Life of a Sled Dog
The lives of Denali’s sled dogs begin at the kennels themselves, where most of the puppies are born. The pups spend their first two months of life nursing and sleeping, gaining more than a pound per week. By the time they are six weeks, they are weaned and begin to eat commercial dog food. Throughout this time, the puppies are handled by adults and children; socialized to feel comfortable with all the people they will come into contact with during the summer months. The pups’ paws and mouths are regularly examined to accustom them to having booties put on and their teeth examined when they’re older.
Kennel staff take the puppies for walks, giving them opportunities to explore puddles, climb steep slopes, and amble over willow bushes and tundra. This familiarizes the puppies with the environment and helps them become confident and secure in their surroundings. They are also allowed to begin interacting with the adults in the dog yard. Throughout these early months, the pups are taught common commands such as sit, come, and stay; correct responses earn them biscuits or verbal praise. Their individual personalities develop: some of the pups are bold and confident, others are rambunctious, and others want nothing more than to please you. By six months of age, they are two-thirds of their full adult weight.
Now six months old, pups watch as the adult dogs are harnessed for early-season training runs. Then it’s their turn. At first they run loose beside or behind the team, observing the adult dogs and experiencing a variety of winter conditions—glare ice, blowing snow, wind crust, overflow. After a few weeks, they too are harnessed, though not attached to the sled. The pups are amusing to watch as they bound along with the team, chasing and tackling each other, happy, rolling balls of snow and fur. Already, the confident pups sometimes run out in front of the lead dogs. Within a month of loose running with the team, some of the pups fit themselves into an empty spot and run in formation with the other dogs, demonstrating their readiness to join the team.
When the pups are between seven and eight months old, they are harnessed with the teams for short runs. Positioned next to well-trained adult dogs, they learn much of what it takes to become a sled dog from their furry mentors, though they occasionally chew on lines or harnesses, play with the dogs running next to them, and are distracted by new sights such as other dog teams. The pups develop into working sled dogs very quickly. By the end of their first winter, they will already have several hundred miles of experience running in harness. The training of Denali’s dogs is a process that goes on throughout their lives.
Did You Know?
Warmer average temperatures over several decades have resulted in expansion of woody vegetation. If this warming trend continues, it will change Alaska's ecosystems and drastically alter the physical appearance of Denali's landscape, as treeline marches higher up the mountains.