Dog sledding has always been a sport I have been sceptical about. As a person who wants to stop at every squirrel that I pass, I would hate to see hundreds of dogs tied up to kennels, never let off and worked so hard they are too exhausted to play.
I don’t like seeing animals used as ‘slaves’ (like a lot of dog sledding kennels are portrayed) so I wasn’t entirely sure how my experience would go. I decided to bite the bullet and quickly realised that that was certainly not the case with Snowy Owl Dog Sledding, and here’s why!
Once arriving at the dog kennels in Canmore, Alberta, we were greeted by almost 100 female sled dogs barking, playing together and waiting for our love. We ushered through the gates to be smothered with affection from these beautiful dogs and I was reassured that this was certainly no dog slavery.
The part-owner of Snowy Owl (pictured in red) runs the operation with his sister. This company was founded in 1982 and has grown to have 182 sled dogs in their kennels.
Now you’re probably a little concerned that 182 dogs are all living together… How can they all have the love and attention they deserve? Well, all the staff in the kennels knew every single dog’s name, personality, behaviours and every little nook and cranny about them. I honestly couldn’t believe it.
The staff explained to me that it’s really no different than knowing the names of all the people you know. The average person would know more than 100 people on a personal level and this is much the same. The dogs are their friends, their teammates and their entire life.
They spend almost every waking moment with each other and the love and care they had for one another was certainly evident. The sled dogs absolutely adored the staff members and were getting more attention than I can imagine half of the animals in their homes across the world are receiving.
Here at the dog kennels, the dogs are split into male and female… Mainly due to the fact that they don’t want an overpopulated kennel – “quality over quantity” as they say. When the daily tour groups arrived they rotate which sex is let off for the visitors as it can get quite hectic if 182 dogs are let off at once.
The dogs are let off free in their huge enclosed space for hours each day; up to 3 hours of running, playing and pure fun.
Each dog is respected on a personal level, and although they are treated as an athlete in some ways, their personal needs are always the priority. The dogs that are a little shyer are placed in areas together and are avoided by the visitors to prevent any stress. There is no forceful interaction if it is not desired by the dog. Although, out of the 182 dogs, there was only a handful that didn’t want our attention…
For around an hour, we played, patted and treated these animals like kings and queens. They adored us just as much as we did them. We – including the staff – gave them the attention that they deserved and they definitely loved every second.
We spent equal amounts of time with the dogs that were let off their chain (females) as we did with those that were tied up (males). No favouring!
As for the sled work, the dogs work on an average cycle of 1 day on, 1 day off during the high season. Although, some dogs may run 4 days in a row followed by a few days off – a bit like us I suppose – and can travel up to 40 km’s in a day.
It’s extensive work there’s absolutely no doubt, but they receive hour-long breaks regularly throughout the treks and are always given the best care during the journey. This is certainly not an everyday occurrence like outsiders may think, but the dogs love their jobs and are eager to get to work when the time arrives!
The animals are worked based on their abilities and are never pushed past their boundaries regardless of the outcome. They are given extensive breaks during the summer, whilst still training them during the down seasons to keep their fitness and health at a peak.
The prime age for a sled dog to work is between 2-8 years old. After Snowy Owl has had the dogs for their prime and believes they are ready for a beautiful home, the dogs are up for adoption. They don’t leave the kennels until the right home is found; until then the dog will live in this sanctuary with all of its friends until the right family arrives.
The black shaggy dog pictured above is one of the oldest dogs at Snowy Owl. She is retired, super cute and waiting for her new home. She was my favourite and it was so beautiful to see that the dogs really are loved and cherished. No mistreatment or neglect here that’s for sure!
No matter the age, personality or breed, they are all cared for in the same way as one another.
When you think about 182 dogs… That’s a lot of work… And a lot of poo.
It takes 4 staff around 20 minutes to clean up the kennels and this is done multiple times a day. A pretty stinky job if you ask me… But it is the very nutritional diet that keeps their bowels regular and nourished!
The sled dogs are majority kibble fed, but quantity and extras are dependant on the dog and its needs (and the weather too). A detailed board is centred in the middle of the kennels where all information is written for each and every dog in the team.
One day a week the dogs will get to treat on a different kind of fresh meat or speciality. Anything from chicken to eggs are fed to keep them happy, interested and healthy. That’s better than half of the pets around the world I bet!
There were quirky, shy, playful, energetic and downright happy dogs in this kennel, but one thing that I definitely didn’t see was an angry, aggressive dog by any means. That proves to me that they are utterly cherished. Dogs won’t be happy if they are treated badly and these dogs were definitely some of the happiest I have ever encountered.
Even though during my tour the boys were still tied up, they were just as happy as the girls. Some wanted to be smothered with affection and some were happy sleeping inside or next to their kennels. It can’t be too bad I guess?
There are 11 different bloodlines running through the kennels. The dog breeds that are found here are the Eskimo dog, Alaskan Malamute, Siberian Huskey, Indian Huskey and Alaskan Huskey. All of which makes the ultimate teammates and hard-working sled dogs!
The mothers are not bred like those on a puppy farm; so very far from it. The females are bred for the first time no younger than 3 years old and will have a maximum of 2 litters throughout their life. The pups are bred for personality, not performance. Snowy Owl doesn’t want to produce an angry, aggressive dog that pulls a good sled. It’s personality over performance, how great is that!
The pups are slowly and positively introduced to the team throughout their early lives and join in on the treks starting at 6 months of age, but this will also depend on the personality of the dog.
For those of you who are passionate about animal welfare, you can definitely trust me when I say that I would never recommend an experience unless I was 100% sure it was ethical. This experience showed me that dog sledding is so far from what I had expected.
Hey, guess what – it’s another one of those ‘don’t judge a book it’s cover‘ moments.
I am sure that there are many dog sledding kennels that are not ethical or that have poor intentions… But this post is about Snowy Owl; a company that showed me how all dogs around the world should be treated.
My trip with Snowy Owl Dog Sledding Tours was paid for with my own money. All photos are my own!