How I Became Involved in the Dog Rescue and Sled Dog Rescue World

Originally posted on my personal blog on Nov 6, 2016.

I’m currently embroiled in a large internet argument surrounding a documentary that will be coming out next month, highlighting the animal cruelty that is commonplace in the sled dog tourist and racing industries. I thought I’d take a minute to reflect on how I got here, and why I’m having a very hard time empathizing with the sled dog mushers flooding the documentary trailer on youtube with negative comments.

We’ll have to back up more than a little, so I can tell you a bit about myself. I was raised in a family of academics. At the age of 6, after reading us our bedtime story, my dad would do math problems with me before I went to sleep. If I can’t sleep, I still to this day go through my multiplication tables back to front. My brother and I were taught from a very early age that if you had questions, you should look them up. I think I got my children’s version of the Encyclopedia for my tenth birthday. So anytime we had a question, the answer was – go get the encyclopedia and bring it here and we’ll look it up. So ya, I was a nerd. But I have also always been a jock. I was on every athletic team available during school, and I started competitive sailing at the age of 13, qualifying for the Junior National Team at my first Youth National Championships at age 14. As an athlete, you learn to continuously push yourself, strive for excellence. Part of this is not letting your ego get in your way. You can always be better, so you must constantly critique your own performance. Did I do that correctly? Can I improve on it? Did I misinterpret that lesson? Can I ask someone to watch me perform that skill, video me performing that skill, so I can go back over it for errors? And always a new coach, with new ideas and new knowledge and a different philosophy. I learned to listen carefully to each one, but to not take their word as the law, as many of my coaches contradicted each other. And then at 16 I started teaching sailing, and coaching sailing. I took the required certification courses and learned how to teach, and was introduced to the world of instruction and the politics that went along with it. The old school instructors who never updated their knowledge and taught old outdated techniques, that were not only ineffective and slow, but could lead to injuries. At 16 I seriously injured my back, essentially because at the time the importance of core stability wasn’t understood. Or at least, it wasn’t understood by the coaches I was working with. A life lesson on always questioning, always double checking, always reading the latest research.

When I graduated high school I moved to the west coast so I could continue to sail full time and attend University. I taught sailing during the summer for a company started by two Olympians. Again, I was constantly challenged, constantly learning, constantly growing as a person. I started coaching athletes with disabilities, one of the teams went on to win a bronze medal at the 2008 Paralympics. I wasn’t coaching them anymore, as I was focused on completing my BSc. in Biochemistry; doing research, learning to plan scientific experiments and analyze them for their inherent biases and flaws. Making sure to always include controls, to run and re-run them. And of course finding and reading a ton of scientific papers, weeding out the good from the bad, learning to see the flawed methodologies, the lack of reproducible data.

After graduating I re-focused on my sailing and competed full time overseas. attempting to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. We didn’t end up qualifying, not even close. It was heartbreaking, but the experiences I had and the things I learned during those three years I wouldn’t give up as they were invaluable. I traveled and met people from all over the world. I competed at the highest level in my sport. And I learned a ton of things about being resourceful. There’s nothing quite like trying to find a highly specialized part for your competitive boat while in Turkey during Ramadan, it seriously tests all your researching abilities like nothing else! I also learned the real cost of being a fulltime athlete that no one talks about, which is that you destroy your body. The constant competition, the constant stress, and the pressure to be a certain weight is unbelievable and not at all healthy. I basically watched myself develop an anxiety disorder during this time.

After not qualifying for the Olympics I came back to the west coast of Canada and took up a full time job working as a research assistant in a biochemistry lab. I bought a house, and started looking at my long list of “someday I will…” things. On it was get a dog; explore the west coast, hike and camp.

I knew nothing about dogs. Growing up we had a cat, and a hamster, and fish. I loved animals, as a child I read James Harriet and a million books about horses. I thought about becoming a vet, but couldn’t bear the thought of having to cut open sick animals. And of course I loved the dog on the Littlest Hobo. Someday I would have a dog, and we would go camping together.

So here I am, I think I want a dog but I know nothing about dogs. So I do what I always do, I research and go find an expert to learn from. I started volunteering at the SPCA and walking dogs. The volunteer trainer who worked at the SPCA was extremely knowledgeable, and offered seminars for volunteers on a variety of topics. I went to as many as I could. I went to one about aggressive dogs and bite prevention, and learned all about dog body language and how to recognize it. This is one of those things you can’t un-see once you learn it, just like I can never again look at a photo of a sailboat without seeing everything wrong with the boat’s setup. I learned to recognize all the signs of fear and nervousness in a dog, and stopped anthropomorphizing the animals I saw, and instead recognizing the discomfort in the faces of dogs in photos where other people would comment on how cute the dog looked.

I walked a whole bunch of different types of dogs, many of them dog reactive. I decided I didn’t want a dog that couldn’t safely be around other dogs, as I wanted to be able to take my dog to the park and not worry about these sorts of interactions, and I wasn’t a dog trainer. I wanted a husky-shepherd, like the littlest hobo of course. We had had some sled dogs when I first started volunteering, I didn’t learn where they were from or anything and they were nice to walk. They pulled but it was a constant pull I could deal with, and they got along with other dogs. I didn’t know enough at the time to really see how they were different from the other dogs in other respects. How they were not actually comfortable with their environment on walks at all, etc. I would learn all about that later.

After about six months I was starting to think I might be ready for a dog, and then we suddenly got in 10 more sled dogs. I went in and immediately set my sights on this big goofy white guy, and walked him that day and the next day and the next day. I looked at all the sled dogs, and there was also another white one, smaller and a bit shy, but she came to me and wanted neck scratches right away. I started talking to one of the SPCA staff about applying to adopt one of them. I was told that they couldn’t adopt a sled dog out as an only dog, as they’d never lived without other dogs around, and the transition to living in a house was going to be difficult for them. The staff member suggested I consider adopting two dogs together, as it would be easier for them and two dogs weren’t that much more difficult than one dog. (Which is a total lie, by the way.)

So crazily, this is what I did. It couldn’t be harder than trying to qualify for the Olympics, right? I had been walking dogs for six months, but I still knew next to nothing. I drove a truck – I asked the staff what was a safe way to transport the dogs. Obviously not loose in an open truck bed, but could they be loose in the back under the canopy? Secured kennels was safest I was told, so that’s what I did. I asked if it was okay to tie up my dogs overnight while camping, and was told that no, not really, tieing up or chaining dogs was not an ethical way of keeping dogs. If I had to, I needed to make sure they couldn’t get tangled, had clean water, enough space to move around, and that I was close at hand to check on them constantly and to be especially concerned about bears and cougars as my dog’s wouldn’t be able to run or defend themselves if they were tied up. So they only got tied up the first few trips, until they learned about tents and stealing my sleeping bag.

After adopting my dogs I started asking questions about their life as working sled dogs. I wanted to know as much as possible so I could try and keep their routine as close as it had been so I could help them transition to living with me as smoothly as possible. Almost immediately I started learning things that shocked me and raised red flags. Whereas I had assumed the dogs were used to a lot of exercise and got to run around off leash, I learned they would pull a sled for a tour for one hour, every other day, and that otherwise they were kept in small kennels or chained and got limited exercise. And of course the fear and stress and anxiety in my dogs was immediately apparent. Pretty much everything was scary. Niv, my small female, would have panic attacks and drag me home with her tail tucked between her legs and hide under a tree in the yard and not come into the house. Siku, the large male, would run towards things with stiff limbs and a flagged tail and take a long time to calm down afterwards, and would pace in the house for hours. They didn’t know how to play with toys. They didn’t know how to do anything. Niv wouldn’t eat if I was in the same room as her. Siku ate his food so fast he would choke on it, like he was afraid it was going to disappear.

I started working with a dog trainer recommended by the SPCA as soon as I adopted my dogs, and learned how to use positive reinforcement to teach my dogs how to live in this new world. I worked on trust building exercises with Niv, and we slowly developed a bond. She began running to me when she was scared, instead of away; and came into the house and would eat her food with me in the room, and ask me for neck scratches. Siku learned that sitting got him things, and that toys were fun, and people meant butt scratches, and that it was okay to lie on his bed and go to sleep because walks and meals could be counted on to appear at regular times every single day.

Because these dogs were just so odd and the adopters had so many questions, we were all put in touch with each other and began to build a support network of other people who understood exactly what weird behavior we were trying to re-train. As our community grew, many of us also became involved in transporting and fostering new sled dogs. Because they just kept coming, and still do to this day. After all the surviving dogs from the Whistler massacre were adopted out, another 70 dogs were surrendered to the SPCA by Tanner Moody. These dogs were way worse off than the Whistler dogs. They are afraid of the outdoors, they don’t want to be around people, many of them are dog reactive and they all have battle scars from dog fights and abuse at the hands of humans.

Over all this time I was told all sorts of conflicting things about sled dogs and sled dog kennels. These dogs were just fundamentally different than pet dogs, they could never live in homes. They were bred to pull and they loved working. But then I was told that they had to be chained as puppies so they would learn to untangle themselves from tangled sled lines, and that they were dragged around by their collars to teach them to resist and to pull. And that if you let them run around a lot and play with toys you would “ruin them” and they wouldn’t want to work. It was very confusing and frustrating seeing these fearful broken dogs every day and not understanding where they came from and why they were all like this.

A year ago I decided to focus some time and properly research the problem, like I’ve been taught my whole life. I started reading scientific papers about how detrimental ‘tethering’ (chaining) dogs is for their physical and psychological health. I learned about the socialization window for puppies and how important it is to introduce them to a thousand different sights and sounds and smells, to acclimatize them to the human world so they wouldn’t find doorways and hardwood floors and busses and umbrellas terrifying. I read about all of the ‘typical’ behavioral and health problems dogs rescued from hoarding situations presented with, and realized they were identical to those of rescued sled dogs. And I read about how sled dogs were bred by white settlers during the gold rush from companion dog breeds like short haired german pointers, salukis and greyhounds. These dogs weren’t genetically distinct, they were just a mash of pet dogs chained outside and forced to pull sleds! I also made a large chart of all of the surviving dogs from the Whistler massacre with their birthdates and sires and dams and realized something else. These dogs did not come from a regimented, controlled breeding program where specific traits were selected for. The dogs were just left to be dogs, and had puppies. Lots and lots of puppies. So many puppies that the parentage and origins of many of the dogs was unknown. This was the last piece of the puzzle. I finally had the big picture. Here is how a sled dog operation works: you start out with a reasonable amount of dogs. Probably you can afford to feed them all, take them all to the vet, remember their names, and spend time with them. Then they have puppies. And more puppies, And more puppies. And you live in the middle of nowhere with your dog kennel, so the puppies aren’t socialized to living with humans. And you’re so busy with all the dogs that socializing the puppies properly kind of gets forgotten. And then there are too many dogs and they fight, so you chain them on six foot chains so they cannot reach each other. And then some of them start to get old, or injured, and you have three options. Retire them and keep feeding them, which will cost you more money. Shoot them. Or give them away. Except everyone else also has too many dogs to properly take care of. And now that a few kennels have gotten into trouble for shooting all their dogs, that’s less of an option too. So here we are, with literally hundreds of sled dogs coming through dog rescues in BC every year.

So there are three major issues with the way sled dog kennels are run:
1. More dogs than the operator and staff have time and money to take care of properly
2. A lack of early socialization of puppies
3. Long term chaining of dogs

Back to the documentary being shown next month – the outcry by the sled dog industry online seems to be mainly focused on two points. 1 – the film maker mis-led the subjects as to her intentions (this point will have to be discussed further after the film premiers, and I don’t have anything to add to that conversation, since I wasn’t involved) and 2 – that the film shows only a handful of kennels that are the “bad apples” in the industry, and that the majority of operators care for their dogs appropriately. I would love for this to be true. And I am sure that each and every one of those mushers loves their dogs. But they ALL chain their dogs. So I really don’t know what to say. The science is in, and has been for years. Chaining dogs is animal cruelty, because it is irreparably damaging to the dog both physically and psychologically. There is no way to use chaining as a long term confinement method that is not cruel. Every animal advocacy and rescue group in North America agrees. You might as well try to argue the earth is flat or that gravity doesn’t exist.

For those sled dog operators and mushers who say they MUST chain their dogs because otherwise they will fight, it leads me to several conclusions. The dogs are poorly socialized or their needs aren’t being met in other areas, like getting enough exercise, adequate food and vet care and enrichment activities. Healthy dogs who are properly socialized, exercised and given toys do not fight. Which leads me to conclude that the kennel has too many dogs, because it is obvious that these people care about their dogs immensely.

Having too many dogs is essentially a lack of long term planning or understanding of the needs of dogs on the part of the mushers, which is where my in-ability to empathize comes in.Yes, I jumped in head first and adopted two dogs and had very little idea what I was doing. But I knew I could access the resources I needed to learn quickly. Any questions I have about dog behaviour I refer to a qualified dog trainer who uses scientifically validated positive reinforcement methods. Any questions I have about dog health I refer to my veterinarian, who I see quite a lot of. Anytime I feel out of my depth, confused, upset, overwhelmed – I take a deep breath and consult an expert. I realize I was extremely lucky to grow up privileged and be taught how to research and learn, and to be provided with all the amazing, humbling, crazy life experiences I have. But at the same time we now live in the age of high speed internet and smartphones. If you can find your way on to facebook to defend yourself in the comments section, you can find your way to the SPCA homepage and look up the current recommended housing methods for dogs. Which are not negotiable. If I was planning on starting a dog kennel business, I would do so much research. I’d be taking low stress dog handling courses, vet tech courses, kennel management courses, anything I could find to provide me with the information I would need. I’d consult people already in the business, but just like all those coaches I had, I’d listen to them carefully and then do my own research to make sure the science backed up what they were telling me. I don’t see any of this happening. What I see is the “I’ve had dogs my whole life” excuse being thrown around a lot. Which is the most ridiculous statement. I’ve had bones in my body my whole life, it doesn’t mean I can operate on them, much less name them all. I’ve had shoes my whole life, but I don’t know how to make them or fix them. I’ve had a brother my entire life. It doesn’t mean I have any idea what he’s thinking. For these things to be true I’d have needed to go to medical school, or apprentice to a shoemaker, or study psychology.

It is my hope that this documentary will shine a light on the industry and start an informed discussion. That governments will implement and enforce laws regarding the care of sled dogs, specifically the breeding and housing. And the public will ask intelligent questions and think twice before taking a sled dog ride this winter. That we can remove the ‘sled’ and just call them dogs, and stop flooding the rescue organizations with beaten, broken, starved and terrified dogs who were never given a chance.

My message to the mushers is this – if you honestly love your dogs, take them off the chains. Sterilize your dogs so your population is stable and you can give them all the attention and care they require and deserve. And open your mind to the possibility that you might be using outdated practises. You should always be questioning your methods and pursuing excellence through the acquisition of knowledge.

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