Mitch Seavey's dog kennel goes tetherless, socializing dogs in large pens

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Three-time Iditarod winner Mitch Seavey has instituted a change at his summer kennel in Seward: there will no longer be tethers for any of his champion sled dogs.

Danny Seavey, Mitch's son and an Iditarod veteran himself, has spearheaded the change for the 2018 summer after years of tinkering.

Now, the sled dogs are kept in four large pens where they can socialize while supervised. They then go on their daily runs with guests before sleeping in their own straw beds, in their own stalls.

The Seaveys are insistent this change isn't a comment on anyone else's operations.

"To be completely frank, it's an adjustment to the tastes and expectations of our clientele," said Mitch Seavey. "This is what people want to see."

But it isn't cheap. Danny Seavey estimates they've spent around $50,000 installing the infrastructure and there is constant supervision needed to make sure fights don’t break out. "The biggest expense isn't the pens and the buildings, it's the staff. I have twice as much staff"

Despite the cost, father Mitch backs the idea. "I applaud him and I'm supporting it 100 percent."

For now, the change will only operate in the summer kennel but Mitch Seavey explains one day in the future it could extend to the winter operation.

Animal rights group PETA is unimpressed by the shift.

“Replacing chains with small, barren cages is a fraud and proof that this horrifically cruel dog death race must end,” said PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. “This is a fiasco, as the dogs are going from chains to factory-farm pens—and will still be forced to live outside year-round and run more than 100 miles a day during the Iditarod, under the command of people who have admitted to beating, mutilating, and starving them, ”

Across in Healy, Jeff King’s Husky Homestead has built a new play pen for dogs to recreate.

"The very first thing that guests see when coming to our kennel is six or so dogs romping around in our kennel. I think it's a great way to set the tone that they are here meeting some happy dogs," said Alex Buetow, an Iditarod veteran and handler.

There are still tethers for dogs that Buetow explains are used to keep order just like a teacher in a classroom.

A perspective some mushing traditionalists agree with.

Four-time Iditarod champion Martin Buser keeps his dogs tethered and says, “I maintain my dogs like my chains, I like my chains.”

The reason is that he can walk among the dogs and embrace them. “I can touch ‘em, I can hug ‘em, I can hold ‘em.”

Buser says one of the problems is that tethering has become synonymous with junkyard dogs, despite that his sled dogs are exercised regularly and that thousands of people come visit through his tour business.

For Iditarod veteran Nicolas Petit, his dogs run free under his supervision until tourists arrive, they are then tied up.

Petit questions a system of pens saying he likes to embrace his dogs unobstructed. “Having a bunch of chain link fence or fencing is sort of in the way, like looking at your friends in jail or something.”

The Iditarod board recently approved mandatory Mush with P.R.I.D.E. guidelines that gives guidance on all aspects of mushing, including tethering. “The only controlled scientific study comparing sled dogs confined by tethers to those confined in pens found no evidence that tethering is either unsafe or inhumane,” said the guidelines.