Jeff King: Let’s talk about dog care and ‘culling’

Over 40 years ago, I chose to invest every penny and every minute of my day to learning all that I possibly could about sled dogs. That choice, which proved to be one of the most rewarding choices of my life, also perpetuated my desire to push the envelope in innovations in the sport of dog mushing, as well as fine-tune the art of excellent dog care.

It is humbling to be able to coach such a naturally gifted and talented breed of animal whose passion for running is second to none. My life revolves around my love for my dogs and my undying passion for this lifestyle. I'm fortunate that I can share this with so many who visit my summer business. My staff and I strive to challenge ourselves to produce the best dog team possible. Producing the best dog team possible requires the best dog care. Day and night, the dogs have our care and attention.

However, as with anything, there is always room for improvement.

Even 40 years ago, I would never have called the euthanasia of healthy sled dogs "widely practiced." Such an occurrence would be as abhorring to the mushing community as it is to the animal rights organizations who notably themselves euthanize tens of thousands of dogs in so called "shelters." The word "shelter" means something entirely different to me. From the pope to the National Rifle Association, constant evaluation of acceptable practices is an evolving process. There is no question that if you want to keep your head in the toilet, you're bound to find something unpleasant. Push the flush button.

Short of a rare physical disability at birth, euthanasia is uncommon. In certain instances, it may be the most compassionate choice for a puppy, whose mother likely already abandoned it as an anomaly. Nevertheless, there are a number of examples of dogs who were healthy but had physical limitations that made them unsuitable as a sled dog, yet go on to live long, healthy lives. At my homestead, I have had countless dogs go on to other environments where their age and/or physical limitations that kept them from being part of my competitive team had no effect on their ability to be a happy, healthy companion in a pet home.

Animal husbandry practices have involved culling since the dawn of domesticated animals. In our modern sled dog world, culling does not mean euthanasia. A quick look in the dictionary shows several clear definitions that do not involve death, such as "pick," "take," and "separate from the group." A selective promotion of the word "culling" to mean killing is a misleading, cherry-picking example to promote a pre-existing position. In modern Western countries such as ours, many options are now available for those dogs whose lives may have been euthanized in years gone by. From bulldogs to chihuahuas, early domestication and genetic intervention by man has inadvertently contributed to common health ailments that plague purebred dogs. This is not the case with the Alaska sled dog, whose breeding partners are consistently selected for good health and aptitude in their natural environment, rather than being bred to create a standard appearance. This has benefitted their well-being and longevity for generations.

I can only speak in regard to the Alaska community and can confidently say that euthanization of a healthy dog or puppy of any age is not widely practiced and is completely unacceptable. However, the compassionate intervention with end of life processes of a dog with a serious health issue does occur, as it would in any breed, anywhere. In my personal experience with this, I would seek input from my veterinarians, give much thought and consideration, and evaluate the dog's very best interest to make a sound decision. Rarely is euthanasia the result. My own experience is that no adult dog has been euthanized at my homestead since the year 2000 when Falcon, at 18 years of age, could not walk in a straight line and was disoriented with dementia and euthanized by a caring professional. Falcon was a cherished lifelong companion and multiple-year Iditarod finisher (who was, quite frankly, a mediocre sled dog) and spent the last 10 years of his life in pet retirement at Husky Homestead.

I will continue to be an advocate for dogs for the rest of my life. I take this role very seriously and promise to continually encourage myself and others, whether in the mushing community or not, to promote and practice the very best in dog care. I would be naïve to believe I have it all figured out, but by having open communication and transparency, we can carry on the dialogue and continue moving in the right direction. From the poodle on your couch, to the Labrador in the fields, to the dog waiting to be adopted, let's work together — for the dogs.

Jeff King of Denali Park is a four-time Iditarod champion.