Yukon mushers urged to consider accreditation for ethical kennels

Long time musher Frank Turner is floating the idea of offering sled dog owners a chance to be certified as operating humane kennels.

Long time musher Frank Turner is floating idea of setting up accreditation for sled dog owners

Visitors take a dogsled tour in the Southern Lakes region south of Whitehorse. (Boreal Kennels)

Yukon mushers should consider joining an organization that could offer accreditation for sled dog owners who treat their dogs humanely, says long-time musher Frank Turner.

Turner organized a meeting in Whitehorse Monday evening for owners interested in setting up the group. About 10 people showed up, he said.

"We would focus on education and supporting people and setting a level of standards so that people not only recognize the standards, that they have a strong motivation for achieving this," said Turner.

He said he's been toying with the idea for several years, but became motivated to do something over the past few months by the release of a documentary critical of dog mushing, especially commercial operations.

Frank Turner speaks at a public meeting in Whitehorse on Sept. 16, 2015. (Philippe Morin/CBC)
Like most Yukoners, Turner has not seen the documentary Sled Dogs. But he says it sounds like all sled dog businesses in Canada have been unfairly blacklisted by the film.

"The world's not a perfect place, if you want to do a bad story on child daycare or an old folks home, or whatever," said Turner.

"If you wanted to dig up dirt, then you can find that."

Turner said dog mushing and mushers have changed significantly over the past few decades.

"When I look at the people now, this is a lifestyle for them, it's the relationships with their dogs and that's the biggest thing.

"It's not just the food and the physical needs, which is what we used to focus on... Now you almost have to be like a amateur psychologist."

"Dogs have their own will"

Turner said it's now also clear that dogs that are treated well work harder and win races.

"Dogs have their own will, when you take care of them they're happy, they're secure, you're giving them proper housing, water, food, this is who they are.

"They're going to want to be in that team because that's the pack for them," he said. 

Bertrand Bellencourt, who operates a wilderness tour company with his partner Julie Boily south of Whitehorse, supports Turner's idea.
Bertrand Bellancourt with Sitka on Tagish Lake, Yukon. (Boreal Kennels)

"I think it's a good thing, especially for newcomers because sometimes you do mistakes not because you want to, but because you don't know better," said Bellencourt.

That said, Bellencourt argues that Yukon is likely free of some of the bigger problems faced in southern kennels, which sometimes keep hundreds of dogs.

"What does one person do with two or 300 dogs?" 

"What if the business doesn't work tomorrow, how do you feed two or 300 dogs, how do you take care of them? That's not possible," he said.

Bellencourt said smaller kennels like his offer much more one on one attention to the dogs.

Kami the dog relaxes during a stop on a Southern Lakes trip. (Boreal Kennels)
"We take our dogs for walks, we rotate our dogs, I have dogs that come in the house. The retired dogs sleep on the couch," he said.

Turner said that kind of interaction is crucial to adjusting the dogs to homes so that they can be adopted out if they don't work out as sled dogs or when they retire.

"If we have dogs then we have a responsibility to home those dogs, to bring them into the house so that they're socialized," said Turner.

Further work on founding an organization has been put off until March, he said.