Thursday, 13 December 2018
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Leah Fetterley hangs out with a few of the 70 dogs that she keeps with husband Brad at North Ridge Ranch in Huntsville. The mushers maintain their animals have a good life and keeping them tethered outdoors, with a doghouse, is not the awful scenario that some animal activists describe. Photo supplied

Dogsledders are bristling at recent accusations that they treat their animals poorly.

“People need to be educated,” says Leah Fetterley, of North Ridge Ranch in Huntsville. “If they just see dogs on chains they think back to the old junkyard dog on a chain, being neglected, and that’s not the reality.”

North Ridge, operated by Leah and her husband Brad, hosts 70 Alaskan huskies, which they harness up to take guests on one-hour and half-day tours of the wintry Muskoka woods.

The business was singled out last week by Sandra Garofolo, a Sudbury native who is critical of dog tethering and wants to see the OSPCA Act updated to outlaw the practice.

The Huntsville mushing business isn’t the only one that worries the animal lover — nor would she say it’s the worst offender — but it’s the first one she encountered after moving to Muskoka a few years ago, and it spurred her to look more closely at animal welfare laws and lobby for reform.

In a petition she is submitting to the provincial legislature, Garofolo argues 24/7 tethering of dogs is inhumane and calls on the government to “ban outdoor dog chaining in Ontario.” She also asks Queen’s Park to implement “stricter regulations of the sled dog industry.”

Fetterley, who was introduced to dogsledding while studying at Lakehead University, says some people put dogs in outdoor pens, or keep them indoors, but she and her partner feel the best option for their sizeable pack is to provide each with a doghouse and keep them on a tether.

“Tethering dogs is generally the most popular practice for dogsledders, because it offers the dogs the most barrier-free way of living,” she says.

While the dogs can’t physically intermix, they do get to see and smell one another, she says, and they have more space to move about than one might think. “With a six-foot-long tether, that converts to 113 square feet to move around in,” she says. “They can say hello to their neighbour, or choose to be in their house, or on top of their house.”

Having them separately staked also allows the mushers to track their animals’ health and eating habits better than would be the case in a communal pen.

“You can see how much they drank or ate,” Fetterley points out, as well as what comes out the other end. “Monitoring the health of each dog is important.”

Penning works well for some mushers, but for many dogs the experience is “like being in jail,” she says. “It’s been shown and proven that dogs can get stressed out in pens and be more aggressive. They like to chew on things and can escape.”

Tammy St. Louis, a Garson dog trainer who also competes in dogsled competitions, agrees an outdoor cage isn’t the best solution for many canines, including her own crew of Belgian Malinois — a shepherd-like breed known for their high energy.

“I put one of my dogs in a kennel I have outside and he ate through the chainlink and broke his teeth,” she says.

St. Louis doesn’t keep huskies, but has spent enough time around the breed — her introduction to dogsledding was through an operation in Markstay that kept this kind of dog — to know they aren’t the best candidates for cages either.

“Huskies are escape artists,” she says. “And they can get their collars stuck or hang themselves, so a pen isn’t a better answer.”

St. Louis brings all of her eight dogs inside her home with her, but isn’t opposed to other dogsledders tethering their animals.

She admits the practice can look initially questionable, especially if you are new to dogsledding.

“When I first went out to Markstay, where Jen (Lowe) and her husband Evan had 30 huskies on chains, I was kind of, oh, that’s weird,” she recalls. “But once I got to know them and be around the dogs more, I could tell these were great people and they took better care of their dogs than most people with pet dogs.”

Jen Lowe, who sadly died earlier this year, would go out “multiple times a day to feed them and give them water,” she says. “Jen and Evan would clip all their nails, put boots on their feet, make sure they were socialized with people. And they were really stable dogs, because their needs were fulfilled.”

Sled dogs of course get lots of exercise in the winter, which keeps them fit and trim. “People see these dogs and think they’re starving, but they eat thousands of calories a day,” St. Louis says. “You can also see athletes’ ribs. These dogs are incredible — they are the ultimate athletes, in tip-top shape.”

Fetterley says the North Ridge dogs get taken off their tethers daily for exercise and interaction, so it’s not as if they are constantly confined to one small radius. “We free-run our dogs every day,” she says.

Older dogs that no longer have the itch (or physical ability) to hit the trail are kept on the ranch in a “retirement villa,” Fetterley adds. “We don’t adopt them out because we’re attached to them. They’ve worked hard and deserve retirement in an environment they are used to and comfortable in.”

Some retirees can be “integrated into house life,” she says, but others “have lived outside with the pack for eight or 10 years, so it’s not something all dogs can do.”

All dogs are different and Fetterley recommends people should do “what is in their best interest.”

Mushers themselves are best to make the call about their animals, just as parents know what’s best for their children, she argues.

But whether they tether or pen their animals outdoors, or quarter them in an indoor kennel, “the problem is not the quote-unquote confinement method,” she says. “It’s about the person in charge of the animals and how they take care of them. Tethering itself is not abusive, but human behaviour can be, so that’s where we need to focus our attention, and make sure no one is being abusive or neglectful.”

Fetterley says her industry is under more scrutiny lately, in part because of the 2016 documentary Sled Dogs, which exposes animal abuse among some individuals involved in the sport.

The documentary was also criticized, however, for inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

“Like all industries, there is room to improve,” says Fetterley. “I’m not saying dogsledding is a perfect sport. But you can’t go around saying all dogsledders are horrible.”

She says Alaskan huskies are bred to run and pull, and do so quite willingly. “You can’t push a rope,” she says. “Usually they’re so excited to go that people have to use brakes on the sled. But if they don’t want to run, they just sit down.”

And while some keepers of sled dogs — just like pet owners in general — might be negligent, Fetterley says it’s far more common for people in this world to be extra protective of their animals.

“This is our livelihood, our family,” she says. “And healthy, happy dogs that love what they do are going to do the best. So as dogsledders we get our backs up when someone makes blanket generalizations.”


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