What happens to Yukon Quest dogs after they retire?
Many live out their lives at the kennel they were raised in, enjoying the perks of retirement: running loose, puppy training and wrangling, and the lucky task of cleaning up spilled kibble, or fish and meat scraps.
Some dogs though, get to go to their own special retirement home.
Recreational mushers often end up with retired race dogs. They can be a great addition for a small kennel, where leaders are scarce or dogs are young.
Jillian Rogers owns Spitfire Kennels, currently based out of Homer, Alaska. She lived in Whitehorse for many years and also covered the Yukon Quest as a reporter numerous times.
“Getting ex-Yukon Quest or Iditarod dogs is good for my kennel,” she says. “Those dogs add experience and work ethic to my recreational team.”
Rogers has had at least five ex-Yukon Quest dogs. Drake came to her in 2008, from the yard of Iditarod and Yukon Quest mushers Dan Kaduce and Jodi Bailey.
“Drake is very sensitive and it took a little while for him to trust me,” Rogers says. “Now he’s the ham of the kennel and, as with all the dogs, (he) is very good loose.
“He’s also my Casanova, as he’s always trying to get some action from the ladies, even though they’re all spayed.”
Another of Rogers’ dogs, Bully, came to her after they bonded during the 2006 Yukon Quest. Bully was “a big brown brute” from the team of Regina Wycoff.
Rogers was handling for Wycoff at the time. Bully was dropped due to injury in Dawson City, and spent the rest of the race sharing a truck cab with Rogers.
“He rode with me in the cab of the truck for the remainder of the race and I fell in love with him,” she says.
Bully went on to live with Rogers, recover from his injury, and become her steadfast lead dog in all the races they entered, ranging from 20 to 300 miles.
Bully is now 15 years old and has retired completely from running.
“Though he’s slowed down, he’s healthy and happy in the house with me,” Rogers says. “He still flips over for belly rubs when anyone gets close to him.”
A similar friendship began when Nancy Tanner met Bertha.
Tanner works at the Beez Kneez Backpackers’ Hostel in Whitehorse, and after the resident dog passed away, she realized how much she missed having a dog around.
“I didn’t realize until he was gone how much joy having a dog around brought, not just to me, but to the guests at the hostel,” she says.
Tanner was helping out her friend Gaetan Pierrard during the Yukon Quest 300, and as they headed back to Whitehorse after the race, nine-year-old Bertha joined Tanner in the back of the crew cab.
“Within 10 minutes, Bertha had snuggled over and was laying on my lap,” she says. “I told Gaetan as we were driving that I now had a lap dog, and he just smiled and told me that the Quest 300 was her last race and he needed a retirement home for her.”
Bertha’s retirement involved moving from a home of more dogs than humans in the Mendenhall subdivision to spending her days at the hostel in downtown Whitehorse with lots of new people coming and going all the time.
“Because she picked me as her new owner it was remarkable how quickly she adjusted,” Tanner says. “Gaetan carried her up the stairs here into the hostel. I am not sure who was more nervous, me or Bertha.”
Compared to her quieter lifestyle out of town, she has adjusted remarkably quickly, says Tanner.
“She has her small circle of humans that she loves and shows it,” Tanner says. “Bertha is off-the-charts smart, loves routine and she learns so fast. In the year I have had her she has lived with about 4,000 people from all over the world.
“About three weeks after he gave her to me, Gaetan came to visit. She knew he was here before he opened the front door and ran down the stairs to greet him. That was the second time I saw him carry her up the stairs. This time they were both smiling.”
Tamaralyn Young has a small recreational kennel based out of Whitehorse. Because her dogs are now getting older, she is easing out of the mushing world. But when her team was in their prime, the ex-Quest dogs she adopted were not only welcomed, but needed.
According to Young, retired Quest dog Pingo was one of these.
“She was shy, but easy to handle,” Young says. “She was sweet and smart. Pingo never caused a lick of trouble. She got along with every dog she ever met.”
Pingo’s inherent leadership abilities helped train the team, as well.
“Pingo always found the safest way across ice, the hardest-pack snowmobile trail, the way to get home – when I didn’t have a clue where we were,” Young says. “Pingo retired just before her 13th birthday to a life of leisure on the couch. She enjoyed being a house dog.”
Pingo’s son, Sundin also found his way into Young’s yard, but unlike his mother, he prefers the company of other dogs to that of humans.
“I call him my yard ornament as he really doesn’t come in the house very often,” Young says. “Despite his shyness, Sundin is the happiest dog in my yard. He is constantly hopping around, singing, and playing. He is completely delighted every night by dinner.”
Before he retired due to a spinal condition at 12 years old, he was a sight to behold.
“Sundin in harness was a different dog,” Young says. “He was confident and self-assured and he’d have kept pulling if I would have let him.”
Rogers sums the experience of adopting Quest retirees nicely: “It’s rewarding for me to take these dogs in and help out my competitive musher friends while giving these incredible creatures a nice place to live out their days.”