It’s a dog’s life

House makes room for retired sled dog

Posted Feb. 24, 2011, at 7:34 p.m.
Last modified March 01, 2011, at 4:44 a.m.

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FORT KENT, Maine — Some years back my late husband predicted that if left to my own devices, dogs soon would outnumber the people living in the house by an uncomfortably large margin.

It looks like I’m well on my way to becoming that crazy dog woman at the end of the road.

It started about three weeks ago when my main lead sled dog, Apollo, officially retired from the race team, trading in his doghouse for a spot on the living room floor, or in the recliner, or on one of several dog beds around the house.

It took this former Iditarod and Can Am 250 dog roughly 10 seconds to make the transition from working dog to house dog status — about the amount of time it took him to get from the door to that recliner, thus cementing his new status as House Dog No. 2 — just behind Corky the Shusky.

I wish readers could hear Apollo snoring from his fluffy dog bed — sparing little thought for his seven former teammates still in the dog yard — as I write this.

As far as I know, before the move into my house, Apollo had never spent any time indoors. Yet this 10-year-old Alaskan husky has never once bothered the cats, is a perfect gentleman around food and — best of all — is completely self-taught when it comes to asking to go out when nature calls.

There are those who believe sled dogs will not, cannot be moved indoors, but based on Apollo’s experience and those of numerous of my mushing friends, I — and they — beg to differ.

“There is something incredibly satisfying about watching an adult sled dog discover the couch for the first time [and] once they do, there’s no going back,” said Amanda Stanoszek, a recreational musher from Ohio. “All my sled dogs had to learn what a couch was. It took some time, but now they all love to laze around on the couch with me and my husband.”

Stanoszek has six dogs in her kennel and on any given day three or more are inside.

“We cherish being able to treat our dogs as both sled dogs and pets,” she said.

Stanoszek has an affinity for sled dogs and is actively involved with sled dog rescue, having successfully fostered numerous huskies over the years.

That’s why she, like so many of us mushers, were shocked to the core last month when the story came out of British Columbia that the owners of sled dog tour company Howling Dog Tours near Whistler ordered one of its employees to “cull” 100 sled dogs from the 300 used in its adventure tour business when bookings dropped after the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.

According to documents and testimony collected by provincial officials investigating the case, over the course of two days this employee shot or slit the throats of 100 sled dogs deemed unworthy of placement in recreational mushing or pet homes.

This case remains under investigation by the British Columbia government and has been condemned by dozens of national and international sled dog associations.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that not all sled dogs are happy or suitable for a life of inside leisure, but I’ve yet to meet a sled dog who is not ready and willing to become part of an active family, inside or out.

“I have adopted out quite a few of my sled dogs to recreational homes where they are not just sled dogs but also beloved house pets,” said Jaye Foucher of Sibersong Sled Dogs in New Hampshire. “All of the dogs who have gone to recreational sled dog homes have quickly adjusted to life in the house.”

By their nature sled dogs are curious, active and hardworking — traits that are invaluable on the trail, but not so endearing inside.

“If left alone unsupervised they are mostly content to laze around,” Stanoszek said. “But all dogs are opportunists and if something interesting enough is within nose reach, they’ll probably go for it.”

My dog Seamus is proof of that.

To Seamus, the nice flat surface of the kitchen counter was no different from the flat surface of his doghouse. It took only one athletic standing leap for him to discover the world of treats that existed on that counter.

He now resides in the dog yard.

Elizabeth Rankin has eight sled dogs in her New Hampshire kennel, and all live inside more than in the outdoor dog yard. In fact, the number of dogs in her kennel is dictated by how many can fit into the people house.

“Inside they tend to find places to just hang out and lay down,” Rankin said. “They love to share the dog beds [and] we do have an area we call the ‘smackdown zone.’”

The Rankins ended up moving furniture to make room for the nightly husky roughhousing.

Penny Gray is a musher living in Fort Kent and sharing her house with up to six sled dogs at a time out of her kennel of 25 dogs.

“All of my retired dogs have house privileges,” Gray said. “They’ve earned their place on the couch.”

Don’t call her dogs “pets.” As far as Gray is concerned the dogs are equal parts friend and family, as well as members of the same pack — hers.

“It’s great as far as the dogs are concerned,” Gray said of their living in what she terms the “big heated doghouse,” though she adds, “As for my love life, I’m still single.”

It certainly does help to have friends who are dog people and who are willing to look the other way as the tumbleweeds of dog fur go wafting by across the floor or are not horrified by large tubs of water and dog food in the kitchen.

“My feeling is that if I am going to be asking them to give it their all in training and racing I should give it my all in providing the most for them,” Rankin said. “We have limited our kennel to no more than eight sled dogs at a time [and] our retired dogs have gone to friends so that they can continue getting the most out of life.”

I couldn’t agree more, and here at Rusty Metal Kennel, where the sounds of a snoring sled dog accompanied by outdoor dog yard howls are the soundtrack to my life, I can take becoming the crazy dog woman at the end of the road.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday.

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