When the forecast calls for snow, skiers and riders rejoice and load up the car. But behind the scenes of the best powder days, is an elite team of tail wagging, tongue lolling Truckee-Tahoe avalanche dogs. These aren’t your average pets. They’re hardworking dogs who’ve earned their stripes on Ski Patrol as trained search and rescue members.
What do avalanche dogs do?
Besides being incredibly cute coworkers, avalanche dogs work alongside resort Ski Patrollers as a key part of rescue operations. Beginning as young puppies, they go through extensive training to locate scents and dig up articles of clothing. Once they become validated, they assist on rescue missions at the resort and in the backcountry. Some have even been flown into searches by helicopter!
When it comes to organized rescues, these furry first responders are a key tool in a ski resort’s toolbox. Together, with technology like avalanche beacons and RECCO, they help resorts and backcountry search and rescue operations locate clues to someone who may have been buried in an avalanche or assist in giving the “all clear” to a slide path. During winter storms and times of high avalanche danger, teams of highly skilled pups and patrollers are standing by, ready to respond if needed.
How are they trained?
Training begins from day one! Each dog is assigned a handler, a human companion and experienced member of Ski Patrol responsible for raising and training their dog. From the moment a handler brings their dog home, the young puppies get right to work. For these pups, training consists of getting used to all the new sights and sounds at the ski resort, and learning to LOVE snow!
From there, the dogs advance to “the search game.” They start by finding a human friend hiding behind a tree or object and progress all the way to finding their handler in a snow cave and articles of clothing buried in the snow. After a successful find, the dogs are rewarded with positive praise and their favorite game, tug-o-war!
Truckee-Tahoe avalanche dogs follow the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) standard, the highest level of training for avalanche rescue dogs. Once a dog certifies at this level of training, they can respond to calls not only at their home ski resort, but also in the backcountry throughout the Truckee-Tahoe region.
Meet the dogs!
While this 13-year-old pooch is now retired from the force, he might possibly be the most experienced avalanche dog ever. Wylee, a Border Collie who holds the 8.5 minute FKT of running up the KT lift line, has chased the neverending winter between ski resorts in Chile (Ski Portillo for one) and Squaw Valley. He has worked a total of 19 winter seasons, 12 of those at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. Now, he is enjoying retirement but still loves spending his days at Ski Patrol HQ to offer sage advice to the rookies and spend time with his furry friends.
Following in the paw prints of his older brother Wylee, Jackson is a one-year-old Border Collie who certified last year at 15 months old. In the summer, he loves playing hide and seek in the woods with his young human friends, and once the snow flies at the start of winter he’s back to work.
This season will be an important one for Echo, a 1.5-year-old Black Lab who progressed to finding buried articles last year. She will attempt to validate in March to become a mission ready dog! She spent the summer hiking, swimming, and practicing obedience and search games to keep her sharp for the winter ahead. Now she’s back in the winter mindset, putting her nose to snow for focused training.
This one-year-old tweener is the rising star of the dog program at Sugar Bowl Resort. This winter, he will be focused on improving his search skills and working towards a future validation. He has big paw prints to fill as he follows hot on the heels of Nova and Buster who validated over the past two seasons. To get an inside look at Griffey’s day to day, follow him @GriffeyTheAvyDog on Instagram!
On the puppy cuteness scale of 1-10, Graupel scores a 15! This tiny Black Lab is a brand new member of the Sugar Bowl Resort team. Even though she is only a few months old, she has already demonstrated her love of snow! Griffey will be showing her the ropes this year, and helping her get used to her new job on the slopes.
Can guests say hi to the dogs?
Ski resorts are full of distractions like skiers, snowmobiles, and moving objects. Interacting with guests is actually an important part of a dog’s socialization training and helps them become desensitized to the various sights and sounds of the resort. You’ll probably see avalanche dogs on the slopes while you’re out skiing or riding, but remember these are four legged friends in uniform! It may be okay to come up and say hello, but always ask the handler first. These pups are working dogs and they could be in the middle of important training, or sometimes it’s just not the right time for them to switch mindset.
Take an Avalanche Education Class & Recreate Responsibly
Love backcountry skiing/riding? Truckee-Tahoe avalanche dogs want you to have the skills, knowledge, and essential gear for backcountry travel before you hit the trail. Whether you’re a total beginner or have a decade of backcountry experience, everyone can participate in lifelong learning to keep one another safe in avalanche terrain.
Brush up on your skills with this series of short safety videos from the Tahoe Backcountry Safety Awareness Week with the Sierra Avalanche Center. Then, take your avalanche education to the next level with these Truckee-Tahoe education providers who offer extensive training courses for backcountry skiers and riders. The Sierra Avalanche Center also offers free classes for motorized users.
Support Truckee-Tahoe’s Avalanche Dogs
The nonprofits below help support the avy dog programs at each ski resort. Funds raised go towards training supplies, food, and veterinary costs. You can make a direct donation with the links below or purchase an avalanche dog t-shirt at each ski resort.
Planning a trip to a nearby ski area? Read Ski Well, Be Well. Guide to Truckee-Tahoe Ski Resort Openings in 2020 and plan a safe visit with these Best Practices for Winter: More Fun Outside, Less Indoor Gatherings.
Siobhan traveled the American West as a National Park Ranger before setting down roots in Truckee. Outdoor adventure is her bread and butter and most days you can find her skiing, trail running, or backpacking. Follow along with her adventures on Instagram @siokenney.