Take 5: Life of a Copper Mountain avalanche rescue dog
February 21, 2017
Baloo comes from a long line of lifesavers.
At eight weeks old, the black Labrador moved from a rescue-dog training center in California to the cold, snowy mountains of Colorado. He left his brother, a rescue dog being primed for work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and was soon introduced to Janie Merickel, a veteran avalanche dog handler at Copper Mountain Resort.
"It ends up being a win-win," Merickel said of the avy dog program at Copper and other resorts across the state, which gives ski patrollers the opportunity to train with their canine best friends while on the clock. "You have happy people working for the resort and better dogs, and that's always a plus."
Now 4 years old, Baloo is one of nearly a dozen avy dogs at Copper this season and is fast entering his prime. He's young, intelligent, faithful and full of boundless energy — almost exactly what handlers look for in a dog — and, like any good manager, Merickel likes to keep him busy. Baloo spends four or five days per week on the mountain with his handler, practicing burial drills, retrieval drills, lift-loading exercises and even odd little one-offs, like learning to use his master's backpack as a seat when he's stuck in the snow for long stretches.
From burial drills on Indian Ridge to fetch at patrol headquarters, Baloo's training all comes down to one thing: staying ready and willing and excited to help humans in need. But he's far from Super Pooch — no avy dog is. Like their human handlers, rescue dogs need a constant mix of training, rest and reward to stay ready for the worst.
"This is a long season, so when I see a great deal of fatigue — when it's cold, for example — sometimes I'll give him a break," said Merickel, who's been working on Copper patrol for 20 years and training dogs for 10 years, including her first dog, a retired golden retriever fittingly named Copper. "But this is the heat of the season, this is our high time to train. They can sleep in the offseason, just like the rest of us."
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On a stunning February morning, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Merickel to talk about Baloo, his training regimen and why everyone — dog and human — is in this together. It's just what they do.
Summit Daily News: Let's start at the top: How did you get started with avy dog training? It seems like an in-demand part of the job.
Janie Merickel: It kind of is. The people working in the dog program have the ability to get all of their work done, be good patrollers and still work with the dogs — people who like to do that extra work do it because they love the dogs. It's really fun to do that, and it's really fun to have them be your partner. It's so different from the other things we do. I think that's why people come to ski patrol. They want something different, whether it's events or snow safety — looking at snowpack and avalanche danger — or working with the dogs. You never know what your day will be like.
SDN: Talk about training an avalanche dog. There's more to it than preparing for in-bounds incidents, right?
JM: The avalanche rescue part of it is fascinating. We don't expect avalanches to happen here, but it's nice to have that tool just in case. We're all ready for it, but I feel like my avalanche rescue (skills) will come out of bounds — on Shrine Pass, somewhere else. I'm just honored I can bring her to work with me.
SDN: Baloo was bred to be a search-and-rescue dog, but you had to start somewhere. What are the basic drills you run when a dog is new to patrol?
JM: You know how your dog wants to play with you, wants to bond? The dogs we pick out have a high drive for things like tug, which is close to hunting. We ask our dogs to go hunt the human in the snow, or like Baloo — he also works in the summer — to find that person lost in the forest.
It starts with games. If I were going to train your dog, you would go hide behind a tree or in a ditch or something, and then have her find you because she loves you. Dogs love that. Some dogs — huskies, dogs that pull, others — they don't have the drive to find. But you take those woodsmen breeds and they learn quickly to find their handler, and then we make it harder in little baby steps every day to find someone different.
SDN: What about the human handlers? What role do they play in these early games of hide-and-seek?
JM: We'll start (by burying a person) with a ditch and digging. The reward for finding you is tugging and hooting and hollering — it's just a huge party. They learn that that's what they do, that's their job. I have another dog around, Keena, who already is using her nose and learning to dig, and it's part of that simple process that begins with the hide-and-seek game.
And it gets harder. We're going to do a triple burial today, and I think the trick is to change up the variables with more people, different locations — anything. The trick there is to help the dog succeed by not making it too difficult. I think of it as a journey — every day is a training day. The second lift I got on today, we had to wait, and so I had him sit on my backpack. It's not something he needed for right then, but maybe that's a skill he can use in the backcountry to keep his paws warm.
SDN: I first met you and a bunch of other dogs at a statewide search-and-rescue dog training this summer. What else does a human handler need to know?
JM: The other piece of avalanche training is: How can I be helpful? My dog is really good with his nose, understanding the scent picture, but there are other issues. I'm the one who needs to help him get better, like if there are six people buried. That's a lot for one dog, so as a handler you have to learn to be really in tune with your dog. It's about being a good team, so I want to specialize with managing my dog in a complicated scene.
On the other hand, I want that dog to be trained well enough that he can go with anyone — even with you — to go to the scene and perform. I want the dog to be so good that it doesn't matter who's with him. It's all about bringing out someone alive. That's the name of the game.
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