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What happens to working dogs when they retire? Add to ...

What happens to Woofy when he's no longer needed on the work site? It's a question many people were asking after it was reported that 100 sled dogs were slaughtered in Whistler last spring.

Our best friends are employed in diverse occupations - as sled and avalanche dogs, companion and service dogs, and bomb-sniffing, drug-sniffing, cancer-sniffing, racing, guarding, policing and herding dogs. Can a working dog be a pet as well, and therefore able to be adopted when no longer able to work? There has been much chatter that the huskies in Whistler couldn't be adopted, or "re-homed" as the SPCA calls it, because they weren't pet material.

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Jason Smith of Kingmik Dogsled Tours says his dogs are both workers and pets. "It's how you breed and raise them that determines the life they will have," he says. Kingmik, the oldest dog-sledding company in Western Canada, operates in Banff National Park, and Mr. Smith prides himself on treating the 75 dogs in his kennel humanely. "You have to have a 10- or 15-year plan for the dog," he says. "Our dogs are raised like pets, so they can be adopted."

Because he raises them to be well-rounded animals, he has no trouble finding homes for the older dogs, whether it's with people who fall in love with them while on a sledding tour or through his company's website. "If they don't become someone else's pet, they stay as our pet dogs," Mr. Smith says.

Others owners have found a way to retire dogs in their employ. Joan Levack of Berwick, N.S., first got Memphis, a yellow lab, as a service dog for her quadriplegic daughter. Her daughter wasn't able to maintain discipline, but the guide dog association let them keep Memphis as a pet because she was an older dog.

When Memphis was working, only their daughter could touch her. No on else could even speak her name because it was a trigger for service. But once Memphis was retired, everyone could pet her and call her by name. "She was bred for service. Now we walk her to the post office with saddle bags," Mrs. Levack says. "You can see her tail wagging if she is commanded to pick something up."

Not all working dogs retire to a life inside. Robert and Crystal Brydon of Waterville, N.S., have a five-year-old Great Pyrenees, Trifle, that lives in the barn with Charlie, a six-month-old Great Pyrenees puppy that will replace Trifle when she is too old to protect the sheep and chickens from coyotes. This is rural life, where it's normal to have working dogs who aren't pets. "She's a pet in the sense she is friendly to family, but it's friendly on her own terms," Crystal says. "You would never think she was a potential threat until what she is guarding is threatened."

A working dog's life is determined, from start to end, by humans. Part of the problem, Mr. Smith says, is the lack of regulation, whether it's a recreational kennel or racing or tours; anyone can start breeding.

It's a dog's life is a euphemism for misery and suffering. They deserve better. That old expression needs to be transformed to something closer to "the cat's meow" - if not a life of magnificence, at least a long life of comfort and respect.

Christy Ann Conlin is the author of Heave. Her young-adult novel, Dead Time, was just released.

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