Back in January 2018, my friends and I travelled the length of Norway where we ended our trip visiting Villmarkssenter in Tromso. Here we experienced one of our best travel moments since starting travelling. As a big dog lover, getting the chance to dog sled in the Arctic circle and spend hours with the dogs was amazing!
However, since writing about my experiences in my Norway Part 2 post, I have had some comments and emails from readers who were worried that dog sledding is cruel to the dogs. Some other readers also commented that it was no different than elephant riding. This was when I decided to look more into Villmarkssenter to show people there was a huge difference between dog sledding and elephant riding.
Firstly, my friends and I have all volunteered to work with elephants that are now in sanctuaries, where we cleaned and fed them. Having the chance to spend our money helping elephants, instead of spending it riding and abusing elephants meant a great deal to us.
Secondly, we try as much as we can to always research into the companies we use so we don’t contribute to animal abuse.
Therefore, I decided to contact Tromso Villmarkssenter for an interview on how they treat their dogs and how their centre puts the dog’s welfare at the forefront at anything they do.
- If it wasn’t for Tromso Villmarkssenter then what would happen to these dogs? And Could you explain where the dogs come from and why they come to Tromso Villmarkssenter?
Our kennel is not really meant to house rescue dogs. We are partly a racing kennel, around 40 of our dogs are in the “A-team”, the racing team – the rest is mainly running in the guest tours. We are therefore actively breeding dogs for racing, most of them live from the start until the end of their lives at our center! Since Tove bought her first Huskies in 1984, we have slowly built up our kennel by breeding and buying from other mushers.
But of course, we have also taken in dogs from people who couldn’t take care of them anymore, mostly from Norway and Finland.
- Does dog sleding involve any violence to the animals?
We are mushers and dog sled racers, our Alaskan Huskies are at the same time our closest coworkers, our most important resource and biggest capital investment. Our whole company depends on their health, happiness and willingness to work with us. Our whole life revolves around them!
Any kind of abuse against dogs before or during a race means immediate disqualification and suspension from any race in the world. But it goes deeper than that because every musher depends on the willingness of their dogs to run long distances and pull our sled through harsh weather and icy temperatures. And my dogs only give everything to me, because they know I will give everything for them. We have to be like family, to support each other in good times and bad times.
- What kind of care does the Tromso Villmarkssenter provide for the dogs?
That our lives revolve around the dogs is not a joke. Every day of the year we keep track of their condition, from appetite to digestion, feed them (during winter 2 meals a day + 2-3 high-energy snacks like fat or salmon, depending on how they run), clean the yard, train them and administer medical care.
Our kennel is divided into 5 pools, each housing between 40-50 dogs, overseen by 6-10 mushers and a pool leader. Mushers know “their” dogs really well, strengths as well as weaknesses and how they get along with their neighbours. They know who is not friendly towards other males/females and who must be housed apart from whom to avoid fights. Alaskan huskies are very intelligent dogs with strong personalities – and sometimes they clash. In this case, every musher insight will drop what they are doing and rush in to break up the fight. Then all dogs are checked thoroughly and if they are hurt, receive all necessary medical care. Our staff can clean and dress wounds and our veterinarian is on call at all hours of the night!
Twice a day before feeding, we check the weight of each dog to ensure they get an appropriate amount of food. And during feeding, we make sure each only eats their own portion! The mushers also know the age of all Huskies and make sure young and elderly dogs only run as much as is good for them. The responsibilities of a pool leader include filing a weekly HMS report to Mattilsynet (health and animal welfare agency of the Norwegian state) to document how much each dog is working.
And whenever we interact with the dogs, we watch the way they move, so we no not miss any early signs of injuries to muscles or joints. Our huskies are by all standards top athletes and, just as humans, can get hurt if they push themselves too much. Since our dogs stay with us into old age and often all their life, we have many dogs with different health issues. Some need daily eye or heart medication, skin or paw treatment and our mushers provide this care as well.
As part of the care for the adult dogs, another daily task is the education of the puppies born in our kennel. The first weeks they stay separated with their mothers and later with their siblings in the puppy enclosure. Aside from giving them all necessary medical care (vaccinating, de-worming etc), we also spend a lot of time socializing them. Regular interactions with our mushers as well as guests give them tons of positive experience with humans. They love visitors because when humans visit there is either food, cuddles or play time. And for the rest of their lives, these dogs will be comfortable with being surrounded by strangers and children, an absolute necessity for a kennel accessible to the public!
It is also important to stimulate their brain from an early age on through playful training and interactions with both humans and huskies. Intelligence, responsiveness and the will to work as part of a team are basic requirements for becoming a good sled dog!
All of this is only a small part of our tasks, not even including the work that goes into the actual sledding. I hope I have given you a quick insight into the in-depth care our dogs receive in every aspect of their lives.
- Can people volunteer at the Villmarkssenter?
To provide all the care for the dogs as well as take good care of all our guests, our staff needs to be very well trained. All of them go through a 2-week training program before they start working independently. This is why we generally stopped having volunteers, but we often open internships for local schools and work with students.
That being said, during summer everybody is welcome to swing by and cuddle the dogs. Every day, from June until autumn, the kennel and the Husky Café is open to the public, no entrance fee or need to book a tour.
- What kind of interaction can people have with the dogs if they choose to book through Tromso Villmarkssenter?
Guest can have as much contact with dogs as they want! If you’d like to sit down and have your face licked, you are welcome to do that. Many huskies are jumpy and energetic, but our calmer dogs really appreciate a good long belly rub. You can also visit our hospitalized dogs and give them an extra portion of love – all of them are friendly and really looking forward to meeting you.
- Through the money people spend on dog sledding, how does this go to help the dogs?
A lot of our income goes to dog food (salmon, cow, pork, lamb and chicken – only the best for our top athletes!) and a working equipment for dogs. We are also constantly maintaining and improving the facilities for the dogs. Last year we spend around 1.5 million NOK on renovations in the dog yard alone, in addition to maintaining and renewing the hospital, indoor and outdoor cages and the puppy yard. And of course, we use the income to pay for their medical care, examinations, operations and medications.
I hope after this interview this has given you a deeper insight into the level of care the dogs all get, as well as the preparation and thought that goes into that care.
If you have any more questions for me, feel free to email me from my contact page or comment down below!
If you would like to contact Villmarkssenter for any more questions or want to book any tours with them their website is below: