BANFF – Atar, Cazz, Data and Attila all worked like a dog during their stellar yet challenging careers.
The four shepherds are all former search and rescue dogs for Canada’s mountain national parks, putting their lives on the line many times, taking down poachers, seizing narcotics, tracking missing naked men high on drugs, and loading into helicopters for rescues, including avalanche recoveries in hazardous terrain.
But due to the cost of health care for retired police, military and Parks Canada dogs, the potential to enjoy retirement can quite literally come down to funds for vet visits in many cases. If medical bills become too high, a dog’s quality of life can be significantly reduced, or even cut short.
“Fundamentally, when a police dog, regardless of agency retires, that agency basically walks away from that dog even though that dog gave it all 24/7, 100 per cent,” said Brian Spreadbury, a retired Parks Canada warden and resource conservation officer who adopted Atar when the dog was retired.
“They work incredibly hard and as a result can end up having significant health issues.”
Having worked closely with Atar multiple times, even acting as a pseudo-handler at one point, and knowing Atar’s handler Mike Henderson was happy he was going to a good home, Spreadbury and his wife Patti Brososky decided to take Atar in.
The Chez-born dog, known for his superb tracking and searching skills, responded to more than 304 calls during his five-year career with Parks Canada from 2006-2011, with two successful avalanche recoveries, and several successful narcotics finds for the local RCMP detachments.
“Retired working dogs can require significant veterinarian care as they age, and Atar was no exception,” said Spreadbury.
“Atar was well taken care of and no expense was spared to give him the quality of life he deserved during his retirement, right to the very end.”
In honour of Spreadbury’s parents, the late Bob and Shirley Spreadbury who acted as the grandparents for Atar whenever called upon, a significant donation was recently given to Ned’s Wish – a charity organization that raises funds to enhance the quality of life for retired police and military dogs.
While Atar has long since passed away, Spreadbury said the dog’s legacy continues with the new generation of Parks Canada’s K9s now that Ned’s Wish has expanded its mandate to include Parks Canada dogs.
Leroy, who is the current search and rescue dog in Banff National Park under the care of handler Logan Bennett, will be the first Parks Canada dog to be able to take advantage of the funds from Ned’s Wish if needed in his eventual retirement.
“We wanted to ensure that those retired working dogs who have put it all on the line during their careers continue to receive the medical attention they need during their much-deserved retirements,” said Spreadbury.
Stacey Talbot, president of Ned’s Wish and a retired RCMP officer said when police and armed forces officers retire, their pension funds support them.
However, unlike their human partners, Talbot said the dogs have no pot of money to aid in the high costs of healthcare in their retirement years.
Stationed at the RCMP detachment in Kananaskis Country from 1999-2002, Talbot got to know then-Parks Canada dog handler Scott Ward, who bestowed upon her the honour of caring for Data in his retirement.
“My own German shepherd dog was elderly and had just passed on and so I got Data,” she said.
“I gave him the best possible retirement I could provide for a dog. He never really lacked for anything and he went from staying outside in the kennel to sleeping on the end of the bed every night.”
When Data died about five years later, Talbot was desperate for another K9. She ended up with a retired police dog named Ned, for which the charitable organization is named.
However, on just the second day after Ned’s arrival, she noticed an issue with his leg, resulting in an emergency trip to the vet and an eventual $3,500 surgery bill to remove a plate and pins previously inserted into his leg to treat an old ACL injury.
Within a month, however, Ned then developed a urinary tract infection which escalated to a fever. Another emergency vet visit ended in a $7,000 surgery for a prostatic abscess.
“I’m told he’s got a prostatic abscess and I need to make a decision today to either put him down or I’m facing a $7,000 surgery bill,” said Talbot. “I was not ready to say goodbye so we did the surgery.”
That would not be the end of Ned’s medical woes.
With skin and stomach issues, the K9 was initially diagnosed with allergies needing lengthy and expensive exams, specialist appointments, trial diets and drugs – all of which provided him with little relief. The final diagnosis was stress and separation anxiety.
Talbot said his continual vet visits exceeded $10,000.
She said she eventually lost Ned to a medical emergency at age 13. His last few days were spent in hospital, amounting to more than $25,000, but most was covered by insurance.
“We spent about $50,000 on that dog before he finally crossed over, and I said to myself, ‘how do people pay for this?'” she said.
After her experiences with Ned, she said there was clearly a gap that needed filling, particularly given publicly-funded agencies did not provide any aftercare in the retirement for dogs.
As a result of her extensive research, she said she formed Ned’s Wish in 2019 – the first of its kind in Canada – which has since raised funds and paid out more than $200,000 in vet bills for retired police and military dogs.
“These dogs are always going out and doing the job, their drive is so great, even at their own peril,” she said.
“But when they retire, just when they need that support the most, it’s not there.”
Throughout her 38-year RCMP career, which included major crimes, organized crime and integrated national security enforcement, Talbot said she had the privilege of witnessing the incredible work these dogs do.
From finding missing children or wandering Alzheimer’s patients to tracking backcountry skiers buried in avalanches and finding murder weapon evidence, she said the job does not come without risk to these animals.
She said some police dogs have died in the line of duty, sometimes trying to protect their handlers.
“Unfortunately, it's on the rise that we've lost dogs in the line of duty because they've protected their fellow officers, right?” said Talbot.
Canmore’s Mike Henderson, a retired Parks Canada dog handler who had three search and rescue dogs over his 31-year career with Parks Canada can attest to the hard work of of these dogs and high costs to look after them in retirement.
Henderson’s first search and rescue dog was Attila, who responded to 395 call-outs during his operational career from 2001-2006. Attila had a busy career, with one of her most difficult calls being the deadly avalanche in which seven students from Calgary’s Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School were killed in Rogers Pass on Feb. 1, 2003.
Next was Atar, a former operational RCMP dog before re-teaming with Henderson in the summer of 2006.
Some of his bigger jobs was an avalanche recovery on the Third Sister peak via helicopter sling into difficult terrain. Able to cover the same area 30 to 50 times faster than a trained team of probers, the dog’s speed on this search led to a quick recovery, drastically reducing the rescue team’s time in this hazardous location.
Atar also successfully pursued a day-old poacher’s track to locate the shell casings on a sheep poaching incident near Highwood Pass. These superb tracking skills also led to safely finding a naked man high on drugs in the Sundance area near Banff where there was a grizzly bear warning in effect.
When Atar was retired, Henderson was incredibly grateful for his colleague Spreadbury’s willingness to give the dog a caring and loving home.
“It was obviously sad to do that, but then I knew this was the right place and that they’d take really great care of him,” he said.
“But there were lots of expenses that Brian and Patti had to put up with, and I hadn't really thought that through.”
Henderson’s last working dog was an affable Czech shepherd, which retired in April 2019 following an eight-year operational career. During his time, Cazz responded to more than 450 calls, including four avalanche recoveries.
A multi-day avalanche search in technical terrain on the ice climb Polar Circus where the military had been training put Cazz to the test. Sgt. Mark Salesse was climbing when an avalanche hit in February 2015. The search lasted almost a week before his body was found.
In the summer of 2016, Cazz was flown to Ottawa with Henderson to receive a Parks Canada CEO Award for Exemplary Service. Cazz was awarded for the successful apprehension of a man in the Bow River who had fled from an RCMP traffic stop in Banff National Park.
Cazz’s work back tracking, staking out evidence and leading to the arrest of a long-term illegal shed antler collector in Banff National Park, helped highlight the scope of this illegal commercial activity in Banff. Assisting local RCMP detachments with his keen nose, Cazz was also part of many drug searches, helping with the seizure of millions of dollars worth of narcotics.
However, Cazz’s long and taxing career resulted in serious back and neck issues in the summer of 2020. To relieve the dog’s pain, as he was barely able to walk, the Hendersons reluctantly made the difficult decision to put the dog down.
“You end up having a dog that just all of a sudden has less mobility,” said Henderson, noting Cazz needed to use a ramp to climb into the truck in the end.
While Ned’s Wish did not include Parks Canada’s dogs in its mandate during Cazz’s retirement years, Henderson said he is pleased future retired Parks Canada dogs will be eligible for help with vet bills through the charitable organization.
“It sets up the dogs for better care in retirement – essentially having a bank account that at least helps pay for some of the vet bills is really comforting,” he said.
“These guys have worked super hard and they get banged up in their career and when they typically retire out, they’re sore,” he added.
“These dogs have served the Canadian public well and it’s nice to know that they can be treated well in retirement and get the care that they really need.”