Man’s Best Friend makes a great employee, too

Muddy, an 8-year-old veteran at Denali, is named after one of the many rivers in the park. I loved her gorgeous rich chocolate-brown color. She is clearly enjoying the day prior to the demonstration and was one of the lucky ones chosen to show off her talents.

Hauling around a heavy load over miles of tough terrain in sub-zero temperatures doesn’t sound like it would be much fun. But I found out just how fun it can be – if you’re an Alaskan sled dog.

While on vacation the past two weeks, my husband and I toured through parts of Alaska. The vast scenery, composed of grand mountains, enormous glaciers, and abundant wildlife were always either in the foreground or background of what we saw. There was another theme: dogs.

The dogs are enjoying their rawhide reward for a job well done! Muddy, one of the lead dogs, prefers to bury her bone rather than chew it. We all have our ways to celebrate!

But these are not just any dogs, these are Alaskan sled dogs. They are bred to work. To endure cold temperatures. To provide transportation. And patrol a national park. These aren’t dogs that hang around in a sunbeam on the deck, which is one of Grace’s favorite activities in a day. These dogs work. And they love it.

One of our first stops was Denali National Park. Impressive in every way, Denali covers 6 million acres (roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts) and is open year-round to visitors. Denali National Park brings the hope of seeing its prize: the peaks of Mount McKinley, the highest in all of North America, are usually covered by clouds. It also lures you with anticipation of what type of wildlife you might glimpse next. A grizzly? Caribou? Dall’s sheep? Moose? We saw all of that—and up close. But I was drawn to the dogs. Denali is the only national park in America with a working kennel and these sled dogs perform essential wintertime duties. In the summertime, they greet park visitors like us.

We met the 30+ dogs as they slumbered in the summer sun; maybe Grace could be a seasonal guest? Upon closer inspection of their duties, we decided Grace is better off in her cushy bean bag bed. Winters can be extremely cold with temperatures ranging from 40-below to 20-above zero on warm days. New England snow storms start to look mild in comparison.

In Denali, these four-legged national park employees go where machine can not go in the harsh weather of Alaskan winters. The dogs are entrusted with a number of responsibilities, including accessing winter visitors, hauling supplies, transporting wildlife researchers, and helping insure that there are not illegal activities happening within the park, such as poaching or snow machines entering into the wilderness area. They retire around the age of nine, and have covered approximately 8,000 patrol miles during their tenure.

We saw a demonstration with five dogs pulling a sled. As we listened to the park ranger talk about the care and work of the dogs, the dogs were nearby, seeming to have not an inkling of interest. But at some cue—I have no idea what it was but they sure did—every one of the 30 dogs leaped to attention, barking, howling, jumping, singing, all in harmony yelling to the rangers: “PICK ME!!!!”

It was hysterical to see them come to life, in such sharp contrast from a relaxed state to one of intense anticipation. They knew the demonstration was about to begin and they were also keenly aware from experience that only a few were selected each day. They wanted to work. They want to show off their skills and talents. And they wanted that enormous rawhide treat waiting for them afterwards. These park rangers knew how to motivate their team.

We saw Denali during peak foliage — it was gorgeous. You can see the moose about mid-way back, just before the treeline, if you look closely. Imagine covering this terrain in heavy snow and freezing temperatures! But the dogs love it.

First, the rangers chose the individual dogs carefully, noting the mix of the team and their abilities individually and combined. They were also setting up important training and mentoring for each of the dogs, not wasting this “demo” but giving it meaning by offering a learning opportunity with it. The rangers let the dogs have fun—allowing them to do what they do best—pull that sled. And then they praised and rewarded when the performance hit the mark.

These rangers are proud of their husky employees. And the employees are proud to serve. It’s a mutually good working relationship, one that models good lessons for all of us at work every day.

The next time you have a task that seems like drudgery, how can you make it fun?

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7 comments

  1. didiwright says:

    First of all, what a great (and unusual) holiday destination! Most people head for the hot spots, not Alaska. But I would have loved to come with you…It sounds like you had a great time.
    I am very impressed with those dogs. About 6 months ago I saw a TV documentary about Greenland and sleigh dogs were, obviously, featured. Like the dogs you met, they were really keen workers and looked happy with their life and responsibilities. Definitely not city dogs, although I know someone who’s got two around where we live. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that they aren’t very well behaved, as they don’t get enough exercise.
    I’m glad you enjoyed your holiday. It’s nice to have you back 🙂

    • Thanks, Didi. Nice to be back! The Denali park has a program for families to adopt retired dogs but they require a home that provide lots (and lots and lots) of exercise. It must be very hard for these dogs you know who now must feel very restrained. Exercise is good for us all and looks like you quite a bit on your recent vacation, too!

      • didiwright says:

        Exercise is definitely good for everyone and I think we all try to get as much of it as possible. However, the amount of effort those Alaskan dogs put into their work is impressive and I don’t think we’d ever be able to keep up with them. This is why I don’t think it’s fair for such dogs to be kept in a city, where you haven’t got the space and facilities to exercise them properly even if you wanted to.

  2. I really enjoyed this post! I would love to have been there by the way you described this demonstration. It really a cool coincidence how I was just saying on my blog, that working dogs are happy dogs, and here I come to find this post is describing the same thing. We are on the same page.
    I love the way the husky breeds love to sing so much.

    • “Working dogs are happy dogs” makes me think that when something is fun, it’s no longer work. I guess this applies to both dogs and people! I didn’t know that huskys were known for their singing but these dogs definitely knew how to sound a note! 🙂

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