“As the number of people recreating at ski resorts and in the backcountry continues to rise, more resorts are starting to see the benefits of avy dog programs,” says Thompson, himself an avy dog handler and a member of the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol.
Thompson, who has participated in more than a dozen avalanche SAR efforts with his dog, a Labrador named Dixie, created Beaver Creek Resort’s avalanche dog program in 2000. Four dogs currently participate, and the resort plans to add a fifth for the 2013/2014 season. “In the winter, you have to be ready at a moment’s notice,” he says. “When Flight for Life responds, they look for the closest avy dog to the scene.”
Thompson doesn’t mince words when it comes to avalanche survival rates. Ski patrollers understand that the best way to survive an avalanche is to not be caught by one in the first place. The hard fact is that by the time avy dogs and their handlers reach a site—by helicopter, snowmobile, skis or all three —it’s usually too late for the victim.
At 30 minutes, the avalanche survival rate is 50 percent, and that percentage drops to 20 after two hours. “We always respond as fast and as efficiently as possible with the thought that we’re going after a live body, but more often, that’s not what we’re finding,” says Thompson. Alfond agrees. “An avalanche dog is not a magic bullet.”
As he and Rocky head toward their first ski season as a full-fledged avy dog team at Vail Resort, Alfond acknowledges that there are serious on-the-job risks. In addition to avalanche danger, there are other hazards, such as frostbite or Rocky accidentally getting cut by a ski edge while running beside him to a rescue. Yet Alfond appreciates the rewards of his job. “If we rescue just one person, or bring just one body home to a family, it’s worth it.”
Alfond sees another benefit to having avy dogs as part of a resort’s ski patrol team: they’re great for public relations. Ski patrol members are not typically known as the most approachable skiers on the mountain. Quite the contrary— they’re the ones who bust you for ducking a rope and to get to the untracked powder out of bounds. But when avy dogs are around, suddenly people want to interact. “Guests actually come into our office just to pet them,” says Alfond. “And we get a lot better reception at schools during our snow-safety presentations when the dogs are there.”
Avy dogs may be a ski resort’s best chance at decreasing the avalanche death toll. Dogs put a friendly face on snow safety outreach programs. They give the ski patrol an opening to talk about the importance of carrying a shovel, beacon and probe into the backcountry, and knowing how to use the gear in an emergency. Avy dogs in their red vests make people smile, and may make them more attentive to messages about using common sense in the backcountry, including having a partner and carrying a cell phone.
The presence of avy dogs at ski resorts helps make people more snow-safety conscious—and that’s a feat worth wagging about.