Safety and scents |

Safety and scents

Jordan Curet The Aspen Times Weekly

For the dogs it’s just a game.

The playful pooches trained as search-and-rescue dogs on Aspen-area ski mountains just want to get at a special toy or earn the praise of their handler.

To ski patrollers, however, a buried avalanche victim transforms that game into a desperate race for life.

“The first half-hour is the rush time,” said Brad Benson, a 10-year veteran of Aspen Mountain ski patrol who heads the four-mountain avalanche dog program.

A human buried in an avalanche has just a few precious minutes before running out of air, and that’s where dogs are vital, Benson said. With nimble feet and keen noses, avalanche dogs can cover more terrain in a few minutes than a small army of human searchers with avalanche probes.

Though local avalanche dogs have not been called into action for a live search ” yet ” the animals regularly check avalanche sloughs for victims at local ski areas and are on call for backcountry searches under an agreement with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, Benson said.

“Most ski areas with avalanche hazard have a dog or two,” Benson said.

In December 2000, Keno, a 5-year-old Yellow Lab, saved a Canadian skier just 25 minutes after a slide, according to the site

There are a total of 10 dogs on area mountains ” four at Snowmass, three at Aspen Mountain, two at Highlands, and one dog at Buttermilk. The most important element of ski-area avalanche safety is early season control and ongoing maintenance and evaluation by the ski patrol, but dogs are a key secondary component.

Avalanche dogs have become part of the scene atop many North American ski mountains, hanging around the patrol shack and charming both locals and tourists. In fact modern-day avalanche dogs are part of an alpine tradition dating back to the 11th century, when the first Saint Bernards ” named for the Swiss mountain pass and monastery they guarded ” helped wayward travelers crossing between Italy and Switzerland, according to a breed history with the American Kennel Club.

During World War II, Alsatians sniffed out wounded soldiers on the battlefields of Europe or found victims trapped in bombed areas of London. Since the late 1930s, the Swiss Army has trained dogs to search avalanches. This tradition, like skiing, would migrate to the United States, and common American breeds such as Labradors and golden retrievers became the favorites on U.S. slopes.

The scent of a human buried in the snow rises at a rate of about 1 foot per minute depending on the snowpack, Benson said, and avalanche dogs are trained to “air scent” a victim from far away (other dogs, such as bloodhounds, track scents on the ground).

Arriving on an avalanche scene, a dog handler will check for visual clues and “send” the dog to any signs of life, such as a ski or piece of gear poking through the snow. The handler starts the dog on the downwind side of an avalanche to follow any scent upwind.

Training the dogs is a painstaking process, requiring one year of intensive obedience training, Benson said, and not every pooch makes the cut.

Recently, Aspen Skiing Company ski patrollers from all four area mountains gathered at the base of Tiehack at Buttermilk to test a new generation of avalanche dogs. The exercise was the first of three levels that local dogs must pass in order to be certified.

“Reina!” shouted Ben Carlsen, a Snowmass patroller, as he called his dog to his side at the start of the training exercise. Reina, a 1-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever and one of 10 dogs working area mountains, perked up her ears at the sound of her handler’s voice.

Other dog handlers stood by, clipboards in hand, to rate Carlsen and Reina’s performance of the basic obedience skills.

Carlsen and Reina rode up the Lower Tiehack lift and skied down to the waiting group to show that Reina could run alongside a skier without getting underfoot.

Then, starting with simple “come” and “stay” commands, Carlsen walked Reina through her paces, leading the dog under a “heel” command through a slalom course of the other patrollers and checking that Reina would recognize Carlsen when another patroller distracted the dog.

Next, Carlsen gave Reina a “stay” command, and for the next five minutes the dog had to hold her spot, frozen drool hanging from her mouth and a quizzical look on her face, as Carlsen went out of sight into a warming hut for the last few minutes of the exercise.

Reina didn’t budge until Carlsen returned, and the dog bounded around him playfully when she was released.

In fact, training is all about play, Carlsen said later. And the next “sending” exercise was a carefully choreographed game of fetch, in which Carlsen directed Reina to pick up scattered throw-toys on a simulated avalanche search.

In the last and most important test, Carlsen hid behind a shallow snowbank for Reina to find him, an exercise that tested her basic instinct to hunt for lost humans, Benson said.

“She went through all the criteria for the obedience training and she did really good with everything, so I’m happy with it,” Carlsen said.

On the same day, Dante, a 10-month-old black Lab, also passed.

Local patrollers are members of the volunteer organization Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado, and borrow some training standards from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but avalanche dog certification is an “in house” matter, Benson said.

In the second level of training, dogs will have 20 minutes to find two test victims buried in a 100-by-100-foot area, Benson said. The third level of testing covers a larger search area and employs decoys, such as buried backpacks, to confuse the dogs.

The Aspen program has borrowed from experienced avalanche trainers at Copper Mountain, Benson said, where dogs are regularly enlisted for searches in high-mountain passes. Some of the dogs receive further training at the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue School in Utah.

“When you need ’em, it’s pretty impressive to see a dog work,” Benson said. And when a dog clears an avalanche of victims, Benson is confident the situation is safe.

“You can trust a dog’s nose,” he said.

“This is a game to the dog,” said Steve Howard, a former Basalt Fire Department chief and an experienced Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) dog handler. It would be nice to think rescue dogs act out of altruism, he said, but “all they’re thinking is they’ll get a Frisbee or a pull-toy.”

Howard and his dog Odie, now 13 and retired, spent 10 days at the World Trade Center in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The pair searched ground zero in Lower Manhattan long after any survivors were found, Howard said, and at the end of every shift Howard would plant a live subject that Odie could find and gain his confidence back.

Avalanche training is much simpler than urban search and rescue, where dogs exploring dangerous rubble piles must be under complete control of handlers. Because of his experience, Howard, who trains new Skico employees, helps with local avalanche dog training.

“If the handler’s really tense, then the dog senses that,” Howard said, something he called “transmitting emotions down the leash.”

Handlers must be “bipolar” to train dogs, Howard said, able to switch instantly from a gruff, alpha-dog command to high-pitched praise when dogs behave as they’re asked.

“The dogs pick up the game pretty quickly,” Howard said, but it’s the handlers that must be trained not to over-command or confuse the dog.

Handlers must know their dog, teach the dog who is boss, and “constantly develop the dog’s ability to learn,” Howard said, especially in the first year.

And both dogs and handlers must have what Howard calls a “high play drive,” and be willing to spend long hours just goofing around, playing fetch and being silly, Howard said.

“They have to be good citizens,” Howard said of avalanche dogs, and he emphasized the importance of good basic obedience training because dogs mostly work as ambassadors on area mountains.

Skico employed its first search-and-rescue dog in the 1980s. Chopper belonged to Chris Kessler, one of the ski patrollers who died in an avalanche at Highland Bowl in 1984, Benson said.

After Kessler’s death, Chopper worked at Aspen Mountain. Then in the mid-1980s, Snowmass patroller Ted Bennett brought his dog, Doc, into service, followed by Recco at Highlands.

“It’s kind of grown by a dog or two,” Benson said. His own dog, an Airedale named Snowden, served on Aspen Mountain for years.

While Labradors and golden retrievers are popular avalanche-dog breeds, Benson said any hearty working dog will do. Labradors and other high-strung breeds make frantic, high-speed searchers, but other breeds such as shepherds are more methodical.

The dogs go home with their handlers, and Skico pays handlers an annual stipend for dog food, and has a barter agreement for ski passes with a local veterinarian for medical services.

In summer months, handlers often get together to keep training fresh, and some dogs work as search-and-rescue dogs in other venues, Benson said.

“But most of the dogs revert back to pets in the summer,” Benson said.

Handlers are careful not to run dogs downhill too much, especially when they’re puppies, Benson said.

Years of post-holing in deep snow often leads to arthritis, and ACL injuries are common in search dogs, but Benson said most dogs work until the age of 8 or 9 before retiring.

Avalanche dogs play an important public-relations role, both welcoming guests and raising avalanche awareness, Benson said. Aspen patrollers welcome school groups for safety demonstrations where the dogs find volunteers buried in the snow.

“The kids love it,” Benson said.

People passing the patrol hut often stop in and ask about the dogs, a good opportunity to spread the word about avalanche danger and the importance of staying in bounds.

“It’s amazing how often people haven’t heard of such a thing,” Benson said.

During big snow dumps, patrollers on each of the four mountains keep at least one dog on-site for any potential search, Benson said.

But one glimpse of these dogs at “work” ” mostly greeting guests, playing tug of war and bounding alongside their handlers ” proves that life remains a game for these mountain mutts.

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