Puppies are always a highlight of summertime here in the park. What a lot of people don't realize is everything that goes in to having a litter of puppies each year.This is the story of how this year's litter of pups came to be.Every year and every litter has its own special story and this is only the very beginning of the story of Pingo's pups.
Pingo is a very special Denali dog. She turned 9 years old on June 14 of this year. Whenever I am selecting the breeding pair for the year I am striving to meet two main goals. One - always better the breed. Two - continue the long history of our unique park bloodlines. Pingo offered us a great opportunity to reach both breeding goals very well. She and her siblings impressed us with their endless drive and desire to run in addition to their exceptional capabilities as lead dogs during their careers in the park. They are great eaters, relatively injury free, have good conformations, and great personalities with people and other dogs. If you study the park's geneology charts Pingo's litter links very directly to some of the foundation dogs that were used in the 1970s by our first kennels manager to breed for the dogs you see in the kennels today. She can trace her ancestors back to old Jeff King, Bruce Cosgrove, and Becky Sather kennel bloodlines.
In general, we choose to breed our Alaskan Huskies with other Alaskan Huskies. Alaskan Huskies are not recognized by the AKC as a breed because they are not bred for a particular look, they are bred for their working traits. The AKC recognizes breeds like German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers. When someone says those names we can all conjure up an image of what those dogs LOOK like. Mushers don't focus on breeding for a specific coat color or eye color. They are not focused on breeding for a certain physical appearance. Mushers breed for the physical and mental traits that will make their dogs successful working animals.
Alaskan Huskies, genetically speaking, are their own breed. They are unique from all other breeds. They can trace their unique bloodlines to the dogs that walked across the Bering Land Bridge with people thousands of years ago. They can trace their bloodlines back to the dogs that were brought in from "Outside" during the Gold Rush when we faced a shortage of good working dogs in the state. They can trace their bloodlines back to the dogs that have been used to carry mail, run traplines, and travel and work throughout the frozen north for generations.
Mushers recognize and breed for dogs that love to run and pull a sled, dogs that can handle the cold temperatures and harsh conditions on the trail in the north. Each mushing kennel breeds for dogs with physical and mental traits that they believe will maximize the performance and success of their dogs on the trail in winter. The Denali Kennels can't cross breed with many racing teams these days because a lot of racers are breeding for success on the Iditarod trail. This has led to a much lighter coated, lighter built dog in general. Here in the park we still need "old school" style dogs with a heavier bone and muscle structure better suited to hauling large, heavy loads in deep snow. Top racing dogs need to be light and fast as they travel on the race trail put in by snowmachines. Meanwhile the Denali dogs still need to have that thick fluffy coat to keep warm when they are sleeping out on the trail for weeks at a time in January and February. If top racing dogs had fur coats like our park dogs they would suffer in the often strong March sun on the Iditarod trail and overheat far too rapidly.
The racing dogs that are most likely to offer the traits we need are those that run the Yukon Quest (see http://www.yukonquest.com/sites/about-yukon-quest/). It is a 1,000 mile race that runs between Fairbanks, AK and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. It happens in February when it is colder, darker, and often stormier on the trail than what is encountered during the Iditarod a month later. The dogs who run the Quest are a good potential match for our park dogs.
Wilson is a very special dog from Team Tsuga Siberians kennel. He is one of the few AKC registered Siberians the park kennels has ever bred with.While we were volunteering at Slaven's checkpoint in Yukon Charley this winter during the Yukon Quest race I was not only cooking a lot of pancakes and bacon for cold, tired, and hungry mushers, I was also scoping out their dogs and looking for potential mates for Pingo. I knew I wanted to cross the park dogs with a racing dog whose conformation (the proportion and structure of the body) and durability had been tested and proven on a 1,000 mile race. A dog that can run that many miles and remain injury free has a good build and that is important in the work and travel that the Denali dogs do as well.Mike and Sue Ellis's Siberians impressed me with their beautiful fluffy coats, their exceptionally sweet demeanor, and their ability to cover the miles on the trail.
When I approached Mike and Sue later in the spring about the idea, we agreed upon their dog Wilson (see http://www.teamtsuga.com/wilson.html) as the best mate for Pingo. When Wilson arrived to perform his stud duties this spring we knew we had made the right choice as he quickly won over the hearts of our kennels staff and visitors alike with his sweet, friendly demeanor. Even the other Denali dogs, especially Loon, fell in love with Wilson.This created a small amount of drama as Loon was not slated to breed with Wilson, Pingo was. Eventually the breeding was complete and we all bid a fond farewell to Wilson.
Summer always passes in a blur here in Alaska. The weeks since the breeding sped by in the whirlwind of summer and we all waited anxiously for any clues of whether the breeding took or not. Pingo's appetite increased, she looked a little thick around the middle, she started to shed the hair from her teats and we were all feeling confident that puppies were in our future. We brought in Dr. Tamara Rose, a Fairbanks veterinarian, to do some training for our summer seasonal staff on what to expect during the pregnancy and delivery. She also brought her ultrasound machine and we were able to get glimpses of at least two puppies! The excitement in the park increased, puppies were confirmed and would be here shortly!
We were monitoring Pingo's temperature daily at the end of July. Her morning normal was 99ºF and her evening normal was around 100ºF. She did a couple of small temperature drops to 98ºF and kept us all on our toes. Then on Tuesday, July 26th her temperature dropped to 97ºF and this time we all knew that within 24 hours we would have puppies on the ground. I spent the night sleeping in the kennels building to be close by in the event that Pingo needed any assistance during the delivery. At 3:30am the dogs in the yard started barking. I jumped out of my sleeping bag convinced that Pingo had begun to deliver. As I was standing in the door of the kennels building I saw what I thought was a loose dog standing at the edge of the summer track. I did a double take and realized it was not a loose dog, it was a wolf! We quietly watched each other for a few minutes as I realized that this was the source of the dogs' barking. When I finally decided to try to grab a camera the wolf trotted silently down the kennels road and didn't come back. I checked on Pingo and she was sound asleep in her house.
At 6:30 am Pingo's contractions began. Kennels staff spent the morning taking care of all the usual kennels chores and checking in on Pingo. Visitors arrived at 9:30 am to visit with the dogs before the 10 am demo. At 9:45 am the staff who were in Pingo's pen with her excitedly announced that the first pup was emerging! Leave it to Pingo, who loves to be the center of attention, to decide to have her pups during the demonstration for a few hundred park visitors. We had tarped her pen for some privacy during the delivery, but visitors were still excited just to know what was happening behind that screen. Tatum, the little girl arrived first. She was huge and looks a lot like her mom. Koven, a little boy arrived second. He looks a lot like his dad, Wilson. Carpe was our afternoon surprise. He arrived at 3:45 pm and looks a lot like his uncle, Tor, who retired from the park kennels this spring.
Pingo was exhausted but happy to finally have her puppies. She has been a wonderful, nurturing mom during the first few busy weeks. Now that the little ones are starting to grow up, Pingo has a little more time to sit back and enjoy their antics just like the rest of us.
Word spreads fast among the entire park staff when the year's puppies finally arrive and we get tons of visitors coming over on their lunch breaks to meet the next generation of park dogs who will proudly carry on the tradition begun when our very first Superintendant, Harry Karstens, bought our first seven sled dogs from Nenana in February of 1922.
Enjoy the glimpses of the daily continuation of tradition and history here in the Denali kennels through the new "puppy cam" at http://www.nps.gov/dena/photosmultimedia/webcams-pups.htm. Please post any comments or questions you have on the pictures and kennels staff will do our best to post a reply.