STORY BY CANDACE HORGAN
Featured Photo by: Jamie McAllister – @jamieclimbsmountains
Perhaps one of the best outreach programs a ski patrol can make use of is an avalanche dog program. At ski areas with such a program, people will wander in to the patrol hut every day asking if they can see the dogs. Oftentimes, it’s young children with their parents in tow asking to pet the dogs, but regardless, avalanche dogs are an extremely visible symbol.
Of course, these dogs are first and foremost work dogs. Much like the misunderstanding about what patrollers do on the hill, the skiing and snowboarding public doesn’t see all the training and work that these dogs put in to become certified rescue dogs. They are there to do the same thing patrollers do: save lives.
“The ultimate goal and belief system, not only of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, but I believe of all dog programs, is live recovery,” says Tracy Christensen, the president of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. “That’s our ultimate goal. As we know from the American Heart Association and medical training that 3 to 5 minutes without oxygen, bad things can happen, and we also know that most avalanche victims decease from suffocation, from trauma, from head injuries, from the mechanism of the avalanche, so often times it is a body recovery that we are out there looking for.
“However, every time we go out that door we are going out for a live find. You never know; there are all these miracle cases that have happened around the world, so our goal is always live recovery. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue has been in operation for 40 years, and consists of nine ski resorts in Utah. It started in 1977 as a joint operation between Snowbird and Alta, who were looking to establish guidelines and protocols for backcountry rescues next to their ski resorts. WBR has 42 dogs in its local program, and runs the International Dog School to teach those skills and share that knowledge with others.
“The time and dedication of the Wasatch Backcountry members is outstanding,” states Christensen. “They volunteer their time and their money to make this organization what it is. We ask a lot of the members. We ask them to commit to training, fundraising, PR events, to attending local elementary schools and public speaking on avalanche safety. One or our biggest beliefs is every day we don’t have to go to work is a good day. If we can educate people on avalanche safety and safe mountain travel and safe weather practices, and someone goes to that trailhead and stops for just on second and thinks, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t go, maybe I’m recognizing these red flags of avalanche activity, maybe the weather is not right,’ and they turn around and don’t get in an accident, we’ll never be able to know about that, but in my mind that is a successful outcome.”
The Wasatch Backcountry Rescue International Dog School is a biennial four-day training program held in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah every odd-numbered that accepts up to 30 dog teams, which consist of an avalanche rescue dog and a handler. It is the oldest such program in the U.S. This year, the school was held at Alta Ski Area and Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort from January 8-12, 2017. The school accepted 30 teams, though many more applied.
“We are looking for teams and dogs that we really meet our profile that we can help,” explains Christensen. “Unfortunately because of quality control and the limitation of resources and dog sites and the limitations it puts on the host ski resorts and all the ski resorts with instructors and the man hours, we are only able to accept 30 teams right now. We break that out into six teams of five for quality control to make that as intimate an experience as we can for that dog team.
“We had some applications that came through this year where on the application they expressed that they had never had a dog program at their ski resort before, and that may be the first dog they had and they are really looking for some help and guidance in setting up their dog program. We think that’s very special, and we can make a difference there. We are also looking for first-time dog handlers that have zero experience, but we are also open up to many teams that return to every dog school who are very advanced and who push our instructors at that advanced level.”
The 30 teams represented ski resorts from all over the country. The instructors do as well, and many often visit international programs to keep their skills sharp and bring back the latest techniques to WBR.
“Right now, WBR has a team in Switzerland training, and we have two members up in Canada training, states Christensen. “Part of our international approach is not only do we host and put on schools, we send our members out to other organizations around the world to attend these dog schools and see what is going on at these schools and to bring back some of these ideas and we experiment with them and train and incorporate them into our program so that we are continuing to learn new things as we go, and then we share that knowledge that we are learning on an international level with our school and our members.”
As the 2017 school was announced, the National Ski Patrol recognized the importance and the International Dog School, and together with NSP partner Subaru offered a scholarship for tuition and room and board to three dog teams. The winners of the scholarships were Greg Dumas and his dog Sasha, from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, Colorado; Nate Bash and his dog Charlotte from Winter Park Resort, Colorado; and Sam Padilla and his dog Yuma from Northstar California Resort, California.
“As fierce advocates for both the outdoors and welfare of animals, Subaru is proud to partner with the National Ski Patrol in creating a scholarship fund for avalanche rescue dogs,” said Alan Bethke, senior vice president of marketing, Subaru of America Inc. “Able to search significantly larger areas than human rescue teams, these skilled canines are tremendous assets to patrollers nationwide and we are excited to help expand this important program this upcoming year.”
“It’s really helped me because I’m trying to fundraise and save money for our handlers to come to school, so applying for the scholarship was a big deal,” says Bash. “I feel like it’s a community resource to have an avy dog. We keep saying that it takes a village to raise a kid; well, it takes a patrol to raise a dog. Reaching out to our volunteers at Winter Park, they paid for one of our teams right off the bat. That was huge for us. Then NSP stepping forward and saying, ‘This is a valuable resource that we want to give back to pro patrollers,’ that was huge.”
Echoes Padilla, “We have a heavy NSP influence with our patrol. I’m not sure of the exact number, but I think we have 70 volunteer ski patrollers, and we couldn’t run that mountain without them. I think it means a lot to me to get the scholarship, and also to our patrol, seeing that we have a pretty heavy NSP influence to watch them watch me get the scholarship.”
Because the application process is fiercely competitive, many resorts plan out going to the dog school well in advance. Arapahoe Basin, for instance, sent not only Dumas, but another handler, Dominic Vellone, and his dog Max.
“We talked last year at the Basin, the three dog handlers, about all of us going this year, and Matt Norfleet has gone twice before with Rio, and neither Dom or I had gone before, because neither of us had dogs the last time WBR was held,” explains Dumas. “Matt unfortunately couldn’t come with us this time, but Dom and I committed to the dates and we’d been planning on it for a year.”
The four-day school includes full days of training for dogs and handlers, running them through a wide variety of drills, from simple blinds and runaways to more complicated scenarios, getting the dogs to use their nose more and finally going into holes. Among the drills were four-phase drills, which start with a master runaway into a hole, then a master runaway into a hole with a wall, then a master and stranger in a hole, and finally a stranger in the hole with a wall. Bard indicator drills were run every day so the dogs could practice using their nose to and then vocalize when they find something.
A night scenario was run on Tuesday to throw the dogs into a new situation. A helicopter rescue was planned, but due to the unsettled weather during the four days of dog school, it was scrapped and a snowmobile backcountry rescue was run instead. Another scenario involved an old car that was completely buried in a snowbank, and the dogs had to dig through the snow to the victim in front seat of the car.
Photo By: Andre Gonsalves – @andreandthemountain
All of the teams of 5-6 students came together to work as a team, from digging holes to being buried in holes to doing anything that could help the dogs become more successful.
“Our group has been super positive, and everyone has taken every role so far. I’ve gotten in holes, I’ve buried people, I’ve run my dog; we’ve all chipped in, and I like our group a lot,” confirms Bash.
Another first-time attendee was Julia Edwards of Canyons Resort Ski Patrol, who went with her 10-month old dog, Piper. Julia had been exposed a lot to the WBR program since Canyons has a very active dog program.
“We have an amazing structure at the Canyons, and we are very active,” states Edwards. “We have weekly drills that we try and get all the dog teams through. We have six dogs currently, five A-level, and Piper. We’ll try and take our B test at the end of the year, just as a benchmark. She can’t test until she is 18 months old for A-level.
“We are very fortunate in that we have a lot of institutional support, and between the line patrollers who are coming up who want to help us dig holes and set up drills, and then our dog coordinator, Paul Santana, who is an instructor at WBR, and our assistant coordinator, Brett Jefferson, who is also a WBR instructor, we get a lot of one-on-one training and help. We get a lot of different drills, different ideas and projects to work on. And we have gone out on call-outs. Last year, we had an out-of-bounds avalanche and we knew we had a missing person and there were a lot of different slide paths, and so we had Lauren with her canine Tucker, and Brett with his canine Murdock, were deployed to search a few areas.”
The A-level that Edwards refers to is the top level of the three training levels set by WBR: A, B, and C. It is a standard that is being increasingly adopted by mountains and patrols in other states. C-level dogs are candidate dogs, usually puppies, that start training by learning about the resort and get used to being outside and around things like snowmobiles and riding chairlifts. B-level dogs are usually 2-3 years old, and already have one season under their belt. These dogs understand search and rescue and are starting to use their noses and range in searches, and learning to search for multiple people. The highest level is A-level, and that’s a callout dog team that has gone through a strenuous test on unfamiliar terrain.
“When we test these A-level dogs, there’s two processes to it: we grade the handler, and we grade the dog, and the two together have to have a passing grade, because it is a partnership between handler and dog,” explains Christensen. “When we are working with these dogs, we are taking them to a new test site, they’ve never been there before, it’s all new terrain to them, we’re judging and watching how the handler works with his dog, how he travels with his dog, if it’s a safe and efficient manner and he isn’t overworking the dog before he ever gets to the testing site.
“We take a 100 by 100-meter square area, and that is the testing ground. Out in that square area, there can be between one and three victims out there that they have to locate and find, and they have 20 minutes to find these people, and again they don’t know if there are one or three people out there; that’s up to them, to clear this site together as a team. As the dog goes out, we are watching how the dog ranges, how the dog indicates, what he is indicating on, his alert, his endurance, and at the end of the test, he needs to have been able to clear and identify all the potential victims out there. At the end of the 20 minutes, we bring the team down and maybe ask them a few more questions about strategy and the big question, the money questions, is, ‘Is that site clear? Did you clear that site? Did you locate everybody that was out there?'”
One of the things that guides the instruction and drills for the dogs so that they can progress and eventually become A-level dogs is making the drills fun for them. The dog needs to be excited about going out, so that he or she wants to do it no matter the conditions. For instance, getting the dogs on a helicopter, with its noise and strange smells, can be a challenge sometimes, but there are ways to gradually get the dog used to it.
“Part of our goal with all of this training, from a simple runaway to car burials to a helicopter drill, to a basic multi-victim search is we are always trying to set it up so the dog succeeds and the dog wants to come back and do more,” explains Christensen. “We send our dogs to a very simple search, very much a straightforward search, because these dogs at the end of the day want to get in the hole, want to get that reward. That is what they have been trained to do, so the dogs will go and get this reward on a very simple dig, very simple search, with a huge big crazy reward at the end of it, and the idea behind that is the dog remembers the positive experience so the next time he hears a helicopter and smells the jet fuel and he’s asked to go through all that craziness, he has that experience that at the end of this, he’s thinking, ‘I know what’s going to happen; I’m going to get out and get to search and then go out all these things a dog wants to do: run, bark, dig, search.”
“He gets that ultimate experience, and that’s what we are trying to create, not only with the helicopters and our burials, but every drill we do we want to make a successful, over-the-top thing that that dog says, ‘I want to go do that again; that was the coolest thing in the world.’ Then we just keep on building on that and building on that and making the problem a little harder, a little farther, and maybe a little deeper, and introducing a distraction, maybe another victim, and that’s how we get our dogs to the A-level certification. It doesn’t happen overnight; it’s a process, a lifetime commitment to keeping your dog in this.”
All of the handlers felt that their dogs progressed immensely during the four days of training.
“We were in a lower-intermediate group and Sasha had a chance to revisit some of the four-phase staging that she’s familiar with, but also challenged with other things,” states Dumas. “Yesterday, she had a single blind with a pop-up, a mode to remove her from a single find and reset her for a second, and that was the first time she’d done that, and she did pretty well. At the end of the day, we tried to do a triple with a single blind and two pop-ups, and for a variety of reasons that was a little challenging for her, but that’s kind of what you do; you just play around with what they are familiar with and push them out of their comfort zone and expose us as handlers to new trains of thought and what we have to do to challenge our dogs.”
“The school is great,” says Padilla. “The support around there, the instruction, is great. We have Paul, one of the instructors, along with Lane, who trains the police dogs, and he is just very good with behavioral things. He doesn’t have an avalanche background, but he’s awesome. Those two guys together, they feed off each other and it’s awesome to see them in there. We’ve learned a lot since we got here. I was a little nervous about having Yuma digging through the wall, and first time, boom, straight through, like, ‘Right on.'”
WBR continues to expand its networking and its educational efforts to offer the best program that it can so that ski resorts and backcountry patrols have the best resources available.
“The future of WBR is looking bright,” says Christensen. “I am super excited with the direction we are going because our standards continue to be raised. The more that we have learned about these dogs and the more experience we have with them, the more amazing it is. The relationships between the search and rescues and sheriff’s departments and the ski resorts, most importantly the ski resorts is fantastic, and it’s only getting stronger every year.”
If you are interested in starting a dog program at your resort, WBR can help with education and resources. One of the most important things to realize is that committing to an avalanche rescue dog is a lifetime of work.
“Whenever anybody tells me that they want to be an avalanche rescue dog handler, the first thing I usually say to them is, ‘So you are tired of skiing,'” laughs Christensen. “It’s a huge responsibility to take care of an avalanche dog. They are your partner. They live with you, they respond to work with you, they have needs just as you do. Having a dog is a 24-hour day every day of the year type job. It’s not easy. You are still required to be a ski patroller and do your opening rounds and your avalanche control and still respond to medical, and in addition to that now you have a dog who needs training and needs time. It’s a huge commitment. I don’t think people realize how many hundreds of hours we spend training and working with these dogs. Oftentimes, my coworkers will have time to go out skiing and enjoy the mountain and the day, and that’s when I go do training with my dogs or take time off work to attend training.”
Ultimately though, when you ask the dog handlers, they speak of the rewards and how much they enjoy bringing their companions with them to work, and the International Dog School is the resource that can help those dogs become competent and capable work dogs.
“I think this is a fantastic opportunity,” says Edwards. “This is the one time of year when I get to just be a dog handler. I don’t have to worry about being a line patroller, I don’t have to worry about being a lead patroller helping my rookies, I don’t have to worry about opening runs, closing runs, fixing rope lines, helping hurt people; all I have to do is work with Piper, and that is such an amazing opportunity. As much as we have a lot of support at our resort and as much as we get to do a lot of drills with our dogs, it doesn’t feel like enough. You always want to have enough time to work on this or that, and this is that opportunity. I think that WBR does a great job of bringing in different perspectives and different teaching styles, and then being able to meet so many other teams from around the country, you really get a feel for what works in the Northwest could totally work in the Wasatch, but there are slight differences in programs, and different learning theories. It’s a really wonderful opportunity. You learn so much.”