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.
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.
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?