GIRDWOOD, Alaska — When Monty sprints across the snow frantically looking for his best friend, it seems like he’s doing it with a greater sense of purpose than simply having fun. But it’s really just a game to him.
After all, Monty is a puppy. His best friend hiding in a makeshift snow cave is his owner, Alyeska Resort ski patroller and dog handler Kent May.
And Monty is still only practicing as one of two young additions to the Girdwood-based team that comprises the Alyeska Ski Patrol Avalanche Canine Program.
“These dogs just want to have fun,” said lead handler Brian McGorry, also a ski patroller. “They have no idea how serious it is.”
The goal is to save people buried in avalanches, either at the resort or in the nearby mountains that have become increasingly attractive to backcountry skiers and snowboarders. The program, affiliated with Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs, started in 2007 and now has three certified adult dogs: Zooka, Fundy and Yuki.
By adding 15-week-old Kilo and five-month-old Monty, the group aims to always have dogs available to search for people trapped under snow.
“Dogs are just completely amazing, as far as what you can train them to do,” McGorry said.
“The deepest burial that a dog has made a recovery is 14 feet, but it depends on how long it’s been there and the type of snow and the atmospheric conditions,” said handler Mik Jedlicka, assistant director of the Alyeska Ski Patrol.
There has never been an avalanche fatality at Alyeska — “knock on wood,” said Jim Kennedy, the ski area’s snow safety director. In a single season they’ll see anywhere from 600 to 1,000 avalanches, roughly 80 percent of which are triggered artificially without members of the public around, Kennedy said.
“We try to keep them smaller and more frequent as opposed to letting them build to large destructive ones,” Kennedy said.
If a slide does bury someone, the dogs could mean the difference between life and death.
Dogs are better searchers than humans when a victim is not wearing a beacon, Jedlicka said.
If there is no beacon signal to home in on, men and women must use probes to poke around in the snow until they find the person.
“That could take several hours, and a dog can cover an area like that in much shorter time,” Jedlicka said.
Oxygen in the snowpack is limited, depending on how the person is buried and how much room is left around their face.
Exhaling causes carbon dioxide to build up to levels that will eventually cause asphyxiation. Whether a person lives or dies can be a matter of a few minutes.
It generally takes three winters to train a dog to the point that it is ready for certification, McGorry said.
A huge component is educating the handler as well, he said, and the dogs’ temperament, intelligence and willingness to work are key ingredients.
Each patroller-handler pays for and owns their own dog, but Alyeska Resort helps defray the costs of training, feeding and keeping them healthy.
Four of the five dogs on the team now are Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers, a breed characterized by its red coat and compact size.
Kilo is different: He is a Hungarian breed called a Mudi, with a mottled black-and-white coat.
“He can get pretty wound up,” said Kilo’s owner-handler, Stacie Lordan. “He can turn into a bit of a Tasmanian Devil, but it’s a good thing. He’s just super excited and wants to work.”
Kilo will also stay small like the others, which is a good thing for Lordan.
That’s not just because smaller dog breeds tend to live longer—making them a more valuable financial and time investment—but also because the avalanche dogs need to be able to ride easily on a chairlift or their handler’s shoulder, McGorry said.
“At some point, you’re going to have to pick that dog up and get it the rest of the way through snow. That’s inevitable,” McGorry said.
During a recent training session, puppies Monty and Kilo watched with the other dogs as Fundy practiced finding Jedlicka.
The group uses a four-stage training system designed by the Swiss Army that the Alyeska group has modified to fit their needs, McGorry said.
As it was early in the season and the first day this winter that the dogs could train in actual snow, they started off small.
McGorry held the dog’s harness while Jedlicka ran to a padded tube tipped on its side.
She waved a ball on a string: “the cherry on top” and part of Fundy’s reward, McGorry said. Jedlicka crawled into the tube, the other handlers shoveled snow over both ends.
“Getting buried is kind of a prerequisite to being a dog handler,” McGorry said.
Once Jedlicka and the tube were fully covered in snow, McGorry gave a hand signal, told him to “search,” and let the dog loose.
Fundy ran straight to the pile of snow and started digging. He broke through to Jedlicka and barked. The other handlers dug the rest of the way, as they would in a real rescue situation, and McGorry and Jedlicka gave Fundy his reward: lots of praise and a quick, excited play session with the ball.
This was basic for the five-year-old dog. As training begins for a pup, or in warm-ups for more experienced dogs at the beginning of the season, they are allowed to watch the “victim” run away before they’re released to chase the person, Jedlicka said. Then a handler might run and hide behind something to see if the dog can find them, she said.
“They shift from using their eyes to using their nose,” Jedlicka said.
Eventually the dog will need to be able to track a person they don’t know, whom the dog has not seen run away, and still have the drive to dig for the person. That kind of gradual, step-by-step process takes time and focus, Jedlicka said.
“You don’t want to go too fast,” she said. “And you don’t want to do too much. You want to keep it fun.”
The transition from using their eyes to using their noses is a natural progression for a dog’s prey drive, McGorry said. The training sessions take a dog from its desire to simply chase visible prey to wanting to hunt prey it can only smell, he said.
“It is interesting, and rewarding, to sit back and watch the dogs progress,” he said.
So far, the dogs have not had to dig for an actual avalanche victim, but they have searched out-of-bound slides at Alyeska on three occasions.
That gives the patrollers peace of mind when, for example, a skier or snowboarder gets separated from their group and the patrollers want to rule out the possibility that the missing person is buried somewhere, McGorry said.
Those scenarios offer the best practice, too, Jedlicka said.
“Using real avalanche debris is great for the dogs and the handlers,” she said. “We have an advantage here, because we have an awesome training grounds.”
The training takes hundreds of hours, McGorry said.
Alyeska Resort supports that by allowing the patroller-handlers to work with their dogs on the clock, as it benefits the ski area, said Di Hiibner, its general manager. They’ve also worked out sponsorship arrangements with dog food company Red Paw to keep the dogs fed and Diamond Animal Hospital, which provides veterinary services, Hiibner said.
About a week after Alyeska’s opening day this year, scheduled for Nov. 28, there’s the fundraiser Dec. 7 at the resort’s Sitzmark Bar and Grill to raise money for the dog program, Hiibner said.
Ten ski patrollers will get auctioned off to spend a morning skiing with the highest bidders, and there is a “costume element” to it, McGorry said.
And the puppies will be there too, McGorry said. “Hard to say what will draw more ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs,’ the puppies or the auctioned-off talent.”
In the meantime, they continue to work and play with the dogs. For the pups, that means more fun times chasing the handlers and getting rewarded with lots of love and silliness.
The goofier the better, said Kent May, Monty’s human.
“If you’re not embarrassed while you’re praising ‘em, you’re not doing it right,” he said.