British Columbia Led the Way in Standards Setting: Here's Why...

The Case of Howling Dog Tours Cullings

The sleddog industry per se, first became a 'hot topic' in the popular press after the alleged culling of c. 100 dogs by Howling Dog Tours in Whistler, Canada, in April 2010.

The whole story blew up because the manager of the kennel in question petitioned for compensation for the mental trauma he had suffered in the process of killing that many animals by hand in one go. The company had supposedly tried to get the animals anaesthesised by a vet but they had refused to put down that many healthy animals (which is interesting, since I have understood that vets in Finland would feel legally obliged to do so). Hence, they had felt that they had no option but to do it in-house and the inference in the documents seeking mental compensation was that many animals suffered unnecessarily in the process.

Social outrage was, therefore, not just about the number of dogs that were killed at once but with the alleged method of the killing. The outrage which resulted from the media reporting became so widespread that people not only called for a ban on chaining dogs 24/7 and a ban on ending the lives of healthy and socially amenable dogs once no longer suitable for use in the industry (ie a ban on killing for economic reasons).....but the very concept of using dogs for pulling sleighs – whether mushing or racing – was challenged as morally inacceptable.

In other words, people were calling for a ban in using dogs as sleddogs, per se.

Clearly, this would have been the worst-case-outcome for the industry in British Columbia and it was the classic case of the actions of an irresponsible few drawing attention to the many.

It was clearly time for the government to act and to look long and hard at the health and sustainability of the industry.

Outcome of the Investigation

The official investigation into the manner of the deaths and whether or not the dogs had which suffered unnecessarily in the process cost c. $225,000, about half of which was paid by the province. NB: The investigation was not about the killing of the working animals per se, since this was not then - and is still not, now - an offence so long as the animal dies instantly - ie without pain or suffering, with a single gunshot wound to the head.

During the trial, the judge ruled that the perpetrator had entered an associative state because of the trauma involved in the killing of the dogs and, as a result, c. 9 (of the 56 skeletons that were found and exhumed) were determined to have suffered an inhumane death.

The company stated that they had had no idea that he would kill the dogs in the manner he did and that they believed that it was only old and unhealthy dogs that were needing to be put down vs a wide age range. Hislawyer, however, contended that the man made every effort to find adoptive homes for the dogs and then, when unsuccessful,he and company executives had met and agreed that euthanasia was the only choice following the reduction in consumer demand for sleddogs after the Olympic winter games. He argued that following the turn in the economy the choice was between the greatest happiness for the greatest possible number of dogs or challenging conditions for all.

You can read more about the case in the wiki page about it and another press article covering it is included, here.

How applicable is this case to the European sleddog Industry?

This case - and the repercussions thereof - is totally applicable to the European sleddog industry.

At the time of the cullings, the standards which were in place in BC / Canada were remarkably similar to those in place in Scandinavia at present and they were clearly insufficient. The public clearly expected an appropriate and humane minimum standard for the treatment and living conditions of sled dogs which included moral principles not currently addressed by the existing animal welfare positions.

Signing up to various voluntary codes of conduct/practice which were targeted more at traditional farm animals or 'accrediting' practices against PRIDE guidelines were good starting points, but they had no legal effect from bad practice because of a lack of regulations, licensing or a formal code of conduct.

There was also no effective industry association and few companies shared expertise and resources or identified inappropriate activities by individual operators. (This situaton is again similar to Finland although companies in the north have started to work together more harmoniously and to xfollowing the establishment of a northern sleddog entrepreneur's association in recent years.)

Only non-specific or loosely related codes, guidelines or audits existed at the time and there was no consistency from one place to another

The only national codes of practice and minimum care requirements in place were ones that applied to cattle, sheep and pigs - and that is exactly where we are at, now, also, in Finland, for example.

Codes of good conduct generally represent a national understanding of animal care requirements and recommended best practices. They are intended to promote sound management and welfare practices through recommendations and requirements for housing, management, transportation, processing and other animal husbandry practices.

In Canada, some of the codes of practice and even farm audit and verification programs had actually been developed and implemented at the instigation of the farm commodity groups themselves in an attempt to show a commitment to animal care. The farmers had understood the need to satisfy food retailer and consumer concerns that farm animals were being raised humanely.

In some instances, Codes of Practice had then been been used as the foundation documents in the development of a second tier of protection for the animals - enforceable welfare audit and verification programs. However, in Canada, whether or not an audit could have legal implications was determined at the provincial level since the provinces had the right to decide whether or not to develop the codes into audit and verification programmes and to incorporate them then into their legislation.

It was clear that the sleddog industry needed to also start going in this direction and I believe that this is also true when it comes to the European sleddog industry.

In Canada, a few regional districts and municipalities in which there was more potential for regulatory activities (with reasonably easy logistical access to a large number of sleddog farms or interested vets) made bylaws to impose some conditions on the keeping of animals. And in some states, external veterinary guidance standards produced by recognized organizations, (which tended to be evidence-based and evolving with emerging best practices), had also been incorporated into provincial regulations.

However, given that dogs are used for a variety of accepted purposes, their care, housing and training can vary accordingly, so it was a legislative challenge to figure out how to address minimum standards. Hence, most areas simply restricted their bylaws to ensuring that dogs were licensed, kept under control, not left to wander at large or to disturb the public.

The CVMA (Canadian Veterinary Medical Association), had published a series of national codes (based loosely on those of their American counterpart) specific to kennels and catteries as well as guidance on the use of firearms in the euthanasia of animals. Their Code of Practice for Kennels had also been endorsed by the Canadian Kennel Club and used by some enforcement agencies to determine accepted standards of animal care but it was not specific to sleddogs.

Similarly, the CCAC (Canadian Council on Animal Care), had created a number of national resource guides and guidelines detailing the appropriate care of animals used for research, testing and teaching as well as a series of policies related to the functioning of institutional animal care committees.

In otherwords, there was lots of very generally / vaguely applicable legislation in place but no consistency between the provinces as to what was investigated or what actions should be taken when something was wrong.

Clearly there was a need for both targeted / specific sleddog codes and audit system to be developed and then for these to become standardised across the provinces.

How did the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act Apply at the time?

Only four Canadian provinces required vets to report suspected abuse of an animal and protected them from liability for doing so legislatively. (This is something which was specifically addressed in the new code in addition to mechanisms by which the provincial public sector’s ability to recognize and report instances of animal abuse could be enhanced.)

Additionally, businesses couldn’t be shut down for acts of intentionally cruelty (actions which wilfully inflicted unnecessary pain, suffering or injury to animals) even if the individuals involved could be prosecuted under the law either by summary conviction or by indictment under the federal government’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (Ministry of Agriculture).

The only monitoring which existed across the whole of Canada at the time was restricted to those farms operating on crown (vs private land or unincorporated areas of the province). However, the main regulatory purpose of this was to ensure that the companies were using the land for the purpose specified in their management plan licence agreement and that they were meeting any associated conditions, particularly environmental conditions, pertaining to that use. All of this fell under the remit of the Land Act and as such, was not intended to regulate the operational aspects of a business beyond certain basic parameters.

In Finland at present, the assessments by the vets are also very restricted in nature to a very few basic parameters and there is a lack of consistency of understanding within the group of assessors as to what practices are acceptable, or not, in relation to these.

Who was part of BC's Standard of Care working group / Sleddog Task Force?

Representatives of the BC Province, the sled dog industry, veterinarians, BC's SCPA (the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and other animal rights groups including The Ian Somerhalder Foundation and Lifeforce, Ministry of Agriculture staff and academics with expertise in the field of animal welfare all came together to be part of BC's Standard of Care working group, tasked with determining a means of enhancing the health and welfare of all sled dogs in B.C. and, in turn, giving the industry a better image.

Participants included:

Melanie J. Stewart, PhD (Chair) Assistant Deputy Minister Ministry of Agriculture
Dr. Pam Barker, DVM Sled Dog Owner, Operator and Racer
Marie-France Boissonneault, BA, BSc (Hons), PhD Former Adjunct Professor Ontario Veterinary College
Nancy Clarke, MSW, MSc (Animal Science) Animal Welfare Program University of British Columbia
Dr. Dave Kirby, DVM College of Veterinarians of British Columbia
Lindsay Kislock Assistant Deputy Minister Ministry of Agriculture (to July 2011)
Dr. Richard Long, DVM International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association
Dr. Carol Morgan, DVM, PhD Canadian Veterinary Medical Association
Marcie Moriarty, LLB General Manager, Cruelty Investigations The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
Tim Tedford Professional Mushers Association of BC
Frank Turner, MSW Owner, Muktuk Adventures Whitehorse, Yukon Jackie Wepruk Sled Dog Owner, Operator and Racer (to September 2011)

What were the objectives of Canada's Sleddog Task Force?

The Sled Dog Task Force's mandate was to keep an ear open to the general public concerns and perceptions whilst also working with experts to:

  • scrutinise the existing voluntary system of regulations pertaining to the industry
  • review existing legislation, organizational mandates, policies and procedures related to the dog sledding industry
  • consider the physical and mental health impacts on the sled dogs and
  • outline recommendations to prevent any future occurrence - including mechanisms to monitor implementation and compliance.

Their ultimate goal was to determine a means of enhancing the health and welfare of all sled dogs in B.C. (which would, in turn, give it the kind of more positive image necessary for its longterm viability as an industry since the public clearly expected an appropriate and humane minimum standard for the treatment and living conditions of sled dogs which included moral principles not currently addressed by the existing animal welfare positions).

Their Terms of Reference and Deliverables were drawn up as shown here.

What were the outcomes from Canada's Sleddog Task Force?

Their mandate and initial findings were summarised here.

The Sleddog Task Force fairly quickly determined the need to:

    1) produce a sleddog-specific 'Code of Practice' which would effectively be a new layer of protection for sled dogs (we have also presented these same codes, in page outline, here, so that they are potentially more accessible for other regions which might want to use them as a starting point for developing their own codes).

    These Codes of Practice are essentially a set of recommended best practices for both commercial and recreational sled dog operators in BC in matters such as health and welfare, nutrition, housing, husbandry, transportation and euthanasia.


    2) Use the Codes of Practice document as the foundation document for the development of the sleddog welfare audit and verification program (which came into effect on Oct. 1, 2012). This document was called the 'Sled dog standards of care regulations' and it establishes legal requirements for things such as containment, (housing), behavior, socialization, exercise, food and water, working conditions and health - the latter including veterinary treatment and proper care of the animals from birth to death.

    As such, it provides clarity to both animal owners and law enforcement officials and identifies minimum stanadrds farms are required to follow, enforceable under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act


    Read more about the 'minimumal standards of care' for those in the sleddog business (the Sled Dog Standards of Care Regulations), that they subesquently developed, here).

They believed that by initiating a two-tiered system of protection: ie a process of voluntary certification in combination with more targeted and specific minimum standard regulations, many of the concerns that had arisen from the BC cullings would be addressed and consumers would be able to feel reassured that the highest standards of care were being provided to the dogs.

This in turn would strengthen the industry and ultimately ensure the sustainable well-being of the animals involved.

Other Recommendations / Developments that came out of the work of the Task Force...

In total, the sleddog task force made 10 recommendations to enhance the health, welfare and protection of sled dogs in British Columbia, strengthen animal protection practices, and improve communication and awareness of animal abuse.

Many of these were put into place over the following months.

The task force concluded, based on the scientific evidence available, that dogs can enjoy a meaningful and positive quality of life as part of a sled dog team provided that adequate standards of care related to the physical and mental well-being of the animal are provided.

There was a strong feeling that sled dogs and companion dogs were morally deserving of the same considerations regarding practices providing for the health and well-being of the dogs over the full course of their lives. For instance:

  • early socialization of young animals,
  • regular veterinary care,
  • proper nutrition,
  • exercise and
  • an appropriate long term plan for the dogs after they have been retired, (including chemical barbiturate euthanasia by a veterinarian (only) in the case of distress due to critical illness, chronic illness or injury).

Not surprisingly, the subject of ‘end of life’ procedures was a large part of the debate given the circumstances in which the task force was established and there was an uprising of feeling against population management practices that preclude the killing of healthy animals that may be unsuited to the task of sledding or surplus to the operation’s requirements and an uproar about the role of firearms in euthanasia.

However, it quickly became apparent that there were going to be circumstances in which this would still be considered appropriate within the sled-dog industry if performed far from other dogs by a competent person knowledgeable about appropriate techniques (as outlined by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association). For instance, when delay whilst waiting for, or transporting a dog to veterinary euthanasia would mean unduly suffering or when barbiturates would put wildlife scavengers at risk following disposal).

In terms of the prevention of cruelty to animals act in BC - the PCAA legislation – there were a number of changes. The act had previously defined ‘distress’ as including situations where an animal’s health or well-being is affected by inadequate ventilation, space, care or veterinary treatment. However, activities consistent with ‘reasonable and generally accepted practices of animal management’ were not considered offenses even if they resulted in distress for the animal. For instance, animal tagging for identification purposes.

Following the BC cullings, however, the scope of the actions covered by the act were widened to included pain inflicted by failure to exercise reasonable care, injury caused by negligance during transport, and abandoning or failing to provide adequate care to animals.

The penalties associated with specific infringements also increased and the statute of limitationsfor bringing forward proceedings related to contraventions of the PCAA was raised from six months to three years.

Maximum penalties were increased from $10,000 and six months in jail to $75,000 and two years in jail and recommendations were also made to the Government of Canada that consideration be given to strengthening the Criminal Code provisions related to animal cruelty nationally and the province made a commitment to working with federal officials responsible for animal cruelty laws.

It was deemed generally important that the provincial public sector's ability to recognize and report instances of animal abuse was enhanced and to this end, information awareness materials regarding animal abuse were developed for front-line staff, new mechanisms for reporting animal abuse were put in place and information sharing agreements were establised between the BCSPCA and the provincial ministries, Crown corporations and non-government agencies with statutory obligations.

It became a mandatory requirement, for instance, for BC vets to report, with statutory immunity, suspected cases of animal / sleddog abuse and a grant of $100,000 was made to BC's SPCA to enhance their capacity to undertake animal cruelty investigations.

Linked to this, ongoing training was put in place to raise awareness and build expertise in persuing cases of animal abuse amongst prosecutors in the Ministry of Attorney General. At the same time, a Crown counsel with an expertise in the area of animal cruelty was appointed with the same goal.

A regulatory authority was created to define Standards of Care for sleddogs and extend the current six-month limitation for bringing forward proceedings related to contraventions of the PCAA. All sled dog companies operating on Crown land were also required, (by a statute in the Land Act) from that point on, to include in their management plans annual inspections by either the BC SPCA or a licensed veterinarian.

Finally, the task force recommended the establishment of a self-sustaining sled dog industry association incorporating both a certification process and an auditing program for both farms and associated sleddog events. The intention was that this would provide enhanced animal health and welfare requirements that would go beyond any minimum standards set through regulations / legislation. The belief was that agencies and organizations with the ability to market or license sled dog sporting events (e.g. tourism associations, business advocacy and consumer organizations, race organizers), should be encouraged to join this association as a condition for sled-dog related activities and marketing.

All in all, the sleddog task force recommendations not only resulted in British Columbia developing the toughest animal rights legislation in Canada but their approach to sleddog welfare was also ground-breaking worldwide.

BC's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals also issued a position statement w.r.t. sleddogs.

This statement regarding sleddogs was essentially based on their standard 'five basic freedoms' principal:

It states that dogs kept for any purpose related to recreational or competitive mushing or commercial sled dog tourism (ie including breeding dogs and dogs that have been retired from activity), must be provided with the Five Freedoms for the duration of their lives.

The BC SPCA’s Five Freedoms are:
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst
2. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease
3. Freedom from distress
4. Freedom from discomfort
5. Freedom to express behaviours that promote well-being.

Physical health means the status of an animal’s physiological function. Good physical health is characterized by the absence of clinical signs of disease and evidence of optimum body functions for all systems.

Emotional health means the degree to which an animal is experiencing either positive or negative feelings. Good emotional health is characterized by the presence of positive feelings (e.g. pleasure, relaxation) and the absence of negative feelings (e.g. anxiety and fear). Emotional health is evident from an animal’s behaviour and physiology.

Sled dog guardians must house, train and handle their animals humanely and ensure they are socialised to encourage appropriate behaviours toward people and other animals.

Whether used for racing, tourism, weight pulls or recreational sledding, dogs must be physically fit and conditioned for the activity they are being asked to perform. While these activities can provide dogs with a suitable source of exercise, contributing to their physical and emotional health, a dog’s welfare must not be compromised due to overexertion.

Accordingly, mushers must monitor the welfare of their dogs during training and competition, making responsible decisions regarding their dogs’ care. Mushers must not subject their dogs to endurance competitions for which they are not prepared and must protect their dogs from inclement weather that can be expected to cause suffering.

Particular attention should be paid to the welfare of non-northern breeds, as they are more vulnerable to the effects of cold weather.

Sled dog racing must be carried out under standard rules that are strictly enforced, with management guidelines and sufficient veterinary input to guarantee the animals will receive responsible care and humane treatment.

What stage are the Movements to Develop New and Improved Standards at, today?

Whilst BC led the way in setting improved sled-dog welfare standards, there are, today, many similar initiatives taking place around the world. In Europe, Norway has been working on a set of proposals along a similar vein to those that are in development in Finland. Similarly, standards are being looked at in both the East and West of the US, as well as in Canada and Alaska.

Whilst on the one hand, it might seem inefficient for so many people in so many areas to be tackling the same issues independently, it is actually an incredibly valuable process for the participating companies and regions to go through.

Ulimately, the hope is that we can once more join forces and bring the regional targets that have been determined in each area, together into a unifying standard that most companies can buy into.

At the same time, the ISDVMA and the racing community in general, are looking at the development of specific and tighter standards that can be set for both the race organisers and those participating in races.