Vail Ski Patrol has rescued me twice.
The first time was when they found and returned my snowboard after it took a solo ride down the mountain.
The second was when I fell while snowboarding and very unawesomely – dislocated my elbow. My happiness in seeing Ski Patrol that day was likely higher than the joy I felt in almost all other major life events, combined, up to that point. A woman from Vail Ski Patrol took me down the mountain in a toboggan, to the Suburban waiting to drive me to the hospital. (To note, no one around Vail is without a sense of humor, the ceiling I was staring at as I laid in the back of the truck – had comics taped to it – for the much needed, and appreciated, comic relief.)
Although I have never needed the help of Vail Ski Patrol’s Rescue Dogs, they do have three canine assistants they can enlist as necessary. Henry, the first and most famous of Vail’s canine employees, is owned by Assistant Ski Patrol Director, Chris “Mongo” Reeder. Skiers and snowboarders often see Henry on the mountain greeting and playing with guests, but when work demands it, Henry, and the other dogs, are pivotal in rescue processes. I recently had the chance to ask Mongo some questions about Henry and the Vail Rescue dogs – here is a bit of what he had to say:
How did you get involved with ski patrol and dog rescue? Where did you get Henry?
In 2007 Vail Ski Patrol identified a need and a value to having rescue dogs on the mountain and Vail’s chief operating officer and senior vice president, Chris Jarnot, agreed. This was the beginning of the avalanche rescue dog program and Henry was Vail Ski Patrol’s first avalanche rescue dog. He is a golden retriever from Michigan. In 2012 Mookie, a black lab from South Dakota, and Rocky, another golden retriever from Colorado, also joined Vail’s avalanche rescue dog team.
What does the training process look like for the dogs, how long does it last, how do you know when they are “ready”?
The training process for the dogs begins when they are puppies and continues throughout their service careers. It is a glorified game of hide and seek and their final exam in Colorado is called the CRAD A Level test.
Why was it decided to bring rescue dogs into the Vail Ski Patrol program?
The decision to bring avalanche dogs into the Vail Ski Patrol program was to increase community awareness about snow safety through talks at local schools, increase Ski Patrol’s visibility on the hill, and provide the best, fastest and most well equipped response possible in the event of an actual avalanche rescue.
In what type of situations are the rescue dogs used? Not used?
Vail’s avalanche rescue dogs are most often used at the resort to engage with guests on Vail Mountain and to share the safety message at the resort. The dogs are also fully trained and capable of being used as part of the first response team in the event of an avalanche. In these instances the avalanches typically happen in the backcountry (not within ski area boundaries) and so the dogs can be picked up by helicopter and taken to the rescue site. Vail’s avalanche rescue dogs are not used in response to any medical deployments on Vail Mountain.
Does a part of the training involve simulating avalanche events with people being buried?
Vail Ski Patrol conducts drills with the avalanche rescue dogs by placing volunteer victims in a snow cave with the dogs’ favorite toy. The location of the burial is usually unknown to the dog so they are forced to use their sense of smell to locate the victim and their toy. After locating the victim and digging their way into the snow cave the victims are instructed to very enthusiastically play tug of war with the dogs, which is their favorite game and the reward for locating the buried volunteer. This is the only time that the dogs are allowed to play their favorite game in the world and we conduct many different styles of drills to increase this “victim loyalty.”
What qualities do you look for in identifying a dog that would be good for rescue situations? Can you only use certain breeds?
The desire to want to play tug of war is evident in some dogs at a very young age and it is not uncommon when choosing a puppy for a handler to bring a tug toy and see which puppies already have a desire to tug. Many different breeds of dog have the potential to be good avalanche rescue dogs however, the most popular are dogs that have a genetic history of being working dogs. Among these are Retrievers, Labs, Shepherds, and Heelers.
Does every dog only have only one handler?
Most of our dogs have two handlers. The one exception is that our first dog Henry initially had three handlers before both of his secondary handlers went on to have dogs of their own – Mookie and Rocky.
When it is unknown how many people were affected by an avalanche, how do you know when to stop searching?
The dogs are very effective, efficient and thorough. When the dogs have effectively covered an entire slide path the handlers typically have a high level of confidence that there is nothing buried there. In the event that Vail’s avalanche rescue dogs are needed at the site of a slide, there will typically be multiple dogs brought in to work at the site so that we can have a level of redundancy.
Are all rescue dogs trained as puppies?
Yes, most avalanche rescue dogs are trained as puppies.
Do rescue dogs need more calories than a city dog?
Similar to human athletes, avalanche rescue dogs burn more calories than most dogs and so we are careful to make sure that they eat properly and get the nutrition that they need. Diets consist of additional protein and vegetables added to their dry food.
Do they ride the lifts?
All avalanche rescue dogs are trained to ride chairlifts, snowmobiles and ski patrol toboggans. It is important to be able to transport the dogs while preserving their energy and keep them as “rescue ready” as possible. It is also important to minimize impact on their joints as much as possible in this tough environment, especially with some of the larger breeds.
How do you train a dog to stay safe during rescues?
Keeping the dogs safe during rescues is the utmost concern of the handler and we do a lot of training to try and keep the dogs away from ski edges that can cut their feet and other skiers in the area. When approaching one of the avalanche rescue dogs on the mountain we always ask that people take off their skis or let the dogs come to them.
Are they used for any other rescue situations other than locating people in avalanches?
Occasionally avalanche rescue dogs are also trained to perform other tasks. Examples of this that I have seen in the past are for use as FEMA search dogs in areas struck by natural disaster and for summer time search and rescue.
How do you know when the dog has located a buried person?
When one of the dogs locates a person under the snow they have a signal to let the handler know called an “alert”. This usually comes in the form of digging or what is known as a bark alert, which is just as it sounds.
Who pays for rescue when someone intentionally skis out of bounds?
Different rescue agencies have their own fees associated with conducting rescues in the backcountry and I cannot speak to the specific charges one might incur when requiring the services of an agency outside of the Vail Ski Patrol. Vail Ski Patrol is tasked with the safety of those skiing within the ski area boundary and that is our first priority. If Vail Ski Patrol is asked to help with a rescue outside of the ski area boundary, and we have the personnel available to help, it is done so under the jurisdiction of the Eagle County Sheriff’s office and any fees incurred during this service are at their discretion.
Who owns the dogs?
At Vail all of the avalanche rescue dogs are owned by their primary handlers. This is not the case at many resorts however, and it is not uncommon for the dogs to be owned by the resort or by private parties unaffiliated with Ski Patrol.
What do the dogs do off season and in the evenings?
In the off season and evenings Vail’s avalanche rescue dogs are normal pets. Being an avalanche rescue dog is very taxing and they usually sleep very well. In the off season we will usually just try to keep them fit and active. Occasionally we will play games of hide and seek and do other simple drills that remind them of their winter job but for the most part they have the summers off.