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It’s a ruff life in Snowmass. Well, maybe just for the four-legged members of the Snowmass Ski Patrol. Before skiers and riders head out to the slopes, the patrol dogs of Snowmass head up to their high alpine stations. These avalanche dogs have a very special place in the search and rescue ranks of ski patrol; and, while they might get to enjoy a dog’s life, they also train hard to be ready for any on-mountain emergency.
All patrol dogs are raised by their ski patrol handlers. These pairs have incredibly close bonds, and after long days on the slopes they head home together where both patroller and dog get to kick off their work vests. The oldest dog on the Snowmass team, 8 year old Piper, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling retriever started training with her owner Dan Berg at just 10 weeks old. It takes nearly three years for the dogs to become fully certified and that means a lot of patience and training to get there.
Patrol dog and human teams run drills at Snowmass two or three times a week. The beginning stages of training are games that become more complex as the dog progresses. These games involve burying backpacks or other patrollers in the snow to have the dogs use their nose and tracking skills to seek them out. The reward for training is the dogs’ favorite game of all…
Some of the certifications require annual, intense training like the recent helicopter training at the top of the Cirque. After a debrief from the flight crew for the humans, the dogs had the opportunity to practice – jumping into the helicopter, getting situated and so on. Then, the handlers and dogs hunkered down at the nose of the helicopter while the rotors spun up, allowing the dogs to get used to the noise and the wind. All four sat right in place until the bird was safely up and away. Once the training ends, the handlers throw toys across the snow as if to signal that the workday is over, and playtime has just begun.
The youngest and newest addition to the team is two-year-old Tina. Like her co-workers, she’s been training since she was a puppy. The other two team members are Lando, a two-year-old Black German Shepard and Odin, a five-year-old Labrador.
So, if the dogs are stationed close to possible avalanche terrain, at the higher patrol headquarters, how do they get there? Just like skiers, they hop on the lifts. Patrol dogs are also comfortable riding on snowmobiles, toboggans and even over the shoulders of their owners as they ski around the mountain.
Another important part of training is getting comfortable around lots of people. So, when you stop for a slice of pizza and warm cookie at Up 4 Pizza, you may get the chance to meet one of these impressive working dogs. Always be sure to ask before you give them a pet. There are two dogs on duty every day, so keep your eyes peeled for these hard-working Snowmass patrol pups!