Leading the Pack: Rescue Dogs Get a Second Chance as Sled Dogs

The excited barks and whines of more than a dozen sled dogs grow louder as Fernando Ramirez and his team of mushers prepare their sleds on a snowy afternoon in the mountains of Utah.

The mushers attach the animals to their sleds one by one. One dog, a chocolate-colored Alaskan husky with cloudy eyes named Humberto, has already made two runs today, but he’s still striding along the sled line, eager for his musher to give the signal to go. And once the signal comes, the husky and his teammates push their paws against the icy ground and off they go.

Fernando, 34, fell in love with dog sledding when he was just 8 years old after watching the 1995 film ‘Balto’. It is based on a true story of a dog who leads a sled team carrying life-saving medicine for sick children in an Alaskan village. Fernando became so enamored with dog sledding that he was eager to literally “run” with the idea.

“I had a yellow Lab back then that was sort of my first sled dog,” Fernando said. “We tried every way to get him to shoot and see if he wanted to shoot…and he did.”

Fernando’s parents found him a sled at a yard sale, but his mother, who grew up poor in Zacatecas, Mexico, had a condition. He could only build his sled team out of rescue dogs.

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Jax, an Alaskan Malamute, was rescued by the ranch after being abandoned by a farmer.

“I think maybe coming from that kind of background, she said, ‘Every living thing needs a chance,'” Fernando said.

Fernando feels his mother wanted to teach him that lesson through her dogs – and 26 years later, Fernando is still honoring his mother’s wishes.

He combined his two passions – dog rescue and dog sledding – and opened Rancho Luna Lobos, which translates to Moon Wolf Ranch, 10 years ago. It is located in Peoa, Utah, east of Park City. Fernando and his wife Dana take in unwanted dogs and house them on their 55-acre property.

Photo of dogs waiting to run.

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Outside Park City, unwanted dogs find a new home as Rancho Luna Lobos. “This whole ranch is their playground,” ranch owner Fernando Ramirez said.

They fund their operation by offering services like sleigh rides and a junior musher program for kids interested in the sport. But Fernando insists they want the animals to be dogs first, sled dogs second.

“This whole ranch is their playground,” Fernando said, pointing to the paw prints etched in the snow all around the property. “They run away, they run away free.”

The Ramirezes say they have rescued between 100 and 120 dogs since opening. When they take in a new dog, they do all the rehabilitation and behavioral training they need before making them available for adoption. They also introduce them to dog sledding. Those who show the aptitude for this receive the full training and are part of the sled teams. These dogs can stay on the ranch indefinitely.

Photo of dogs and trainers.

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Dogs that show an aptitude for sledding are fully trained and serve on sled teams.

But not all dogs are made to be sled dogs, Fernando said. He can tell some who will be natural right away by looking at them, but some dogs like Humberto startle him.

Humberto, or Humber for short, came to the ranch three years ago when he was just one year old. Dana explained to customers waiting to visit that Humber’s previous owners said he was worthless and a waste of time. What they didn’t realize was that Humber was born blind in both eyes. At the time, Humber lacked the clouds over his corneas that make his visual impairment evident today. But Dana said Humber isn’t letting that slow him down.

Photo of dark brown dog with blurry eyes.

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Humber is blind, but that didn’t stop him from joining the sled team.

“We found that if we hooked [Humber] collar to collar with another dog — she would act like his showy girlfriend,” Dana told customers. “Well, he’s gotten so good that we’ve been able to hook him into the team…He’ll get in the middle and he’ll feel how far left or right he needs to go.”

Photo of tourists listening to a presentation in the snow.

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Visitors to the ranch can take sleigh rides, but they also learn about sledding traditions.

Showing visitors how dogs live and work is also important for the future of dog sledding. Fernando says there is a misconception that dogs are abused in the world of sledding. The father of five said he wanted to show the public that was not the case.

“Running on the sled is something fun that we can do to express dog fitness, but the heart of our sport is a relationship between the musher and the dogs,” he said. “My children have been running since they were four years old, and they know this principle very, very well.

The Ramirez family is also driven by the transformation dogs like Humber go through during their time at the ranch and the obstacles they are able to overcome.

“Humberto is blind and he still loves life 100%,” he said. “He’s just an amazing, amazing dog.”

Humber is currently training with Fernando Ramirez to become a lead sled dog.

A brown dog receives pets from a man in the snow.

Credit Brian Albers/KUER

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Humber would continue to train as a sled dog with the help of his rescue companions at the ranch.

Bette C. Alvarado