A blog entry on Mountains and Mutts

"Trust Your Instincts, Know Your Motives" - by Nicole

This is the eyewitness account of a handler from
Spirit of the North Kennels in Salmo, British Columbia.

In the summer of 2014, I saw an online posting by the owner of a kennel seeking a volunteer until the end of October (2 months or so). I had been looking at the page because I had heard about this old feller who had a knack with dogs, and from time to time he helped the SPCA and others with the more difficult cases (primarily focused on dogs with aggression problems). The post went on to say the duties would include helping care for shelter dogs as well as the owner’s personal pack of 35+ sled dogs. Knowing that I wanted to get involved in working with dogs, this looked like a truly perfect opportunity.

On my first visit some things about the place were sort of quaint – the owner and his endearing rag-tag ‘family’ lived in a giant, leaning, dilapidated house that they invited everyone into for a cup of coffee, the air thick with cigarette smoke and the floor covered in thick tumbleweeds of dog hair, a far cry from the previous office administration job where I had grown used to spending  my time. At any given time there were 5 dogs or more of his own living in the house and the door was seldom closed (and boots seldom removed), reminiscent of something from a childhood dream or a writing of Farley Mowat, visiting a fabled gold-panning hermit’s isolated mountain cabin. The people seemed kind enough, and my desire to work with dogs overrode all and I was off to the races. I drove an hour or more each day, 3 days each week and spending anywhere from 4 to 7 hours there at a time for over a year.

I was taught hands-on some days by the over- 75-year-old owner (with what hand dexterity he had left, which wasn’t much) how to drive the quad that pulled a welded trailer, where chains had been fastened with clips on the ends so up to 8 dogs could get exercise at a time, all a safe distance away from each other if there were dogs with aggression problems. He did a bit of leash work here and there, and talked a lot about dogs past and present – mostly past. The majority of the time I spent with the dogs I spent alone, while the owner did other things elsewhere. I took this as a sign that he had seen an ability in me that he trusted me to just do my own thing, rather than wondering why he would leave a new volunteer unsupervised in a pen with a potentially aggressive dog. I realized the trailer was a replacement for leashed walks and literal hands-on work with these shelter dogs, which in retrospect didn’t do much to help their behaviour problems unless their problem was bucking  against getting dragged forward while in close proximity to other dogs. In that way it helped a few, and I still believe it has the potential to be an excellent option if used properly (like all tools, really).  In theory (though there were very few of us involved that actually practiced this) the dogs would get about 2-4 km of distance covered on the trailer. The distance and speed would depend on the dogs – their size, fitness level, any physical impediments, their chemistry with the other dogs on the trailer, etc.  Watching the relationships of the dogs (and theirs with me) evolve through sharing trailer runs and getting away from the kennel and out into the quiet, with a group of dogs was arguably my favourite part about the place. After some exercise and escape from their fenced pens, we would do the behaviour training work. Most of this was pretty sensible and automatic to me, after researching and years training and learning with dogs already, but it was a huge opportunity to hone my skills and get exposure and experience with SO MANY different kinds of dogs. I got to spend time alone figuring things out with some truly incredible animals. There are a handful of very special cases in my memories of the 40 or so dogs that I worked with there, but I won’t go into them just yet. Suffice for now to say that I learned a lot, and encountered so many different dogs that I went home and continued to research and learn more on my own, every day.

When late fall and winter came I got to have a short foray into the world of running sled dogs. They lived in a small field in the yard, on short chains attached to bolts in the ground and each with a rickety wooden dog house, set up so they were all in the same area but couldn’t reach each other. This particular group of dogs were, unlike the shelter dogs or pet dogs there for therapy work, acceptable to be aggressive – especially to other dogs of the same sex - because the owner felt it to be an example of their superior energy and drive. When combined with their intact reproductive parts, he firmly believed this made them better racing sled dogs. He is against spay/neuter in general, and his sled dogs his shining example of why. That’s a debate for another day, and as I am far from a racing sled dog expert - I can’t say one  way or the other.

I remember pondering his view that there are some occasions where it’s encouraged to have agitated, aggressive dogs, but it was another thing that without prior experience I took at face value. I would later go on to see sled dog kennels with socialized, balanced dogs, but at this first encounter I had no reason to believe that was possible let alone encouraged.

Over the winter at the kennel, after I inadvertently established myself as their main volunteer (aside from the owner’s live-in girlfriend), things changed dramatically. Later, in talking to past volunteers and various associates of the place, I learned that the change was less dramatic than I had thought – that it was just a reversion back to the previous state of the kennel and it’s owner, and I had somehow managed to arrive on the scene during a time when things were, however briefly, looking up. I don’t think I precipitated the short improvement, but I know I bolstered it with my enthusiasm and dedication… I had created a Facebook page for the business to help him share the work I was then so proud to be a part of, which led to over 2500 followers and a network of opportunities for shelter dogs that had none otherwise. I got to know a network of fosters, adopters, shelters, rescues, trainers, and everyday dog owners. Each week I would post an update on the status of the dogs working to improve their behaviour until they became adoptable. I showed the kennel owner how to use the page instead of his own personal one , as not everyone who loves dogs wants to add a man who posts 5 dirty jokes a day to their friends’ list. I was proud to have, instead, helped to create something professional and more effective.

I think the dark side of the place was always in the shadows and I unwittingly unleashed it and gave it power – within days of creating the Facebook page and its developing a following, the kennel owner stopped even going outside. At first it was due to an injury – a dog bite he refused to seek proper care for until eventually his arrogance and ignorance meant he required surgical intervention. He turned to Facebook each day to stroke his ego and spent less and less time doing the work he was, in his estimation, so active in and capable of. He started spending  his days posting past dog stories (from his 40+ years of owning dogs, his only real qualification; he had a good few stories) and offering opinion-posed-as-fact advice on the page. He stopped going out into the dog yard altogether citing his injury, an illness, or simply mumbling something about having to respond to some pressing messages on Facebook. Before our eyes and to the frustration of those around him, he turned into a cautionary tale about social media and the dangers of confusing the printed representations of select truths with reality as a whole.

After a while we would say things to him like “Should I put Dog X in a pen next to Dog Y?” and his reply would indicate he had no idea what dogs I was talking about. He started to mix up their names, breeds, backgrounds, and (terrifyingly) their behaviour issues. I started to live in constant worry that he would forget which dog was which and put two viciously aggressive dogs in each others reach. But his ego negated any discourse. He would call it ‘spoiling’ a dog if they set foot in his house for any length of time. That’s fine, I guess, as far as personal opinions go… but really?

Let people call you some sort of savior to dogs, and meanwhile your own dogs pack on the pounds while they eat Ol’ Roy, sitting around without walks for days, while you sit on Facebook posting the successes your *volunteers* experience with shelter dogs as if it’s yourself, just to gain praise? And making money  at it?!?

Adopting out dogs that have been living outside for a year or more is no easy thing, made harder by the fact that only let the ones that liked him the best came into the house. He honestly believed his kennel was some sort of dog paradise… that all dogs would love best to live there. He didn’t see his ‘beloved’ 35+ sled dogs chained to rickety dog houses that were frozen crooked to the ground, filled with wet straw that had frozen as well, as the dogs themselves skated on icy patches to avoid standing in freezing water all day. The shelter dogs and boarding dogs in pens were barely better off. Nothing was insulated and the frozen ground had dogs’ paws red and raw. One shelter dog that lay down in the snow ended up with a bare, red, ice-burned belly in worse shape than any I’ve ever seen personally. A friend of mine had started coming with me once a week, and we put sweaters or jackets on short-haired dogs but they were immediately soaked through, and it would be hours before someone would be back to see them once we left, so we worried the dogs would end up wet all day and even colder.

Then the kennel owner bought a snow-cat.

After months of complaining about how he’d spent his pension on saving dogs and asking for donations online (and receiving many)… after I had organized a fundraiser  for the kennel that raised over $2000… the man spent $20,000 on a personal machine. He said it was for grooming the trails for the sled dogs (a moot point on a purchase made midway through a winter with so little snow that sled dogs weren’t running more than once every few weeks anyways).

Suddenly, all the little things that had stabbed at my brain and my conscience started to poke harder. Now, I absolutely DO NOT think I or anyone else have a right to be privy to someone’s personal or business finances. But, when I AM privy to animals receiving sub-par care and cash is daily cited as the reason, and I am both raising money  AND donating 15+ hours of my week plus driving and gas, I couldn’t help but take a step back and look at the bigger picture and the motives at play. I started making lists in my head of all the things that were wrong with the place, and why, and suddenly I was *really* not sleeping at night.

I don’t want to go into each example, but the money he collected from animal shelters and rescues (because we all know how much cash they have to spare) was sure not being spent on their animals. Finally knowing the numbers, and that he got everything from the bottom of the barrel, I would estimate they saw benefit from about 10% of the money their shelters paid this self-declared ‘dog listener’.

I stood in awe of his lack of education. From spay/neuter, to food quality discrepancies, to how to handle dogs (he physically interacted with a number of dogs in a way I will never forget), I realized that I wanted nothing to do with this man or with perpetuating his lies of good reputation. He didn’t think he had to take dogs to a veterinarian as long as he had some penicillin and ivermectin in the fridge, though when he did he constantly assured his Facebook followers that he was well-loved for all his good deeds everywhere he went. The more I realized he was self-taught in the 1970s and hadn’t seemed to gain any knowledge since then, the more I saw through his charade and knew I had to get out of there.

What kept me for an additional 7 months was the dogs. I felt (and one of his live-in long term volunteers assured me this was true, which was even more saddening) that the level of care for dogs would plummet when I left (especially if my friend that often came with me left as well), because a total of 50 or more dogs’ care would fall to 1 or 2 volunteers while the owner sat inside on Facebook. I knew there were a few dogs he didn’t care much for, and that they would suffer most.

So I stayed too long, quietly making lists in my head of the dogs I was most concerned for, and how to get them out of there before I left. I was filled with disgust and misery whenever I had to speak to the man, but I was able to separate that from myself when I worked with the dogs, and that determination to help them as efficiently as possible started to pay off.

One was a dog that my friend and I had to BEG the kennel owner to keep there when his former shelter could no longer pay the exorbitant bills. Some dogs he fought for but not this one, because the old man didn’t like him much and the feeling was mutual – so he decided the dog could not be ‘fixed’. Instead, my friend and I bought him food and worked extra with him . When the old man realized the dog was taking up valuable kennel space, he suddenly and immediately set to helping find him a home. My friend and I waited while other dogs had homes assured, planning our escape. We worked doubly hard with the dogs we had already invested in, knowing that this might be their last haul of full attention before it was down to a skeleton crew of live-in kennel caretakers.

I had to pick one dog to be the ‘last’, the one we saw go before we stopped showing up. After that dog was gone my friend and I spent one last afternoon at the kennel, and time with each dog. Sled dogs all got a visit, a chin scratch or a snuggle, and a treat. Shelter dogs all got a big bone, a cuddle or a leashed walk or whatever best suited our relationships with them. I spent extra times with the dogs that I knew didn’t trust most people, knowing that a friendly face’s disappearance would be hard on them because so many people had disappeared on them. I didn’t want to let them down, and thinking I was - made me sick. I also knew that if I kept going there I was silently accepting the way this place was run, and the repugnant behaviour of the man running it, and I simply couldn’t do that. I had to pull my support so that other dogs didn’t end up there.

I deleted the Facebook page and had him create a new one for himself, with my name unattached to it. I am proud to say that not one of my Facebook or real-life friends have ‘liked’ the new page, and the numbers are half what the old one had – something the Facebook-focused kennel owner would certainly have noticed. I received contact from shelters and owners of dogs, and found out that most of them had sensed something was terribly wrong with the place but had just not had other options and hadn’t been able to travel there to see it themselves – so I helped them find other options.

One dog that I wanted to keep myself, I helped find a perfect home for, and my fellow volunteer-turned-escapist stepped up to foster another. Shelters contacted me about the man to hear the truths they had already suspected, and assured me their network was vast and he would soon stop receiving calls about working with dogs. I didn’t expect that tearing down the facade of this ‘behaviour therapy’ for-profit kennel would be my legacy of my time there. Talking to past volunteers that had similar experiences and reactions to mine, I realized that it was more that I didn’t know what I was getting into in the first place.

I am still talking to shelters. I am helping my fellow former volunteer friend with her foster girl. She is one of many dogs that was sent to that kennel a loving and beautiful but confused creature who had made some serious mistakes, and left looking like a gut-wrenching ‘before’ image about animal abuse. I am setting up boarding for another dog that is wasting away before our eyes and miserable in that kennel, helping his rescue do what they have to in order to get him out of there, and will be working with him from a new location soon.

Now I am able to devote a few extra focused hours of myself each week to my own dog, who has so patiently and lovingly been by my side through this whole thing… whether the dog on my other side was his friend, family, or a vicious aggressor that wanted to get at him. He has trusted me and learned how to be the calmest of sidekicks, and it’s a joy to watch him relax as we both get past the tension and sadness that filled our hearts whenever we went to that place.

I can keep helping dogs, some other way.

Conditions at Spirit of the North, the famed and aforementioned sled dog kennel and "rescue" in Salmo, British Columbia.

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Neglected Sled Dog Found Dead by Volunteers

This little dog died in her wet, frozen, icy doghouse one night over the winter. We had told her owner every day for weeks that she was really unwell and needed vet care. He came out, shook his head, agreed she wasn’t okay, and went back inside to his computer. 

One of his live-in volunteers found her one morning.

Neglected "Rescue" Dogs

This guy was so anxious and confused at the kennel, that he started chewing his tail. He was skinny and always cold. The kennel owner didn’t think it was necessary to take him to the vet until I pointed out it was down to bleeding bone, and offered to drive him immediately myself (which I did).

The short-haired red-tick coonhound was so happy to be somewhere soft and warm, that he slept with his head on my lap all the way there and back. When we got back I let him sleep in the car for another 2 hours - he was so miserable to return to his freezing outdoor pen.

Non-Northern Dogs Live Outside, Suffering and Neglected in Extreme Winter Conditions.

This young pup, like all the dogs, spent the winter on wet or frozen ground until his paws (and because this particular dog liked to play with toys on the ground, his face) were rubbed raw. The kennel owner sat at his computer and said it was no big deal.

When we eventually took him to the vet, he was diagnosed with demodectic mange that had gone untreated for months.

Iditarod Madness

This is an affidavit made to the Matanuska-Sustina Borough, from a handler at Dallas Seavey's Championship Iditarod Kennel locations in Willow & Talkeetna, Alaska, in the fall of 2017.

Case Number: A17-002010 (CLOSED)

Date of Incident: October 27th

Time: 6:00 AM

Owner of Animals: Dallas Seavey

Description: 6 sick puppies at one location and 1 at the Willow location/unattended kennel.
Additional information: There are two locations, one in willow and one in Talkeetna, with sick/injured dogs.

Detailed Account: As of two weeks ago, there was 8 sick puppies at both locations. Two were brought back from the Talkeetna location 3 days ago beause they were the most sick. They left 6 puppies at the Talkeetna location that are also sick and pooping blood. The informed me they were going to the vet, but they never took them, and at around 6AM this morning, it resulted in the death of one puppy. They still have not taken these puppies to the vet and there is one getting even more sick.

Dallas went to China on Tuesday the 24th and only has one person going to the Talkeetna kennel twice a day. The rest of the day/night the dogs are left completetely unattended. I asked for weeks for the puppies to get medical care and they didn't give it. I was asking them to take him [clarification: the one getting even more sick], but then the puppy died. 

There has also been a lot of neglect and abuse the last few months I have been here. The manager let 7 puppies die in a different unintended litter with no vet care. The handlers Whiskey and Hana will choke dogs, throw them on the ground, and slap them, and kick them. The manager has been informed by 3 other handlers in the kennel and has done nothing to stop it. I was also told if I did not like how they took care of the dogs that I could leave.

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