Rescue dogs train on Beaver Creek Mountain |

Rescue dogs train on Beaver Creek Mountain

Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyCopper Mountain ski patrollers Hannah Sutton, left, and Janie Merickel dig at the location Sutton's dog Cascade pointed out during avalanche dog training day at Beaver Creek Mountain.

BEAVER CREEK, Colorado ” Hannah Sutton gently gathered her golden retriever, Cascade, into her arms.

Then she yelled: “Go search!”

The dog sprung into a frenzy in this snow field near the top of Beaver Creek Mountain. Cascade bounced here and there, his nose to the ground, with Sutton following.

“What do you got?” Sutton said.

In a matter of seconds, Cascade ” wearing his ski-patrol doggy vest ” had zeroed in on a nondescript patch of snow. He wagged his tail and started digging with his paws.

Sutton took that as a signal, and started digging, too. So did fellow Copper Mountain ski patroller Janie Merickel.

Soon they had found a person, alive, buried deeply in the snow.

“Good boy!” Sutton said.

This was just a drill, but a live recovery is what these dog handlers hope for if they are called into action with their avalanche dogs. And the more training these dogs get, the better equipped they are to find people who are trapped under the snow.

“We train constantly,” said Brent Redden, a Beaver Creek ski patroller whose black Lab, Blu, is an avalanche dog at the Beav’.

About 21 dogs and their ski-patroller handlers were training Thursday at Beaver Creek with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Dog group. The handlers and dogs came from ski areas all over Colorado: Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin, Loveland, Monarch and Copper.

If an avalanche buries a skier, the patroller-dog teams are available to be picked up in a helicopter and flown to the slide in minutes. The dogs use their keen sense of smell to find buried skiers. The hope is for a live recovery, but more often, the dogs are used to recover bodies.

After Cascade found the body during the drill Thursday, she got a toy as a reward. Even though the avalanche dogs’ work is serious, they see it as fun.

“For them, it’s a game,” said John Reller, a veteran Copper Mountain ski patroller and handler for his golden retriever, Tracker. “We try to make it the most fun thing they do.”

Later, the dogs and their masters practiced obedience. With their backs turned, patrollers called their dogs.

“Here, Floyd,” a patroller said, and then Floyd came running.

In another drill, dogs had to locate pieces of clothing under the snow. Keystone ski patroller Sy Meheen’s dog Kenya, a black Lab-German shorthair pointer mix, quickly found a cloth that had been buried, lifting it out of the snow with his teeth and waving it in front of Meheen.

At ski resorts, the dogs are good for public relations, too, Meheen said.

“Everyone looks at people differently when they have a dog,” Meheen said. “People look at patrollers as authority figures. When you have a dog, it softens that.”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or

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