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Watson Lake woman builds puppy palace

Cheryl McGrath freely admits she's surrounded by more cuteness than the average person. That's just what happens when you have 22 dogs at your house.

Cheryl McGrath freely admits she’s surrounded by more cuteness than the average person.

That’s just what happens when you have 22 dogs at your house.

McGrath is one of two people who run the Yukon Animal Rescue Network (YARN) out of Watson Lake.

Since January of last year, she and fellow Yukoner Damian Nel have been rescuing abandoned dogs and puppies, finding them new homes both in the Yukon and Outside.

“My family has despaired that I’ve ‘gone to the dogs,’ but oh well, it’s my life,” McGrath said laughing.

So far this year they have rescued and relocated about 100 dogs, she said.

McGrath runs YARN’s nursery for moms and puppies on her property in Watson Lake. Her home is about 427 square metres (1,400 square feet) and has a 183 square metre (600 square foot) deck on about a hectare of land.

Nel lives about 30 km outside Watson Lake and houses the older dogs with him.

McGrath says she hopes to expand her home in the future to make even more room.

At her house, McGrath has about 12 older dogs that help socialize the young ones. The goal is to get the puppies out of there and to their new homes fast - usually at around eight weeks old.

“We try and send them on to a rescue as quickly as possible. Because you don’t want them to grow up in care, you know? You want their families to enjoy their puppy-ness,” she said.

A grown dog can take a little bit longer, she said. That’s especially true if it has spent its entire life fending for itself.

“Because of the location we’re coming from, some of these dogs have never been touched,” she said.

It’s Nel that does most of the driving. When you’re running an animal rescue out of the North, driving is a big part of the job.

Nel estimates he logged about 50,000 km last year.

With such a small population of would-be owners in the territory, not every dog that is rescued in the Yukon can stay in the Yukon.

That means networking with other rescue organizations in larger populations.

This past winter, a rescue organization on the Sunshine Coast took some of YARN’s dogs.

“They had a lineup of people wanting dogs ... So that works really well for us,” McGrath said.

But McGrath made the choice not to go the route of becoming a registered society. She says she doesn’t have the time or manpower for that.

“Yes, you can get great government funds if you go that route, but we don’t have people to fill out all that paperwork. We’re both working full time and working all day with animals.”

Without official society status, the vast majority of bills that YARN accumulates are paid out of McGrath’s own pocket.

That’s tens of thousands of dollars in food, vet bills and transportation costs.

Earlier this year the organization took up two days of Alpine Veterinary Medical Clinic in Whitehorse to send eight animals to be fixed. That worked out to about $3,000, McGrath said.

Still, she says she doesn’t mind footing the bill.

“I earn an incredible salary, I manage the Big Horn Hotel, it’s our family business and I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” she said.

“Everything I can spare gets spent on the animals, just because I love them.”

After living in the community for so long, she said she’s been able to gain people’s trust.

She also works closely with Watson Lake animal control and the local First Nation, she said.

McGrath said sometimes people in the community struggle with the idea of catching a dog and housing it inside.

“This is the way they’ve always done it. All dogs live outside, all dogs live this way,” she said.

“None of them fix their animals. You can’t change that by criticizing or by forcing people, it has to be an education thing.”

She says she’s already seen some improvements, especially in Upper Liard.

“There’s rarely a dog that’s wandering around that’s unwanted or homeless anymore.”

Earlier this week, the team came to the rescue of a mother dog and her young pups.

Nel got a call from a concerned neighbour who had found a cardboard box fully of puppies sitting at the side of the highway in the pouring rain.

“Inside were eight puppies, soaking wet. So he brought those puppies to Damian,” McGrath said.

The next day, McGrath got a call about a mother dog and one puppy found in a ditch.

“I knew right away this was the rest of her litter.”

The dog has since been named Marley Too and the family of 10 has been reunited.

Because they’re not an official society, both McGrath and Nel recognize that people might be uncomfortable just handing over cash.

One way people can “know” their money is going directly to the animals is by donating directly to YARN’s account at Alpine Veterinary.

But that’s not the only way they’re looking to make some cash.

YARN hopes to earn some money from the cuteness they’re surrounded with everyday, by posting online videos.

They have started up a YouTube channel. The group gets a share of the advertising revenue, based on the number of views.

The channel has been running for about six months. A 17-second video of one dog “smiling” already has more than 85,000 views.

A six-minute-long video of Marley being reunited with her pups was posted two days ago.

“The one way people can come and help, without us making them come and give their time, and without them handing us money, is to just share our videos,” McGrath said.

“We intend on making a lot of videos. We’re surrounded by cuteness constantly, so why not film it?”

The channel can be found at:

Contact Ashley Joannou at