The Amazing Roaring Fork Valley Avalanche Rescue Dogs

First chair – every skier dreams of snagging it. For a select group of furry four-legged locals, however, riding first chair is just another part of an honest day’s work.

The Roaring Fork Valley’s avalanche rescue dogs are true jewels sparkling on our snowy slopes. Every morning, they head up the lifts before the skiing public, ready for the call of duty. These specially-trained canines are whip smart, athletic and prepared to work in a variety of emergency situations. Plus, they’re pretty doggone adorable.

Most resorts throughout Colorado ski country have at least one on-staff avalanche (“avi”) rescue dog that is teamed up with a member of the ski patrol. Dan Berg, head of the Snowmass Ski Patrol avalanche dog program, works closely with his dog Piper, a four-year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. Piper is one of several rescue dogs at Snowmass, including a batch of rookie pups that will begin training this winter.

“The thing about avi dogs,” Berg says, “is that they are ready at any time, but we always hope there won’t be an instance when we’ll actually have to use them. I consider it sort of like an insurance program – we don’t want to need them, but they’re there if we ever do.”

Berg reports that a typical avi dog will train for three seasons before it is officially ready for duty. “With Piper, I started training at about 10 weeks old. Just getting her used to the mountain environment, really. Then we moved on to basic obedience: sit, stay, come and other commands,” he says. “Basic search skills usually come in the second season. That’s when a dog has to search a 50-by-50-meter area where two live subjects are buried one meter deep. If the dog can pass that test, it can work.”

The third season of an avi dog’s training is the most intensive, with exercises in the backcountry. “The third year, the dog needs to clear a 100-by-100-meter area. It will have to find a live subject buried even deeper, plus maybe just a sweater or a collection of articles and a beacon,” Berg says. “Often we’ll reward them with a game of tug o’ war when they complete a task.”

On a typical work day this season, Berg and Piper will be found practicing daily obedience and search drills to keep Piper’s skills sharp.

Steve Rausch, an avalanche technician with the Aspen Mountain Ski Patrol, also owns a certified avalanche rescue dog. His three-year-old Blue Heeler mix June quickly became a beloved presence on Ajax Mountain since joining the team two years ago.

“She’s still considered basic-level,” Rausch says. “But we will be getting into more advanced training this winter.”

June is a rescue dog two times over: a rescue in both her work and in her background. “My family adopted June from Colorado Animal Rescue in Glenwood back in October 2013,” Rausch remembers. “An opening for a new Aspen Mountain avi dog came up, and we had just brought her home. So it was kind of like the stars aligning.”

Rausch recalls that although he had faith in June, there was a bit of initial uncertainty as to whether she could master the work. “June started training as an adult, at about 1 1/2 years old, which is not the norm,” he says. “Plus you just don’t see adopted dogs out on the slopes – most come from special breeders. June is in maybe one percent of avi dogs that are not purebred. We had her DNA tested, and the results showed she is three quarters Blue Heeler and one quarter Australian Shepherd. I didn’t know for sure if she would succeed as an avalanche dog when I adopted her, but I knew that her breed mix has the drive for this kind of work, so I wanted to try.”

Soon, little June was passing every test with flying colors.

“Initially I just needed her to get used to the environment: restaurants, people with gear, loud noises. She was amazing,” he says. In those first important months, June and Rausch worked closely with longtime Aspen Mountain Ski Patroller Patty Spilsbury, a local legend who was instrumental in forming the avalanche dog program in the 1970s and 80s.

“The next major hurdle was seeing if she could ride in a toboggan,” Rausch says, adding that this is a crucial component of any avi dog’s training. Toboggans are used to transport the dogs to avalanche sites as well as to the bottom of the mountains after work, helping preserve their strength and physical condition. If she couldn’t tolerate the toboggan, there was no point in continuing to train. But, Rausch remembers, “June was a natural.”

Not long after beginning at Ajax, June found herself accepted to the prestigious Wasatch Backcountry Rescue International Dog School, a program near Salt Lake City in Utah’s Unita-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. Together, she and Rausch completed an intensive training that earned her a doggie diploma and certification in helicopter rescue. “This was a week-long course where we were really able to form a tight bond as a team,” Rausch says. “We worked many hours together, did night training and helicopter practice.” The pair is now also partnered with Flight For Life Colorado, and could be called upon to complete helicopter missions in backcountry areas near Aspen.

This season, June will join her buddy and fellow Aspen Mountain avi dog Zoot for a winter of duty on the slopes. Occasionally they might even venture with their human partners to the surrounding mountains to sharpen their skills. “We have our own program going on here, and each mountain in this area might have different day-to-day activities for the dogs, but the testing is the same,” Rausch says. “There are a few dogs that work up at Highlands, at Snowmass and one at Buttermilk too – and we will swap territories and do drills to keep their training up.”

Although the hope is that the Roaring Fork Valley’s treasured avalanche rescue dogs will never need to use the skills they have honed, their presence on our ski mountains is an important one. “The bottom line is that the dogs are there on every mountain as an amazing resource for the general skiing public,” Rausch notes. “If there is an emergency, they are ready to go.”

And after work, when the day is done and the brightly colored vests come off? “The dogs go home with their owners,” says Berg. “Piper works with me during the day, but at night she comes home and is my pet dog.”

The same goes for Rausch and June. “At home, June is just our family friend – she’s so loving and relaxed. I like to joke that she really lets her hair down without her jacket,” Rausch says with a laugh.

To Piper, June and all the other Roaring Fork Valley avi dogs: We, the general skiing public, salute you. Enjoy first chair – you deserve it!