Second-Chance Sled Dogs

By Susan Tasaki, December 2020, Updated January 2021

At this Utah-based rescue, pulling a dogsled is part of the rehab program. The other part is the owners’ dedication to helping each dog find and live his or her best life.

At Rancho Luna Lobos outside of Park City, Utah, it’s all about the dogs. More than a decade ago, with the help of his wife, Dana, Fernando Ramirez was able to combine his long-standing passions for dog rescue and dogsledding to create a novel hybrid: a nonprofit rescue and rehabilitation center and professional racing kennel. While you won’t find a lot of purebred Siberian Huskies here, you’ll see their DNA in many of the blue-eyed, long-legged, lithe dogs who call this place home.

Rancho Luna Lobos is family owned and operated, and the family lives on-site. Each day, Fernando, Dana and Jon Rameriz (Fernando’s brother), the ranch manager, spend hours caring for the dogs, working with local animal control and northern breed rescue groups, and helping people understand what their dogs need so they can keep them at home. Not to mention raising their children and giving the dogs opportunities to do what they love: run.

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The running dovetails with Fernando’s other passion, dogsledding. Part of the rehabilitation program involves hooking up dogs to the gang line and seeing how they respond. Fernando and Dana wholeheartedly believe in channeling dogs’ energy into doing something that suits them. Ultimately, however, it’s up to the dogs. “We believe in allowing dogs to show us what they need in order to thrive. So only if they absolutely love it, we will train them to run with the team.” Those who don’t love it are put on a path to their best life, whatever that may ultimately be. Some of the dogs are adopted by people who’ve participated in the summer camps and musher programs. Lacking a good fit, others become permanent residents—sleeping in the sun or running and playing in what Dana calls the “doggy pueblo,” a fenced section of the ranch complete with heated and cooled dog-sized houses they can lounge in.

Most of the dogs at Rancho Luna Lobos are owner-surrenders. At first, many of the dogs came from shelters, but as the program grew and word got out, people began dropping off their dogs in the Ramirez’s yard. Finally, they installed a gate at their driveway and asked people to call ahead. These days, they have a wait list of people who feel they need to surrender their dogs. Because Fernando and Dana ask shelters and other rescue groups to send them their hardest cases first, that list can get rather long.

One way they shorten it is by helping people understand the breed and how to better integrate their dogs into their lives. As Dana describes the process, “If there’s a way for us to help train and/or rehabilitate a dog, then work with the family to find a perfect blend into their everyday life, that’s our goal. Dogs sometimes stay with us six months or longer before reuniting with their family. It’s a wonderful experience, to help those families who truly love their dogs but just need a little extra work to find their groove.”

Luna Lobos Dog Sledding is Fernando’s professional racing team. Unlike most pro kennels, these dogs aren’t purpose-bred. Rather, they’re donated by other kennels or recruited from the rescue program. There are differences of opinion about sled-dog racing. Some find it inspiring, others feel it’s exploitive. As Dana says, “Often, people worry that dogsledding is cruel and we force these dogs to run. But that’s the one thing we can’t teach, that drive and passion to run.” At Luna Lobos, the balance always falls on the side of what an individual dog wants and needs.

Both operations are time- and resource-intensive. To support them, Fernando and Dana offer a variety of fee-based services, including boarding, day care and training, and various seasonal, education-based programs. Money earned on the racing circuit goes to Sledding for Hope, the kennel’s nonprofit, and ultimately, into their rescue work.

Something Fernando says at the end of Moon Dogs, a documentary about the rescue, kennel and race team, nicely sums up why he and Dana do what they do: “These dogs—I believe in them.”

Images courtesy of Rancho Luna Lobos

Susan Tasaki is a The Bark contributing editor.

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