Patti Burnett trained Summit County’s first avalanche Search and Rescue dog
February 9, 2014
Anyone can go visit Hasty in Dillon. He's always there, right next to the tennis courts, atop a boulder, looking vigilantly outward — a statue, forever holding a noble pose.
In Summit County, Hasty is a canine celebrity, the first trained search-and-rescue dog to call the county home. His owner, Patti Burnett, was a ski patroller at Copper Mountain Resort when she became Summit's first avalanche rescue dog handler. Since then, she and many patrollers after her have followed their dogs' noses to seek the lost and help those in need.
Hailing from Brighton, in upstate western New York, Burnett grew up rough and tumble with her five siblings — four of whom were brothers.
“It was not a totally acceptable thing to the guys, especially when I got promoted as a foreman and a supervisor, but you know, eventually, I think that the guys, and probably the rest of the ski area and the public, got to accept the fact that a woman helps round out the ski patrol.”
"My dad's philosophy was, find a sport for each of the kids so that they could excel at it and stay out of trouble," Burnett said with a chuckle.
Burnett started figure skating lessons at age 4, and eventually competed. Once she reached high school, however, she decided she wanted to do something different.
"I felt like figure skating was just too isolated, you know," she said. "You didn't get to go do stuff with your friends. So I started ski racing."
The school athletic director offered to let her compete interscholastically, despite the fact that very few girls were involved at the time. So in addition to the occasional ski-area competitions, Burnett traveled with the school team, all boys, and competed against other schools — also mostly boys.
"It was a kick," she said. "It probably made me push myself more than I would otherwise."
Burnett attended college at Ashland University in Ohio, earning a degree in business. She returned briefly to New York, but felt she needed something different.
"I think Colorado was just calling my name," she said. "I'd never skied out here before, but I knew that I loved skiing, so I figured I should come out and try it. So from the time that I made that decision, it probably took two weeks before I was out here with a job."
That was in 1978, and she split her time between teaching skiing in Breckenridge and working at Young Life, an outreach organization for high school kids in Buena Vista. After a year, she moved to Summit County full time.
"It seems like it was a good fit for me," she said.
Joining the guys at Copper
In 1980, Burnett joined the ski patrol at Copper Mountain Resort, where she was one of only two women.
"It was not a totally acceptable thing to the guys, especially when I got promoted as a foreman and a supervisor, but you know, eventually, I think that the guys, and probably the rest of the ski area and the public, got to accept the fact that a woman helps round out the ski patrol," she said.
Her experience growing up around four brothers helped her fit in with the mostly male ski patrol. There were the occasional pranks — taking off a boot and coming back to find it filled up with snow — but, "Overall, most of what was done was good-natured, but every now and then you could tell that there was bit of resentment there. I feel I was well received, and maybe it was because I grew up in a family with four boys and just was always used to being around boys and because my dad was pretty demanding. I was tough back then. Not so tough anymore," she said with a laugh, "but I was tough back then."
Three years later, in December 1983, a fellow ski patroller, Mickey Johnston, was buried and killed in an avalanche at Copper. That event was the catalyst in the decision for Copper Mountain to get its own avalanche rescue dog, for the sake of the patrollers and the safety of the public, Burnett said.
Burnett traveled to out-of-state ski areas and visited other search-and-rescue groups with dog-training programs to learn all she could. Then, in the spring of 1986, she picked out a male golden retriever puppy. This was Hasty, named for the first crew sent into the field during a rescue operation.
Hasty was Summit County's first rescue dog. Over his unusually long 12-year career, he went on more than 100 missions. He was certified in water, avalanche and wilderness airscent through the Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado organization.
Burnett has many stories of Hasty, from his rambunctious puppy days (he once rode the Sierra chairlift by himself, with a nervous Burnett one chair behind) to his working adult days, filled with successful finds.
Burnett had two other working rescue dogs after Hasty — Sandy and Magic — and each of Summit County's ski resorts has avalanche rescue dog teams on hand.
Some time after Hasty's death, Burnett wrote a book on avalanche dog training titled "Avalanche! Hasty Search: The Care and Training of Avalanche Search and Rescue Dogs."
"I realized that there were no books specifically dedicated to avalanche dogs," said Burnett, who would often get requests to share her knowledge at schools and ski areas. "There were books about various other areas of search and rescue, but nothing that was just avalanche dogs, and I thought, 'Hmm, maybe we should have a book about it,' so I just started writing."
Burnett's book is a mix of practical dog-training advice (puppy selection, dog health, certification) and anecdotes from her career with Hasty, Sandy and Magic.
One of the most important things she learned, Burnett said, was this:
"You have to believe in the dog. You need to believe in all the training that you put into them, that all of that has brought you to a point where you can trust this dog. He's got the nose — you don't."
Burnett has many memories — of search and rescue, ski patrol, Copper and Summit County — to look back on. Retired from her Copper job, Burnett works at a local chiropractor's office.
Magic, now gray-muzzled, often accompanies her.
"He's a service dog there, too," she said. "People will come in there and be sad or in pain and (when he approaches them) you can see them light up. Their whole countenance changes."
People will even lie down on the floor next to him, she said. "He's definitely turned things around for them. He's still helping people now, even retired."