North·In Depth

'Something needs to change in Aklavik': N.W.T. family's dog shot by bylaw officer

Chrissy Bernhardt’s family is 'devastated' after their family dog was shot by bylaw officers — but the practice of culling loose dogs is not unusual across the territory.

Culls of loose and stray dogs are common in northern communities, where dogs run rampant

Lucy, the white husky mix, with three of Chrissy Bernhardt's four children. (Chrissy Bernhardt/Facebook)

On Tuesday night, Chrissy Bernhardt couldn't sleep.

Her family dog, a husky mix named Lucy, had been missing since earlier that morning, when she "wandered" while her sons' back was turned during her morning walk.

Bernhardt and her family had spent the past 12 hours searching for her — even posting a bounty for $100.

"I couldn't sleep because I kept thinking she would come to the door," she said.

The following morning, her worst fears were confirmed — Lucy had been shot by the local bylaw officer.

Aklavik, a hamlet of just over 600 people north of the Arctic Circle, is one of nearly a dozen communities in the N.W.T. where problematic loose and stray dogs are regularly culled.

According to the hamlet, Lucy had been acting aggressive. There had been several complaints from residents, according to Aklavik's senior administrative officer, Fred Behrens.

Bernhardt said Lucy 'especially loved our two-year-old…. In the evening, she would lie on the floor and let him drive his trucks and his cars from her tail to her nose.' (Chrissy Bernhardt/Facebook)

"The dog would be chasing after people, and running all over the place," he said. "Our bylaw does not allow for dogs to run loose, and they were given notices on Friday to … tie it up or control it, and it was not controlled.

"So my dog officer disposed of it," he said.

Bernhardt disputes that the complaints were related to Lucy. She estimates there were five similar-looking dogs in the community, some of whom can be aggressive — including one killed just the previous Friday. Lucy was often confused for these dogs, she said.

"She was the kindest, gentlest dog you would ever meet," said Bernhardt. "If you were to approach her, the first thing she would do is … lay on back, put her belly up, and wag her tail."

"That may be her opinion, but there are many residents around town who have said quite differently about that dog," said Behrens. "I know I've had personally, complaints dating back to the first part of December."

On Thursday, Bernhardt made a post on a local Facebook group sharing the news that Lucy had been killed. The post prompted mixed responses from community members, from heartfelt condolences to concerns about the daunting scale of Aklavik's loose dog problem.

I have no problem getting rid of a dog that's being a nuisance.- Fred Behrens, Aklavik SAO

Behrens says the hamlet has "destroyed over 100 dogs" in the past three years.

"I have no problem getting rid of a dog that's being a nuisance," he said. "It's the … pet owner's responsibility to look after their dog. Our bylaw has been in force for many years, and it will stay in force that way."

Bernhardt said she did everything right — she got the dog tattooed with an ID number so "in the event that she did get picked up by bylaw, she could be brought home."

"My five year old said, 'I don't understand Mom. Why did they shoot her? All she wants to do is lick you,'" she said.

"I know something has to change in Aklavik, because we followed the rules," she said. "They never even called and warned us. Not once."

Dogs on the loose in Fort Providence, N.W.T. Loose dogs are common in many northern communities. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Widespread practice

Culling loose and stray dogs is a widespread practice in northern communities, where their numbers frequently grow out of control.

"They cull all the time," said Angela McInnes, the chair of Arctic Paws, a group that runs spay-and-neuter clinics for dogs in the North.

"I see the need for it," she said. "You have a pack of seven dogs that are hungry ... and you've got children walking around. Yeah, I do.

"What happened to Lucy ... it happened, it's horrible, but it can't stop," she said.

CBC News reached out to more than two dozen communities to see if they culled loose or stray dogs. At least 11 communities did so, and several described a growing problem of loose dogs in the community.

"All we can try to do is shoot them," said John Holland, the senior administrative officer in Paulatuk, where the hamlet pays $75 per animal for taking on the unpleasant task of culling dogs. Holland estimates a dog is shot there "weekly."

"The real issue is people have dogs and don't take care of them," he said.

In Colville Lake, where loose dogs are regularly culled, they have "always been a problem and an issue," according to David Codzi, the assistant band manager.

"Kids like having a puppy, but they don't like having a big dog … [and] no one wants to tie up their dogs," he said. "Kids are getting jumped on, [and] there are dogfights on their houses."

Some communities, like Fort Liard, have trouble finding bylaw officers to kill problem dogs. In many others, arrangements with airlines and the N.W.T. SPCA, based in Yellowknife, see dogs scooped and shuffled off for rehoming, rather than shot.

A tied-on husky in Paulatuk, where the hamlet says loose dogs are culled weekly. Tying on dogs is a common northern practice, but not all owners know how to do it properly. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Local solutions exist

Some communities described success in tackling the problem head on. In Wrigley, local SPCA contact Jocelyn Skeard said spaying a single problem female drastically reduced the number of new litters.

Several communities have been helped by a travelling spay-neuter clinic organized by the N.W.T. SPCA, which, in Wrigley, processed 53 dogs in 4 days and drastically reduced their aggressiveness. In many northern communities, there is little to no access to veterinary care.

Other communities have opted for local solutions. In Fort McPherson, a local "dog committee" has taken on the work of fundraising to finance a local pound, opened in 2017, and rehome problem animals.

Athena Prodromidis, who runs the pound, says it allows problem dogs to be "quarantined" and observed, rather than immediately culled. Dogs that aren't collected can be rehomed.

"Most of the time, they're very scared … [but] after 10 days, they're super happy," she said.

Traditional relationship

But many loose dogs and strays are not cherished family pets like Lucy, according to Prodromidis.

"No one wants the responsibility," she said. "They're just getting pushed away."

In many northern communities, once dogs are fully grown, they are tied on to a post and left outside in all seasons.

The practice is frequently the subject of criticism by non-northerners, but it has a long precedent in northern communities.

"We never let them loose, years past," said Joe Nasogaluak, a musher in Tuktoyaktuk. "Dogs were always tied, growing up."

Tuktoyaktuk musher Joe Nasogaluak said the high cost of chains and collars means some dogs are not properly tied on. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Nasogaluak said elders in his community used to keep dogs tied in their backyard to dispose of food scraps. Others, like himself, raised them as working animals, and kept them tied when not in use. Neither are seen as pets.

"I had dogs all my life. I never did own a pet," he said.

But Nasogaluak said many fellow northerners don't know how to properly train and restrain dogs.

The high cost of chains and collars, which can run upwards of $30 in Tuktoyaktuk, is another disincentive for proper care. Nasogaluak said he's seen dogs tied on with rope or string, which they can easily break free of.

As a temporary solution, Nasogaluak has started giving out chains and collars he makes for his mushing dogs at the local hamlet.

"I think it's just all about education," he said. Workshops on mushing at northern schools could include a component about how to train and care for northern dogs, said Nasogaluak.

"It might save a child getting chewn up," he said.


  • An earlier version of this story gave Chrissy Bernhardt's name as Chrissy Belcourt. It has since been corrected.
    Jan 13, 2020 10:31 AM CT

With files from Rachel Zelniker and Lawrence Nayally