I'm usually the observer on sleddie walks.
Following along, assessing my movements, planning shots, all while doing my best not to startle any of the dogs.
But I'm also a participator as I come equipped with treats and sleddie-appropriate affections when requested. I chat to different people along the way to learn about their dogs and catch up on life. And I chat to the dogs too.
But today was different as I was a guardian to one of these super-special-sleddies, my friend Bruno!
And that meant I was going to try and do double duty -- guardian and photographer.
For fearful sleddies, one of the toughest things to work on is helping to widen their circles and socialize them to the world in a safe manner. Our human world might seem very arbitrary to sleddies (chew on this dog-specific toy, not on my slippers/shoes/furniture; you must pee and poop outside on a schedule, not whenever/wherever you feel the need; eat from the food dish on the floor not on top of the dining room table/counter where you've always eaten and hung out; sit, stay, come when I call you because I'm asking, yet you have no idea why; don't be afraid of me, I'm being nice to you) so bridging this gap between trusting humans and learning about home life, can help make their world a bit easier to navigate.
And today's walk was a perfect opportunity to help Mr B in this area.
Having met and photographed so many adoptable sleddies over the years, one must figure I've adopted one too.
Alas, I have not, and that's another story for another post.
However, because of our close-knit sleddie community, I've been fortunate to be a part of their lives - through not just walks, but sleepovers, afternoon sleddie sitting, walks, hangouts, vet visits and lots of adventures.
And since Bruno's mom is a friend, he and I have started up a what I like to call (with crossed fingers) a friendship. Bruno came into care back in October 2021. Although his history is not totally clear (sled dog kennels don't keep the best records), we do know he spent time in a specific kennel in the Whistler area where a lot of the most human-fearful dogs have come from. I once called his baby steps "blink-and-you'll-miss-them-steps" because they are so little, if you weren't watching, you probably wouldn't notice them.
So although he's familiar with me, we've never had one-on-one time, and this outing would be new for him. But because we were going on a walk with his 'people', it was safe and familiar to him.
To be honest, I was very nervous before picking him up and was second guessing it all. Would he be ok? Would he get startled and try to escape? Would this be too weird for him?
But I took a deep breath, I knew it would be ok. I had a community who would help us.
Shannon had him ready before I arrived and he was wearing his collar (with tags) and a well-fitting harness.. as well as his fully-charged GPS tracker.
He came outside with me no problem and tolerated me lifting him into the car (he's a bit too arthritic to jump). Once in, he laid down - sort of like he's afraid or nervous. Sadly, this is 'normal' for him. But once I got in and started the car, I saw his little head pop up and he was ready to see where we were headed. Off we went and even though it was chilly out, I opened the back windows so he could turn his sniffer on. I felt like I was driving extra careful - and I guess I was - I had special cargo after all.
About 10 mins later we were almost there.
Stopped at a light on the highway, waiting to turn left.
I could see him in my rearview mirror turning around a bunch... and then I smelled it. Yup. He pooped.
And there was nothing I could do about it right then.
He was secured so he couldn't jump out, so all the windows came down for the final part of the drive.
On the way to last week's walk he pooped in Shannon's car and stepped in it, so when they arrived, it was a bit of a mess. Last week and today, his morning poops were taken care of before the car ride, but it still happened. Nervous poops or just when you gotta go, you gotta go?
Either way, I guess it gives a different meaning to the title of this blog 'double duty'?
We arrived and Argus and Ally were there and Ally hung on to Bruno while I cleaned up the back of the car. Everyone else arrived and greetings were made by the dogs and the humans.
The gang got together for a group photo, with Jillian hanging on to Mr B as well as her two, Jasper and Portia. Then we were off for a walk.
It was a lovely day with lots of people and dogs on the trails. And though I was more focussed on my time with Mr B than photographing the walk, I did manage to get a few.
There were some new faces out this time - Millie, Batman, Biggie, Rio and Samwell along with some more familiar faces - Argus, Jasper, Portia, Arwen, Stevie and of course, Mr B.
When the walk was over, I got Mr B into the car and off we went. We made a pit-stop at my house so he could meet my husband (widening Mr B's circle) but he seemed more confused about why were were hanging outside and not going inside. He made moves to my front steps and would've been very happy to walk right in, but my little Mr Coco (who only has one eye that doesn't work very well) was very confused at what was going on, so Mr B and I headed back to his home.
As we got closer to Shannon's I could hear the sniffer working extra hard. And when we pulled in, he was ready to be home. I opened the door, dried him off a bit (hoping any remaining poop on his feet had washed away on the walk) took off his harness and off he went to his bed, his most favourite spot in the world right now. I gave him the kong filled with treats that Shannon had prepared to help bide his time until she and Tica came home. Then I said my farewells and told him he was a very good boy.
I know the perfect home is out there for him. A home that will provide sanctuary to him, put his needs first and gently help him along this journey. It's in him to connect with people - maybe not everyone - but even if it's just one person who can give him that time, I have a feeling it'll be a pretty amazing relationship. Each time I see him, I see that progress and one of the coolest things of today was the pit-stop we had in the forest. Bruno's not great at asking for attention, but he's good at moving away when he doesn't want it. Today, he let me give him rubs on his shoulders, chest and cheek. I stopped and he looked at me, took a step towards me and let me give him more pets and tell how handsome he was.
What did I learn? Bruno's a champ and it's really great to know that if you're feeling stuck, that there's such a supportive community of sleddie adopters around to commiserate with.
Thank you everyone who came out!
I would like to extend extra thanks to Millie + Batman for coming out. Along with age (Millie's 16! and Batman's getting up there) these friends are dealing with some other medical issues so they only joined us for a little bit of the walk, some sniffs and a couple treats. Thankfully they have veterinary care and caring guardians who are ensuring they get the help they need.
I did my best to get individual photos of each dog, but with a different priority this walk I may have missed a couple. Sincere apologies to both Arwen + Portia - thankfully I did get some snaps of you at last weekend's walk!
Sleddie roll call: Argus, Arwen, Batman, Biggie, Bruno, Jasper, Portia, Millie, Rio, Samwell, Stevie
Sleddie friends: Deacon (Rio's brother), Jo (Bruno's former foster sibling) and Zoe (Millie's floofy sibling).
24 new retirees in 6 sets of new arrivals
12 meet up photo ops
53 gb of raw images
thousands of shutter clicks
1 sleddie turned 17
6* sleddies passed away
It was a year like no other... but then again, aren't they all?
24 more sleddies joined the 'officially retired' team. I use 'officially' for two reasons: 1) because a few of them had retired while at the sled dog kennel but they didn't have anywhere to retire to; and 2) because the moment they left the kennel and were in care of the rescue, they became 'domestic pets' and thus covered under domestic animal protection laws here in BC. They may be outdated laws, but they're a LOT better than the agricultural animal 'laws' that covered them previously.
I'm not sure of the costs incurred to date, but it would be well in to the thousands - gas, ferry fares, spay/neuter surgeries, lump removals, dentals, specialist appointments (Pumpkin's eyes), food. Plus the volunteer hours provided by foster homes who not only opened up their homes for months to some of this crew, but made sure they got to all their medical appointments.
Some arrivals looked more like what one thinks a sled dog should look like - a bit floofier and husky-like (Ace, Ice, Saturn), some looked more like hounds (Biggie, Ginny), some had piercing blue eyes (Saturn, Centurion, Ice, Batman, Loki, Meso, Toledo), and some were incredibly fearful but are coming out of their shells at their own pace (Ace, Bear, Catty, Bruno, Herman, Stevie). Two were adopted by their foster homes (Pumpkin, Sparkle), one was adopted by her transporter (Portia), and one was just a puppy (Bamboo).
And at the time of writing this, one is still awaiting adoption... Bruno.
It's one thing to photograph dogs at intake as it's not really the best photo op. It's confusing, they may be scared and not themselves, there's new people, smells, they're getting fitted for new harnesses and collars. Their GPS trackers are getting tested. They may be getting a flea & tick or deworming treatment. They may just want to sleep because it's been a big travel day. They may just be super shut down. All the while I'm trying to be a bit of a fly-on-the-wall to get a photo of them, to document their existence and give them space in this world, while they hide behind another dog, a human, under a desk. It's a lot. This is why I'm so incredibly stoked to meet up a few days, weeks, months down the road. There is always a positive change. To see them more relaxed and comfortable, have time off leash, taking treats, giving eye contact, responding to their name instead of tucking their tail. Sometimes it's a teeny tiny change, but it's celebrated. These meet ups are also a lot, but in a super beautiful way.
With a passionate group at the helm, there were chances for (safe) meet ups and connection for both the humans and sleddies and its inspiring to see this community continue to grow and evolve.
2021, for me, meant year 10 of sled dog advocacy, bringing 24 new ambassadors into my world and the total number of sleddies in this work to 208. There are now 24 more faces and names whose mere presence in this world can help advocate for those who are still being exploited. They don't need to do anything else except learn to be themselves.
2022, for me, will mean 10 years since I clicked the shutter on my first sleddie. Ten years of following the 'after', what some may call the 'hard part'. But knowing there are more sled dogs ready to come into care if foster homes can be found, I will continue to share the names, faces and stories because as long as the sled dog industry exists, there will be dogs in need. I know our transport team is ready, are you?
Thank you to the Victoria Humane Society who foots all the bills for these retirees, and to the volunteers who arrange fosters, help with adoptions and support in any way they can. Also, to the transporters of this precious cargo: Jillian+ Debbie, Jillian + Charla, Bobbie, Jillian + Amanda, Debbie + Jillian and Jillian and her mom.
In alphabetical order, meet the new I Was A Sled Dog ambassadors!
Ace, Bamboo, Batman, Bear, Biggie, Bruno, Cally, Cap, Catty, Centurion, Ginny, Herman, Ice, Kerri, Loki, Meso, Portia, Pumpkin, Saturn, Sparkle, Stevie, Teddy, Tig, Toledo
*this is the number of sleddies I've heard passed away in 2021, the number could be higher
On a beautiful fall day, a couple senior sleddies had a visit.
Word has it Rio (red harness on the left) + Bruno had been keeping company within an "old man's club" of sorts. The club was made up of dogs no longer working, who were waiting for adoption and official retirement.
Rio had left the "club" back in August 2021 when he came into care with Toledo. The seniors were leaving so Bruno, who's a very fearful fella, pretty much just stayed put in his kennel -- only going out when he had to.
Of course, this is second-hand information, but it seems very plausible given what I've seen of the 'after' stories over the years.
When Bruno arrived back in October, he quickly found a spot under a desk to escape to. He came out with a bit of gentle coaxing and took part in the goings-on and seemed interested in what was happening, but this was all so far out of his normal, that you could see he once again needed the safety of his den. At his foster home, that's his spot... in his kennel, his den, his safe spot.
Since Bruno arrived, he and Rio have had a couple other mini meet ups and they do their thing - Rio being more interested in human attention and affection, and Bruno watching it all happen.
But for all Bruno's fears, I do want to note that when I arrived at Bruno's foster, there was a moment when I was sitting down and Rio came to get sniff and get some rubs and treats and Bruno inched his way close enough to get a good sniff of the treat... and me. He's trying to trust us humans who only want to help, but his past includes time at a kennel where a number of the most fearful sleddies I've met have worked at. Apex, Lunar, Willow, Flash... to name a few.
I made a little video of the visit in the hopes that someone may see these two senior sleddies and want to adopt them into their home as beloved family members. To dispel the myth that as former sled dogs, they'll pull too much, or have too much energy. And to also show some tiny glimpses into their personalities that still images may not show. Rio and Bruno are not bonded, but seem to appreciate the company of other dogs who are just as gentle, patient and understanding as the humans who are helping them along.
Bruno + Rio are adoptable through the Victoria Humane Society.
Thanks for stopping by.
A special sleddie for many reasons including being the 200th former sled dog in my this project!
Although I will admit, Centurion, who also retired today and arrived with Toledo, is just as special being #199.
... and, well... so are the other 198.
Both dogs arrived at VHS HQ after the trek from Whistler. Upon arrival they got some treats, more water and were fitted with new collars, harnesses and GPS trackers. They also got a few moments to chill before heading out to their foster homes where they'll get to decompress, learn about life living in a home and get to know some new humans. They'll get vet checked (and neutered), and when they're ready, adopted.
This vein of animal photojournalism, specifically documenting newly-retired sled dogs is not without its challenges. There generally aren't 'smiley' dogs, or cute "adopt me" photos. I have no expectation the dog will look at me, at least not at first. Sometimes they do, most of the time they don't. In fact I don't expect the dogs to do anything when I first meet them. It's left up to them. In today's gallery, you will see the missing tip of Centurion's ear and the bit missing from his tongue. You'll see Toledo's stress panting and him looking at the doorknob and out the window for possible escape routes. You will see fear, uncertainty and, inquisitiveness upon arrival into a new way of living. But you'll also get to see Centurion offer a perfect head tilt when I made a cat meow noise and his bum as he walks to the car with his new foster home and Toledo's jump right into Jill's car and into the crate - what he knows as a safe space. It's all part of sharing their story, no matter how small a chapter it may be in the story of their life.
And when the time came for super sleddie chauffeur Bobbie, to say farewell and head back home, she had a hard time leaving these fellas. In the few short hours she spent with them today, they filled her heart. But that's always the way. Once you've met and spent time with a retired sleddie, they stay with you. It's probably why I've continued to share their stories over the past decade - they're so dang easy to fall in love with.
I know in time they'll settle and this new life will get easier on them. I've seen it over and over and over again. Centurion, who bears not just physical, but emotional scars from a kennel he worked at long ago, could already be considered a "cuddle puddle" as he wanted loves from all the volunteers he met today. And Toledo, who may have escapism on his mind, well, I've already heard that he found his bed at his foster home and planted himself firmly in it.
Thanks to the Victoria Humane Society, Bobbie, Jillian, Deb + Penny and the sleddie foster families and volunteers for making this all happen for these two super special guys.
And to everyone who's been a part of helping the 198 sleddies transition into loving homes, thank you!
Welcome to retirement Centurion + Toledo!
There's a huge group cheering you on and ready to support you and your new families, when the time comes.
p.s. not sure who's who? Centurion is brown with golden brown eyes and Toledo is black + cream with piercing blue eyes.