Bandit, a 6-month-old border collie, is taking the lead on avalanche rescue at Loveland Ski Area
LOVELAND SKI AREA — Zuma, a 7-year-old husky-wolf mix, has served as Loveland Ski Area’s avalanche rescue dog or rescue dog in-training for his whole life. However, dogs get to retire too and Dan Linden, an avalanche rescue dog handler at Loveland, said they usually retire the dogs after about eight years. To take his place is a 6-month-old border collie, Bandit, who has been training with Linden.
“The way they typically do it is working dogs work seven to eight years and Zuma is … 7 right now, so it will probably be his last season,” Linden said.
In September, Linden got Bandit from a dog breeder in Yoder, Colorado, that specializes in working dogs. Linden said the path for Bandit to become an avalanche rescue dog is a two- to three-year process. Linden said the first year of training is the most fun because it is mainly about obedience and getting Bandit used to the ski area.
“The first year is all obedience and getting him used to riding ski lifts and snowmobiles and being around loud noises like explosives,” Linden said. “Once he’s fully grown — so next season he’ll be 1 1/2 — that’s when we’ll start doing the avalanche rescue oriented training.”
Linden explained that at first, this training is like an easy game of hide-and-seek called “pop-ups.” During pop-ups, someone will run away, pop out of the dog’s sight, run back into sight, call the dogs name and then hide. The dog will then run to find the person.
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“So you build off of that and then eventually you go to a blind version of it where they just are hidden and the dog doesn’t see them,” Linden said. “Eventually, you do the fake burial scenario as well.”
Dogs like Bandit and Zuma are used for both in-bounds and out-of-bounds avalanches, though in-bounds slides are easier to get to quickly.
“In the event of an in-bounds avalanche we would dispatch our rescue team and Bandit up the hill and we would try to get him sniffing the debris field to see if he can pick up any scents and then once he does flag on a scent, hopefully we’ll train him to dig,” Linden said.
Once the dog starts digging somewhere, the rest of the team will come with shovels to help dig a person out.
“In the backcountry, we’re picked up by Flight For Life and a lot of times, pending how long the person has been buried, that will be more of a body recovery type of mission just because of the nature of the burial,” Linden said.
If a backcountry avalanche happens near Loveland Pass, the avalanche team at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area or at Loveland Ski Area will be dispatched. Occasionally both teams will be activated, based on how big the avalanche is. As an area highly impacted by avalanches, the Loveland rescue team is looking to expand their program and get three more puppies in the training program in addition to Bandit.
“Looking at other ski areas they have some larger dog programs than we do and we have the second-most avalanche terrain in Colorado,” Linden said. “So we just figured it would be good for us to kind of build that program up.”
While Bandit is Linden’s first training dog, Linden said that participating in the training as a “victim” inspired him to become a dog trainer. This year is Linden’s seventh season working at Loveland.
“When I was a rookie I was placed into training scenarios as the victim so I got buried in holes a lot and I always thought it was cool to see the dogs come in and unbury me,” Linden said. “That was really inspirational to me, so after doing that enough times I decided I wanted to be on the other end of it eventually.”
As for Bandit’s training, Linden said Bandit is ahead of the curve and is a very loving and obedient dog.
“He’s not too high energy, thankfully, some collies can be neurotic, but he’s very manageable and he listens very well, so he’s just an all around good boy,” Linden said.
Linden said that at only 10 weeks, Bandit was already responding to commands.
“Hopefully by the end of next season we’ll have him certified,” Linden said.
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