Have you ever been curious about what goes on behind the scenes with the ski patrol avalanche rescue dogs? Well, wonder no more because with the help of the great people over at Snowbasin Resort all your big questions have been answered.
1. Recruitment Process
The majority of all avalanche dogs come from a breeder; at Snowbasin Resort they use several different breeders for their dogs.
Sometimes other working dogs will be repurposed to become avalanche dogs.
Most Common/Favored Breeds:
Black Labs and Collies are among the common breeds used for avalanche search, but aren’t the only breeds used.
Typically, dogs that have a high prey drive or that are used for hunting are the ideal dog breed.
How a Dog is Picked from a Litter: Not every dog in a litter is suitable to become an avalanche dog. So, in order to choose the right puppy, the Volhard Test will be used.
Avalanche dogs are usually fixed after they reach maturity for health and socialization benefits.
Male dogs have a higher rate of getting cancer if they don’t get neutered.
If a female avalanche dog is in heat she will not be allowed to go on a mission.
The one big exception for not fixing a dog is because they are going to be used for breeding.
2. Training & Levels of Certification
Drill Training Progression:
One of the first drills an avalanche dog learns is a game of hide and seek, this way the dog will associate the human scent with fun (a toy with human scent on it is used in this drill).
After this drill, the dog will then progress to run-away games where a person will hide behind a tree/building and the dog will have to go and find them.
Once a dog masters the run-away game, they will move on to what is called the Swiss “4 Phase” Progression. Where they start with finding their own handler who has been buried in the snow, then will move on to finding strangers that have been buried.
There are three levels of certification for avalanche dogs with the lowest level being a Candidate C Dog, with the age range of a puppy up to a year old.
In order for a dog to move up to the second level, which is Level B, the dog must pass their home resorts discretion test.
Then when a dog is 18 months or older they become eligible to take the Level A Wasatch Backcountry Rescue certification test. This test can be done at any WBR sponsored resort that’s not the dog’s home area. (different for each state - the WBR certification test applies to Utah)
3. Home Life & On-Mountain Duties
At Snowbasin Resort, every handler personally owns their avalanche dog, but this is not the case at every resort.
When avalanche dogs are at home, their handlers always make sure that their interactions with their dogs won’t affect their training.
For example, tug of war is a high valued reward for an avalanche dog so it will only be played on the mountain, to keep its value.
The day starts pretty early for avalanche dogs and their handlers. On an avalanche reduction day, Snowbasin's dogs and their handlers will arrive at the resort at 5 a.m., and on a “normal” day they will arrive at 7:15 a.m..
At Snowbasin Resort, if the dogs aren’t on the snow they are almost always kenneled. At all of the top stations at Snowbasin, there are kennels for the dogs. Other resorts may have have different or individual policies for where their dogs are located.
When dogs are called to assist their role is to assist in effectively clearing in-bounds and outside of ski area boundary avalanches. Dog teams operate under the jurisdiction of the respective County Sheriff when they work outside of the ski area boundary.
During the offseason/summer, handlers and their dogs will attend training every month through Wasatch Backcountry Rescue.
One of the main drills that they do is with an object called a bark barrel (click the right arrow on the image below to view a video of a bark barrel).
4. Career Longevity
The majority of avalanche dog’s working careers go into the double digits – 10 to 12 years of age.
At some resorts, when a dog reaches retirement age, they will let them stay resort certified, or the dog is just completely retired. Either way, the majority of resorts will always allow the dog to come up to the mountain every day.
A dog will have their search test every two years until they turn 10 years old and will take their obedience test every year. After a dog turns 10 years old, they will have to take their search test every year.
The search test covers 100 meters by 100 meters of terrain and has between 1 and 3 victims; the goal is to find all victims in twenty minutes.
This article would have not been possible without Eric Landreth and his dog Jiggs, and Rich Webb and his dog Slayer. These four are truly incredible and offered a great deal of insight into the world of avalanche rescue dogs. Below is some fun information about the two handlers I worked with and their dogs.
Let us know in the comments below if you have any questions for Eric or Rich and their pups.
A Bit About Us: Eric & Jiggs
Handlers name: Eric Landreth
Number of years as a handler: 9 years
Dogs name: Jiggs
Dog’s certification level: Level A WBR Avalanche Rescue Dog
Dog's age: 8 years old (birthday: January 26)
Dogs breed: Tri-color border collie
The dogs favorite run: Upper Main Street or Philpot Ridge
Dog’s favorite thing to do: Go to work
Favorite food/treats: Jerky
Fun facts about the dog:
Jiggs was originally supposed to be a competing herd dog
Jiggs sometimes will go to herding camps in the summer
Jigg’s favorite toy is the Ruffwear Orange Bumper
Jiggs and Flint (another Snowbasin Dog) are distantly related, as Jiggs' mom is Flint’s grandma
A Bit About Us: Rich & Slayer
Handlers name: Rich Webb
Number of years as a handler: primary handler for 2 years and a secondary handler for 2 years (4 years total)
Primary handlers own the dogs
Secondary handlers can handle the dog
Dogs name: Slayer
Dog’s certification level: Level B Snowbasin
Dog's age: 2 years old (birthday: February 1)
Dogs breed: Black lab
The dogs favorite run: Pork Barrel
Dog’s favorite thing to do: Play with Flint (One of Snowbasin's avalanche dogs)
Favorite food/treats: Butcher bones with bone marrow
Fun facts about the dog:
She has a sister from the same litter that works at Park City Mountain named Jasper
Favorite position to stand (refer to image below)