BEAVER CREEK - The ski patrol is burying Ashley Atkinson alive.They burrow 5 feet into some hard-packed snow on Beaver Creek Mountain and hollow out a little cave. Atkinson's eyes widen as she crawls into her tomb."I hope I'm not claustrophobic," she says.Ski patrollers Brent Redden and Brendan Finneran seal the hole with big chunks of snow and cover the top with powder. They smooth out track marks and then walk away, leaving Atkinson alone and buried in the snow."It won't take Dixie long to find her," Redden says.
Dixie is a golden field Labrador, and she's also a well-trained avalanche and rescue dog for Beaver Creek. The ski patrol is showing a group of 4-H students how it trains dogs for life-and-death situations.About 50 yards away, Finneran lets Dixie loose. She zigzags across the hill with her nose close to the ground. She thinks she has something - but no, she keeps going. Less than a minute later, she picks up the scent and pounces on the snow above Atkinson. The pouncing turns into frenzied, overjoyed digging.After climbing out, Atkinson says it was actually warm and cozy in her cave, but she's glad Dixie picked up on her scent. Meanwhile, Dixie bites a glove and plays tug-of-war with Finneran, a game she sees as a reward."We all smell more than we think," Redden says.
Hide and seekThe best avalanche dogs must have a natural drive to find things, Redden says to the 4-H students, many of whom are training their own dogs.It starts with playing fetch - they have to want to find that ball again and again. Then you teach them to play hide and seek - they have to instinctively want to find you. Soon, you're digging yourself into holes in the snow day after day, letting them hone that powerful sniffer of theirs, which is anywhere from 200 to 300 times more powerful than a human nose. After they get used to finding their trainer, they develop a drive to rescue anyone within smelling distance.These dogs can be the difference in finding a skier alive or dead in a backcountry avalanche. They start craving work and seem to go nuts when they aren't out there practicing.
Redden's dog, a Lab named Blu, hurt her foot earlier in the week and was taken off duty. From her closed dog crate, she howls and squeals when she hears emergency beacons go off."She knows something is going on," Redden says. "She wants to go to work."Aside from that burning desire to be around people, avalanche dogs have to be highly disciplined. They have to be able to start and stop with just a wave of the hand, and that takes rigorous practice. Going back to basic commands like "heel" and "sit" can be crucial, and Redden demonstrates those commands on Blu, who obeys quickly and sharply."You can't help a situation if you're the one who can't control his dog," Redden says. "You endanger the dog; you endanger yourself and others."Trainers are careful not to overwork dogs. Avalanche work can be pretty tough on a dog's body, and it's not uncommon for dogs to develop leg and shoulder injuries. Trainers also have to start the dogs at an early age and get them used to the strange sights of a ski resort.
"Chairlifts are really weird for them, and so are snowmobiles," Redden says.4-H leader Terena Thomas encouraged the kids to try teaching their dogs some of the tricks they learned today, perhaps starting with a game of hide and seek."We wanted to show that these dogs have jobs and that they can be trained to do great things," Thomas said.============================================Avalanche Fatalities Winter 2006-2007 in the United States and Canada
Skiers: 6Climbers: 1Snowmobilers: 11Source: www.avalanche.org==========================================Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or email@example.com.