It’s January, and the temperature is below zero. I stand outside, jumping up and down while waving a rolled up tube of wool and yelling at my two-year-old blue heeler mix, Juneau—June for short. My fiancé (now husband) Kenny kneels by June’s side about a hundred yards away, getting her psyched for what’s coming.
“Are you ready to work?” he asks. “Are you ready, June?” I hide behind a snow pile, peeking around the corner to see June getting visibly excited.
Kenny releases his grip and June takes off like a bolt for the snow pile where she quickly finds me and grabs hold of the wool tube. We play a little tug-of-war as her reward.
Although it sounds like play, Kenny is practicing runaways, a dog-handler skill he uses while working with the ski patrol’s avalanche dog team at Grand Targhee Resort.
The Evolution of a Program
Grand Targhee has utilized avalanche dogs as a part of their patrol team for more than twenty years. What started with one or two handlers and their dogs has grown into a nonprofit called GTK9. The organization offers training and protocols that help produce some of the best search-and-rescue (SAR) dogs in the region. The group raises over $20,000 annually to sustain the program needs.
This winter, ski patrol director Joe Calder, alongside his veteran avalanche dog Otter—an eight-year-old springer spaniel—is excited to bring seasoned patrollers into the program, including fourth-year ski patroller Michael Cote and his year-old black Labrador Fen.
“It is a tough thing because it is so committing,” Calder says. “Finding people who want to be around for a while and put the extra work in. It takes a lot. Now, though, we have a program that supports that.”
The GTK9 method utilizes the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association’s (CARDA) criteria for training. Canada has a nationally recognized standard backed by the Royal Canadian Mountain Police (RCMP), the national police force of Canada.
Jason O’Neill, a former ski patroller and avalanche forecaster at Grand Targhee, brought the system to the resort in 2002 after working as a patroller in Canada. While living up north, he trained his first avalanche dog and became familiar with the CARDA method.
“Jason and I got together and decided that we could create a system,” Calder says, “so that we would have a structure, training plan, support system, and access to available resources to create a lasting program [to] create better handler-and-dog teams.”
CARDA trains both the handler and the dog with a unique system derived from Swiss Alpine Rescue methods and the police dog training program used by the RCMP. What makes the program special is the nationwide buy-in that has led to the adoption of search-and-rescue criteria and the RCMP dog-training manual used across Canada. This leaves few questions regarding how things should be done or managed.
The foundation of CARDA is a combination of scent training, which uses buried wool articles, and the Swiss-based tactic utilizing snow piles to bury or hide people. The early stages of training focus on runaways.
“The CARDA system brought a lot of the standard criteria for working police dogs to the avalanche world,” O’Neill says. “CARDA figured out how to make better working dogs and do it faster and more efficiently. It used to take three or four years to train a dog, but now we can do it in a season of puppy work before moving on to more advanced training.”
The United States has no across-the-board standard for search and rescue dog training, let alone avalanche training. O’Neill explains that avalanche standards differ from state to state; search-and-rescue standards can even differ from county to county.
“The National Association for Search and Rescue has standards, the National Ski Patrol has standards, each individual resort has their own standards, and so on,” O’Neill says.
His goal was to create a better system, at least in the Intermountain West, in hopes of helping SAR people conduct searches that are as fast and straightforward as possible. Using the CARDA system to internally validate dogs and their handlers, avalanche dog groups throughout Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Utah now have a regional validation system built through relationships, annual meetings, and clinics.
“The purpose is all of those groups getting together, agreeing on standards, testing each other’s dogs, and ensuring everyone is well prepared,” O’Neill says.
O’Neill has stepped back from ski patrolling fulltime, but he is still focused on training top-notch dogs. He now works for the American Avalanche Institute and hosts K9 Training Courses at Grand Targhee.
Handler and dog teams from the Intermountain West are invited to participate in a four-day course set at the resort that focuses on different progressions of avalanche search-and-rescue training. Groups are divided up based on experience, and teams progress from live runaways to buried articles (scented wool) and, finally, to multiple burials.
“We learn from working with other programs … helping our program get stronger, too,” Calder says. “The clinics help spread the program regionally. It is really cool to see, as far as the evolution of the program goes.”
Training the Next Generation of GTK9s
If you’ve skied at Grand Targhee Resort, odds are you’ve seen a four-legged helper running alongside a ski patroller, wearing a red vest with the white cross rescue symbol. The current team comprises Otter, Calder’s springer spaniel; Yuki, a five-year-old husky-blue heeler mix; and Fen, Michael Cote’s young black Lab. Cote joined the crew last winter, when Fen was just nine weeks old.
“I started working with Fen as soon as I got her, and I fell in love with the bond that it created,” Cote says.
Cote and Fen were able to dive right into the progression of training thanks to the support of the rest of the ski patrol team. “It takes a lot of people to help you train your dog,” he says. “With me not knowing anything about how to train an avalanche dog prior to getting Fen, this crew was so supportive and got me on the path.”
Cote says Fen was the perfect dog for the challenge. She has a strong drive and desire to please her handler. These are key traits for a pup, says Dave Thibodeau, a veteran ski patroller and Yuki’s handler. Thibodeau, in his fourth season with the program, says the process starts with training the human.
“It is the handler that needs training,” he says. “All the dogs get it. If they have the right energy level and the right obedience, they can come to work and understand this game very quickly. The handler is the one who has to learn patience and control [and] how to better communicate with their dog.”
Key behavior traits Thibodeau looks for in an avalanche dog are high energy and a strong “play and prey drive,” meaning their chase or search instincts.
Thibodeau and Yuki traveled to Canada in 2015 to go through CARDA training. Although a dog from the United States cannot officially receive validation from CARDA, the group will evaluate the dog and handler as if they were eligible, a process all of Grand Targhee’s dogs go through. Each year, only four dog teams from the United States have the opportunity to train in Canada, according to O’Neill.
Thibodeau and Calder play key roles in helping bring new dogs into the fold. Fen’s path began with basic obedience training designed to determine if she could become a successful working dog and, in canine terms, a professional on the mountain.
After obedience training, Cote and Fen moved on to learning the main game, finding someone in the snow. This began with runaways, the exciting game of hide and seek where someone hides with a wool article. The pup watches, then goes to search.
“You get the dog ramped up and their prey drive kicks in,” Cote says. “‘Oh, that looks like a rabbit or some sort of prey.’ It touches on some inner desire to chase. Early on they are very easy and very short. You run, let the dog see where you go, and give another yell right before you hide. From there, you add on little things to make the progression more challenging.”
The handler will add more obstacles for the “victim” to hide behind, maybe a heavily treed or very brushy area. Then he will add distance or more waiting time for the dog. Finally, the dog will not see the person hide at all and will have to rely on scent to find him. This is called a blind runaway.
The next step? Burials.
“You start by burying people in snow caves, first without a door,” Cote says. “Then you do a half door or they are buried completely.” The final step is having the dog find articles buried in the snow. The handlers use a scented chunk of wool and progressively bury it deeper and deeper in the snow. By the end of the training, the dog should be prepared to locate a victim in the event of a rescue operation.
The Purpose of the Pack
The dogs are a vital component of the Grand Targhee Ski Patrol’s preparations to carry out rescue missions inside the resort and directly outside its boundaries. They regularly practice drills for any situation that may arise. They practice with avalanche transceivers. They practice digging scenarios using probes, and shoveling to break through hard-packed snow. Even under controlled conditions, these take a lot of time. A dog can shave valuable minutes off the efforts and reduce the risks faced by the rescue team.
“The dogs don’t care if you have a beacon or any other technology on,” Cote says. “They are homing in on something we can’t, and the speed is astonishing.”
“A dog does not discriminate, they can search a football-field size area in under thirty minutes,” O’Neill adds.
During those trying situations when a dog team is needed, the training efforts are validated. This past winter, a member of the GTK9 team recovered the body of a skier who had ventured outside the resort boundary and broken through a cornice, causing an avalanche. A search that could have lasted hours was cut short.
“If we didn’t have dogs, our patrollers would have been exposed to another six hours of night, potentially,” Calder says. “Or we would have had to shut down operations until the next day.”
Although a tragic scenario, GTK9 did their job well. As O’Neill looks to the future of the program, he hopes to continue training fast, efficient dogs, and maybe add another clinic to the schedule.
“I would like to see this training spread throughout all of the Mountain West,” he says. “All I want to do is save patrollers time. There is a lot on their plate. That is what I see the workshops doing: teaching ski patrollers how to do basic dog training quickly to get better, faster dogs.”