Q&A

Homeward bound: How Whistler’s retired sled dogs have sought new lives

VANCOUVER — The Globe and Mail

Veternarian Laura White and Shannon Broderick of Whistler Animals Galore check a sled dog’s heart rate during a scheduled visit at the Whistler Sled Dog kennel on July 16, 2013. (BONNY MAKAREWICZ FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Whistler Sled Dog Co. was created in 2011 to be an industry leader in treating its animals ethically, but an unsustainable business model has forced the non-profit organization to cease dog-sledding operations and put its remaining resources into finding new homes for its 71 dogs.

At one point the WSDC had 187 dogs, most of which were donated from Outdoor Adventures Whistler, the company that sparked outrage when its employee Robert Fawcett culled dozens of the dogs after the 2010 Winter Olympics.

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Over the past two years, the WSDC has successfully homed about 90 of its sled dogs. Dr. Rebecca Ledger, a Vancouver-based animal behaviour scientist, worked with many of those dogs in their transition to domestic life. She spoke with The Globe and Mail about what it takes to help a retired sled dog start a new life.

How did you get involved with the Whistler sled dogs?

After the cull, the industry brought me in as a consultant to help it understand how it could improve the welfare of the dogs that were still being housed at the sled dog facility. So we came up with a plan for improving their husbandry, housing, diet and general management. And we put plans in place so the dogs would eventually be re-homable once that time came.

So a couple of years ago, there was already some effort being put into thinking ahead, thinking about when these dogs were going to eventually retire and trying to make them as adoptable as possible. So I did that, and I understand that they [the WSDC] implemented everything from my report as much as they could.

Do the dogs vary in terms of their suitability for adoption?

Absolutely. Their personalities are very varied, just like the average pet dog. Some of them are more active than others, or more social, shy, or fearful. Most of the dogs are very friendly with people, for a couple of reasons. They can be crossed with social breeds, such as greyhounds and pointers and other dogs that people would typically have in their homes anyway. So they have some very domesticated genes already.

In addition, they’ve been socialized ever since they were born. So when they were born At the facility, they were exposed to children and adults and handled very regularly. And of course very well socialized with other dogs. They’re also exposed frequently to strangers when they’re worked. Visitors are encouraged to meet the dogs and put their harnesses on. On a weekly basis, they’re meeting hundreds of people.

What are the biggest challenges that come up for the more difficult cases?

It’s usually separation anxiety. They’ve always been brought up in groups with other dogs, so when they’re removed from their group, if they don’t get the chance to live with another dog they find that feeling of isolation very traumatic and stressful. Some of the dogs try to escape from their homes, or they might just be destructive in the home in the process of trying to get out. Or they might whine and howl as well.

Having said that, it’s a common behavioural disorder in many dogs. About two thirds of dogs that come from rescue shelters display some signs of separation anxiety within the first few months of being re-homed. So it’s not an uncommon problem, it’s not something that’s beyond being managed. But it can be frustrating for new owners.

What kind of physical environment do the sled dogs need in a new home?

There are some homes that are better suited to these dogs than others. The first thing I would suggest to anyone thinking about adopting one of these dogs is they make great companions for other dogs. The second thing is they do need a lot of attention and basic obedience work initially. You can’t just adopt a dog on the Sunday and go to work on the Monday and expect the dog to be fine. There’s a lot of training and socialization that these dogs are going to require.

People need to be very patient. They don’t necessarily need a ton of space. You do need time to be able to walk the dogs, but that’s the case with any dog. I don’t think these dogs necessarily need significantly more exercise than, say, my springer spaniel. She needs an hour and a half a day, and many sled dogs would find that sufficient as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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