Sled dogs chill out in summer heat

By Jenn Watt

Published Sept. 12 2017

Hank DeBruin and Tanya McCready-DeBruin pause in the kitchen before they enter the Winterdance dog kennels. As soon as the group walks through the doors the barking of some 144 Siberian huskies will make doing an interview for the newspaper nearly impossible.

Best to get most of the facts down on paper before touring the pens.

We stand in a room that used to be part of the DeBruins’ first home – the space they built when they made the decision to leave Guelph and move to Haliburton with their seven dogs in 1999.

One side of the kitchen has a pile of Redpaw dog food bags heaped on a table. When the monthly shipment of 50 bags arrives the room will be taken up with the food. In the winter raw meat will be added to the menu.

We can see the kennels through a window in the kitchen and Tanya talks about the social dynamics of packs of dogs.

“They’re so individual” she says. “They’re just like people.”

Some dogs don’t like each other. Others stick together for life. Sometimes there are disputes and long-time buddies become hostile.

The kennels are 5000 square feet kept warm in the winter with radiant heat from an outdoor wood furnace. The building was constructed 18 years ago with a second section about 10 years ago. There are three outdoor yards for the dogs to play separately which together make up about two acres.

Staff members Hank and Tanya and their four children are in the kennels all the time feeding and watering the dogs taking them out for playtime brushing their coats and cleaning up after them. Picking up poop is one of the first things Hank lists as his daily chores with the dogs.

It’s a full-time job especially given the busy winter schedule Winterdance keeps.

“We run 15 teams morning and afternoon [in the winter]” Tanya says. “Approximately 75 to 80 dogs on the trail. During the week we purposely schedule lighter so dogs have their days off” she says.
“They’re not machines” Hank adds.

In the summer the dogs don’t have any work at all. There’s no training whatsoever since any temperatures above 10°C is too hot for huskies.

So they spend their summers digging in the dirt playing with their pack lounging in the sun and in their kennels which are cooled with ceiling-mounted fans.

Since early last winter the DeBruins have had an additional worry on their minds beyond keeping their dogs fed and healthy. A documentary called Sled Dogs has been making the independent film circuit with viewings in Whistler B.C. Montreal Ottawa Toronto Vancouver Calgary and beyond. It has shown several times on CBC Docs.

The film directed by Fern Levitt takes exception to the existence of the industry and questions whether dogs should be used for commercial purposes at all.

It details recent atrocities at dogsledding operations including a widely condemned cull of huskies in Whistler following the Vancouver Olympics and animal cruelty charges laid against an operator in Colorado.

When it was first launched the DeBruins spoke out against it in the Haliburton Echo and when the film came to Toronto they went to see it and to take part in the question and answer period with Levitt.

The couple says the film shows those in the industry who have gone against the mainstream mistreating their animals but makes it seem like all dogsled operators are cruel.

“Our best ammunition is to be proactive to show people it’s not the truth” says Tanya.

During a visit to the kennel on Aug. 17 Hank and Tanya couldn’t be sure of just how many dogs were on the property. One of their staff members Moses went off to do a headcount.

“We go by names not by numbers” says Hank.

“We’re always 140 to 150 generally speaking” says Tanya and after a few minutes Moses returns with his tally: 144 dogs.

By the driveway you find the first outdoor pen which on this day is pockmarked where rambunctious pups have been digging holes. A photographer Rob Stimpson is in the pen with them and the DeBruins’ daughters trying to get a shot where the dogs are standing still. Not an easy task.

Later when I try to do the same thing I’m overwhelmed by the soft grey and cream-coloured puppies who love having a ball tossed to them as much as a good rub behind the ears.

Logan DeBruin the couple’s eldest helps distract the dogs which try to steal this reporter’s notepad out of her back pocket.

Eventually Hank lifts a puppy in a warm embrace so I can take a photo of its two clear blue eyes.

The front pen with its youthful energy is in stark contrast with the seniors’ wing of the building which houses Strider Duke Merlin and Martini range in age from 13 to 15. These dogs don’t pull a sled anymore but they still enjoy the comforts of a warm bed and private rooms in their old age.

Winterdance keeps all of its dogs whether they can work or not. Regarded as part of the gigantic family they are treated as such. Huskies are a pack animal the DeBruins say and are not well suited to a low-energy urban lifestyle. Some of the criticism of the industry has come from people who don’t understand the breed they say.

In an interview with the Echo in 2016 Levitt said she disputed claims huskies were different than other breeds.

“They say things like sled dogs are different from other dogs” she told the paper. “And that’s simply not true. They’re dogs. They’re dogs like any other dog.”

Tanya says at first she and Hank did treat their dogs “like any dog” but found they weren’t keen on staying in the house.

“When we moved here we felt bad they were in the kennel” she says. “And we used to bring them into the house and they couldn’t wait to get back to the kennel. … This is their home and their family. This is where the action is.”