Meet Deer Valley Resort’s newest avalanche search and rescue dog, Rooster.
If you have shopped at the Deer Valley Signatures stores, you may have noticed the Avalanche Rescue Dog Benefit Merchandise, also know as “Avy Dog.” If you are a frequent Deer Valley skier, you may also have encountered one or several dogs sporting the Ski Patrol logo on their back. To get their full story, I met with Chris Erkkila, Deer Valley’s Ski Patrol Assistant Manager, who told me everything I always wanted to know about these “mountain saviors.”
The Deer Valley Avalanche Dog program dates back twenty years. From the time one of the resort’s patrollers worked tirelessly to get it off the ground to this very day, it has evolved to the point that Deer Valley’s Ski Patrol now has three avalanche dogs, with at least one on the mountain every day. These dogs are owned by their handlers and go home with them every night.
Let’s begin by meeting them. We have Ninja, a male Pointer/Lab mix, that is almost four years old; Piper a female Shepherd mix, an 11 year old veteran that also happens to be Chris Erkkila’s dog and Izzy, a female Lab/Boarder Collie that is nine years old. The Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR), a local non-profit organization oversees the training and certifications. Nine ski areas are member of the WBR, and account for a total of 30 to 40 dogs.
A lot of work and training is involved with avalanche dogs. “When we select a puppy,” explains Chris, “we have a series of puppy aptitude tests. In every litter of puppies there’s an Alpha pup, the most aggressive and strongest of the litter. We generally look for the next pup down from the Alpha, one that doesn’t seem to be scared of anything, has strong senses, is apt to attach and interact with humans. We also want a dog that is very curious, has high energy and a strong drive.”
Of course, there are other considerations. Some breeds are better suited than others for the job. A thick coat is definitely an advantage compared to a thin one; with it, a dog can stay warm longer, while thin-haired dogs may have to wear an extra coat. There are also breeds that have a higher sense of smell than others. Labrador retrievers, German shepherds and boarder collies are better suited than most.
Size matters too; large dogs get tired faster because of the mass they must carry and may develop orthopedic problems faster. Then there’s the mere fact of getting around. Carrying the dog down the slope, loading it up on a chairlift, a snowmobile or a helicopter can be hard with larger dogs. Conversely, a small dog will have a harder time climbing on big chunks of snow or walking into deep powder. The happy medium seems to fall right between 40 and 60 pounds.
Once the puppy is selected, training begins at once with with socialization and obedience. Then training for search follows. It begins very progressively by using one of the dog toys and hiding it behind a tree, then burying it under the snow. This is followed by using articles of clothing like a scarf or a wool sweater scented by a human being, and slowly, the search training evolves to a real person. First, just by hiding behind a tree, before the person is actually buried under the snow. Some avalanche dogs can smell people that are buried under 15 feet of snow.
A person’s scent permeates throughout the snow pack and eventually makes its way through to the surface. The surface scent may get to an area that is not necessarily the actual body location. The scent works its way trough a cone-shaped path that may follow a slanted trajectory depending on the snow structure. In addition, windy conditions or even just a slight breeze may affect how a dog will catch the scent coming out of the cone.
The dog must be led in relation to the wind. Upwind, it becomes impossible for a dog to catch the scent. Stormy and blizzard conditions may make locating very tricky and difficult. The same applies to terrain conditions that generally are always steep, rugged and involve snow density of varying degrees. Around an avalanche, the surface of snow can be rough and will tire a dog very fast. This is why dogs are often carried to the rescue site so as to save as much of their energy as possible.
Dog certification is handled by the WBR. Three levels are offered: A, B, and C. Level C designates a candidate entering the program. Level B is for dogs capable of searching within the ski area boundaries. Level A is the full certification and applies to dogs capable of searching both within the ski area and the backcountry. Dogs cannot be tested for Level A until they’re at least 18 month old. For most dogs, it often takes two winter seasons of work and training to pass the the Level A test. Sometimes, it may take a dog three full years to reach Level A.
From that point on, dogs can expect to work on search and rescue until they are about 10. Piper, Deer Valley’s oldest dog, is 11 years old; she’s still going strong, but may be an exception amongst her peers.
Training is a big endeavor that must be kept up. Deer Valley avalanche dogs stay active year-round. During the off-season, their handlers take them around the resort while mountain biking or working on trails. Their dogs must stay active and obedient while also receiving some agility training to mitigate an off-season sedentary time period. On occasions, outside agencies, like the Summit County Sheriff Department, may come up and expose the dogs to cadaver work, materials they don’t encounter on a daily basis.
Having the dogs out in the summer help them familiarize themselves with the whole mountain environment; this way, they become closely acquainted with the terrain and their surroundings. Chris adds, “I can see the evidence of this in the winter as my dog recognizes the very details of the terrain she traveled back and forth during summer, she tends to follow her usual path in a winter environment.”
I asked Chris if any of the three Deer Valley dogs have been involved in actual search and rescue operation: “Yes, we’ve been dispatched quite a few times to actual avalanche sites. One of the most interesting instances, happened late in May, near Sundance resort. We were flown up in a helicopter to Mt. Timpanogos where the search operations took place.”
At Deer Valley, the “Avy Dogs” perform a very vital and necessary function. They can be seen as an extra insurance policy. Some might argue that these dogs are seen as “low-tech” assistants in a array of new high-tech devices that are being used to locate skiers or measure avalanche danger. “Sometimes dogs can pickup where high-tech left off,” Erkkila explains, “just a couple of years ago, we were all out doing avalanche beacon drills training, and low and behold the beacon batteries died. I had to bring my dog Piper, to find the beacon buried deep under the snow. She found it pretty quickly, so technology is as good as battery life, and with Piper we don’t have to worry about that!”
With always one dog on the mountain on any given day, skiers have the opportunity to visit a Deer Valley Avy Dog at one of the patrol shacks. Just ask to find out where the dog or dogs are for the day. Chris Erkkila offers: “Come and say hi, collect one of our new trading cards that we created for each one of our dogs, and come take some photos!”
Somewhere up in the snow, along a ridgeline outside of Park City, a group of skiers move through the blue on white Wasatch landscape. The squeaky crunch of a chalky snowpack and heavy breathing are interrupted by quick conversation and casual observations. A day trip to some lower angle snowfields has yielded good turns and spirits are high. Apparent stability has everyone eyeing steeper terrain. One by one they ascend a minor looking slope, each focused on the turns waiting above. The first sign of trouble is word passed down the track that something slid around the turn. Everyone moves quickly to see what happened. The seemingly small slope they were headed too broke away with the first skier; a large debris field lies below them.
At Deer Valley, in the Bald Eagle Patrol shack, a German Short Haired Pointer/Lab named Ninja is enjoying a sun-warmed spot on a Naugahyde bench.
With a half raised head he sees his friend and teacher Sue listening to her radio as she grabs her pack. A skier is missing in the backcountry; a frantic phone call from the scene reports beacon searches unsuccessful. The urgency of her movements flips a switch in Ninja and he is immediately at the door. Sometimes it’s a chairlift or snowmobile to shuttle them to a scene. Today they hurry to a landing zone as a chopper beats out a steady cadence, coming in low and fast. In seconds Sue and Ninja are airborne and banking hard out beyond the ski areas boundary.
Once on scene the rescuers begin collecting and assessing information while Ninja surveys the half-acre field of avalanche debris. Without ever having met the person he knows they are out there somewhere. He wouldn’t be there if they weren’t. While the people around him are visually inspecting the area Ninja has his nose in the air, sorting and remembering various smells. The young dog jerks with anticipation as Sue kneels close, one hand on his back. “O.K. Ninja,” Sue whispers, his body trembling uncontrollably with anticipation, “SEARCH!”
Ninja was nearly two months old when Sue had come to see his litter. She had already been to see over forty puppies at that point, trusting standard tests and her own intuition to pass on all of them. Now, with Ninja and three of his siblings sitting in the half lean puppies tend to have, Sue started the tests again. The first was simple. Pots and pans banged together caused the puppy to Ninja’s right to jump back startled and wary. She knew he would not work. Avalanche dogs are often around loud and sudden noises and can’t be easily distracted or frightened. One by one she rolled the remaining pups on their backs. Ninja and his sister worked against her hand with moderate effort, unsure that total dominance suited them. The third lay frozen in complete submission. While a good avi dog must listen and perform it must also be able to push back on the handler when it senses it is being led away from it’s proper training. Removing the passive puppy she inspected the remaining two. Standing up and walking away Sue looked back to see if either dog had followed. The sister remained seated while Ninja was happily trotting behind her, only stopping when reached her feet. Sues search seemed to be over. After administering a few more tests such as squeezing between his toes to establish pain tolerance (he did not care at all, good for a dog that will work outside a lot), holding him in the air (think future chairlift rides, and he was indifferent), and playing tug (never had and loved it!) Sue was confident that she had found Deer Valley’s newest trainee.
There was a final and substantial hurdle for Ninja to overcome. Lila, a full Lab, was the most senior and experienced avalanche dog, with thirteen years on the Deer Valley Ski Patrol. She was known to be particular about her coworkers. With a few sniffs and a lick Ninja was deemed worthy to begin training. Training that would take more than a year and lead to the focused and determined dog that was now searching the snow for the missing skier. An animal with a nose thousands of time more sensitive than ours and indomitable spirit that will not let him quit.
At the scene of the avalanche time is on every single persons mind, raising even the most experienced professionals level of anxiety. Except Ninja. With no concept of the “golden hour” the young avalanche dog moved rapidly back and forth across the debris, ducking and weaving as every scent except the one he was looking for swirled around him. After several passes with no success his training kicked in and he stopped, turn to Sue, and sat. “Ninja, search!” she says with a flick of her arm. Assured that he is doing right he immediately resumes a pattern reminiscent of a bumblebee, his nose leading him. Within seconds Ninjas demeanor changes from “searching” to “found” and he starts frantically digging through snow that is setting up like concrete. Rescuers move in with probes and shovels, quickly finding a ski boot attached to the missing skier, nearly thirty inches under the surface. Resuscitation efforts begin and the skier is loaded into an air ambulance for the flight to the hospital, only time and circumstances to decide recovery. To the side Ninja is receiving his reward for doing his job – an exuberant game of tug with Sue, punctuated by loud praise and hearty body hugs.
The story is fiction, but the dog, the trainer, and the jobs they do are very real. Deer Valley ski area and its employees put great effort into being ready for a call to action like the one described. Here are some thoughts on how to approach and treat a working dog like Ninja.
- Always ask the handler before approaching the dog. When not busy they can often let the animals under their care meet new friends.
- Keep in mind they may be on their way to help someone or training. Now might not be the best moment for introductions.
- These animals are highly trained athletes and their diets are tailored for their work. Treats may harm the animal or impact its ability to perform when needed.
- Your ski edges will cut their paws and it can happen before you know it. If an Avi dog runs up to you try not to move around unless you are sure their legs and paws are clear of your skis. A good sniff and they usually bounce away.
- Give them nothing to do but train and lay in sunny warm spots. Be prepared when entering the backcountry, even within sight of the ski areas. Chose your days and your lines with care.
Day after day, the whole day through —
Wherever my road inclined —
Four-feet said, “I am coming with you!”
And trotted along behind.
– Excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s “Four Feet”
Ninja, is an 11-week-old German short hair pointer, lab mix, born June 4, 2011 in Utah. Deer Valley Snow Safety Supervisor Sue Anderson is Ninja’s owner and handler.
When Ninja isn’t hiking the trails at Deer Valley or riding chairlifts he loves walks, chewing on shoelaces and squeaky toys. Ninja has already learned his name, the commands sit and come and loves tug-o-war. Tugging is an important part of his training; Sue will use his love of the game to teach him to dig for buried skiers.
Deer Valley’s other avalanche dogs have the task of mentoring Ninja and showing him it’s ok to be around horses, noisy machinery, bikes and skis and guests. Quick to fit in, Ninja followed Lila, Izzy and Piper through a 60 foot culvert pipe with no fear earlier in the week and also kept pace with the big dogs while swimming and hiking in the nearby Uinta Mountains.
Sue’s biggest training goal this summer is to socialize Ninja and ensure he isn’t afraid of anything he may encounter on the mountain. He’s quickly mastering everything Sue throws his way and has taken a liking to Lila.
This winter Ninja will start learning to only follow commands from Sue and his second handler; a necessary skill to ensure when skiers or bikers call to him while on the mountain they do not distract him from his task or risk him getting hurt.
Watch for more updates this winter of Ninja in training. If you see him on the mountain make sure to ask permission from a trainer before petting or playing with him.
Lila, Deer Valley Ski Patrol’s most experienced Avalanche Rescue dog at 11 years old, has worked more seasons keeping skiers safe at Deer Valley than many of the patrollers.
Here she awaits the arrival of her handler Sue Anderson into the patrol shack, or she may have caught a whiff of bacon, I’m not sure