It’s a hot summer morning at Alta, UT—idle chairlifts, parked snowcats, and wildflowers in bloom on now-verdant ski runs. Dozens of dogs gather in a large circle at the base of the Albion chair—mostly labs with some Weimaraners in the mix.
The group is part of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, a Utah non-profit that works with ski resorts and search and rescue groups in Utah’s Wasatch Range. Among other duties, WBR offers training and certification for rescue dog and handler teams for the ski resorts of the Wasatch, and this morning is one of many summer training sessions. These dogs have one job—to save lives—and come winter they’ll be ready to find avalanche-buried skiers and snowboarders both inbounds and out.
“These dogs are mini ambassadors for their ski resorts,” says Margie Van Komen, dog coordinator for WBR and Snowbird ski patroller. “They need to meet kids. They need to be more mellow than an animal like a police K9.”
This kind of temperament is especially impressive when you know what kinds of puppies are chosen to become avalanche rescue dogs.
“Most of us choose dogs that are bred as high drive, very athletic dogs that can handle cold, and the rigors of being outside all day,” Van Komen says. “They’re not your typical house pet. They’ve got so much energy; they could run all day. They would be the dog that would end up in the pound because it drives a family nuts.”
This balance between mellow temperament and high drive comes from training—lots and lots of training. It typically takes a year-and-a-half of obedience and avalanche training for a dog to become certified, and dogs and handlers continue training throughout the duration of the dog’s career, which can last up to 11 years. These dogs and their handlers begin their obedience work, and begin building their bond from a very young age. When it comes to rescue dogs and their handlers, that bond can mean the difference between life and death.
“The relationship with the dog and handler needs to be super tight,” says Van Komen. “We have dogs and handlers start from 7 weeks old. From the 49-day mark these dogs and handlers are together every day…to train that dog into a Level A avalanche dog.”
In addition to inbounds resort work, these Level A dog teams are certified for road and backcountry rescues, including those that involve loading into Sheriff’s helicopters. The stringent testing to become a Level A certified dog and handler team includes being able to clear a 100 by 100-meter avalanche burial site, with an unknown number of burials, in a 20-minute time period. This differs from the testing of an inbounds-only Level B dog, that has to be able to clear that same burial field in the same time frame, but with a finite number of two burials.
With an unknown number of burials, the dog needs to be able to communicate when the site is clear, and the handler needs to be able to understand those communications. Most of the real-life avalanche paths these teams are asked to clear do not actually have any burials, but it takes crystal clear understanding between dog and handler to be sure.
“It’s quite a mind game if you’re not used to it, and it really shows the skills of the handler off within that 20 minutes,” says Van Komen. “Our [dog and handler] testing is some of the toughest in the world.”
These testing standards have made WBR a world-renowned backcountry rescue organization, and because of that, they host the biennial International Dog School as well as other training events in which rescue dog organizations from countries like Switzerland, Poland, and Canada come to participate and learn from one another.
For these dog and handler teams, the off-season is anything but a summer break. Training is constant, and the teams participate in search and rescue operations year-round. While the pandemic has made group training exercises more difficult to schedule, it hasn’t changed the constant training between handlers and dogs.
For new dog and ski handler teams, most of the ski resorts in the Wasatch require a commitment of anywhere from seven to nine years. Primary dog handlers are often some of the most veteran members of a given resort’s ski patrol. With the investment required to build a team to Level A status, success is especially important for resorts like Snowbird and Alta. Located in a protected watershed, these resorts are allotted a very limited number of dog permits, so these resorts can’t afford to have a dog whose training doesn’t pan out. Snowbird and Alta own their dogs, while at resorts like Park City, individual handlers own the dogs.
In choosing dogs, most handlers work with known breeders, selecting puppies from specific bloodlines. Many WBR dogs, in fact, are related to one another. Some of the more experienced handlers, a few who’ve been in the organization for 30 or 40 years, know the specific traits and personalities they’re looking for in their dogs. And they’ll search shelters and rescue organizations looking for the right dog.
From an early age, dogs begin to play games and tug with human-scented items like socks and sweaters. From there, it moves on to games of runaway hide-and-seek where the handler will hide in the woods for the dog to find. After the dog masters those visual seeking games, the games become scent-based. Once the snow falls, they’ll transition to in-snow burial situations.
“It’s so cool to watch the transformation from the pup that’s in the handler’s jacket just watching, and getting nervous and excited, and they don’t quite understand, to watching that dog go out and finally start searching and comprehending what’s going on,” Van Komen says.
These dogs, Van Komen says, love what they do. The young ones learn from the old, getting excited for the drills and rewarded with affection and treats when they complete a task. These summer mornings on the mountain are fun and games for them. When winter comes, though, these fun and games will translate to real-world rescue skills helping to keep skiers on the mountain alive and safe.