Copper Mountain ski patroller Chris Gray is training his pup to be an avalanche rescue dog
Born in a kennel in Phoenix, Arizona, the little golden retriever pup had never seen grass, let alone snow, until he traveled north to Colorado with his new owner Chris Gray, a ski patroller for Copper Mountain Resort. As the 2014-15 ski season gets on its way, Mason the puppy is training for his future as an avalanche rescue dog. Gray took a few minutes out of his day to answer some questions about what it’s like to raise an avalanche rescue dog.
Summit Daily: Where are you from and how long have you worked at Copper?
Chris Gray: I’m from Boulder, born and raised, and went to CU in Boulder, and then moved up here about eight to 10 years ago. I was doing electrical work, and then when the economy went south, I got into ski patrol[ling], in ’09-’10 was my first season.
It’s awesome, I love being outdoors, and it’s active, it’s physical, and I love skiing, I love helping people, and I love snow, I’ve always been obsessed with snow since an early age.
SD: Have you trained an avalanche rescue dog before?
CG: I have not done the training from puppy up to a certified dog, but I did handle an already certified trained dog for the last 18 months before I got my puppy. That trained dog was teaching me, so to speak, what to do, what not to do, how to act, how to react, how to be comfortable. I’ve had dogs that are family pets my whole life, so I’ve had a dog, but never had a working dog.
SD: What kind of a dog is Mason?
CG: He’s a golden retriever. That breed is pretty well known in the work dog and service dog industry as being really loyal, really has a willingness to please and they’re very smart and curious. They end up being just about the right size. This guy hopefully will be just the perfect size, not too big and not too small — big enough to jump through deep snow and keep up, but not too big that he’s going to be overweight or kind of hinder his performance because he’s too big. Plus every day we’re at work he wears a vest with a handle, and I have to be able to load him on the chairlift, load him on the snowmobile or load him on the snowcat or whatever it may be.
SD: How old is he now?
CG: He was born May 1. He’ll be six months here at the beginning of November.
SD: What does Mason’s training consist of now, as a puppy?
CG: I’m going to start bringing him to the mountain. We were riding the lift in the summertime. … It’s all about familiarizing and getting him comfortable. Repetition is the name of the game, you have to do something 20-30 times before the dog is really comfortable with it, and unaffected by some minor change in the situation. The more you can get him comfortable with it, the better he will be.
I’ll be trying to bring him and work him and have him be comfortable and familiar with patrol life. … It’s all about socialization. It’s what we’ve been doing all summer; it’s obedience, learning to be a good dog, to play well, to meet other dogs nicely, to play nicely and be well behaved.
(We’ll be) working on that, walking through the base area, being on leash, all the sights and smells, not chasing after stuff. It seems simple and basic, but that’s the most important foundation. For the avalanche search dog, its basically a glorified game of hide and seek. We start with that real basic (training) — I’ll go run into another room with his favorite toy while someone else holds him, he gets a command to come get me, and he has to come find me. It’s go to a target and see what you can find, then you add complexities to that: make it a different person, go up to the second floor, hide the person under a blanket. As the dog keeps succeeding, you keep adding to that. …. For the dog, it’s an awesome game; it’s a game that at the end when they find that person they get rewarded.
SD: How is he doing so far?
CG: He’s been doing great so far.
SD: What is your favorite part about working with Mason/any avalanche rescue dog?
CG: I don’t know how to say it, but it’s the satisfaction you get seeing that dog succeed and be happy and kind of, you’re almost on the same level, you’re almost on the same page of, hey this is our task, let’s go accomplish it and when we’re done we get to have a party. So it’s really cool seeing that dog succeed and be happy. You can see it in their face and their body character and their reactions to things. They know they’re doing a good job. …
I want him to think snow is the best thing to be in and play in and have fun in and it’s a good thing. … I want to transfer my passion into what he’s got a passion for too. Hey we love being outside, we love getting up and going to work, we love playing in the snow, this is the greatest thing ever.
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