It took a massive, concerted effort but in early December WAG adopted out the last of the homeless sled dogs it took in when the Whistler Sled Dog Company closed its doors in July. That’s 55 adoptions through Whistler Animals Galore, with the remainder of the 89 dogs being adopted out by the BC SCPA — and those dogs are going fast as well.
Taking on that many working dogs was a huge task, and a lot of volunteer effort and funds were used to train the animals to be fit for home life.
At the time, some said it couldn’t be done and that the dogs wouldn’t be able to adjust to a normal dog’s life. With a little training, however, WAG has proved that it can be done, and started adopting out dogs within a few months.
“We actually worked on quite a few things with them,” said Shannon Broderick, executive director of WAG. “(The dogs) met new volunteers and visitors every day, so meeting new people was a big thing. They were also sleeping indoors for the first time, and they had to get used things like the sound of the phone.
“Volunteers also really helped with leash walking because these dogs had been taught to pull. As you can imagine it’s a little like teaching someone to drive on the other side of the road, it’s the complete opposite of what these dogs are used to. We used harnesses to pull them back and to teach them to always have a little bit of slack in the leash.”
The dogs also had to learn to play with other dogs, to go to the bathroom outside, to eat inside, to sleep on dog beds, and to get used to a general routine with a family. Most dogs also encountered things like stairs for the first time.
Trainers would also reward normal dog behaviour like playing with toys, stopping to sniff things, peeing on things and interacting with other dogs.
“Things that you’d think would come naturally had to be taught,” said Broderick.
Some of the dogs took to children immediately, while others remained shy and instead were adopted to homes without children. Dogs were also conditioned to get along with cats and other animals, and a few are thriving in homes with several cats.
The result of all that hard work has paid off. Broderick is in touch with many of the adopters and has learned that they are doing “amazingly well” in their new homes.
One of those early adopters was Jessica Banks. Banks works for Mountain FM and does a monthly spot on WAG for radio, and mentioned that she was thinking about getting a puppy. She was invited to WAG’s shelter to see the new dogs, but immediately connected with some of the older sled dogs. She brought Johnny home to foster him, and ended up adopting him.
“The first time he was inside he peed on the wall,” laughed Banks. “It was kind of like getting a puppy, but once they trust you they’re the best dogs in the world. I wouldn’t trade Johnny for anything.”
Like others, Banks had heard that sled dogs would never fit into a home environment, but said it only took a short while to dispel that myth.
“He was super skittish at first because he had never lived inside before. He would hide in the kitchen in the corner, and he wouldn’t come into the living room because he was scared of the fire and the television. But after a couple of weeks he decided it wasn’t so scary. Now he loves being inside — he loves sleeping in my bed.”
Banks said she tries to keep to a schedule as much as possible, but Johnny is becoming more normal ever day and is a fast learner. She lets Johnny off the leash at the dog park to play with other dogs, and said he figured out how to play fetch on his own.
“Every day I notice something he’s doing that he never used to do, or knew how to do,” said Banks. “He learned to play with a ball lately, and that just brought tears to my eyes.
“There’s another dog we live with when he’s in town, and I accidentally kicked his ball — and Johnny ran and got it and brought back to me. He had never touched a ball before in all the time I’ve had him, and I thought, ‘my goodness, he’s learning how to play.’
“His personality is coming out more, and he’s learning to be calmer around the house and other people. He really is the best dog.”
Diana Rochon was actually able to get to know Snow before she was brought to WAG, volunteering at the sled dog kennel after it was announced that the sled company was folding. She later fostered Snow and then adopted her in October.
“I did get to see the dogs when they were in a big pack, and it was interesting to go out and work with so many dogs at once,” she said.
“I actually thought they were all great, there were all sorts of personalities.”
Rochon was actually surprised how quickly Snow got used to living indoors, something that having another dog the same age — and a cat — helped with.
“We really tried hard to keep it simple, and not to be too loud or noisy,” said Rochon. “He’s done really well and Jordie (first dog) has been like a big brother to her. He’s been good at helping her figure out what we’re doing in the house, what the rules are, and on walks he’s been good with her as well. He’s a calming influence, and because he’s so social with people Snow gets to see that and if people are OK, so she’s not as shy as she was. With Jordie everything went a little quicker than it might have.”
It took Snow weeks to brave the stairs, and things like the sound of the dishwasher and fridge confused her at first, but she adapted very quickly — and quickly realized that the once scary fridge is where the food is kept.
Rochon would have no problem recommending sled dogs to others, as long as people are patient and have the right gear — including an easy-walk harness for leash training.
“It really helped control her need to pull,” said Rochon. “She knows that when the tension is tight on the leash we’re not going anywhere, we’re stopping, and when there’s slack we’ll move again. It’s the complete opposite (of what she’s used to), because in the past when there was tension she would be pulling.”
For all of WAG’s hard work, there is still more to be done. Just last week two more retired sled dogs arrived from another company. While WAG took the dogs, they want to get the word out that they are not a dumping ground for sled dogs at the end of their working life.
“WAG always wants to help people with their animals but the situation with sled dog companies is that they need to make life plans for their dogs, and we want to help them with that,” said Broderick.
“We can’t become a dumping ground for these dogs, we just can’t and we can’t afford it.
“This was a unique situation with a sled dog company that was run by a group of volunteers and the situation was a little different.”