'All resorts have avalanche-certified dogs on hand for each day they are open; in Park City, we run with 11 of them to cover the area,' said Andrew Vanhouten, president/CEO of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue.
UTAH — As winter sports enthusiasts prepare for another season on the slopes, an often overlooked yet integral part of the safety measures at ski resorts is coming into focus: the avalanche rescue dogs. These highly-trained canines play a critical role in ensuring the safety of skiers and snowboarders, making them heroes of the slopes.
Sundance Mountain Resort has a new puppy in training, Ida, a black lab. Ida and her handler, Collin Richards, have been riding the chair lift and getting acquainted with the mountain. They’ll continue their training with the help of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue.
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue is a non-profit organization operating in the Wasatch Mountains. It works collaboratively with the five Wasatch Front county sheriffs’ search and rescue divisions, spanning Salt Lake, Summit, Weber, Wasatch, and Utah counties. WBR’s primary mission is rapid response for avalanche rescue, winter-related mountain rescue, and vital medical evacuations, employing meticulously trained professionals alongside exceptional search and rescue dogs.
“All resorts have avalanche-certified dogs on hand for each day they are open; in Park City, we run with 11 of them to cover the area,” said Andrew Vanhouten, president/CEO of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. “The resorts will work with different breeders throughout the U.S., and our big requirement is that we get high-drive, healthy dogs. We primarily focus on hunting breeds. Ideally, these dogs will work an 8-10 year career.”
The dogs are trained to search large areas quickly and efficiently by scent. This speed and efficiency are crucial in rescue operations, as time is of the essence when it comes to finding and rescuing victims of avalanches.
“The first year with a pup at a resort is primarily just getting them familiar with the mountain operations and the environment they will be working in,” Vanhouten continued. “Obedience is also huge; all of our handlers have to certify their dogs with obedience standards every year. To these dogs, training is basically just a game of hide and seek; eventually, they know that if they find someone buried in the snow, they get a toy and a certain reward, a game of tug of war.”
The dogs and handlers have to know how to navigate complex terrain, especially in the backcountry. The time commitment to “run a dog” is often underestimated; it adds a lot of responsibility to the daily operations of a patroller.
Donations fund WBR; if you would like to contribute, visit WBR donations