Avalanche rescue dogs gather in Summit for rapid deployment training

Grua relaxes in the sun while waiting for her turn in the Lifesaver One helicopter during the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment Program workshop Tuesday, Oct. 8, at Windy Point Campground in Dillon. The workshop was meant to train search and rescue dogs in avalanche safety protocol.
Liz Copan /

DILLON — A group of rescue dogs and their handlers arrived in Summit County this week to train for search and rescue operations as part of the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program, known as C-RAD.

The nonprofit program, which began in Summit County and has operated since the early 1990s, trains dog teams to perform successful avalanche search and rescue missions in the mountains. For the past six years, representatives have been hosting a fall training course for dog teams. What started with humble exercises between local teams in Summit and Eagle counties has quickly expanded to include teams from across the country.

This year, the training included 30 dog teams from 15 ski areas as well as seven search and rescue teams from across six states. Participants also got the opportunity to work with some of the world’s best instructors from across the United States and Canada, representing a number of military and law enforcement agencies along with search and rescue programs.

“C-RAD had its birth in a tragic accident here in Summit County,” board member, retired dog handler and avalanche technician Hunter Mortensen said. “There was a big avalanche out of bounds in the Tenmile Range outside of Breckenridge Ski (Resort) that opened everyone’s eyes for the need to have dog teams that can quickly respond to incidents like that. … Since then, we’ve formalized it and trained each other so that in a moment’s notice, when an avalanche does happen, we have the right people in the air at the right time to hopefully save somebody’s life.”

The nonprofit holds two major training sessions throughout the year, including a February session in Vail during the heart of winter. The fall session (Oct. 7-10) serves as a kind of warmup for the teams, giving handlers and dogs a chance to knock off the rust before taking on live missions this winter.

“These dogs are like professional-level athletes,” Mortensen said. “So for them, it’s kind of like spring training. Some of them don’t work in the summer, so it’s a reminder for them that they’ve got a job to do. It warms them up and get’s their brains thinking about the game, which is search and rescue.”

Experienced teams with former deployments and puppies new to rescue operations participated in the training at the Windy Point Campground off Swan Mountain Road. The program is meant to provide new and innovative rescue techniques along with fundamental skills. This year, the training includes everything from the basics to much more challenging tasks, such as sniffing out divers under Dillon Reservoir. On Tuesday, Flight For Life was on scene with two helicopters to help the teams familiarize themselves with flight missions and get the dogs more comfortable around the loud and disorienting vehicles.

Following a lengthy safety session in which technicians, dogs and their handlers took turns properly entering and exiting the helicopters, the teams were flown to a nearby site where they got the chance to perform a short, mock search mission.

For participants, the chance to train with things like helicopters is a welcome one.

“We don’t get to fly very much at home, so the training that we get here with the helicopters is huge,” said Heather Thiry, a Tamarack ski patroller and McCall Fire and Rescue operator out of Idaho, who brought her German shepherd, Bergen, for training. “There’s a lot of different training techniques, and they can work you through something if you’re stuck. … It continually builds confidence in the dog. As his confidence grows, mine grows. I’m always the weak link. But as I see him get more comfortable, I get more comfortable, too.”

No certifications are offered through the training program, though Mortensen noted that the teams can be “validated” through the training — a standard that essentially notes the teams are able to operate at a high level in most search and rescue operations.

More than 50 students from across the United States and Canada join the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment program for a workshop to train search and rescue dogs and personnel in avalanche search protocol Tuesday, Oct. 8, at Windy Point Campground in Dillon.
Liz Copan /

While the fall training session is largely meant as a refresher course for the dogs, participants also lauded the experience for the training they received to improve their own skills as handlers.

“The biggest thing for me is I’m learning the difference between my previous dog and my new dog,” said Rich Rogers of Chaffee County Search and Rescue South, who attended with his 9-month-old puppy, Terra. “It’s a whole different set of skills I’m building for myself as far as seeing her personality, observing her and learning how she acts around things. And just picking up any tidbits and advice these instructors have. You write it down and put it in your memory so you can recall it at any time.”

Finally, the training provides a great opportunity for the dogs and trainers to help build trust with each other.

“They really emphasize that your dog needs to have trust in you, too,” said Jane Mather, of Grand County Search and Rescue, who was training with her dog, Aero. “Because it’s going to be put in some pretty hairy situations. … But this is just an incredible training. It’s one of the best out there, and these are really great people to work with and learn from.”

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