A foundation of trust: Lisi the golden retriever trains to become Summit County’s next search and rescue dog | SummitDaily.com

A foundation of trust: Lisi the golden retriever trains to become Summit County’s next search and rescue dog

Keystone Resort patrol member works tirelessly with his dog to help skiers and snowboarders stay alive in case they are caught in an avalanche

Keystone Ski Patroller Preston Burns poses for a photo with Lisi, his six month old golden retriever currently training to become a search and rescue dog.
Katie Young/Keystone Resort

Dogs have been known as man’s best friends in households for centuries. Whether dogs are providing companionship, friendship or displaying their fiercely loyal traits, there is no mystery as to why humans are so drawn to dogs. 

Ski patrol specialist Preston Burns, of Keystone Ski Resort, recognized the loyalty and trainability of his golden retriever puppy — Lisi —  and has been working hard ever since to develop her into Summit County’s next search and rescue dog.

“I have had her since she was 10 weeks old,” Burns said. “Generally, you get a dog at 8 weeks, but I got her at 10 weeks. She will hit six months (Wednesday).”

Burns was drawn to Lisi because of her genetic makeup. Burns says Lisi is a field-bred, variant golden retriever whose father competes nationally in American Kennel Club (AKC) competitions.

“They breed them to be more slender and have a higher drive,” Burns said. “Generally they also have a higher stamina than a conformation golden.”

These specific characteristics make Lisi an ideal candidate for becoming a search and rescue dog that will be able to assist teams in finding individuals lost in avalanches.

With 10 seasons of experience at Keystone’s ski patrol and nearly 13 years of experience with search and rescue in Summit County, Burns brings a lot of knowledge into training an avalanche dog like Lisi. 

Burns has even served as a secondary handler for Keystone’s other search and rescue dog, Scout. 

Given his knowledge over the years in both avalanches and search and rescue dogs, Burns recognizes that one of the most fundamental pieces of training a search and rescue dog is developing a bond with the dog.

“If you don’t have trust, if your dog won’t follow you into inhospitable environments, then you won’t reach your full potential,” Burns said. “Being able to come to work and spend time each day is crucial. We need to be able to rely on each other. She believes that I will keep her safe and that I trust her.”

Preston Burns and his dog Lisi pose for a photo while at Keystone Ski Resort on Tuesday, Jan. 31. There is a strong bond and level of trust between Burns and Lisi. Burns says the connection is foundational when going into environments like an avalanche search and rescue mission.
Katie Young/Keystone Resort

With this bond in mind, one of the first things Burns worked to develop between Lisi and himself is a strong foundation of trust.

Once a level of trust had been built, Burns said more extensive training took place such as teaching Lisi how to navigate ski lifts, snowmobiles and other operational things at the ski resort.

“Getting her used to that environment and socialized to people,” Burns said. “That socialization and behavioral training.”

Once acclimated to the business of the ski resort, Lisi’s training was then expanded to include search training. 

“We use a piece of fabric and teach the dog to latch onto that and tug as a reward,” Burns said. 

Burns said that he will then morph the search game around the game of tug and runaways. Burns said he started with him acting as a runaway and tugging once Lisi found him and slowly morphed the exercise into Lisi finding other individuals in both covered and uncovered snow caves.

“You are always taking baby steps to deconstruct the search game,” Burns said. “We want to deconstruct it into each of its components so that we work on them individually.”

Keystone ski patrol specialist Preston Burns, right, and Zak Bloom, left, train Lisi with a game of tug on Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Katie Young/Keystone Resort

By developing each skill set individually, Lisi is then able to combine skills together in specific search and rescue scenarios. 

Currently, Lisi is able to navigate full burials, but Burns notes that the duo is in no rush in terms of its training.

“We are making sure we are solidifying our foundation along the way,” Burns said. “Earlier we ran runways and for her it was no challenge. We are not trying to challenge her. It is the reinforcement of the foundation of the game that: ‘If my dad says search, I go out and find it, and this is fun.’” 

Lisi is on the path to becoming an officially certified avalanche rescue dog in the state of Colorado and Summit County through Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment.

Once Lisi and Burns pass a series of in-house tests at Keystone Resort, the duo will then become eligible to take a validation test through the program. Once Lisi has been validated by Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, Lisi and Burns can deploy for the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.

“(Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment) is not a fielding organization, but they set standards and validation for dogs,” Burns said. “Once you have that validation, other fielding organizations recognize it and allow you to go into the field as a representative of them.”

Lisi and Burns are two weeks away from attending the annual Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment academy, which will take place in Snowmass this year. The five-day school will allow Lisi and Burns to continue to learn the skills needed in order to become a certified avalanche dog.

Outside of training — which often spans outside of the normal work week — Lisi will accompany Burns in avalanche mitigation work and patrolling of the mountain. 

While out on the mountain, one of the biggest hazards that Lisi and Burns face is often from guest skiing encounters.

The sharp edges of skis and snowboards pose a risk of injury to Lisi. The edges can provide lacerations in a blink of a second which would inhibit Lisi or other search and rescue dogs from being able to work for up to two months.

“We want people to come and meet our dogs,” Burns said. “The big thing for us is: if you see the dog, always ask the dog handler before you approach or speak to their dog. That is for the safety of the dog, and we are often training them.”

Despite the serious implications of training a dog for avalanche search and rescue missions, Burns says his job is never too backbreaking.

“I get to ski powder at will, and I get to take my companion with me,” Burns said. “I ski patrol for the enjoyment of the job, and this allows me to set goals and I am empowered to work towards those goals.” 

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