This golden retriever is working to become Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s newest avalanche rescue dog | SummitDaily.com
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This golden retriever is working to become Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s newest avalanche rescue dog

Tikka plays tug-of-war with her handler, ski patroller Erich Swartz.
Courtesy Ian Zinner / Arapahoe Basin

Meet Tikka.

She’s a golden retriever and a Colorado native from Brush, near Fort Morgan, where she was hand picked from breeders for her bold and extroverted personality. At just over 1 1/2 years old, she’s still just a puppy, but by the end of the season, she’ll be Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s newest avalanche rescue dog.

Tikka and her handler, veteran ski patroller Erich Swartz, graced skiers and boarders with their presence at A-Basin’s base area Tuesday afternoon, allowing individuals to meet a rescue dog up close and personal and to learn more about what makes pups like Tikka so special.

“It usually takes about two years or so to go through our training process, which includes both an A-Basin validation test and another validation test for Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, that oversees avalanche rescues outside of the ski areas we’re a part of,” said Swartz, who’s served as a ski patroller for about eight years and has assisted in the resort’s rescue dog program for about six years. “The goal with Tikka would be to have her validated at some point toward the end of this season. For that, we really just get to play lots and lots of games.”

Despite Swartz’s experience with the program, Tikka is the first dog he’s served as a handler for — a relationship that not only includes training but also living together. Her job is at the ski area, but Tikka belongs to Swartz, who cares for her year-round.

Swartz picked Tikka from her litter when she was about 8 weeks old. But evaluations for avalanche rescue dogs begin well before their training ever starts. Before they’re selected for the job, Swartz said, they first have to undergo personality tests to make sure they’re up for the challenge.

“We do a bunch of personality tests with the dogs between 4 and 8 weeks to get an idea of what their personality is like,” Swartz said. “We want to know if they’re going to have the drive and motivation we’re looking for. We really don’t want her to be too fearful, so we’ll make some loud noises and gauge the reaction of the dogs — do they run away, charge at you or just take a look at you? … We also need a dog that can sit here and be nice and not intimidate the kids in the ski school. Tikka was the right mix for us.”

Swartz is happy with his choice. He said Tikka’s training began right away and that within a couple days of getting her she was already hopping on the chairlift to head up to the top of the mountain.

Tikka plays with her tug-toy at the Arapahoe Basin base area on Dec. 17, 2019.
Tikka carries her tug-of-war toy Tuesday, Dec. 17, at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. Her handler, Erich Swartz, holds her leash.
Courtesy Ian Zinner / Arapahoe Basin

“She didn’t show any kind of fear,” Swartz said. “We tried to expose her to as much as we could right of the bat. Nothing has really spooked her.”

Tikka is on the hill whenever Swartz is working — about four days a week, overlapping with the ski area’s other four avalanche dogs and handlers — and she gets trained daily. But whether it’s trying to track down a toy or a live human, training and playtime are pretty closely intertwined for Tikka.

“It’s just like a big game of hide-and-seek,” Swartz said. “Now that we have enough snow, we’ll start digging holes all over the mountain so we can do random drills throughout the day with all the dogs. We’ll bury people and cover up the holes. You’d have no idea where someone is, but they’ll find them in seconds.”

Tikka also trains once a month with Flight For Life and C-RAD to make sure she’s comfortable loading and unloading from a helicopter.

Swartz said Tikka is also well adapted to the ski area by now, largely unfazed by the daily hustle and bustle of the resort. And as she continues to get more comfortable and confident in her abilities, Swartz noted that part of the challenge is for him to fully understand what she’s capable of.

Swartz said the dogs are capable of somewhat accurately identifying where a human might be buried in snow more than 15 feet deep. For someone buried without a beacon, a dog is their best chance at survival.

Tikka is working to become the newest avalanche dog at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
Courtesy Ian Zinner / Arapahoe Basin

“It’s really remarkable what the dogs’ noses can do,” Swartz said. “I think you’re starting to see a lot more research into what they can do, and it’s more about teaching ourselves to understand what they can do. If a dog is able to detect cancer cells in a person, finding someone buried under the snow is nothing. It’s just a matter of teaching ourselves to recognize what she’s trying to tell us.”

Despite getting to have a lot of fun running around “like a maniac” in the snow during the day or playing tug-of-war with her favorite toy, it’s also a heavy responsibility for Tikka and Swartz, knowing that one day there will be real human lives on the line. 

“There’s nothing like being able to bring her up in the morning and be able to spend a whole day at work with your best friend,” Swartz said. “She’s a goofball, and she loved it, too. We’re super lucky. But it’s a passion for everyone in the program. It’s a lot of work, and we’re often training late into the night and in the freezing cold. We do it because we love doing it but also because we know there’s going to be an opportunity for us to save somebody’s life at some point.”

Tikka, a 1 1/2-year-old golden retriever, is working to become the newest avalanche dog at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.
Courtesy Ian Zinner / Arapahoe Basin

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