Roadtrippin': Sled dog sanctuary

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TALKEETNA, Alaska (KTUU) - Hidden just off the highway, barely south of Talkeetna, stands a wilderness gem that dozens of dogs have called home: The Sled Dog Sanctuary.

Run by Raven Winter, a musher since 1997, the sanctuary is one part purpose, one part tradition, and many parts time.

"When they’re about three years old, they’ll hit their mental stage where they’re real comfortable and know what they’re going to do on the team," Winter said. "Their stability – sometimes it takes a little bit longer, which is why we never put any dog here on any kind of time frame."

Even more than that, this mission was built to be about love.

"We’ve all come from rough pasts, myself included," Winter said. "You’re real sympathetic to a lot of the issues they’ve been through. And they have gotten me through a lot."

Some of the dogs stay for a short time, while others stay for life. As of now, Winter has her hands full with 40 dogs - the maximum - staying on her property.

"A lot of people come here and say, 'Woah, there’s a lot of dogs here!'" she said. "But technically, our yard is pretty small compared to a lot of the other yards.

"They get to know really quickly that people are coming, and they’re going to give [them] attention," she said.

Though every dog is different, the attachment is all the same to Winter, someone on whom all of the pups have made an impact at one point or another.

Still, adoption into a loving family remains the main goal of the Sled Dog Sanctuary, she said. Like people, some of the dogs' injuries are obvious. Others are hidden.

"When they come in, we see sore backs, some dogs come from abuse cases," Winter said. "It can range from old injuries they’ve healed from. That's the other thing that’s nice about being mushers – we can take them from the trail and see if any of those things come up, immediately."

But what matters most, she said, isn't what's on the outside, but what's on the inside.

"What you need to know is what’s in here," Winter said. "What’s in their heads: That’s important. That’s what you’re going to live with. Not their looks. Although the looks don’t hurt."

For more information, head over to the Sled Dog Sanctuary website.

Video by photojournalist Ben Gauthier.