February 05, 2013
Retirement is always a happy and sad time for us here at the kennels. Our Alaskan huskies are incredibly hard working dogs. They cover literally thousands of miles each winter here in Denali. Generally, by the time they are nine years old, they are ready to slow down a bit. They are ready for some rest and relaxation after many winters of breaking trail through deep snow, pulling heavy loads across frozen tundra, and greeting thousands of visitors each summer season. When it is time to let our very special dogs move on we are pretty particular about where they go. We are very lucky to be able to be picky about finding just the right home for each dog because we have so many wonderful people who apply to adopt our dogs. What do our dogs need and what do we look for in a retirement home for them?
Because our sled dogs are such incredible athletes we want to ensure that they are going to continue to have ample opportunities for exercise after they leave Denali. It is critical to the mental and physical health of any sled dog that they get to run and play every day. Sled dogs have an inherent love of and need for running, often much more than your average pet breed. We look for homes that can get our dogs out for runs, bikes, hikes, skis, skijors, adventures where they can do their favorite things - run and explore!
Swift out on an adventure hike Jason Hlasny photo
Our dogs are big, often 60-80 pounds or more. They need a lot of open space to roam in so they are not well suited to small apartments or city living. They have spent most of their lives living outside in Denali and they prefer the fresh air and sunshine to being kept indoors. However, they do like to come in and sleep on a soft dog bed or couch. When we are on patrol in winter one or two exceptionally good dogs will be picked to join us in the cabin for the night. The dogs all love to come in and get extra snuggle time with kennels staff. They are very well mannered indoors. From the time they are small pups they are introduced to the kennels building and other indoor spaces so they are comfortable in many different environments. But, in the end, they love the outdoors best.
Jess and Mixtus relax in a cabin after a long day on the trail
Our dogs were born and raised in Alaska. They are used to sleeping in their doghouses or in the snow on the trail even when it is 40 and 50 below zero. They have thick fur coats to keep them warm and happy. Those same thick fur coats are shed endlessly through the summer as the dogs try to cool off when we hit our "hot" temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Our dogs are not like people who decide to retire to warm places after many years in the cold. Our dogs are comfortable in the cold for their entire lives. In fact, they are often uncomfortable in the heat because that is not what they were bred to survive. We seek to place our dogs in cold, northern, snowy environments similar to what they have had here in Denali. We have had retired sled dogs go to MN, upstate NY, MT, the mountains of CA, but we do not retire dogs to Florida, Texas, or other consistently warm locales.
Alaskan Huskies are an incredibly healthy breed of dog. Because they are not a "pure breed" that has been bred for a specific appearance we do not struggle with many of the physical weaknesses often found in pure breeds such as hip dysplasia, etc. Typically, when they retire at eight or nine our dogs still have lots of energy for hikes, runs, and big adventures. Most adoptive families won't see them slow down or show signs of aging until they are eleven or twelve years old, usually. They often live to be about 15 years old. As with all older dogs, our sled dogs need extra special care as they age. We look for homes that are able to provide the necessary veterinary care that is frequently associated with aging dogs.
Tonzona playing in the NY snow
In a typical summer our sled dogs will see 50,000 visitors from all over the world. They are incredibly well socialized to people and most of them love and thrive on as much attention as they can get. When they retire, they still want to be the center of attention and we look for homes where they will get all the love they deserve on a daily basis. Each dog here has a unique personality just like people. An important part of the application is letting us know if you have kids, cats, other dogs, birds, etc. in your home. Some dogs will adjust better than others to sharing their space and we want to make sure your home is the right environment for the specific dog you are hoping to adopt.
Muddy (top center of photo) relaxing with her adoptive dog siblings
The day when a dog finally departs the kennels where they were born and raised is always a day of mixed emotions. We are so happy and excited for our dogs to move on to their new homes and families because we spend a long time ensuring that we have found the perfect family for that dog. We are also sad to let go of dogs that have been so much a part of our kennels family and stories for so many years. Each dog affects the lives and hearts of kennels staff, summer dog walkers, park visitors and many others who come to know and love them as part of our Denali family. These dogs give so much to this place and the people here. They serve so happily and so tirelessly they are an inspiration to us all. We often joke that they are the happiest government employees you will ever meet, but it really is true. Every day when we walk into the kennels we are greeting with excited barking and jumping around. Every night when we leave we are serenaded with a beautiful parting howl from the pack.
These dogs are so incredibly good at their jobs. They protect and preserve the wilderness character of Denali through their quiet presence pulling sleds through 2 million acres of vast wilderness all winter. In summer, they are ambassadors educating the visiting public on mushing, sled dogs and their long and proud history in the north, on what wilderness is and what it takes to truly protect it. Every day they are an inspiration and a source of joy. It is hard to let them go, but we know that they will continue to be an inspiration and a daily source of joy to their new families as well. We always look forward to photos and updates from the dogs' adoptive families and we always have the next generation of puppies who will soon fill their shoes. They often remind us of previous dogs with the way they look or act or a certain tone to their bark or howl. The sled dogs of Denali may retire and leave us, but their legacy remains here always.
Retired dog name signs hanging in the kennels building - CMS photography photo