The sky above is blue and the sun is shining down, sparkling across the snowy mountain field. Mia the dog bounds forward and suddenly stops. She whines, sniffs at the snow and starts digging, snow blurring beneath her paws. A few feet later she strikes something - a human buried under the snow. As the person is uncovered, Mia wiggles with excitement and waits to receive her reward, a game of tug.
This is a scene from Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Mia is an avalanche rescue dog in training. She performs drills with her owner and handler, Kyle Hagadorn, to learn the skills needed to quickly locate and rescue avalanche victims. Each of the ski resorts within Summit County has avalanche rescue teams ready at a moment's notice if disaster strikes. While technology such as beacons and receivers often help find people beneath the snow, if a person did not have a beacon or the beacon has been torn away, the avalanche rescue dogs are the next best thing to find them.
Extensive training is required for an avalanche dog and its handler, both to develop the necessary skills and to receive certification. The dogs start their training at a young age, usually around 1 year old, and work closely with their handlers. Most of the time, the handler is also the dog's owner, so the two both live and work together and become very close.
"We bring them up and get them acclimated to the ski area operation - riding up chairlifts, guest interactions, riding snowmobiles and day-to-day patrol dog life at the patrol headquarters," Hagadorn said.
Once the dog is comfortable, it will start out with simple drills, such as hide and seek. The way the dogs find people buried in snow is through scent, so they are trained what to sense and then how to act once they've found something.
"The best part of working with a dog is they learn almost immediately when they are training. They love their job," said Bill Blair, ski patrol foreman at Copper Mountain, who works with his dog, Avry Jones.
Over at Breckenridge Ski Resort, which has a six-dog avalanche rescue team, qualifying to be a handler is an important, rigorous process. They must be an advanced patroller in their third or fourth season, have basic Emergency Medical Technician skills, reached at least the second level of avalanche training and complete Incident Command Systems (ICS) classes, which cover how to coordinate between the ski patrol, search and rescue and the sheriff's office in an emergency.
Once a handler has been qualified, he or she can begin training their dog. Breckenridge has three levels of avalanche rescue dog. C level is for beginners in their first seasons. These dogs practice basic obedience and learn the simple drills. They will be second or third responders in case of an incident within ski area boundaries. To graduate to the next level, they must search a 100-by-100-foot area to find a buried victim within 20 minutes.
B level dogs are then given a more rigorous test, which involves searching a 200-by-200-foot area for two buried victims within 20 minutes. These dogs can be first responders to an incident within the ski area boundaries.
The most advanced dogs are the A level, which receive that distinction once they pass the difficult test of finding an unknown number of victims (up to three) within a 300-by-300-foot area (that's a football field by a football field, to give an idea) in no more than 30 minutes. This test is actually slightly more difficult than the certification test, which features a 250-by-250-foot area.
"We always try to stay a little above the game," said Dave Leffler, avalanche technician and dog program coordinator at Breckenridge. He has been training his golden retriever, Roux, for eight years. "Ninety-nine percent of the time it's the handlers that fail, not the dogs," he said of the tests.
The training, Leffler said, is constant. The dogs and handlers must keep their skills sharp. Every four weeks, for example, the Breckenridge avalanche rescue dogs practice loading and unloading from the Flight for Life helicopter. Flight for Life is the only medical helicopter that drops its crew in order to pick up the avalanche crew, said Leffler.
"The pilot needs to know the people behind him know what they're doing back there."
Working every day together creates a bond between handler and owner. Through their training, the two become a team, an inseparable pair, that can understand each other on a deep level.
"A lot of it is body language," Leffler said. Each team is unique too, he said, to the point where he would find it difficult to work with a dog other than his own.
"There's an intense bond created," he said.
Janie Merickel, ski patrol supervisor at Copper, said, "The best part of working with Copper is her complete devotion, or purity of purpose, for the mission."
"It takes a lot of effort, not just by the handlers themselves but the whole patrol," Leffler said.
Each dog is different, just like each person is different. Often, breed is a factor in the way that a dog works with its handler. Some dogs, like labrador retrievers and golden retrievers, are comfortable roaming far from their handlers, where a dog like a collie or an Australian shepherd might prefer to stay close to their handlers' side.
"We're looking for a dog that has high drive and we're tapping into that," Leffler said. They key is to find a dog that is both high-energy and people-friendly, he said. This is not only for the handlers, but the public as well.
"Education and PR within the ski areas is definitely a big aspect of the dog program," Hagadorn said.
It's true - the avalanche rescue dogs are often seen in demonstrations, most recently during Safety Week at the various resorts. Mike Daly from Keystone Resort showed up at Frisco Elementary with his dog Annie and Leffler will be giving a presentation at "Go Dog, Go!!!" Friday to raise money for the Breckenridge Music Festival.
"PR is probably their second most important duty here at the ski area," Leffler said.
"It's a great program," Hagadorn said. "If anybody has any more interest or questions, all the patrols are more than open to answering questions and letting people meet the dogs."