Puppies! The sled dogs of Denali National Park, Alaska

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Meeting Canine Ranger Prusik

This is one in a series of articles about our trip to Denali National Park.


 On our last day in Denali National Park, two noteworthy events occurred:

1) We had our first showers in ten days (and they were amazing)

2) We met the sled dogs of Denali.

Sled dogs have been a part of Alaskan tradition and lore for hundreds of years and have been used in Denali since 1922. In fact, Denali is the only U.S. national park that utilizes sled dogs, and they are integral to the park’s resource management.  When the park first opened, dog teams patrolled the boundaries to secure them from poachers, who were ravaging wildlife populations.  Today, Denali’s 32 Alaskan Huskies, nicknamed Canine Rangers, are still used for winter patrols, where they monitor park use and weather conditions. They also transport supplies to rangers in isolated areas.

The kennel is open to the public year round, and during the summer the park offers 30-minute sled dog demonstrations and the opportunity to meet the dogs afterward. Even if you miss the demo, you can still drop in during business hours to meet Denali’s Canine Rangers.¹

The Alaskan husky: an ideal sled dog

The American Kennel Club does not recognize the Alaskan husky as a breed; however, research reveals that it is genetically distinct from other dog breeds and contains traits from Malamute, Siberian husky, and Somoyed.  The average weight of an Alaskan husky is between 60 to 80 pounds, and they are sturdy animals that, “pound for pound,” are the strongest draft animals in the world.²

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Sled dogs are expected to thrive in severe winter conditions, break trail through deep snow, and pull heavy loads through rough terrain.  The Alaskan husky was made for just such a job:

  • Huskies have double-layer fur coats and are so well insulated that they can tolerate more than-40° F.
  • When it curls up to sleep, the husky uses its thick tail to cover its sensitive nose, protecting it from the cold air.
  • The husky’s circulatory system functions in such a way that it can tolerate the extreme cold without suffering hypothermia or freezing to death.
  • Huskies have long legs, and their large feet distribute weight so that they can more efficiently run through the snow.

Huskies are also intelligent, hard-working animals that love nothing more than to be out on the trail. They are capable of covering 60 miles a day under ideal conditions but typically average 20 miles at 5-6 miles per hour when on winter excursions.

Each team has a lead, a dog with particularly strong leadership skills.  The lead thrives on responsibility and pushes its team to meet the challenges of the trail.

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Excursions into the backcountry may last anywhere from 1-4 weeks. When the team stops for the day, the dogs create their own shelters by digging into the snow. (Source: National Park Service)

The puppies of Denali

Most of the sled dogs are born in Denali’s kennel.  A lot is expected of these little guys, and they begin training almost immediately. Once their eyes and ears have opened, they are handled by both adults and children to prepare them not just for the onslaught of summer visitors but also for the grooming and medical checks that they will receive throughout their lives.  Staff and volunteers also walk them regularly so that they become accustomed to the park’s varied terrain. At six months, they are exposed to the adult dogs and introduced to the concept of team work and the use of the harness, and gradually they are progressed to being full-fledged sled dogs.

This year’s litter, three boys and two girls, were born to sled dog parents Annie and Locor on July 23, 2016. Their names were birthday-themed in honor of the National Park Service’s 100th birthday.

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The 2016 litter, from left to right: Hundo (short for “one hundred”) , Pinata, Party, Happy, and Cupcake (Source:  National Park Service)

When we saw these unbearably adorable pups, they were almost two months old.  We watched them play:

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And nap:

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The dog yard

The dogs spend much of their time in the dog yard, an open area scattered with dog houses.  The yard is designed to allow the Canine Rangers to socialize with humans and one another while also giving each dog its own space.  The houses are built from sturdy logs and give the dogs a place to retreat as well as adequate shelter throughout the year.  The roofs are flat because dogs enjoy sitting on top and observing the goings-on in their neighborhood.

The yard also includes several large enclosures called “pen houses.” The dogs in these pens are kept there not because they are dangerous or aggressive, but for health reasons. Some dogs, for example, exhibit negative behaviors such as eating rocks, apparently a common activity during the summer months.  Animals recovering from surgery (e.g., spaying or neutering) are also placed in pens to provide a clean environment in which to recover.  And females in heat are kept in pens during their cycle to avoid “accidental breeding,” as the park website put it.

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This blue-eyed girl was in one of the pens.  She pressed herself against the fence so that she could be scratched.

Whether they’re in the yard or in individual pens, the dogs are allowed to retreat to their houses when they need a break from from the welcome, but sometimes overwhelming attention given to them by adoring humans.

The dogs were amiable and well socialized, and I of course found my favorites.

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Meeting Annie, mama to this year’s pups…
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…and lover of belly rubs

Why still use sled dogs?

Why are sled dogs still in use these days, when there are other, faster alternatives? The park’s website makes the case that sled dogs are indispensable to park operations. First, they’re reliable and skilled at navigating severe and often dangerous terrain.  A snowmobile can get stuck in the snow, or its engine may fail to start, but sled dogs are always able and ready to go.

The use of mushing honors Alaskan traditions while also offering the opportunity to patrol the park in a “low-impact style that preserves the wilderness spirit essential to Denali.”  The dogs also have an intuition that machines do not. Every park ranger who mushes has been in a situation where a wise lead dog helped them navigate in a blizzard or avoid ice obscured by snow.

Besides, isn’t it obvious?  Sled dogs are just plain awesome to have around, and both Denali National Park and its visitors benefit from this truly unique program.

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(Source: National Park Service)

About the sled dog demonstrations and notes

¹ Demonstrations take place three times a day during the busy season (June 1 through September 1), with fewer programs offered in the shoulder season (May and September).  The kennels are open to visitors year-round but with limited programs in the winter.  You can check the NPS website for a schedule and for more information.

There are no fees for the demonstration, and reservations are not required.  Free shuttles provide transportation from the Denali Visitor Center to the kennels, or you can walk (it’s about 1.5 miles from the visitor center to the kennels).  Pets are not allowed in the kennel area.

² Quote taken from information posted onsite at the park kennel.

Park links:
  • Click here for general information about the kennels.
  • The park has a Puppy Cam!
  • The website has bios on each of the sled dogs as well as a dog blog.
  • Check out the Puppy Paws videos, about the life of Denali’s puppies.
  • Click here for more about the life of a sled dog.
  • After thousands of miles on the trail, Denali’s sled dogs are retired at the age of nine and can be adopted, but it sounds like the adoptive parents must be very active, as these work hounds don’t slow down much with age.