Dog or cat person, skier or snowboarder, it’s an undeniable fact that Avalance Dogs, AKA ‘Avy Dogs’ are cute, and avy pups are even cuter. If you’ve caught a glimpse of them pouncing around in the powder or hopping onto the chair paws first, wearing their little ski patrol vests, it’ll warm your heart even more than the hot cocoa or hot toddy waiting for you during après.
Last fall, the Oregon Field Guide show produced by PBS aired an episode introducing the avalanche puppies of Mt. Bachelor to the public. Ideal breeds are dogs that tend to be very playful like yellow and black labs or golden retrievers, and the main objective of their training is to teach the dogs to be able to find with their nose what they can’t see on the surface.
The episode also mentioned how using dogs for alpine rescue has been in place since the 1600s. Mt. Bachelor’s Patrol said that the first year of a dog’s training primarily focuses on basic obedience and learning to travel around the mountain, while the second year and all the seasons that follow are just repetitions of the rescue drills. This way, if there is a need to rescue someone in an avalanche, the dogs know exactly what to do without hesitating.
We were able to catch up with Shayna Silverman, Senior Communications Specialist of Vail Resorts, to learn more about the avy pups who work at Breckenridge and Keystone resorts.
Ski.com: How many dogs are on the Ski Patrol team for each resort? Can you introduce them and their breeds, and describe their personalities?
“Breck has 5 trained and certified avalanche rescue dogs. Boudreaux, Golden Retriever, 9, Suga, Lab-Border Collie Mix, Ava, German Shepherd, 5, Ripley, Mystery Mix, 5 and Huckleberry, Blue Merle Aussie Shepherd (with a tail), 1.5. Then, new to this season are Geeter, Golden Retriever, 8 months, Lume (pronounced Lu-mi), Golden Retriever, 14 weeks old.”
“Keystone has 2 dogs, as well as one pup that will be introduced this season. Scout, 6, Australian Shepherd, Maia, 2, Golden Retriever and Lisi, Golden Retriever, 4 months (her first week on the job was the last week in November!).
All our Avy dogs have a second equally important role alongside being a key member of our patrol team, they’re also pets and great companions! All our handlers are members of the Breck or Keystone patrol and are also the dog’s owners. Most often, the dogs absorb the personality of their handler because of how much time they spend together.”
Ski.com: What does the training for avy pups look like?
“Our team of avalanche rescue dogs are trained to be deployed via Flight For Life helicopters into the backcountry to facilitate search and rescue missions. When the dogs are sent on rescue missions, they often take place in the backcountry, outside of the ski area boundaries.
It typically takes about two seasons of training to get a dog ready to test for their Avalanche Rescue certification, though it does vary and could be less or more. When this process is complete the dog and handler are cleared to be deployed anywhere in the state via a fielding agency (Search and Rescue or sheriff generally).”
Ski.com: Who names the avy pups and how is the decision made on when to add new ones to the team?
“At both Breck and Keystone, the handlers name their dogs because they’re the dog’s owner. The decision to add new dogs is made by both patrol directors and dog handlers.”
Ski.com: Who takes care of the avy pups when they’re not in training or on duty?
“All avalanche rescue dog handlers are members of Breckenridge or Keystone Ski Patrol. Both Breck and Keystone’s Avalanche Rescue Dogs are trained at the resort by their handlers and the training begins with a lot of familiarizations with people and their environment.”
While avy dogs are not officially employees in the same way their human handlers are, internally they are definitely considered employees and part of the team! Some of the patrollers stay with us over the summer, and the dogs do too. They’re integral members of our team as both companions and working dogs.”
Ski.com: What would you like skiers and riders to know about avy pups and their training process that they may not already know?
“Breckenridge and Keystone’s Avalanche Dogs are important members of the team and well-trained for search and rescue, one of their most important roles is being friendly faces and ambassadors of safety! Our avy dogs make our patrol more approachable, so make sure to say hi when you see them around the base areas.
But please give our pups and patrollers space while they work on the mountain! Ask before you approach our working dogs. And if you do approach patrol dogs at the base areas on their breaks, watch your feet, ski boots on paws aren’t so nice.”
Ski.com: Anything else you’d like to add about this year’s ski season and the new avy pups?
“Currently, we have all female dogs on Keystone Patrol, and all Breck’s Golden Retrievers are related!”
New paws on patrol this season:
Cashew and Jetty from Mt. Bachelor are Golden Retrievers and the newest addition to the resort’s avalanche rescue team.
Ruby is a Black Labrador Retriever puppy and one of two new avy pups at Beaver Creek Ski Resort this season. Her handler, Ski Patrol member Toby Harrison, described her as a pup who loves to play and is known to jump straight up in the air out of excitement.
Teli is a Golden Retriever puppy and the second half of the new duo on Beaver Creek’s avalanche rescue team. Gavin Mastell, her handler and a member of the Ski Patrol, described her as very sweet and loving, but when it comes time to work can flip a switch to be incredibly focused.
Sawyer is a Border Collie and Golden Retriever mix and began her training for the avalanche rescue team at Aspen Highlands this winter.
Keep an eye out for these four-legged ski patrol employees if you visit any of these resorts this season. Or, no matter where you’re skiing, watch out for the avy dog team and if they’re not in training feel free to say hi with a belly rub or scratch behind the ear. Tail wags and smiles await!