It’s snowing like crazy in the mountains. The resorts — from Telluride to Aspen, to Vail, Steamboat and everywhere in between — are filling up fast. Skiers and boarders are heading to the slopes where Avi dogs are at the ready to meet, to greet and (if the situation arises) assist the ski patrol in search and rescue operations for avalanche victims. Together with their handlers and their teams, Avi doggies play a vital role in mountain safety.
Breeds of choice
German Shepherds, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers (or cross breeds including these types) seem to be the breeds of choice for most search and rescue teams, but the best predictor of success is the dog’s strong drive to play. Although an Avi’s job is often a life saving effort, the challenge of search and rescue is basically a game of hide and seek to the dogs and a strong will to succeed is the overwhelming motivator. That said, do not think for a moment that learning the ropes is a walk in the snow. These canine heroes live, train and work with their owner/handlers and the Avi program is highly demanding.
prepared for the upcoming winter
In addition to hours and hours of search drills, obedience training, scent detection, digging exercises and lots of games, Avi doggies must learn to travel by helicopter, chairlifts, snowmobiles, and on the shoulders of their handlers. In the off season, they take part in refresher courses to ensure that they’re prepared for the upcoming winter and whatever may come their way.
a rigorous training program
“Dog and patroller go through a rigorous training program starting with basic obedience and gradually requiring more specialized training in search techniques,” explains Crested Butte Director of Ski Patrol, Bill Dowell. “Several stages of training are necessary and dogs and handlers must pass a specific set of criteria to advance and complete certification. It’s not an overnight process, and candidates should expect the entire program to take time, “typically 2-3 years for dogs and handlers to become certified to be deployed in actual avalanche search missions.”
Fortunately search and rescue efforts are few, which allows time for the dogs to attend to their other (and equally important) duties of Mountain Ambassadors: meeting and greeting resort guests, participating in educational mountain safety programs and in some instances, providing companionship to injured skiers. Yes, these doggies work hard, play hard and LOVE what they do — and they have become the real celebrities on the slopes. Many have their own social media accounts and some have graced the pages of calendars, as well as been the feature of numerous media stories.
So the next time you hit the slopes, keep an eye out for the resident Avi doggies and take a minute for some pets, some smiles and a little love. You’ll recognize them by their red jackets marked with a white cross.
For important preparedness information, please review the Mt. Safety page on your resort website or visit the National Avalanche Center .