The Canada Winter Games has gone to the dogs — three enormous huskies, sporting gold medals and traditional northern parkas, that is.
They are the Games’ mascots, and three times a day they break loose from the dog pound, otherwise known as mascot central (the city building on Fourth Avenue), and hit the town.
Instead of searching for fire hydrants and old bones, the huskies find groups of people at the sporting venues or walking down Main Street to shower with hugs, handshakes and Hi-5s.
The dogs were born under the northern lights on the cool crisp evening of January 25, 2005.
The story of their birth is an amalgamation of stories written by school kids throughout the territory.
According to it, an elder checking his traps found the three puppies and knew they were special.
He also knew that these puppies were destined for big things, so he sent two of them away — one to his friend in the Northwest Territories and one to a friend in Nunavut.
The puppies grew to be giant dogs and were returned to the Yukon for the 2007 Canada Winter Games.
Yuka, the Yukon-raised dog, wears a traditional parka resembling heavy wool felt duffle with traditional tanned moose hide.
The parka of Taiga, the NWT dog, reflects the traditional style of the Inuvialuit and Gwich’in people from the Mackenzie River delta region.
The coat has a distinctive delta braid accenting its edges.
Uqila, the Nunavut husky, wears a sealskin parka lined with fluffy fox fur for warmth.
“We decided to go with huskies because they are kind of across-the-board, pan-northern animals,” said mascot co-ordinator Denise McHale.
To ensure the venues and city streets are well visited by the three dogs, 65 volunteers don mascot suits in three shifts of seven people per day.
Three handlers help the dogs navigate oft-rambunctious crowds of people who want their pictures taken with the huskies.
The dogs are ferried around the city in the doghouse, an RV big enough for their giant heads and long tails.
“We look at the different sports schedules and other things that are happening and then decide where we want to be that day,” said McHale.
“The volunteers all come back pumped up from being the mascots.
“They’re really loved.
“They’ll come back with requests from, say, Team Manitoba to go to their party, or whatever.”
You don’t have to be extremely outgoing to be a mascot said McHale.
In fact, it’s often the quiet ones who have the most fun because they are totally anonymous while wearing the dog suits.
They can let their inner actor loose, she said.
Having just returned to the dog pound after a stint as Yuka, Ellen Johnson was excited about the reaction she received during her morning walk.
“You don’t even have to harass people; they just come to you, you just have to open your arms,” she said.
The mascots and volunteers have to be made of sturdy stuff to withstand the overzealous children who want to play with the dogs.
“Today they were all tail pullers,” said Johnson.
“Some people forget that people are inside the suits.”
All the volunteers have fond memories of certain people they meet while wearing the dog suits.
Johnson recalled a 14-month-old boy who claps his hands and runs up to her every time he sees her.
“He thinks we’re his dogs,” she said.
The most excited reaction to the dogs came from a group of Inuit women who laughed and laughed at the dogs.
One woman stuck her head down a dog’s muzzle and yelled, “anybody in there,” said Johnson.
“It’s hard not to talk to people,” she said.
Johnson isn’t shy, but becomes livelier each time she puts on the suit.
“Once I put on the suit I loved it,” she said.
“You’re completely anonymous and it’s a great way to meet people even though they have no idea who you are.”
The reactions the dogs get are fantastic she said.
Cars honk their horns as they pass the huskies walking down Main Street.
People sitting in cafes or restaurants wave and smile as the dogs walk by.
Very few people put their heads down and avoid eye contact with the festive canines.
But being a husky isn’t easy.
The giant heads are heavy and the eyeholes block your peripheral vision.
Which is why the dog handlers are so important.
As well, the suits get very hot.
Before leaving the dog pound, the volunteers dress in tank-tops and vests with ice packs in them to stay cool.
True to life, these huskies love to be outside in the cold air.
In fact, the minus 30 temperatures have been a blessing to those in the suits.
“We’re nice and warm outside,” said Johnson.
“It’s especially nice when air wafts in through the muzzle.”
The dogs are also well groomed.
Between each shift, the volunteers turn the suits inside out and spray them down with Febreeze.
They also disinfect the costume heads with tea tree oil wipes as not to spread germs to the next person wearing the suit.
When Johnson pulled off her suit, the ice packs in her vest — solid before she left in the morning — were soft and warm.
Even though the dogs are high maintenance, the volunteers can’t get enough of wearing the costumes.
“We’re so involved, because we go to all the venues, it’s an experience we’ll never forget,” said Johnson.
We’re having to really make sure every one of our 65 volunteers gets a turn wearing the suits because they love it so much said McHale.
Lynn LeBarge is the resident dog trainer.
She teaches the volunteers how to act as lovable mascots.
She teaches them to move around in the heavy costumes and make sure they don’t get stuck in doorways or trip down steps.
LeBarge has no prior acting experience.
She’s just another volunteer wanting to help out with the mascot program.
“The Games are a once-in-a-lifetime experience and they won’t be back here for a very long time, so I wanted to be involved somehow,” said LeBarge.
“I just thought the mascot program sounded fun.”
LeBarge has made it a fun experience.
Before each shift goes out of the doghouse, the huskies perform a cheer.
Standing in a circle, with their right paws in they shout: one, two, three — woof!