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Avalanche SAR Canines
Making slopes safer for everyone.
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Henry draws a crowd at Vail Resorts, Colorado.
Henry draws a crowd at Vail Resorts, Colorado.

In a cold february morning in 2013, a Golden Retriever named Rocky and his owner/ handler John Alfond quickly climb into the backseat of the Flight for Life helicopter. Rocky scoots to the far side next to the window. Alfond slides in beside the dog, followed by the avalanche technician. The liftoff is fast and hectic, and Rocky leans into Alfond for reassurance. It will take them 12 minutes to reach the Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort, and every second counts. Rocky, an avalanche-dog-in-training with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, is being transported to a disaster.

Avalanches threaten not only skiers and snowboarders but also snow-mobilers and ice climbers. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 25 people on average die in avalanches each year. In 2010, that number hit an all-time high with 36 deaths, and a near-record high again in 2012 with 34 fatalities. The risk is the highest in Colorado, which has more than 1 million acres of avalanche terrain and a notoriously unstable snowpack.

When the Flight for Life helicopter touches down, police officers and members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol are waiting. They brief Alfond and team on the incident—a man in his mid- 40s witnessed an avalanche. The man wasn’t affected, but he saw others swept away. No one is sure how many people are buried. Rocky paces on the end of his leash.

Alfond, himself a member of the ski patrol in Vail, assesses the scene’s safety. He identifies the wind direction, and looks for signs of more slides—cornices, or snow that could shift. Time is critical. After 15 minutes, nine out of ten people, or 90 percent, will survive an avalanche. After 30 minutes, that percentage decreases to 50.

Once Alfond is comfortable that the snow pack no longer presents an imminent danger, he asks Rocky to sit. The dog obeys. Alfond gets down on his knees and looks Rocky directly in the eye. “Are you ready to work?” he asks. Rocky sits tall and holds Alfond’s gaze. He’s ready. Alfond unclips the leash. “Find it!” he says. Rocky bolts.

The dog immediately identifies a partially buried man, alive, but with head and leg injuries. Alfond praises Rocky, who romps with glee, and then asks him to sit. “Are you ready to go back to work?” he asks. Rocky turns serious again, and Alfond issues the “Find it” command a second time. After several minutes, the dog identifies two more victims, fully buried, and begins to dig them out. Alfond determines that both are dead. Rocky is still praised, as his job is to “daylight” avalanche victims—to locate and unbury bodies, alive or dead.

Alfond sends Rocky back to work to “find it” one more time, but the dog turns up nothing. Alfond radios in the coordinates of the bodies as the avalanche technician loads the injured man onto a sled. Rocky follows. Total time from when they stepped off the helicopter: 23 minutes.

Once Alfond and the team rejoin the rest of the group, the mood turns celebratory. The incident was a simulation, and Rocky performed exceptionally well. The two “bodies” are volunteers, members of Arapahoe Basin’s ski patrol, as is the “injured man,” who hops off the sled and starts to wrestle with Rocky. “He’s ready for certification,” Alfond says, high-fiving the avalanche technician.

The next month, Rocky passes his certification test at Copper Mountain Resort, along with a Labrador named Mookie and his handler Caroline Stone. The two dogs officially become the second and third members of Vail Resort’s certified avalanche-dog team. “I was more stressed than Rocky was,” Alfond says. “When it comes to avy dogs, humans are the dumb end of the leash.”

Born to Rescue
From the start, Rocky was destined to be an avalanche—or “avy”—dog. Alfond became interested in avy dogs in 2009, during his first year with Vail Ski Patrol. The resort was testing the effectiveness of using dogs with the help of a Golden Retriever named Henry, handled by his owner Chris Reeder, a patrol supervisor. During Alfond’s second year, Henry’s assistant handler left the patrol and Alfond and Stone took his place as co-assistants. By the third year, Vail’s avalanche-dog program was ready to expand. Alfond went to work identifying a qualified breeder.

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