BRECKENRIDGE - Avalanche rescue dog Atticus had been on the job - training hard at the office and playing hard at home - for more than five years when his owner Duke Barlow noticed he seemed to be in pain.
"He would get sore after a hard day's work," said Barlow, a ski patroller at Breckenridge Ski Resort and Atti's handler.
That was in March. It took months and a visit to a specialist to get a diagnosis; Atti had damage to two of his knees and needed surgery. Together, the procedures on both legs would cost roughly $6,000.
As an avalanche rescue dog, Atticus had health insurance, but it would only cover half of his medical bills. His predicament inspired other rescue dog handlers in Summit County to put together a long-discussed program to make money available to support avalanche dogs.
"There are so many dogs in the county who do so much and there wasn't one place where people could donate to them and it would be tax deductible," said Hunter Mortensen, a member of the Summit County Rescue Group who helped create a system to set aside donations for rescue dogs. "(Atticus) lit the fire under (us) to get it finished."
Patrollers say donations frequently come in from the public for the rescue dogs, but there has never before been a specific bank account for the funds. Now, thanks to Atticus, donors can contribute money to the rescue dogs in Summit County in general, the pups at a specific resort or even a particular dog, online or by check.
The money will be used as needed, to cover medical costs, to send the dogs to training or help with other expenses.
"There are people all the time who want to help out the avalanche rescue dog program," Barlow said. "Now at least there's a way they can do it."
As for Atticus, he got the surgery he needed in late November and after months of recovery is now returning to work. He hasn't rebuilt his stamina yet, but Barlow said his speed is back where it was before his injury and the 7-year-old black lab appears to be thrilled to be back on the job.
"These dogs love to work," Barlow said. "For them it's a game. ... when he first started coming back to work he was so excited."
Ski patrollers describe the avalanche rescue dogs as an "insurance policy" against inbounds slides. Patrol teams take daily precautions, blasting loose snow, cutting up slabs and closing dangerous terrain, to prevent avalanches within the ski area, but in the event someone does get buried, the dogs are second only to a beacon in terms of life-saving tools. Many skiers and snowboarders do not use beacons inbounds.
The dogs don't get many real calls at the resort. They spend the majority of their time training and sometimes offer support on backcountry calls, particularly when the victim is without a beacon.
"He's the brains of the operation," Barlow said of Atticus. "I just kind of do what he tells me. They give themselves to this cause and it's a huge service for the community."
Breckenridge Ski Resort has two fully-certified avalanche rescue dogs, including Atti.