For Penny Stone, the best day of the year isn’t Christmas, or Canada Day, or even her birthday.
No, that distinction goes to the few days a year she gets to host the growing community of former sled dogs and their owners on her five-acre property near Victoria.
“Those days are my special holiday,” said Stone, the executive director of the Victoria Humane Society, who hosted nearly 30 “sleddies” and their owners last month.
Stone is one of a handful of people who was instrumental in rehoming the dozens of sled dogs belonging to Outdoor Adventures Whistler after the company’s manager was convicted of killing at least nine dogs in a horrific 2010 cull.
One of the others is, of course, Sue Eckersley, who formed the Whistler Sled Dog Company (WSDC) in late 2011 as a way to give the surviving dogs a new life.
Despite folding the operation two years ago, Eckersley has remained a key part of the sled dog community and, along with several other regional and local agencies like Whistler Animals Galore (WAG), was integral in getting all of the retired dogs adopted out to new homes, plus dozens more from Canadian Wilderness Adventures and Blackcomb Snowmobiles.
It was a happy ending to a tragic story that nobody could have expected.
“The WAG volunteers that took over the WSDC, and even the mushers that worked with them, I think we all bought into this myth that these dogs couldn’t be rehomed, except on rare occasions,” Eckersley said. “These are people that had known the dogs and in my mind were dog experts … so there was a real feeling that these dogs would not adjust to a home life. Today, every one of them has.”
Even Stone, who has adopted out over 6,000 dogs in her career at the Victoria Humane Society and B.C. SPCA, had her doubts, but is more than happy to have been proven wrong.
“Before I knew anything about sled dogs I thought they were going to be these huskie- and malamute-type dogs that couldn’t adapt to family life and would have to live outside in pens," she said. "It’s so far from the truth, it’s crazy. They are the gentlest, kindest souls I have ever met.
“When I started doing this people kept telling me you couldn’t have them in your house. Well of course you can — it’s hard to even get them off the couch!”
What’s perhaps even more surprising is the tight-knit community of owners that has formed around these former sled dogs in communities across B.C.
They go on long walks together, share tips on pet care in a highly-active Facebook group and offer to dogsit whenever needed. They regularly meet up several times a year, in Whistler, Vancouver and Victoria, and share a bond that seems more like family than a random group of dog owners.
In fact, the most recent reunion at Stone’s home was held earlier than usual this summer so everyone had a chance to see Daffy, a sleddie who was diagnosed with terminal cancer, one last time before she went off to the great big kennel in the sky.
“It’s such a great, tight-knit family that is probably the most amazing group I’ve ever been involved with in my life,” Stone said. “It’s definitely brought two communities together: a community of dogs and a community of people.”
To date, more than 200 former Whistler sled dogs have found new homes. To learn more, check out The Whistler Sled Dog Company Facebook page.