I Want To Be An Avalanche Dog!

Nellie Pretending she’s on the Mountain. . .

Nellie, our three-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, and I were sitting on the couch watching a movie about avalanches and watching it snow outside.

She was excited and began barking.

Nellie (and her sidekick Tank) love snow. Favorite words: Snowed in. Drifts. Snow days. UPS truck stuck in snow in front of our house. Winter Storm Warning. (Not to be confused with its weak cousin, “Winter Storm Watch,” or the even more noncommittal, “Winter Weather Advisory.”)

But while Tank simply wanted to go play in the snow, I could sense something deeper in Nellie’s bark.

It was like when your child comes home all excited and says, “I want to play the Bassoon!”

Nellie wanted to be an Avalanche Dog! She sat up a little straighter and I could tell she was seeing herself in the red rescue vest of an “Avy Dog.” She let out that deep “Woof!” of a dog that had found her vocation.

Avalanche dogs, for summer people, are the dogs that avalanche- prone ski areas use to help find and rescue people that have become trapped in slides. For the last ten years, an average of twenty-eight individuals per year have died in avalanches, most of them in Colorado according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

If buried in a slide your chances of survival are around fifty percent for up to thirty minutes and then drop quickly to twenty percent. Fast rescue is essential. This is where the dogs come in. A trained avalanche dog, using their extraordinary sense of smell, can cover a football field-sized slide area in twenty minutes. It would take hours for a human crew to search the same area probing the snow with poles.

Sensing Nellie’s eagerness, I felt I should jump in and help. I’d done the same routines with my daughters. Guitar lessons, cello lessons, hockey lessons, soccer camps and the junior firefighter academy.

So I called Bob Willette. He runs the Avalanche Dog Program for the Taos Ski area, the only Class A Avalanche resort in New Mexico. “Class A” means that the terrain is favorable to avalanches. (And also favorable to some of the best skiing in the world! But that’s another story . . .)

Bob has been on the Taos Ski Patrol and worked with the avalanche dogs for twenty-seven years. My first question was “Why have you worked so long with dogs?”

He responded that he liked dogs more than people — except for his family and friends. A kindred spirit.

With Nellie in mind, I asked him to explain the process of becoming an “Avy” dog.

Apparently, breeding is a big part of this. I choose not to mention this to Nellie. She was sitting by my side, all enthusiastic.

“We’ve trained fifteen dogs, most of them Labs and Retrievers. They have great noses, a double coat that keeps them warm, webbed feet that help in deep snow and they love to please people.

I decided not to mention to Bill our dog’s opinions about Labs. Pleasing people is not high on the agenda of most Berners, they are here to be pleased, not please.

Typically, Bill went on, it takes a couple of years to train a avalanche dog starting with basic obedience training as puppies and then moving on to training on the mountain. Besides learning how to search, they have to be comfortable riding on sleds, chairlifts and snowmobiles. They need to be comfortable with people, deal with the excitement of a search and possess the ability to work hard over the hours it takes to get to a scene and search.

But it comes back to their ability to smell. James Walker, the former director of the Sensory Institute of Florida State University, was recently interviewed by Nova. He said, “A dog’s sense of smell is an order of magnitude, — 10,000 times — better than ours. If we were talking about sight, we could see a 1/3 of a mile and a dog could see 3000 miles just as clearly.”

Avalanche dogs use this astonishing ability to track down individuals buried as deep as six feet under compact snow.

“We train every week,” Bill went on. “We do single burial and multiple burial simulations, both with human volunteers and articles of clothing. The dogs love it. They are high energy and will keep working, probably until they physically couldn’t.”

It was here that I asked the obvious question. “What do you think about Bernese Mountain Dogs? (I stressed the word “Mountain.”)

Bill replied, “I love Berners.”

Then there was a pause. He continued. “The problem is they have weak noses. And they are big-boned. The snow here is light and deep. Our dogs are like seals swimming through it. A Berner would need a sled to get her to the slide area.”

I could absolutely envision Nellie being regally pulled on a sled up to the avalanche area, preferably by a team of retrievers.

Then I noticed both our dogs had decided to nap, which actually is what they are best at. So maybe we’d just let the avalanche dog dream fade and enjoy our snow days together.

But I wanted to let Bill have the last word. “In an avalanche, if you’re not wearing a beacon, it’s going to be a dog that will save you, if you are to be saved. And the majority of the skiers up here don’t wear beacons.”

The next time you’re in the mountains and you see a dog with a red rescue vest playing in the snow, happy as all get out, recall that they are preparing for the most important of work: saving people.

But it’s not going to be Nellie.

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