For 40 years, the Taos Ski Valley Ski Patrol has had the assistance of specially trained dogs to help them rescue people trapped in avalanches. Taos was an early innovator in using canine assistance in the United States, after ski patrollers on an exchange to a resort in Utah brought the idea back home.
“Rescue dogs are a faster way to find people buried in an avalanche than searching with a pole,” says Leland Thompson, head of the TSV Ski Patrol dog department. He notes that if a skier is carrying a beacon, they might be found more quickly than the dog could locate them – but not everyone carries a beacon.
“I came to Taos from Park City Mountain Resort in Utah and started working ski patrol with the dogs,” Thompson said. “I had the huge honor of bringing a dog on to the program and it has consumed my life ever since.”
In addition to being the head of the dog department, he is also the vice president of the nonprofit organization Taos Avalanche Rescue Dogs, which provides support for the program, and is an assistant instructor for the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment organization.
History of snow dogs
The program began with Rocky, a German shepherd with “high drive,” meaning he was highly motivated to find people buried in the snow. According to stories from Rocky’s time, “He was great at finding people, but tended to be a little too aggressive when he dug people out,” according to Rey Deveaux of Taos Ski Patrol on the Taos Avalanche Rescue Dogs website (taosavalanchedogs.com). “In his excitement, he would often grab a limb and just yank them out.”
After Rocky, the program switched to Labrador retrievers and Golden retrievers – breeds that are well-suited to the wintery and socially intensive job due to their happy temperaments, waterproof coats and powerful bodies that help them navigate efficiently through the snow.
The program has been growing and expanding. Today there are two puppies in training and two fully certified dogs on the job: Izzy and Sadie, both Labrador retrievers. Thompson is Izzy’s handler. He explained that each of the dogs lives with their owner/handler.
“These are our dogs. Being together all the time creates a bond and establishes trust and respect on both ends,” says Thompson. “Trust is so important when we deploy the dogs.”
Training and rewards
The primary job of the avalanche rescue dog is to find someone buried in the snow. Using dogs to locate a skier can speed the search and save lives. In the summer, the handlers work on training in their own individual way, some working with Taos Search and Rescue and others focusing on obedience.
In the winter, the handlers train weekly on beacon searches and also train with the dogs to find someone placed in a snow cave. “Our dogs have a high drive. They want to go out and find something and we teach them to find a person. When they locate the person in the snow cave, they get to play tug with a play toy and dogs think tug is the greatest thing ever. For dogs, it is like a game of hide-and-go-seek,” Thompson explained.
The dogs sniff for the scent of a person buried in the snow. As explained on the website, “The scent percolates to the surface and with any air movement (even a slight breeze) it creates a ‘scent cone’ pinpointed at the victim and getting wider as it moves outward. Our dogs are primarily air scent trained, but also use ground scent. Once the dog is brought to the avalanche debris, he or she is told it’s time to work with certain commands. The handler and dog crisscross the path until the dog catches the scent of the victim. He or she then narrows the scent cone to the pinpoint and starts digging.”
In the first year of training, the focus for new dogs is getting them used to the ski patrol environment, including being in the patrol shack and learning how to load onto sleds, toboggans and lifts. “We work on obedience and control,” said Thompson. “The dogs learn how to run next to us while we ski. Depending on the size of the dog, we might carry them up on our backpacks. My dog Izzy weighs 55 pounds and I carry her.”
In addition to searching for skiers buried in an avalanche, the dogs also play a role educating the public. “The dogs allow us to talk to kids in a relatable way about avalanches and educate them when the kids come into ski patrol headquarters,” Thompson said, adding that people are welcome to drop by the headquarters to get to know the dogs.
However, if you see the dogs out at the ski valley, they may be working. If you want to greet a dog, interact first with the handler to make sure it is a good time. The dogs may be focused on the serious business of training or searching. In addition, it is the responsibility of the handler to keep the dogs safe. “My dog Izzy has been cut four times by skis. As the handler, it is my job to protect the dog and also to protect the considerable investment we have in the dogs. Taking into account dog school, our time and other costs, the rescue dogs are worth about $40,000 each.”
Supporting the Taos Avalanche Rescue Dogs
The best way to support the work of the Taos Avalanche Rescue Dogs is to stop by ski patrol headquarters, meet the dogs and help spread the word about their work. You can also purchase a calendar with pictures of the dogs on them, which are offered for sale between November and January.
Another way to help out is to go to the website for the nonprofit organization and make a donation. Funds help support the program and youth education programs at the Taos Avalanche Center so that they can be offered without cost.
Mission Statement of the Taos Ski Valley Avalanche Rescue Dogs nonprofit
I. To provide additional support in the training and management of avalanche rescue dogs capable of working with multiple handlers in multiple burial situations. To also provide our handlers and trainers themselves with additional continuing education. And to help to maintain the program by bringing in new puppies with special attention to selection of breed, temperament and successful obedience training.
II. To maintain and improve relationships and communications with the Taos community and within Taos Ski Valley itself. To implement new programs of outreach and education regarding specialized dog training as well as increasing avalanche awareness in the surrounding areas.
Visit taosavalanchedogs.com to find out more and to see a news video of the dogs in action finding a person during a training exercise. Check out the gallery of the dogs at work and play.