Winter Fun: Dog Sledding in Banff Canada

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How would you like to have 182 people in your family? And what if all 182 of them were 4 years old? And had tails? At Snowy Owl Dog Sledding in Banff the dogs are family. Yes, yes I know – everyone says that…but trust me when I say Snowy Owl is different than most touristic dog sled operations.

My parents grew up on farms where dogs (and cats) were part of the working crew – not really pets. Because kids are a product of their environment, I also grew up with that attitude, I’ve never been a dog person before, until I met my Snowy Owl Dog Team.

As soon as I arrived at the Lake starting point in Kananaskis I could tell this tour was going to be different from my other dog sledding experiences. I see people hanging out with the dogs taking selfies, giving them hugs, and cuddling them. You can tell the dogs are eager to go, but they also love the attention. I was stunned as dog sledding tours I had been on previously, the dogs were never this friendly.

Jeremy, the owner of Snowy Owl, asked us all to gather in a circle around him where he proceeded to tell us where to position our feet and hands on the sled and then started to explain what commands we should use.

Whoa…wait a minute I think to myself – are we driving this sled? Why yes we are. Snowy Owl Dog Sledding Banff is one of the only dog sled operations in Canada in which tourists (who know nothing about driving dog sleds and commanding a team) are the mushers.

Not Your Typical Dog Sledding Tour

Just the week prior I did a dog-sledding outing where we simply sat in the sled and enjoyed the view. It was nice and the view was gorgeous, but honestly it was sort of a yawn. I like to get hands-on and actually learn something. I want a true experience, not a ride. So suddenly my dog sledding dreams had been answered at Snowy Owl.

I perked up and listened with more intensity than before, “It’s not ‘Mush’,” Jeremy says, “that’s just in the movies. The command to go is ‘Hike’ and it has to be said with a happy face and enthusiastic tone. These dogs reply to enthusiasm and love – not power,” Jeremy explained. I practice saying “Hike!” with a happy face – it feels sort of Mr. Rodgers awkward, but I think I can do it. We further learn that ‘stop’ is “Whoa” and the command for slow down is “easy”. I wonder if I’ll remember these in times of panic.

Jeremy goes on to explain that we stop the sled when the dogs need a bathroom break – “no running and pooping at Snowy Owl,” Jeremy says, “that’s just rude to the dogs.” I laugh and remember back to my experience the week before and there was definitely running and pooping …the dark (and smelly) side of dog sledding that you normally don’t hear about!

Jeremy explains that all the dogs love to be around people, however the ones with red handkerchiefs on are actually a little shy – so leave them be. I walk over to my assigned team and greet them with a happy voice, trying to start off on the right foot.

Dog sledding banff

He may be ‘shy’, but he sure is cute!

“If you talk to animals they will talk to you and you will know each other. If you do not talk to them you will not know them, and what you don’t know you will fear. What one fears one destroys.” – Chief Dan George

Snowy Owl names litters by ‘groups’. My team was the Designer team – Hugo, Boss (the two boys), Dior, Chanel, Dolce, Gucci…you get the picture. As Jeremy tells me their names, he explains that his sister named this team and rolls his eyes, just as a brother would.

It’s About Family

This really is a family business in every sense of the word. His mother started the company in 1983, and his sister and him recently took it over. The family unit is a part of every decision from naming to breeding – and breeding is a huge part of this business. Offering tourists the chance to ‘self-mush’ is a big deal, so they need to be bred for the scenario. Most sled dogs are bred to race and run. However, when Snowy Owl breeds the dogs – it’s not just based on physical ability and performance. They have to think about every scenario – people who have no idea how to work with sled dogs will be mushing and that creates some challenges. Not everyone is comfortable with dogs (like me!). But self-mushing dogs are the most important piece of their business.

When his parents started the company they had two important goals; you have to be able to pet the dogs, and a customer has to be able to drive their own team.

To accomplish this, they offer summer kennel tours where they start free running the dogs/puppies when people visit so they can get used to strangers. The dogs socialize and run lose; most kennels won’t do that. In fact the day I talked to Jeremy in his office in Canmore, he had brought a pup, Elsa, with him to get her used to being in public. It was adorable to watch her look at stairs for the first time and try to figure out how to go up/down them. Sled dogs don’t normally see stairs!

Dog sledding banff

Jeremy and his family…

When I said this is a family business I meant it – after spending some one-on-one time with Jeremy I learned just how equal the dogs were to humans in the business. The dogs are a product of their environment – much like kids. So the Snowy Owl family makes sure that their environment is amazing with well kept kennels with a person always on site, custom made harnesses, and sleds specifically made for self mushing. All the income is put back into the dogs because “they are the engines of the company,” Jeremy explains. Plus, they have a retirement/adoption program that was so thoughtful about finding the right homes for the dogs that it nearly brought me to tears.

I loved how Jeremy talked about the dog’s personalities – he knew each one – all 182. These dogs are people and a part of their family. It was touching and interesting for me to see since I never grew up with pets. He thinks of the dogs like 4-year-old kids, and he rewards and encourages them that way – treating them more like a person than a dog. And one side benefit of this strategy – raising dogs helped him prepare to raise his kids!

Ready to Mush

Dog sledding banff

HIke!

As I stepped on my sled with my ‘Designer’ team I was a bit nervous. I repeated the commands in my head. I reminded myself to never let go. And I also tried to remember to smile and sound enthusiastic when giving commands. I was ready.
“Ok pups,” I yell as I take my foot off the brake, “hike!” I say with a big grin of anticipation and excitement. The sled jerks a bit, I tighten my grip on the handle, and soon I pick up speed. Oh my God – I’m doing it – I’m driving this sled! “Good dogs, “ I bark out enthusiastically as I settle into my winter wonderland environment. I am a dog musher!

Sherry Ott
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcasetobackpack.com, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice.

Additionally, she runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat adventures at Ottsworld.com.com.
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