Pre-season training for avalanche rescue dogs? It’s a thing
SUMMIT COUNTY — Saving your life is an avalanche rescue dog’s favorite game in the world.
Seriously. For the adorable Labradors, golden retrievers and mutts on ski patrols in Summit County, a search-and-rescue operation for avalanche victims is one big, rewarding game of hide-and-seek. Their handlers know the very serious consequences and dangers of tracking in the wake of a slide, but the dogs are simply happy to help.
“This is still the most fun thing they get to do. (They) play hide-and-seek with a person,” said John Reller, a part-time patroller at Copper Mountain Resort who owns two veteran avy dogs, 7-year-old golden Recco and 7-year-old golden mix Race.
Just like their humans — ski patrollers privately own almost all avy dogs — the animals get rusty if they don’t refresh their skills, and the vast majority of ski patrol dogs aren’t active with search-and-rescue work during the summer. And, just like their humans, the best remedy for flabby ski muscles is a preseason workout.
In mid-October, the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program — a statewide task force created by Flight For Life Colorado — did exactly that. C-RAD invited 26 avy dogs and 46 humans from across the Rockies to town for three days of warm, dry, snowless training between Frisco and Windy Point Campground.
That’s right — avy dogs don’t need snow to shake off the cobwebs.
“This gets them back in the game,” said Reller, who helped coordinate the training for C-RAD. “It’s a constant learning process — you never finish. We hope to train constantly to be a better team and be better equipped for the real incident.”
Retrain the brain
This preseason training concept for C-RAD is relatively new. It’s only the second autumn that Reller and organizers have brought together an entire network of dogs, handlers and snow safety technicians, with groups from Breckenridge, Keystone, Loveland, Vail, Aspen, Telluride and more in Colorado, plus two dogs from Nevada. All avy dogs are required to go through Flight For Life helicopter training, but organizers wanted to get more out of the annual event. They expanded to three days, with one day of avy training and two days of search-and-rescue drills (aka hide-and-seek) in the woods.
“We just change the medium from snow to dirt,” Reller said. “The consistent inconsistency is important for the dogs. Otherwise, you train them into a rut. They’re very smart — it’s easy to train them into thinking the same thing will happen over and over.”
But why snow techs if there was no snow?
“It’s a type of cross-training,” Reller said. “The techs learn to read dogs and work with dogs in the field. … The more you do it, the more you realize how much there is to learn.”
Dog teaches man
It might be a game, but it takes a perceptive handler to play along, and ski patrollers like Nick Slaton of Copper know they can learn plenty from a veteran dog.
“She’s teaching me,” said Slaton, a second handler for Reller’s golden, Recco. “That’s the way I look at it. I’m on the dumb end of the leash.”
Recco and her counterpart, Race, are the year-round patrollers of the avy dog world. Come summertime, they switch from avy work to water and wilderness rescue. Recco assisted on two potential drownings this summer and Slaton believes it has made Recco a better rescue dog. Again, any training is just as good for the humans as it is for the animals.
“This training is huge,” Slaton said of the preseason C-RAD event. “We’re not working with probes and digging, but we are going through the logistics of working with helicopters, figuring out communication, working with the sheriff’s office — all of that is huge.”
In one session, the handlers simulated an avalanche victim by hiding in a corrugated tube, similar to winter training with snow pits. The dogs practiced finding the handler and alerting another handler to the “buried” human. Some were veterans, like Race and Rio, a 5-year-old golden from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, and others were relatively new, like 2-year-old black Labrador Max, also from A-Basin. There was plenty of excited barking during the practice rescues, and then the group of five or six handlers took 15 minutes to talk about what worked, what didn’t and what they can keep working on between now and the first snowfall.
“The idea is to get everybody together,” Reller said. “Without that, we won’t have unity and synchronicity when time is of the essence.”
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.