7 Fascinating Facts About the Canine Rangers at Denali National Park

In the majestic, snow-covered backcountry of Denali National Park in Alaska, not all of the animal residents are wild. About 30 to 35 of them are part of the park’s staff.

Denali is the only national park in the U.S. to use canine rangers on its millions of acres — and the sled dog program is a long-standing tradition started by the park’s first superintendent in 1922. Perhaps not surprisingly, these working dogs are one of Denali’s most popular attractions.

We checked in with Denali kennels manager Jennifer Raffaeli to find out more about the Huskies, how they help maintain the park’s unique environment — and the close bond they develop with their human co-workers. Click through the gallery below to learn more and to see some gorgeous photos of them.

Meet the Dogs of Denali

Denali sled dog puppies in ranger's hats

NPS Photo

There's a New Litter Each Year

A litter of adorable puppies is born at the park each spring or summer, and each litter gets a special theme that helps determine their names. This year, for example, the puppies above were given names that the public suggested based on their experiences in the nation’s parks. Names include Wilder, Venture, Solace, Disco (for discovery), Summit, S’more (a nod to camping in the park), Vista and Honor. Puppy cams are focused on the little ones for the first few months until they start getting out and training, although they won’t be working as sled dogs until next winter. The dogs are Alaskan Huskies who are bred for the work they do.

Denali Dogs running in snow

NPS Photo

The Dogs Run Thousands of Miles a Year

The dogs travel the backcountry, helping human rangers patrol Denali's wilderness areas, where no motorized vehicles are allowed. They establish recreational trails for park visitors to ski, skijor or mush along; they help rangers maintain a presence in the backcountry during the winter; and they haul equipment to remote areas for research and restoration projects. The project and kennels managers work together to determine which projects can use dog teams rather than motorized means of travel. The dogs work in teams, and each canine runs an average of 1,500 miles a year.

Denali dogs puppy Zahnie in harness

NPS Photo

They Start Training Slowly

They don’t start wearing a harness when they’re as little as Zahnie is here — but it sounds like they wish they could! During their first year, the puppies do a lot of loose walks and runs with the big dogs, so they can learn by watching, start to remember the routes and gain some confidence. Once they are ready to go to work, the dogs seem to have an “uncanny ability” to find a patrol cabin during a whiteout or identify a snow-covered trail even when the human rangers can’t, Raffaeli says.

Denali dogs wearing booties

NPS Photo

Denali Dogs Are Handled With Care

These dogs are athletes, and they are carefully and regularly evaluated. Every day, their caretakers check each dog's weight and range of motion in all four legs, as well as their teeth, eyes and feet, among other things. In addition to carrying first-aid equipment on their runs, the handlers bring booties for the dogs to protect their feet in certain situations. “The most important rule we follow is to take care of our team (human and canine) when we are way out in the park,” Raffaeli says. “We don't want anyone sick or injured and needing to leave the field, so prevention is always our focus.”

Denali dogs running by treeline

NPS Photo

They Love to Work

During the summer season (from mid-May to mid-September), the dogs get a chance to meet their adoring public. About 50,000 people visit the kennels during that time, and they have a tendency to fall in love with the dogs and the rich tradition of the sled dog program, Raffaeli says. Once the campgrounds are closed, the rangers and kennels managers can start them running; their busy season runs from December to April. During that time, the dogs work on projects that can last up to five weeks, but they have built-in rest days, and their condition is continually evaluated. Of course, they’re still dogs, too! They love to goof around and can be spotted curling up next to the human rangers they work with at the end of the day.

Denali sled dogs husky with blue eyes

Daniel A. Leifheit, NPS Photo

Retiring Dogs Can Be Adopted

Because the staff at Denali love their canine colleagues so much, they make sure the dogs retire to the right homes when it’s time for them to kick up their paws and take it easy. The public can apply to adopt them when they turn 9 — but any family interested in giving one of these guys a retirement home needs to live in a cold climate and show in detail how they’d continue to give the dog exercise. "These guys are not wanting to retire to a couch in Florida — they’re still wanting to run and hike,” Raffaeli says. "We can be very particular — the only problem is we don’t have enough dogs for all the people who want them!” But the staff isn’t concerned with only exercise for the dogs. They also want to be sure their buddies will be showered with love and attention, have owners who are going to spend lots of time with them and might have dog siblings to share their days.

Canine ranger Aliqsi gives kennels ranger named Jamie Dittmar a slobbery kiss.

Kent Miller, NPS

They Bond With Their Humans

The kennels managers and rangers get to know the individual personalities of the dogs, and they work together so much that they form close relationships. Above, canine ranger Aliqsi gives kennels ranger Jamie Dittmar a loving — if slobbery — kiss. “Most inspiring is really how they greet each person and each day with pure joy and enthusiasm,” Raffaeli says. “They are an inspiration and our best friends.”

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