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  • Sara Thompson

Hard Working Dogs Hit the Slopes

By Sara Thompson

Special to the Enterprise

Image credit is Andrea Booher, FEMA Photo Library.

Ski resort personnel and local park rangers do their very best to keep mountains safe from avalanches during the winter. They check conditions, try to trigger slides artificially, and close potentially dangerous avalanche areas. Despite all their efforts, these forces of nature still occur each year. If buried in an avalanche, the chances of survival reduce the longer a person is buried. It can take a team of people hours to search an area around 2.5 acres, but a trained rescue dog can search that area in under a half hour, greatly reducing search times and increasing the survival of victims.

It takes two to three years for a dog to be fully trained as an avalanche rescue dog. Training begins as puppies. Training is incremental, starting with chasing and playing with a toy, which leads to simple search and finds, all the way to burying the toy under the snow. As the dog advances, they begin to find people, beginning with sniffing out a person in a different room, to finding them outside, and eventually people who are shallowly buried in the snow. Training to find people incorporates both people the dog is familiar with and strangers, this helps train the dog to find anyone with a “human” scent and not just their handlers. One of the final tests is finding a large, scented square made of wool buried deep in the snow. If the dog can find the square in the set allotted amount of time, they will be certified for ski patrol.

Once qualified, a rescue dog is ready to work. Trainers find breeds who are friendly with both people and other dogs, have a strong desire to work, and a strong prey drive that can be developed into search and rescue purposes. Any dog portraying the above qualities can be a search and rescue dog. They can ride on ski lifts, snowmobiles, and even helicopters as part of their jobs. For safety some dogs learn how to run between their handlers’ skis or are carried on their backs so not to be hit by others on the slopes.

Even though their training is for avalanche rescue, many of these dogs are also employed during spring and summer for hiking search and rescue. Their nose can find people in both snow and fair weather. These dogs are constantly training in their down time and need to be recertified every two years to maintain their highly specialized training, because people’s lives depend on them being in top shape all year. So, if you see one of these specialized patrollers on the slopes, please give them respect and space as they are often working or training and enjoy knowing there is a happy and well trained dog around to help when needed.

Explorit's coming events:

• Winter Break Extended Hours: Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 27-28, open from 10am-2pm; Friday, Dec. 29, open from 10am-4pm. Wednesday-Thursday, Jan. 3-4, open from 10am-2pm; Friday, Jan. 5, open from 10am-4pm.

• Registration for Explorit Winter Camp, January 3-5, 2024. Grades K-2 from 9am-12pm, grades 3-5 from 1-4pm. Registration is $115 for Members/$130 for Non-Members.

• Give the Gift of Science this holiday season. Membership to Explorit grants the recipient free visits to Explorit’s regular public hours, discounts on events, summer camps and workshops, and gives you ASTC benefits to visit other museums throughout the world. To purchase or for more information visit or call Explorit at 530-756-0191.

• Explorit is open Fridays from 1-4pm and Saturday and Sundays from 10am-2pm. The current exhibit is “Our WILD World”. Admission is $5 per person, free for Explorit Members and those aged 2 and under. Visit our museum store for holiday gift ideas for the whole family.

• Think of Explorit for you end of year giving and help us continue to educate and inspire the scientists of tomorrow:


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