Ski dogs provide safety on slopes Dog supervisor Craig Noble puts his border collie Wylee through some paces on the mountain in Olympic Valley, Calif. (Matt Palmer/Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows via AP/Chris Segal/Crested Butte Mountain Resort via AP)
Ski dogs provide safety on slopes
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Wylee the border collie can search an avalanche the size of a football field.  It takes him five or 10 minutes. It would take a probe line of 50 people using poles a couple hours to cover the same ground.
 
When 30 minutes can mean the difference between life and death for a skier lost on a snowy mountain, most people would bank on the dog.
 
"The fastest thing is a dog.  Faster than a beacon or echo," said Craig Noble.  He is ski patrol and dog supervisor at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resort.  It is in Olympic Valley, California. "We respond to a lot of avalanches that don't involve any people. But we don't know that before we leave. We just get there and get the dogs working."
 
Speed is crucial in avalanche rescues.  Chances of survival are minimal if victims are buried for 30 minutes or more.
 
Noble skis 220 days a year.  He follows the snow from California to Chile and Australia. He also takes yearly classes from the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association.  Those trainings are at Whistler Mountain.  It is in British Columbia. Noble relays what he learns to the ski patrollers at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows (the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics) and Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado. He's brought all of their dog programs up to the same CARDA standard.
 
He also teaches classes for students in the mountain communities. "The kids love the dogs," he said.
 
Every dog and handler must recertify as a team every year, he said.  Before handlers get a dog to work with, they train for a year without one.
 
"It's easier to teach animals than people," Noble explained.
 
Wylee is 8. But he's fit.  And he's a lean 42 pounds. The pooch has plenty of time left in his career, Noble says. Most patrollers use Labradors or golden retrievers. But Noble opted for Wylee partly because he weighs about half what the other breeds weigh. Patrollers have to carry their dogs to search sites in addition to hauling 60-pound backpacks with shovels, probes, headlamps, water and other equipment. The dogs need the lift.  That's so they don't get tired before they start working.
 
Dustin Brown is a ski patroller at Crested Butte.  He is going on his second year handling Moose.  He is a Labrador retriever. Moose "comes to life in the snow. He feels free. It's playtime. There's a new adventure around every corner," Brown said.
 
Other employees on the mountain help with training. Some buy clothes at thrift stores and wear them repeatedly. That's so the fabric absorbs a human scent.  The scent is used to train the dogs. In the event of a search, there won't be time to get a lost skier's scent. So the dogs are trained generically.
 
Dogs are not a requirement for ski patrollers, though. In fact, for every dog team, there are six patrollers who go it alone at Squaw Alpine. And one critical part of keeping slopes safe is something dogs don't participate in.  Those are early morning rounds to identify where snow needs to be blasted off the mountain. That is done so it doesn't fall.
 
Data was not available on how often dogs take part in avalanche searches. Or how often they are able to help locate victims. But the dogs don't save that many people.  That's because there aren't that many to save. A quarter of avalanche victims die from trauma before the snow stops moving.  Of those buried who weren't killed by trauma, half die within 20 minutes.
 
If there is a chance of rescue, though, the dogs can help, Noble said. The dogs also cut search time for remains, Logan said.
 
Erica Mueller got to see how the Crested Butte dogs work.  She volunteered to spend part of an hour in a roomy snow cave waiting to be found.  She was armed with a radio and was wearing several layers to stay warm.
 
"I can't talk like a survivor," said Mueller, who now works as Crested Butte's director of innovations and relations. "But it was definitely a cool way to see how well trained those dogs are."

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are ski dogs so effective?
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COMMENTS (8)
  • ashleyc-bel
    1/13/2016 - 02:07 p.m.

    Ski dogs are so effective because they are trained to this kind of scent.

  • mattl-bel
    1/13/2016 - 02:07 p.m.

    They can search a football feilds worth of sno in 5-10 mins and a human it takes 20-30mins.

  • tylerr2-bel
    1/13/2016 - 02:08 p.m.

    They are so effective because they have a good nose to smell and they are very good listeners. And it takes them 5-10 minutes rather than a human taking up to 30 minutes.

  • elliew-bel
    1/13/2016 - 02:08 p.m.

    They can sniff out where the person is in the Avalanche instead of having fifty people using poles trying to find the person.

  • sophies-bel
    1/13/2016 - 02:10 p.m.

    They can find people easier than we can.

  • sarahj-bel
    1/13/2016 - 02:15 p.m.

    Ski dogs are so effective at that is because they get trained a lot.

  • taylort1-bel
    1/13/2016 - 02:16 p.m.

    It takes the dogs 10 minutes to find the people where it take 50 people a couple hours to.

  • jenniek-bel
    1/14/2016 - 01:59 p.m.

    Ski dogs are so effective because they are trained to this kind of scent.

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