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On May 28, the CBC DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL broadcast Sled dogs—Fern Levitt’s documentary on the practices of the dog-sled world. I did not see the film, but I have a good idea of it, the trailer was very clear. This film made the mushing community strongly react earlier this year when it was first publicized because it highlights debatable practices in dog sledding. I own a dog ranch where we offer hiking and dog sled training, tours and boarding and I would like to bring my point of view.
Entering animals in games, for me, is a big responsibility. Animals, dogs, are sensitive beings and capable of emotions, they are my equals. Of course we do not have the same attributes as them and our physiological and emotional needs are not the same. In my opinion, the only good reason today for sledding is to do it to meet the needs of these dogs.
I notice that most people mean well, but obviously there is a problem, because in Quebec, among other places, we have one of the worst situations in the West with regard to the treatment of sled dogs, so questioning is not a luxury.
When I hear the reaction of the musher community to the film, wherein the mushers assert that keeping dogs attached on chains is good for dogs, that they are not domestic dogs and that this is the best way to keep these dogs for their well-being, I feel sorry.
Why Keep Sled Dogs on a Chain?
John Schandelmeier recently wrote an article that summarizes the view of the “traditional” mushers. Although I do not share his point of view, his arguments, we must appreciate and applaud the fact that unlike many other mushers, he speaks publicly and respectfully.
Here are some of his arguments:
“People get up in arms about sled dogs being tethered, but tethered dogs get to interact with each other. Dogs kept in kennels do not. Kennels are jail cells. Groups of dogs kept in yards without constant monitoring have a high likelihood of fight injuries or even deaths.”
This suggests that there is only one way to use the pens, i.e. one dog in a pen without ever going out. One can however have more than one dog per enclosure, enclosures can be constructed of any size. I agree, dogs must have access to activities in sufficient quantity and quality, but the chain does not allow more activity or interaction. (Touching the nose is not an interaction.)
Obviously, leaving dogs unattended, whether in paddock or chain, is never a good idea. However, if there are fears of injury or fights, does this not reveal a problem of socialization, education, coaching, stress, environmental management? We have 33 dogs and we use the pens and the dog parks, and we have had 1 incident since we started our kennel 5 years ago, and I was the one who was negligent. Socialize, educate, manage interactions, yes it involves much more time, but is that not the pleasure of having dogs?
About the living conditions of house dogs:
“The owner puts his dog in an airline kennel and goes to work. Some owners get to come home at lunch. They let the dog out for a few minutes then head back to work. The lucky dog gets a 15-minute walk on a leash after work – much like a prisoner getting his time in the exercise yard.”
There is no doubt that the situation of some house dogs is also worrisome, however, we are able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The film raises a problem, deflecting attention elsewhere is not an argument. The situation of house dogs is another debate, equally important, but does not contribute to the discussion of sled dogs on a chain.
About the deaths at the Iditarod race he writes:
“Roughly 1,100 dogs participated in this year’s race. Five died. By comparison, 25,000 dogs landed in Minneapolis/St.Paul shelters this past year and 1,300 were euthanized, according to the Humane Society of Minnesota.”
Again, attempting to mix two situations, however important it may be, is not an argument. Especially when it comes to getting out of the numbers, it would be interesting to count the number of sled dogs produced to select only the best and to find out what has become of the dogs that have not made the teams.
Sled dogs, farm animals.
“Sled dogs are not your average house pet. In terms of care and value, they are more like a dairy farmer’s herd.”
Humanity has long used animals for its survival. It is no exaggeration to say that sled dogs have saved lives, history books are there to testify. In 2017, however, there are very few tasks performed by animals that impact our survival. Nowadays, if humans dogsled, it is for sport and fun, not to survive. The ongoing reflection on sled dogs is similar to the current and upcoming ones on dairy farms and other livestock farms. To date, our relationship with animals has been one of survival, and it is understandable that in this context, animals were seen primarily as tools, objects—the products available to us for our survival. And this may explain why many mushers keep their dogs chained, they will have learned this way of doing from their predecessors, who lived with dogs in a survival context. The real questions to ask are philosophical and ethical: now that our survival no longer depends on animals, how can we justify imposing our wills on them? How can we justify breeding them for our own benefit? This film, whether one agrees or not with the way it was done, whether it presents a biased viewpoint or not, allows us to reflect on the future of our coexistence with the animals. In the same way, we are told that we have to think about the use of oil and its impacts on nature, on our health.
I understand the dog keeper’s interest in keeping them on chain. I see the interest of the dog guardian, but I do not see the interest of the dogs. What living being can flourish to live chained? What living being needs to be chained? Having a specific genetic trait (running for sled dogs, smell for hunting dogs, predation for herding dogs) does not predispose a dog to be attached to a chain permanently. Of course the dog is able to condition itself to just about any environment, it is both its strength and its weakness. And this may be what leads some to think that eventually dogs are perhaps, happy to be chained.
Benefits of Pens and Dog Parks
According to my experiences, I only see the benefits of keeping my dogs in the pen vs. the chain: I perceive less stress, less negative interaction between dogs, no fighting, less wasted energy, more pleasant interactions, dogs that collaborate better, are more concentrated, more rested, more calm. It also eliminates any tension and compression that the chain creates on the dog’s neck, which cannot be without effect. The more stress there is, the greater the risk of injury, which takes time and money.
From a strictly management point of view, yes, dogs in pens is a more complex organization, which requires more time and more investment initially than keeping the dogs in chains. However with good organization of work, good planning, we emerge winner with enclosures and dog parks, both from an organizational point of view, financial and especially from the point of view of our relationship with nature, with our dogs.
It is my choice to have dogs, it is also my responsibility, to take care of them, to meet their needs before mine, because they have no choice. From my point of view, someone who does not have the patience and money that it requires should refrain from having pets, including working dogs.
Changes: Dangers or Opportunities?
However, it should be recognized that the proposal to prohibit chaining/tethering sled dogs and to require the use of pens and dog parks, as requested by several animal welfare lobby groups, will be a very important challenge from a financial and organizational point of view for the kennels concerned, and can lead to difficult situations for the dogs that we want to protect. What would happen to dog kennels that, for one reason or another, will not be able to make the transition from the chain to the pens? Some pressure groups speak of several thousand dogs in this situation. Who will take care of these dogs? Who will pay the bill? How do the pressure groups that require this change consider the transition?
I am one of those who chooses to see changes as opportunities, but for many of us change is threatening and we see mostly potential problems. A condition for successful management of change is to identify irritants and obstacles, and to propose solutions.
There are many kennel owners who are in good faith, but who will have difficulty adapting financially to building pens—why not help them find solutions? Why not give them a period of adjustment? Otherwise, the community and the shelters may end up with responsibility for thousands of surrendered or seized sled dogs on their hands.
Discuss with Heart and Openness
To disagree and to discuss is to show openness, curiosity, interest, and allows everyone to evolve in the sense of the well-being of all, in the man-dog relationship. Ignoring it or denying it would go in the opposite direction. The discussion has begun, it is time to see how collectively we can do better.
In any case, being in business with animals and not offering the best living conditions and best practices, although this brings us to interpretation, is to shoot ourselves in the foot. The clientele is increasingly sensitive to the care of animals and will reward those who go in the direction of animal welfare, and that will not change. Who can be against virtue?
For me this movie is an opportunity for the mushing community to regain control of its sport before the state does. It is an opportunity to project itself as a leader in this field and not as an aggressor and not as a silent spectator.
Respecting Nature is Respecting Ourselves
Public opinion will never be convinced that a dog tied all his life 24 hours a day, or even 16 hours a day, 7 days a week is good for him, but understands that it is easier for the owner. And between the comfort of the owner and that of the dog, what will he choose?
I hear and read a lot of people’s dissatisfaction with animal abuse. I hear and read a lot of the dissatisfaction in the dog world about the regulations of the past few years. The overwhelming majority of people have realized that maltreated, malnourished, poorly trained, ill-educated animals do not produce anything good. This is the time to demonstrate that the world of dog sledding is ready to evolve.
This film is an opportunity for the dog sledding community to question itself, it is the moment to seize an opportunity to bring out the best in ourselves. It is time to discuss and learn from each other. It is time to use facts as arguments in our debates, not slander and denigration, nor deflection.
I do not pretend to be perfect, on the contrary, I always perceive myself as a junior despite my experience and my training and I constantly seek to question myself, to improve my knowledge. There is so much to change, to improve in our ways, in our facilities. To this end, we have adopted a code of ethics, which we would be happy to see improved while hoping to inspire others, to challenge us, to make us evolve. The code of ethics is posted, which helps us ensure that everyone can see that our words are followed by actions.
I do my best, I have an open mind, my heart and my intentions are pure, so I am afraid of nothing. As an Algonquin, dogsledding and the love of nature flow in my veins. It is the art of living of my ancestors. Dogsledding is good for my dogs, for my visitors, for me. It allows a look, an understanding of nature, it allows us to approach nature, our own nature, it helps to make us all better humans. It is my life, my art of living and I will defend this art of living. But for that one must respect and love life, and that can mean accepting to change the way we do things. We are all mammals, we breathe the same air, drink the same water, respect life, respect it.
Denis A. Jeanneret, Manitou Mushers
Max responded to the call of the Algonquin forest and culture 15 years ago, which brought him into the world of dog sledding and working with different kennels.
Quickly, he is faced with a dilemma: it is so pleasant to explore nature with dogs, but, what about dogs? He is interested in the study of the place of man and nature and the questions of ethics in the dog-man relationship.
Since then, with his wife and associate Anne-Marie Charest, Max has been experimenting with the principles of yoga applied to dogs: non-violence, stress reduction as a tool for the management of the human-dog relationship, and dog training in harnessed canine sports. Maxime lives with his 33 dogs in a friendly environment with no neighbors.