It started 18 months ago as a bold move to transform the sled dog industry, but this week Whistler Sled Dog Co. (WSDC) announced it is folding up operations and handing its dogs over to the control of Whistler Animals Galore (WAG).
Sue Eckersley of WSDC has confirmed that the members of the foundation board who have been overseeing the operation of WSDC voted last week to dissolve the operation and let WAG find homes for the dogs.
According to Eckersley, money has been set aside to help fund the search for new homes and she noted that some dogs could go to Whistler's only remaining sled dog kennel, which is managed by Jaime Hargreaves in the Callaghan Valley.
"Our dogs were really aging," Eckersley said in an interview Monday, July 15. "We could have operated again next year and probably we could have broken even. But in the long term our dogs have lots of medical needs based on their age."
Hargreaves indicated she is keen to take some of the dogs from WSDC as she said she worked with dogs from that kennel previously. She hasn't firmed up a deal but she said she was confident a meeting will take place.
According to Hargreaves, the sled dog industry isn't a big money maker.
"It's not a business to make money, that's for sure," said Hargreaves. "It's for the passion and it's for the love and if it's for any other reason you're not going to do well. You are going to fall in one area whether it be financial or the well-being of the dogs. Somewhere you're going to fall if it's not for the right reasons."
According to Hargreaves, who supplies sled dog tours for Canadian Wilderness Adventures, she isn't sure at this point how many dogs she could take.
"I have a constant program in training dogs to live in the house so I have quite a few dogs that are ready and I have people on a list, basically, that have wanted dogs," Hargreaves said.
Not all of Hargreaves' dogs are sled pullers. For various reasons she said some of her dogs just haven't developed as good working dogs.
"Some of these other dogs that I've been training to go to homes, I will be able to now send them to homes so that's where I'm hoping to help," she said. "I have a dozen dogs that have never worked. I've been building their confidence over four years."
Hargreaves sees an opportunity to get the non-working dogs into homes and replace them with hard workers from the WSDC kennel.
Shawn Wilson of Blackcomb Snowmobiles has been in the dog sled business for eight years and he said he is currently looking for a service provider after the contract with his previous provider expired at the end of the season. He confirmed that he was in discussions to move the WSDC kennel to his company's location in the Callaghan Valley but he learned on Friday that WSDC had decided it wouldn't be going in that direction.
Wilson said the ideal dog sled scenario is to have the kennel in the company's tenure area so there's no need to move dogs around by truck. Blackcomb Snowmobile's previous sled dog contractor had a kennel in Mount Currie and Wilson said there's too much overhead when dogs need to be moved that distance between kennel and tour area.
"We want somebody that already has relations with the SPCA and has the utmost respect from them," said Wilson of his next sled dog tour partner.
Shannon Broderick, the executive director at WAG, said she first heard that shutting down the operation was an option on July 10.
"I did have a bit of a heads-up before the decision was made," said Broderick, who joined the WSDC board shortly before the decision was made to cease sled dog operations.
She said WAG now has a huge project ahead as the animal shelter works to find homes for the 86 dogs it now has control over at the WSDC kennel, just north of Whistler.
"We now have hired staff that are trained and have extensive experience in animal sheltering, animal behaviour and adoptions, so they are now working up at the kennel," Broderick said. "It's a massive task getting to know these animals and all their different personalities but I'm pretty confident that once they've gotten to know each animal then we can start to identify which ones are in need of a little bit more training and behaviour modification in order to transition into a home and which ones are easier to adopt."
Broderick said she is working in conjunction with the B.C. SPCA to find homes for the dogs. She said that in a typical year WAG finds homes for about 80 dogs, so she enlisted the help of the provincial organization in the hope that there will be a province-wide response to the effort to find homes for the dogs. Broderick said she expects most of the dogs will be adopted directly out of the kennel but a few may need to spend some time in the WAG shelter before they find new homes.
"I think the company has done a great job this last year of socializing the dogs," said Broderick.
The biggest challenge with the sled dogs is the fact that they don't have any house skills.
"Teaching them to walk on a leash and maybe even in some cases housebreaking and chewing on appropriate chew toys, those are going to be our challenges," Broderick noted.
She estimated that 10 to 20 per cent of the dogs in the kennel are extremely shy.
"We need to get them socialized with people," she said.
Anyone who wants to adopt one of the dogs is asked to send an email message to firstname.lastname@example.org indicating an interest in adopting a sled dog.
Eckersley said discussions were held with Blackcomb Snowmobile to explore the possibility of the WSDC providing tour services to that company but she said an agreement wasn't reached. According to Eckersley, there is now just one operational dog sled kennel in the Whistler area, down from three at the end of the winter season. As WSDC seeks out new homes for its dogs, Eckersley said she feels there is room for two small kennels in Whistler and there is enough demand to support two with the greatest amount of business taking place over a four-week period around the Christmas holidays.
Three WSDC employees were let go, said Eckersley. Two full-time employees were impacted along with one part-time worker. She noted that during peak operations the company employed 18 people with most of them laid off at the end of the sledding season.
The WSDC was created when Outdoor Adventures Whistler (OAW) got out of the sled dog business. WSDC took over the dogs after it was learned the previous manager of the kennel reduced the size of the kennel by at least 50 dogs when business slowed following the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
The former manager of the kennel pleaded guilty to a charge of causing unnecessary suffering to an animal. Last November he was fined $1,500, ordered to do 200 hours of community service and placed on probation for three years.