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For the Love of a Retired Sled Dog
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The Inuit Sled Dog International
The Inuit Sled Dog International (ISDI) is a consortium of enthusiasts whose goal is the preservation of this ancient arctic breed in its purest form as a working dog. The ISDI's efforts are concentrated on restoring the pure Inuit Dog to its native habitat. The ISDI's coordinators welcome to your comments and questions.
Toko (front) on the trail to Kimmirut photo: S.L. Han
For the Love of a Retired Sled Dog
by Kim Han
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
I first met Toko when I visited my daughter, Siu-Ling, in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada. He was a little ball of soft, creamy white fur. When we took him for a walk on the tundra in Sylvia Grinnell Park, he trotted ahead of us, followed by his brother, Rode, darting here and there, sniffing left and right, happily exploring his surroundings. His curiosity knew no bounds and, at eight weeks, this little pup already showed leadership qualities.
Toko was handled and socialized since the day he was born. He was lovingly raised by Siu-Ling who trained her dogs with lavish praise and affection, balanced with a firm hand and stern voice when necessary. They knew who was in command but they also wanted to please her. Toko learned to listen and cooperate, two essential qualities in a good sled dog.
Almost nine years have passed since I first met Toko. In the intervening time he has pulled Siu-Ling into third place at the 2007 Qimualaniq Quest, and into second place in 2008. He was lead dog on Siu-Ling's team for a number of years before he became boss dog. The boss dog commands respect from his subordinates. He is the one who breaks up fights among the dogs in the team and disciplines the younger ones when they get out of line.
In April, 2009, Siu-Ling and Matty McNair travelled north up the coast of Baffin Island with two other women, Debbie McAllister and Connie Maley, friends from Calgary, Alberta who spent months preparing for this once-in-a-lifetime thousand kilometer (620 mi) dog-sledding trip. Together, these four amazing women skied along the east coast of Baffin Island with Matty's team of fourteen and Siu-Ling's team of ten dogs, including Toko, pulling sleds loaded with equipment and supplies.
Half-way through the trip, after stopping at Clyde River, Toko suddenly decided that he no longer wanted to be a sled dog. Although he had shown some signs of soreness during the trip, he always came eagerly to be harnessed. Siu-Ling usually lets her dogs loose and calls them to the sled when it was time to go. However, on this day, as the two teams were getting ready to continue their journey north, Toko did not come to the sled to be harnessed. Instead, as the last dogs were being harnessed, he was nowhere to be found. Then he was seen – in the distance, trotting towards town. He obviously did not want to join the team. That's when Siu-Ling decided to take Toko into Clyde River and put him on the next plane back to Iqaluit. She did not want to risk any problems with a reluctant sled dog who might not be well enough to travel the remaining half-way up the East Baffin coast to Pond Inlet, across one of the most isolated parts of the island.
Siu-Ling decided to retire Toko, sending him to Ottawa in May, 2009 for a complete check-up, and to have him neutered. Other than the stiff neck and shoulders, the vet could not find anything wrong. He prescribed glucosamine for his joints and an anti-inflammatory to control Toko's occasional flare-ups.
Siu-Ling's brother Jeff, who lives in a rural area outside Ottawa, decided to adopt Toko. There were two other dogs in the family, a mutt named Marley and Cleo, one of Toko's offspring that was adopted by Jeff when she was eight weeks old. In his new home, Toko had company and plenty of space to roam in. Although he was quite clumsy at the beginning, running and tripping over bushes, he quickly learned to adapt to his new surroundings, smells, sights and sounds. He was quite happy, in spite of the warm temperatures of an Ottawa summer that sometimes can reach 30°C (88°F) or more.
Toko enjoying a more relaxed life in retirement
photo: K. Han
When Jeff and his family went on holiday, I offered to look after Toko at my house in Ottawa. That was June, 2009. I still have him because I could not help falling in love with this big sled dog. He is happy and content just sitting on my back patio, or on the deck above it. He climbs up and down the stairs to the deck off my kitchen, depending where I am, hoping that I will invite him in. Although it is very tempting to do so, especially, when he looks at me with those big brown, dewy eyes, Toko is an outdoor dog. He has lived outdoors in a harsh arctic environment all his life. An arctic dog does not belong in a house. We did, however, build him a cozy doghouse that is waterproof and has soft padding inside, but Toko still prefers to just sit on my deck, from where he can see me when I am in the kitchen.
The first couple of weeks I had Toko I had to learn, yes, learn how to walk him on a leash. As a sled dog, Toko was not used to being walked on a leash but he was well-trained to listen to commands. He listens to simple commands like "whoa", "stop", "stay", "left", "right", "off" and "no!" When we go by a house on garbage day, he is tempted to sniff the garbage but a stern "on-by!" and a jerk on the leash keeps him under control. He'll walk by but not without looking back regretfully as if saying, "Aw! Too bad! Oh, well ..." This naturally deserves a lot of praise. He certainly knows what it means when you tell him he's a good boy. It shows in the way he immediately holds up his head high, and in the quickening of his gait which clearly demonstrates that he is proud of himself.
Toko has adapted well to living in Ottawa but I make sure I take him for a good walk every day. I usually take him to the nearby nature trails or the Trans Canada Trail, minutes away from our house. I try to avoid other dogs as much as possible, especially, if they seem aggressive. You never know how a sled dog might react, especially because Inuit Dogs are known to love a good fight. They are very sensitive to aggressive or dominant behaviour in other dogs and react to it. There is no need to court an altercation with another dog. We have had many friendly 'sniff and wag' social moments with other dogs on the street, but I never relax and watch both Toko and the other dog's body language closely for any change in demeanour that may signal a change in the friendly tone of their meeting.
Toko is quite happy being a retired sled dog. He is so easy to look after because he is so undemanding. He never asks for anything. He stays outside in my backyard day and night, rain or shine, and never complains. If I am late feeding or walking him, he waits patiently without a whimper or a whine until I am ready. He howls and jumps for joy when I come out to play with him, walk him or feed him. He rewards me with affection, by rubbing his head against me and leaning his big, bulky body against my legs. He never barks at anybody or anything, unlike a little Cairn terrier that attacked him! It's a joy having Toko around. Just seeing his unbridled happiness and curiosity when I walk him gives me great pleasure. It reminds me of when he was a pup, except that, now, he is much bigger.
Toko has grown from a soft little ball of fur, to a big, lovable hunk of a dog who has given me so much joy.
Retired sled dogs tend to mellow as they grow older. They are grateful for any bit of attention they can get. They savour being able to just sit around. Kindness and affection are returned many times over. For me, adopting a retired sled dog has enriched my life. It has taught me a lot about Inuit Dogs. I have learned to better understand the breed and, in Toko's case, anticipate his moves. Having Toko has also benefited me by keeping me active, alert, and in good shape. These hard-working animals deserve a good retirement. I believe that those who appreciate this amazing breed, which has loyally served mankind throughout history, will find it a rewarding experience – if they have the tools, facilities, and knowledge suitable for managing a dog of this kind.