Iditarod Dog Doping Scandal

Positive drug tests hit the sport of dogsledding
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2017

Dogsledding has joined the sports of track and field, baseball and cycling in the world of doping scandals. Four dogs from one team in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race tested positive for the banned substance Tramadol, an opioid painkiller. The competitor whose dogs tested positive after the race in March 2017 was not initially named. Then, a couple of days ago, the governing board of the race announced that it was second-place finisher (and four-time winner) Dallas Seavey.

Criticism of the most famous sled dog race has included complaints about the treatment of the dogs. Many people have pointed out that the drive to win has long overshadowed the importance of treating the dogs humanely. Many dogs suffer during the training and the race itself from bloody paws as well as various other health issues, and some have even died during the race. Since this doping story broke, some have claimed that the use of Tramadol further confirms the poor treatment of the dogs.

Seavey asserts that he did nothing wrong, and has denied giving his dogs any form of banned substance. He has suggested that someone sabotaged his dogs, perhaps tampering with the food along the race course. He has called for improvements to the “lax security” along the course with additional security and surveillance. Drug testing of dogs competing in the grueling Iditarod race began in 1994, but this is the first time that tests have come back positive.

Race officials are not punishing Seavey, stating that they are unable to prove that he acted intentionally. The active guidelines at the time stated that in order to punish a musher, race officials had to provide proof of intent. (The rules have since been changed such that mushers are responsible for any positive drug test of their dogs unless they can show that something beyond their control happened.) Seavey will therefore keep his titles and prize money, and will be allowed to compete in 2018. However, he has withdrawn from the 2018 race in protest.

Though Seavey will not face punishment as a result of the positive drug tests in his dogs, he may face a ban because of his response to the controversy. Mushers are not allowed to criticize the race or its sponsors.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.