cruel runnings?

After each trip, cute husky pics hit the internet, and people start asking about doggy ethics. After all, lots of us are dog lovers (some 50% of Britons own a pet). We’re quick to point to a husky sleeping in a snowdrift and ask – shouldn’t that dog be inside? We might look at long, oft-scrutinised races like the Yukon Quest and wonder how the tourist dogs fare: do huskies actually like pulling sleds? José-Carlos García-Rosell is Senior Lecturer of Responsible Tourism Business at the University of Lapland. He explains a common reaction: “we see huskies and we compare them to our own animals back home. Then we see them running, we see them in kennels – and we ask ourselves, would our dog be happy running here? Would our dog be happy staying here? People become very emotional about this.”
One of the most famous sled dogs in North American history was Balto, who delivered vital medicine in Alaska during a diphtheria epidemic. He was actually named after a Sámi explorer, Samuel Balto.
But these initial concerns are, for the most part, baseless. From the evidence of those who have spent time with the dogs, huskies certainly seem to like pulling sledges. And they don’t mind sleeping outside. In fact, they’re built (and specifically bred) for both. In North America, dogs have been bred to pull sleds for centuries: in the 1800s they were used for polar exploration. By the 1930s, they were being bred for sled dog racing. Hetta Huskies, a farm in Enontekio, Lapland, has a wealth of husky-related information on their website. They note that there are many types of husky – among them ‘Eurohounds, Alaskan huskies, Siberian huskies and Malamutes’. All are probably happier outside than in your apartment – as adoption sites like Blue Cross point out “huskies can pull sleds across hundreds of miles of icy terrain. They are not happy with simply slobbing in front of the telly after a 10 minute plod round the block”. What’s more, the dogs that sleep outside are perfectly used to it – it’s usually ones with Malamute and Siberian husky blood, and therefore thicker coats. When it’s too cold or the snow isn’t good – responsible operators will ensure that trips don’t run. Most farms would rather reimburse customers than send their dogs out in bad conditions.
Our trip reviews confirms this: the huskies are so excited at the start of a day’s sledding that they bark themselves into a frenzy. Veronica, from Bearhill Husky, one of our specialists in Finland, says “huskies... need to run to feel well. Each dog has a training and working calendar, making sure they also get rest.” Guests who book our trips often report how sled-happy the dogs seem in their reviews, “My dogs were fantastic and it's very interesting to see how they are made for the cold environment and how much they want to run.” Jennifer Atkinson said, on returning from a Husky safari in Finland in 2018. “The enthusiasm they show when you arrive for your trip is infectious,” Teresa Cooper agrees, returning from a five day Finland Northern Lights holiday.
It was all amazing! Working with the dogs was a highlight of course, they are incredible.
– Jill Dobbie on her Yukon dog sledding holiday
Given our love for animals, and news stories about widespread animal abuse across the tourism industry, it’s completely valid to worry about husky welfare. The problem is, most issues surround parts of the industry that tourists simply don’t see. You can boil husky welfare down to a few simple questions: What happens when the dogs are put back in their kennels after their trips? What happens to the dogs out of season? How do farms manage their puppy populations? And what happens when the dogs get too old to run?
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Husky safari or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Kennel standards

When I told a friend’s eight year old daughter I was writing about husky farms, she immediately turned white. “They farm dogs?” she asked, shocked. I had to explain that the wording was unfortunate – husky ‘kennels’ would be more appropriate. Tourists spend time with the dogs out in the wilderness, but the dogs will spend the majority of their time in kennels on so-called farms.

A good husky farm will keep a tight control on disease and make sure that breeding is carefully managed, and will be proud to tell you so on their website. You should be wary of any company that keeps information about dog welfare to a minimum on their pages. But one of the hardest problems to solve is under-stimulation. These dogs are smart, and they get bored – especially if there are too few staff around, or too little activity. The responsible kennels that we work with think carefully about how to keep dogs entertained. They rotate which dogs get to be in the guest-facing kennels, which get the most interaction, and keep strict records of every dog’s schedule.

Summer time

Husky sledding season is generally from December to April – less than six months of the year. But huskies, unlike snowmobiles, can’t simply be put away in summer. They still need stimulation, feeding and care. The problem is, in a competitive industry, farms can’t always afford to employ full staff all year around, so dogs risk getting bored, unstimulated and neglected.
In summer, it’s often too hot for the huskies to run – “if the weather allows (under +10°C, preferably +5°C), the dogs can be trained with quads or kick bikes” say Outi Björkstedt, from one of our holiday companies, Guesthouse Husky in Ivalo, Finland – but above this and you’ll get hot unhappy dogs.

Never put a good dog down

As it stands, law in Finland means that owners can put huskies down without needing a reason. Euthanasia is still common practice when a husky gets too old to run, but too costly to keep. It might seem deplorable to some, but it’s a tricky issue. Every farm will have their own policy about the issue. Here’s a controversial statistic: in 2017 there were 42 husky farms in Finnish Lapland. Hetta Huskies, one of our holiday providers, estimated that “about five or six farms, that we know of” have a ‘no-cull’ policy, alongside Hetta themselves. That means the rest potentially do use euthanasia to manage their numbers.

Arguments around this controversial practice vary: some people, including some vets, say that huskies aren’t really suitable for rehoming when they’re too old, and won’t enjoy life as pets. Others say that once dogs are too old to run, they no longer enjoy life and become depressed. Husky farms which euthanise old dogs should be ready to justify their choices when asked. One farm we spoke to said, “when the dogs are no longer capable, they often have such health problems or pain that the best solution for the dog is to let them go to dogs´ “heaven”, even though giving up your appreciated work mate is not that easy.” At Responsible Travel, we don’t think that huskies should be culled. If you don’t either, you shouldn’t be afraid to ask your operator about the farm you’re visiting’s ‘no cull policy’ before you book.

Too many dogs, too many companies

There has been a marked increase in husky tours in the last few years alone. José-Carlos explains; “Three years ago the top tourist activity in Finnish Lapland was snowmobile tours. But now it’s huskies. We think that people are seeing these trips online and wanting to do them for themselves.” More people are coming into Finland every year, and overnight stays are increasingly on the menu.
In 2017 there were an estimated 4,000 huskies in Finnish Lapland’s tourism industry, bringing in a total turnover of €9.6 million. This is compared to 660 reindeer and 150 horses in the industry. Husky farms are massive operations. Some can have up to 500 dogs in a single farm. Big farms aren’t necessarily bad, but they need careful management. One of the better-rated husky farms in Finland is also one of its biggest: Hetta Huskies has more than 200 dogs, yet its standards are so good that it won one of our Animal Welfare Initiative Gold Medals in our Responsible Travel Awards.
Having too many dogs is a real problem: unchecked breeding can be disastrous for a husky farm. The tragic results of too many dogs made worldwide headlines in 2010 after a farm in Whistler, British Columbia, decided to shoot 150 dogs due to financial difficulties. The mass killings were so brutal that the employee tasked with carrying them out later sued his employers for PTSD. Sometimes farms downsize rapidly to deal with economic circumstances. One of our Lapland specialists has recently decided to reduce the number of huskies on its farm by 50%, by redistributing the huskies to other farms and thereby ensuring its animals continue to live under the best standards.
José-Carlos again: “Tourism is growing very fast, and sled dogs have become very popular – we need more animals working in tourism if we are to meet demand. The local companies don’t want to get more animals. They’ve reached capacity but there is demand out there.” When long-established farms are reluctant to take on more dogs, there’s an opportunity in the market for seasonal farms to spring up – operators coming from different countries “from France, Germany, Spain” to conduct temporary operations, “they come for three months, four months, and they don’t know the place or the rules”. These can be more problematic: they don’t employ local people, don’t always respect local relationships, and siphon money out of the country.

Husky sledding in Europe

So popular is husky sledding that you’ll now find it in many centres across Europe – from the High Tatras in Slovakia to Svalbard in Norway. But for most tourists, it begins and ends in Finnish Lapland. Most people think that husky sledding is a traditional way of life here, but it really isn’t. Sámi tribes don’t have any history of using huskies. In the 1960s, the only husky farms were those kept by hobbyists, keen to race. It’s a growing industry, and the law hasn’t caught up.

Unlike British Colombia, Finland has no current animal welfare specifically for animals used in tourism, and no specific legislature for husky welfare. Instead, huskies are classed alongside other dogs, as pets. Researchers at the University of Lapland are working to change this, and created the Animal Tourism Finland project, and a useful series of questions that tour operators can ask husky farms before partnering.

Husky sledding in Canada

Legislation in Canada demands annual husky farm inspections. This is a direct result of the 2010 Whistler incident. Whilst the event makes for grim reading, it was enough to shake British Columbia into introducing new laws: The Sled Dog Code of Practice came into place in 2012.

But for some, the new legislation isn’t enough. It will come as a surprise to no one that PETA is fully against dog sled racing. A 2016 Canadian documentary, Sled Dogs, showed poor husky welfare standards for racing dogs who took part in the gruelling Iditarod Trail. The film received mixed feedback – it picked up two awards at the Whistler Film Festival, while some questioned the accuracy of the portrayal.

High-profile Sled Dog endurances races and the scandal in Whistler once gave a general feeling that Canada’s husky welfare record was not as good Europe’s. But the code of practice mean that British Columbia is now “leading the way” when it comes to sled dog welfare, as Hetta Huskies says. We have total confidence in our Canadian husky specialists, who offer intrepid 14-day expeditions.

For the love of dogs

Whilst the Whistler incident, and the lack of legislature in Lapland might make you worry, our husky farm operators are experts, with years and years of experience. And they would do anything for the dogs in their care. You’ll see huskies being given massages, ‘dog spas’, wearing coats and even “sneakers” when it’s too cold, and their thick, special coats being brushed. Being brushed a lot. Being covered in dog hair is probably when husky owners are happiest.
Most husky owners are just like you. They love their baying, playful packs of dogs. They know every husky by name, and have long paragraphs on their websites extolling their virtues.
Tarja Salmela is a Post Doctoral Researcher at the University of Lapland. She was part of the Animal Tourism Finland project, and spent time talking to many farms, “Based on our collaborative work with Finnish tourism companies… we have witnessed that sled dog tourism can be, as its best, based on the serious valuing of animal welfare. We have witnessed sled dogs being devotedly taken care of, with highly competent and devoted people working with the dogs.” When Responsible Travel started to ask questions for this piece, we found husky farms really willing to answer questions, and give out loads of information. “Husky kennels get a lot of questions about their dogs – how they live how they are fed, what happens after they are too old. They need to be transparent. And think about why they are doing things, and be able to explain their choices” José-Carlos agrees. People around the world care about dogs, so husky farms get a lot of scrutiny – and that’s a good thing.

Better husky sledding

At Responsible Travel, we take animal welfare seriously. Our holiday companies use husky farms that they themselves have visited personally where possible, and usually have long-standing relationships with the farms they use. The husky farms themselves are happy to answer questions about their dogs – the number that we spoke to or researched for this article had reams of information on their site. But there some ways in which we can all move towards even more responsible husky sledding.

Expect proper answers

Don’t just take our word for it. You shouldn’t feel afraid to ask farms and operators about their dogs. This isn’t always easy. Husky farms themselves don’t always have great websites, and operators will use a mix of places so it can be hard to see where you’re actually going. It’s best to book with a reputed operator who will have done all the digging for you, but don’t be afraid to do your own research. Tarja Salmela, Post Doctoral Researcher at the University of Lapland, has more:

“One good rule to keep in mind is that if you are not able to find any detailed information about sled dog welfare in the company's website, and especially if you are not able to get detailed answers about it when contacting the company, then there is a reason for bells to ring: what might be the potential cause of the company not highlighting the efforts made to guarantee animal welfare?”

Not all good husky farms will have the resources to put in such a good showing on their website as Hetta Huskies, who are campaigning for tougher sled dog guidelines on their webpages. However, they should be open to answering your questions.

Go on longer trips

Longer versus shorter trips are a subject of debate. Although it’s good for dogs to do a mix of shorter and longer trips so they get adequate rest time, in general, if you’re going with a responsible operator, longer trips (three hours or more) are generally better. Riitta Kiukas, from our specialists Skafur-Tour, picks her husky farms carefully, “I try to pick up those companies keeping the group size small (often six people), taking longer safaris and if possible no one hour versions”. One hour tours are a responsible travel no-no. The dogs get bored, shuttling a revolving door of tourists up and down the same run.
Going on an overnight trip is far more exciting, and means you’ll get to care for the dogs. “It is also much better for local companies – getting more benefit from these trips – revenues are higher,” José-Carlos adds. This comes with a caveat: your longer expedition shouldn’t come into contact with reindeer herds, or go onto Sámi land without prior agreement.

Travel out of season

Travelling out of season could do a world of good; not only could it relieve the pressure on the crowded winter season, but it also helps employ local people year-round, helps thwart the growing number of seasonal operators who only run in winter, and gives the dogs training, exercise and stimulation in the summer.

Though they’re not widely available yet, autumn trips might be the way things go in Lapland. Riitta offers her opinion, “What I think might happen is that husky safari owners might put more effort in making the season longer as they do not want or are able to increase the number of dogs.” Veronica at Bearhill Husky agrees “For both the dogs and the community it would be best if the safaris could work all-year round or at least longer than just in winter. This has been the objective and this company has invested a lot for creating routes, getting carts and keeping personnel available for autumn safaris.” There’s something brilliantly counter-cultural about heading to the Arctic in October, and walking a husky through an orange forest of fallen leaves, not a snowflake in sight.

However, travelling when there is no snow has an impact on the environment – for one thing, it erodes trails. Dogs can only really run on land that is owned by the husky farm. Smaller farms might not have the land to run out of season tours. Bearhill Husky in Rovaniemi has just moved its premises for this very reason, so they can “set up safe summer routes on their own land.” Taking dogs for a walk, or ‘sledding’ on wheeled carriages, has started to be practised by some farms, but it’s not the norm just yet. Most of our holidays at Responsible Travel don't involve out of season sledding, though we do run some tailor made trips to Lapland in autumn where you can try a short husky safari by cart. With the seasons getting warmer thanks to climate change, lack of snow may become a common problem and carting, rather than sledding, could become more common.

Questions to ask for a responsible husky tour

Which farm will I visit? The holiday providers we work with might use a number of different farms for their trips, but will normally have gone out and seen the farms in person. Feel free to ask your provider which farm you’ll visit. What happens to the dogs in summer? What happens to old dogs? Not all farms have the resources to make a great website, but generally, you should be able to ask questions of your operators without being shut down. Asking what happens to the dogs when they retire, or how they’re cared for in the summer, should provoke knowledgeable responses, not cagey answers. Can I see the kennels? When you visit you should feel welcome, you should feel free to interact with the dogs and hopefully also see where they live. You shouldn’t see any of the following from the dogs: baring teeth, growling, fear posturing. What’s on the schedule for this dog? Dogs should be fed at least once a day and look well cared for. Dogs will be fed at least once a day, and get lots of check-ups for nail trims, paw care and general pampering. They should get something like a day off a week, though there’s no hard and fast rule. What’s his name? Husky farms can get really large – some have up to 400 dogs. Big farms aren’t always bad – but your guide should know all the dogs in the teams by name, and be able to tell you all about them. You shouldn’t be out in a group of more than six at a time. What happens in bad weather? A good farm won’t run trips in bad weather, or in deep snow, which is hard on the dogs. They should refund you or suggest alternative trips.

Are husky safaris the most responsible way to visit the Arctic?

One of the best things about husky sledding is its comparative eco-friendliness – at least on the surface. It’s nearly silent (once the excited dogs have set off) and it’s non-polluting. Husky farms stick to known trails only, so you don’t end up with the snowy carpet sliced into pieces. Most husky operators have systems in place for disposing of waste, including the dogs’ – and serve local food, burn local wood, and minimise the resources used by tourists.

It’s in husky operators’ best interests to look after the special landscapes where they work; after all, incredible places like Yukon in Alaska, Svalbard in Norway (with its polar bears), and Finnish Lapland (which has some of the cleanest air in the world) are what draws visitors from far and wide in the first place. But just because husky safaris seem to have shipshape eco credentials, it doesn’t mean they aren’t exempt from the Responsible Travel magnifying glass.

Husky farms and tradition

People have used sled dogs for centuries in some parts of the world. In the late 1800s, sled dogs were bred for Polar Exploration, and by the 1930s, sled dog racing became popular in the area. But people can sometimes think that husky sledding is older than it is – and even think it’s a Sámi tradition in northern Europe. But it’s not. Be under no illusion that husky farming is a traditional way of life in Lapland, for instance.
Thirty years ago there were no husky farms – there might have been some hobbyists who kept small kennels of dogs for racing, but really, the husky are here for tourists. The majority of farms in northern Europe are here to satisfy the enormous tourist demand. Their popularity has exploded in the last few years, and more and more farms are cropping up. Husky farms really aren’t a traditional or natural part of the Finnish Arctic.
The good news is many have been around long enough to have built good relationships with their neighbours. Outi Björkstedt from Guesthouse Husky, one of our specialists says, “It is quite hard not to be integrated with the local communities if you have been living and running business in the area for 31 years already.” Best of all, husky farms employ local people, and good ones do this year-round, not just for the season.

Land use

Husky farms use lots of land. Whilst places like Canada don’t seem to have problems with overcrowding, husky farms aren’t the only ones up in the Arctic who need space, and in Europe this may become a problem. In Lapland, reindeer herders use similar areas for grazing, and husky farms and reindeer herds live as near-neighbours. There’s always a danger that a husky will break free – in which case, they have been known to worry and even attack reindeer. Riita Kiukas, from our husky safari specialist Skafur-Tour, explains the problem, “Most of the reindeer herders think the husky safaris do disturb their reindeer herds. If the husky safari farm does not own huge area of their own, they are very dependent on getting the landowner's permission for running long husky safaris”.

Well-established farms will have agreed routes with their neighbours that don’t interfere with reindeer herders. But well established farms aren’t the only husky tours operating in the area. Seasonal farms, which may move on to a new location the very next year, aren’t so interested in protecting the relationships. Their longer tours run the risk of disturbing reindeer who are, as timid prey animals – in no way comfortable with dogs. José-Carlos García-Rosell is Senior Lecturer of Responsible Tourism Business at the University of Lapland. He explains “The problem happens when we have mushers coming from somewhere else – France, Germany, Spain – they will come to Lapland and bring their dogs. Most of these people are not familiar with this place, they come for three months, for four months and they don’t know the place or the rules”.

Reindeer herders already have a hard time in Finland, thanks to shrinking resources. Climate change means rain falls in winter instead of snow. When it freezes it makes pasture impossible to graze. As herder resources shrink and husky tourism grows, there’s set to be more tension between the two.

Resources

Husky farms might seem environmentally sound, with their modern insulation and local produce, but there’s no avoiding the fact that huskies are meat eaters. A sled dog can consume some 12,000 calories before a big race – as you can imagine, a grand day out in the snow requires a big serving of frozen reindeer meat. This certainly keeps local meat suppliers in business. One of our holiday companies explains “The dogs eat meat and that cannot be changed but they are co-operating with the local meat producers and use the meat which is left over and will not be sold to people.” Of course, vast quantities of meat also come with environmental repercussions, but at least some are eating by-products of an existing meat industry.

The E-revolution?

One of the best arguments for going on a husky safari is the lack of good alternative. Even some researchers use huskies over other transport. When a scientist is out taking delicate measurements of something like air quality, even one snowmobile’s fumes can mess with readings.
For a long time, snowmobiles were the ‘Bad Boys’ of the Arctic. They create far more noise and emissions than a silent husky safari, goes the argument. (You won’t be guaranteed an engine-free fantasy, though) sometimes husky tours will have to use snowmobiles to lead the group in heavy snow).
Snowmobiles are becoming far more reputable, thanks to leaps in electric-powered options in the last year or so. Brands like the ‘Taiga’, the ‘first electric snowmobile’, are increasing their range, lowering their prices, and taking advantage of new, lightweight batteries that can operate even in freezing temperatures. If they become cheaper and more convenient than keeping huskies over the long summer months, they may become the cheaper holiday. Will snowmobiles will replace huskies altogether? “I don’t think so,” José-Carlos concludes “because of the relationship you have with a husky. People want the contact with the animal.”
Whilst huskies remain the poster-pups for Arctic holidays, we want to make sure that your visit is as ethical as it can be. If you’re set on sledding, we only work with responsible tour operators who have checked out their husky farms – mostly in person. We are committed, not only to animal welfare, but to reducing carbon in the destination, supporting local communities and protecting the environment. It’s enough to create wagging tails all round.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Visit Greenland] [Intro: Benjamin Zanatta] [Close up: Julian Dutton] [Summer: Gary Bembridge] [Husky farm - Finland: Heather Sunderland] [Scratch: Markus Trienke] [Three teams: Thomas Lipke] [Snowmobiles: Sonny Side Up!]
Convert currencies