Imagine a fluffy golden dog wearing a red harness and frolicking in the snow. He’s not just adorable; he could save your life one day.
Park City, the largest ski resort in the U.S., employs a team of expertly trained avalanche dogs (also known as avy dogs) ready to assist the ski patrol in the event of an avalanche or other emergency. Club Members staying at Sunrise Lodge, a Hilton Grand Vacations Club, can meet Park City’s avalanche dogs every Friday afternoon at 4:30 at the Canyons Village Ski Beach.
To learn more about the avalanche dogs, Club Traveler interviewed Andy VanHouten, the snow safety supervisor and avalanche dog coordinator at Park City.
They are responsible for avalanche search and rescue both at the resort and in the backcountry under the direction of the Summit County sheriff. They may also be used for missing persons that may not necessarily be avalanche-related. We are also starting to use them for overland search and rescue in the summer months on statewide callouts.
We have 11 dogs across the resort. Most of our team are Labrador retrievers, though we also have a golden retriever and some hunting dog mixed breeds.
All the dogs are trained under the “Swiss 4 Phase method.” A few of the dogs have trained in Switzerland with the International Commission on Alpine Rescue, and also in Canada with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association. It generally takes about two years for a dog to reach an operational level of training, usually starting as young as six weeks old on the mountain. They spend the first season acclimating to ski resort life and starting on a “hide-and-seek” program with handlers and helpers around the mountain. By the second season, they will train in elaborate search scenarios covering several acres with volunteers buried in caves up to six feet deep. By now, the dogs will know that every person they find in the “game” will have a toy and play with them, making it an incredibly exciting activity. In a final test, the dog and handler will be required to make up to three “finds” of mock victims within 20 minutes in a two-acre search area.
A good avalanche rescue dog has a strong background in hunting and field work. They need a desire to hunt. They demonstrate a strong prey drive, not so much a play drive. Usually a dog with a “double coat” (labs, goldens, shepherds, etc.). Winter hardiness and fitness are key qualities for the pups as well, so generally they are modest-sized and real athletes in the dog world.
I have yet to see an avy dog on the mountain without the tail wagging like crazy. I figure this is about as good as it gets for a dog. They get to run, ride snowmobiles, chairlifts and helicopters, and play hide and seek in the snow. They get loved on by everyone they see and when they go home, they are always tired. It’s a great life for a dog.
When they are not on duty, they live with their respective handlers. Most enjoy a pretty spoiled life.
Zeke, my dog, and his brother Scoop, a fellow avy dog with handler Paul Santana, have both trained in Switzerland and are two of the top dogs in the Wasatch. We also have a brother/sister combo named Annie and Seamus working together.
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