‘People need to be educated’
‘People need to be educated’
Dogsledders are bristling at recent accusations that they treat their animals poorly.
âPeople need to be educated,â says Leah Fetterley, of North Ridge Ranch in Huntsville. âIf they just see dogs on chains they think back to the old junkyard dog on a chain, being neglected, and thatâs not the reality.â
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 laws updated to outlaw the practice.
The Huntsville mushing business isnât the only one that worries the animal lover â nor would she say itâs the worst offender â but itâs 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 âban outdoor dog chaining in Ontario.â She also asks Queenâs Park to implement âstricter regulations of the sled dog industry.â
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.
âTethering dogs is generally the most popular practice for dogsledders, because it offers the dogs the most barrier-free way of living,â she says.
While the dogs canât 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. âWith a six-foot-long tether, that converts to 113 square feet to move around in,â she says. âThey can say hello to their neighbour, or choose to be in their house, or on top of their house.â
Having them separately staked also allows the mushers to track their animalsâ health and eating habits better than would be the case in a communal pen.
âYou can see how much they drank or ate,â Fetterley points out, as well as what comes out the other end. âMonitoring the health of each dog is important.â
Penning works well for some mushers, but for many dogs the experience is âlike being in jail,â she says. âItâs 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.â
Tammy St. Louis, a Garson dog trainer who also competes in dogsled competitions, agrees an outdoor cage isnât the best solution for many canines, including her own crew of Belgian Malinois â a shepherd-like breed known for their high energy.
âI put one of my dogs in a kennel I have outside and he ate through the chainlink and broke his teeth,â she says.
St. Louis doesnât keep huskies, but has spent enough time around the breed â her introduction to dogsledding was through an operation in Markstay that kept Siberians â to know they arenât the best candidates for cages either.
âHuskies are escape artists,â she says. âAnd they can get their collars stuck or hang themselves, so a pen isnât a better answer either.â
St. Louis brings all of her eight dogs inside her home with her, but isnât opposed to other dogsledders tethering their animals.
She admits the practice can look initially questionable, especially if you are new to dogsledding.
âWhen I first went out to Markstay, where Jen (Lowe) and her husband Evan had 30 huskies on chains, I was kind of, oh, thatâs weird,â she recalls. âBut 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.â
Jen Lowe, who sadly died earlier this year, would go out âmultiple times a day to feed them and give them water,â she says. âJen 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.â
Sled dogs of course get lots of exercise in the winter, which keeps them fit and trim. âPeople see these dogs and think theyâre starving, but they eat thousands of calories a day,â St. Louis says. âYou can also see athletesâ ribs. These dogs are incredible â they are the ultimate athletes, in tip-top shape.â
Fetterley says the North Ridge dogs get taken off their tethers daily for exercise and interaction, so itâs not as if they are constantly confined to one small radius. âWe free-run our dogs every day,â she says.
Older dogs that no longer have the itch (or physical ability) to hit the trail are kept on the ranch in a âretirement villa,â Fetterley adds. âWe donât adopt them out because weâre attached to them. Theyâve worked hard and deserve retirement in an environment they are used to and comfortable in.â
Some retirees can be âintegrated into house life,â she says, but others âhave lived outside with the pack for eight or 10 years, so itâs not something all dogs can do.â
All dogs are different and Fetterley recommends people should do âwhat is in their best interest.â
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.
âLike all industries, there is room to improve,â says Fetterley. âIâm not saying dogsledding is a perfect sport. But you canât go around saying all dogsledders are horrible.â
She says Alaskan huskies are bred to run and pull, and do so quite willingly. âYou canât push a rope,â she says. âUsually theyâre so excited to go that people have to use brakes on the sled. But if they donât want to run, they just sit down.â
And while some keepers of sled dogs â just like pet owners in general â might be negligent, Fetterley says itâs far more common for people in this world to be extra protective of their animals.
âThis is our livelihood, our family,â she says. âAnd 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.â