The Outdoor Witch Blog
Forever homes for former sled dogs: why did we stop?
A topic that I have been pondering for quite a while, and that I wanted to cover if I only could find the right words. Talking about a sensitive subject, that can stir up controversial issues, is always delicate. But let’s be fair, keeping my mouth shut would certainly be the only way to go about it if I really want to play it safe. However, being a "people pleaser" or keeping a low profile has never make anything change. I believe that people who follow us and our activities as The Striders Adventures, as well as the public in general, deserve to be informed and get the full picture.
We got involved in finding new homes for sled dogs, both old and young, during the Covid pandemic. It has meaning then. Many kennels were going through a difficult time, and so many dogs had to find new homes! But now, as I write this, it’s an entire new story.
Before I get ahead, I want to stress that my intent is not to point the finger at anyone or to tell the good from the bad. I am casting a light on a long-existing situation and questioning my position, and the role played by our Association.
How it all started.
I got into huskies and the mushing world "thanks" to Covid and a wonderful volunteering experience in a kennel in Finland. I have narrated this experience in a previous article.
Not only did I discover the Alaskan husky breed (which was love at first sight!), mushing, but all the workings and implications of the industry. One aspect in particular was regarding what was happening to the dogs once they were retired from working as sled dogs. And this is how I got involved in the rehoming and retirement program for the older dogs of that kennel.
This volunteering experience was a deep dive into a new world, and a life-changing experience not only for me, but my partner as well. We went from being the happy parents of 2 dogs to 9 in a few months! and we ended up dedicating the Striders Adventures Association to these re-homed huskies and the re-homing of sled dogs in general. It rocked our life for good. A complete 180 turn.
Fast-forward three years later: we have moved country, are renting a (beautiful) place where we can have all our animals in the best conditions possible, are planning to sell our previous home, and are starting to find our ground professionally.
And of course, all along I- we- learnt a lot, and in a fairly short time, on this world that has now become ours. We have met many different mushers and dogs, from both commercial and private kennels, in and from different countries, with different ways of working, training, breeding, being with the dogs. A niche activity with extraordinary diversity and fantastic dogs!
And this leads me to the real topic of this article.
Dog management in the sled dog industry
The time span of a working dog is rather short. The dogs, if taken good care of, can run until 10, even 11 or 12 years old. In tourism, many stop earlier, and others very young for several other reasons.
Dog yards can vary in size in sensible ways! Leisure teams or small working kennels can have from only a few dogs to up to 40. The bigger commercial kennels can go up to 500! So, we are clearly looking at very different situations in term of dog management. Note that I will only consider here the retirement/re-homing aspect; there is obviously much more to a good kennel management and dog care, such as feeding, training, etc.
The ageing and retirement of the dogs concerns all sled dog owners, whoever they are, from leisure mushers to small and big companies. We all know that our dogs won’t be able to run forever, and that at some point, they will be happy spending their days on the sofa or lying in the sun, going for the odd walk from time to time.
For most private or leisure mushers, keeping their dogs until the very end goes without saying. Dogs are considered as family or best friends, and there is no question whatsoever that the dogs will stay with them for their old days.
Things are different when we step into the professional world, with bigger and smaller kennels, owning racing teams and/or doing tours and safaris.
In a way or another, it is a business, and as such, the owner must ensure the business continuity. Part of it involves that new dogs are brought in regularly, either by buying dogs or breeding puppies. It takes about 1.5-2 years to breed and train a dog before it is fully ready to work in safaris.
So far so good, as long as the dogs are well treated and cared for. And I must add that a lot of progress has been made in this field. The animal welfare organisations and the impact of social media have pushed the sled dog industry to meet much higher standards nowadays. More and more large commercial kennels are doing an amazing job with their dogs, and it is worth mentioning it. Sometimes the smaller ones are not the best, due to lack of resources, which bigger businesses often have. But this is evolving, and fast. Animal welfare has become a political matter, and governments are implementing rules and controls to ensure that they are respected. It isn’t all clean and shiny yet, certainly not, but clear improvements are being made.
Retirement plan for older dogs in the sled dog industry
Very well. But what happens now with the dogs when they are too old to work?
There are different scenarios.
Some working kennels keep all their dogs and might find a retirement home for one dog or two occasionally. These dog yards have dedicated an area for the oldies, and the dogs spent their old years in a nice large fence with their buddies.
Other companies prefer not to keep too many oldies around and find them forever homes as pet dogs. This is one of the missions that we have been doing with our Association.
The above applies for kennels with a no-kill policy… Many other kennels simply do not keep or re-home the dogs after they are done with their years of service. For financial, time or human resources, or other cultural reasons. They will simply get rid of the dog, usually by shooting them down once they cannot work any longer. It is legal and tolerated, and still widely in use. Some readers may be shocked, others not. I can only say that it is clearly something I cannot agree with.
The irony is that, in the end, those who don’t care too much about the dogs are those who get the most benefits, economically speaking: no more oldies to feed for nothing, no time wasted in finding families for their retired dogs.
So, if you plan to go and enjoy a wonderful sled ride this winter, I advise you to get informed about their older dogs’ policy – if this is something that matters to you. Kennels which have nothing to hide will give you tons of details and information with great pleasure. On the other end, I don’t think that anyone will admit out loud that they kill the dogs once they’re done with them… Some kennels- and this is clearly far less glorious, re-home a part of the dogs, to look “politically correct” or be considered a “sustainable” business and still get rid of the mass…
Now, why did we decide to stop taking an active part in the re-homing of dogs from the commercial kennels that actually want to find homes for their dogs?
Here is the situation:
It is wonderful to find matching families for the dogs and have contributed to their happy retirement for hopefully many years to come. Yet, it takes a lot, I mean A LOT of resources to do it well. For some dogs, a retraining program is needed, and this also means more time, money, and human resources. In case of emergency and for very special cases, I am still all in to help find forever families, like for kennels that are shut down by animal welfare services, or because of illness or death of the owners.
But now, what about the commercial kennels that regularly buy new dogs and breed several litters a year? These are businesses with employees, and the dogs are part of their employees. What part were we playing here, now that the Covid years are well behind in term of business? Were we still in adequacy with our will to support animal welfare?
First, considering things purely from a business point of view, any company has running costs. The retirement plan for the dogs should be included in the latter ones.
Second, the number of dogs to be retired each year is HUGE. Think of all the travelers and tourists going to famous areas in Swedish or Finnish Lapland for instance. Have you any idea of the number of dogs needed to make sure all these people can have their 2 or 3km ride, 7/7, during the winter months? How can so many dogs find forever homes every year? Some might be fairly young, but most will be 7 years old and above… How many people are willing to adopt an old dog, however loving, smart and well-educated it is? Be honest...
It isn’t about firing at the tourism industry. I am personally not promoting it, but again, I don’t believe that fighting against anything help at all. It is just feeding the “enemy”, the “unwanted” with more energy.
My intent is to highlight the extent and complex nature of the situation. Many people – and dogs! live and benefit from the tourism. It helps many hired mushers and companies to earn enough to provide for their dogs (and employees sic) for the rest of the year. But then these companies should deal with the retirement and re-homing of the dogs as part of their responsibilities and budget. Making money with the dogs is one thing, but what about not being willing to handle the financial burden (or time and staff required) to deal with their aging co-workers or employees?
The owner of one of these big kennels told me once that they would need support to help them retire and re-home their dogs. I understand and agree. It isn’t such an easy task. It is a different job than running dogs and guiding tours. I get it. It can be a full-time job for several employees, believe me! The people who are going to do that job need the resources to do it properly. And the kennels should then contribute financially to it. But then, this is the catch: if they have to pay…why simply not put a bullet through the dogs ‘head? It doesn’t cost much, and problem solved... I am being blunt here, sorry. But it is the cold reality.
To me, it is a sad issue indeed, and there is something to be done at a larger scale to improve the sled dog’s industry when it comes to the retirement plans of their dogs. In my opinion, the kennels that have chosen the no-kill policy should somehow be supported in their choice.
At some point, I would have loved to create a place where former sled dogs could come for a transition phase until they find a forever home, and for some, where they could stay forever. Because not all the dogs will find homes. Such an organisation exists in Alaska which proves that it is doable. To implement such a structure, funding, and resources in term of space and dedicated people are needed. The governments should be involved. And the commercial kennels too. Right now, I don’t know and am not convinced of the part that I want to play in all this, if any.
For the time being, we want to focus our energy and resources for our own animal tribe. Most kennels are not willing to put a penny in our work. They are happy to use our service as long as it doesn’t cost anything. So, for now, we’ve decided to put the re-homing on hold, and to focus our time and energy on the animals we have adopted and are responsible for. There is already plenty to do, trust me! I keep faith that somehow, some day things will evolve for the greater good of these wonderful and so generous sled dogs.
I take the opportunity to thank the dogs’ godmothers and godfathers. Their incredible support has enable to handle all the financial costs for the dogs over the past 2 years. Having such a support is gold when going through so many changes. I cannot thank you enough!
Dominique F-L, Charles et Marlyse, Christian et Nicole G., Szabo and Rebecca, Ma Nan', Guillaume et Lorraine, Corinne et famille, and several others who just gave us money for the all tribe or for Pezo's care. Tons of love xx