Rocky was born April 4, 2011, at Hunters Trace Kennel in southeastern Wyoming. Alfond chose the kennel because owner Marsha Greenwell had successfully put four other dogs into ski patrol programs. “There are specific traits I look for in a puppy for avalanche rescue,” says Greenwell, “but the most important factor is the dog’s genetics.”
For avy work, Greenwell breeds dogs with pedigrees proving good health and strong joints, as well as successful hunting or field-competition backgrounds. She feels that hunting and field dogs have attributes that are also desirable in avalanche dogs: they are intelligent, bold but not reckless, and possess the perseverance to work and search. Once the dogs have been bred, she selects puppies who can distinguish scents easily, demonstrate a strong work ethic, are confident and playful, and know when it’s time to rest. The key trait she looks for, however, is eye contact. “It’s been proven that dogs communicate through eye contact,” she says. “They get a lot of their instruction from us by what we’re saying to them with our eyes. It’s how they learn to trust in scary situations, like getting into a helicopter.”
By the time Rocky’s litter was five weeks old, Greenwell had selected two possible avalanche dog candidates. At eight weeks, she’d narrowed it down to just one—the male with the gold yarn around his neck. “She was right,” says Alfond. “Rocky is smart, has a great temperament and a strong work drive, and loves to search.”
Alfond gave Rocky four weeks to get adjusted to his new home before starting training. The Alfond household includes two children and two other Golden Retrievers; fortunately, Rocky fit in well. The pup’s first lessons lasted five minutes, building up to 20. After Rocky mastered the basics like sit and come, Alfond started laying the foundation for the commands essential to search-and-rescue work.
Alfond would ask Rocky to sit; once he’d done so, a friend or family member would hold the dog. Next, he’d ask Rocky if he was ready to work, and then walk 10 to 20 feet away. Watching his owner “leave,” Rocky would become anxious to follow (hence the need for someone to hold him). Finally, Alfond would issue the most critical command in the search-and-rescue dog universe: “Find it!”
The friend or family member would let go of Rocky and he’d run directly to Alfond. Praise, play and treats were part of Rocky’s reward for a successful “find.” “When they get good at that, then you start to hide, like ducking behind a rock,” says Alfond. “Eventually, you hide downwind from them, without [letting] them see where you hide, and they find you based purely on scent.”
After a summer and fall of preliminary training, Rocky was ready to try his new skills in the snow. Alfond started Rocky with basic burial drills, in which the dog is held as he watches a person crawl into a snow cave, and then released with the “find it” command. Rocky progressed to finding someone who had been buried in the snow out of his sight.
In January 2013, Rocky and Alfond traveled to the Snowbird and Alta ski resorts in Utah to attend the four-day WBR International Dog School. The oldest and most prestigious program of its kind, the school includes instructors from Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, Swiss Alpine Club, Alaska SAR Dogs and the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. By spring 2013, Rocky had mastered avalanche simulations like the one at Arapahoe Basin. His total training and preparat ion for Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (CRAD) certification took two years.
The Avy Dog Difference
The CRAD avalanche dog certification trial takes place in a 200-by-200-meter test area at a ski resort. It requires the avy-dog-in-training to daylight one to three victims buried beneath six feet of snow in 30 minutes or less. CRAD has been certifying dogs and their handlers since 2006. The program isn’t the only certifying body in Colorado, but it’s the largest, encompassing more than a dozen resorts, including Aspen, Breckenridge, Keystone and Vail. According to Jeff Thompson, who oversees the avalanche dog division at CRAD, about 10 dogs are certified each year by the organization.