The avalanche dogs might be the cutest employees at the ski resorts, but they are some seriously hard workers.
We (virtually) met up with Jamie, a ski patroller and avalanche dog trainer in Revelstoke, British Columbia. She has been training working dogs for over 10 years, and is a mentor to the new upcoming dog handlers in Revelstoke. Jamie was previously a patroller at Revelstoke Mountain Resort and now operates her dogs through Revelstoke Search and Rescue - outside of the resort, any place in the area that needs assistance. (Quite a large space with big mountains!)
Wilderdog: Hi Jamie! Thanks so much for chatting with us today and teaching us a bit more about avalanche and search and rescue dogs. First thing's first... tell us about YOUR dogs!
Jamie: I have two working dogs, Jake and Red.
Jake is my first dog, a 10.5 year old chocolate lab with the personality of a frat boy. He thinks he’s a lap dog and will steal your heart (even if you didn’t think that was possible). He enjoys long walks on the beach and ruining any form of yoga in the house. Jake's super power is he can sleep in positions that would cripple humans and still be able to move after. I have worked on two different ski hills with Jake as an avalanche rescue dog team, and he is now enjoying the retiree life!
Red is a three year old, 57 pound, all legs, fiery German Shepherd. She does everything at a passionate max speed. Red loves working! Recently we have been training a new profile on her, which is tracking, and she’s a natural. Red is my second avalanche and wilderness search dog. She virtually is a polar opposite to Jake.
Jake and Red are comfortable riding on chairlifts, snowmobiles, gondolas, helicopters, moving sidewalks, elevators, quads... the list goes on. Both dogs have taught me tons, kept me honest, and inspire me to keep on training.
Wilderdog: Tell us how you got into ski patrol?
Jamie: I realized my dog Jake was going to need some acclimatization and familiarization to ski hill environments. I figured the best way was to work on a hill. So I switched from snowboarding to skiing and applied for a job at Marmot Basin. The forecaster there took a chance on me, and so the work on the hill began. Marmot Basin was a great place to start out my career; they were very supportive and very active with their ongoing training in the season. I then applied for Revelstoke Mountain Resort and worked as an avalanche dog handler for 6 years there. I worked two different dogs while I was at RMR.
Wilderdog: What made you want to get an avy dog?
Jamie: I saw a handler playing with their avalanche dog in Fernie, BC at the top of the chairlift. I stood back and watched for a very long time. It looked like they were having the best time. Sharing some secret with each other that no one else would understand. It turns out that handler took the college course I currently was enrolled in (Mountain Adventure Skills Training). I figured if she could do it, I could do it. I was a bit bold thinking that, but I wasn’t wrong. That dog handler I was admiring that day became a long term friend from the SAR (Search and Rescue) dog community.
Wilderdog: Have the dogs been involved in real life rescues before? Tell us the best rescue story of your pup or another pup.
Jamie: Due to confidentiality, I can’t discuss some of the searches that have resulted in not so happy endings. However, I can say my dog Red recently found someone alive in a wilderness search and it was by far the coolest moment of my career.
Wilderdog: What does a typical day look like for an avalanche dog?
Jamie: A typical day for an avalanche dog on a resort looks something like this: We go to the morning meeting to figure out the weather. Everyone gets their gear on and the morning plan is announced. If you have been selected to go on avalanche control then you will go build bombs, throw bombs and ski cut avalanches. Mostly your avalanche dog is on standby for the resort and surrounding area should an avalanche is to occur. The dog sleeps in their dog crate at the top of the mountain, ready to be deployed at any given moment.
Wilderdog: What kind of training goes into an avalanche dog?
Jamie: LOTS. You need an 80 hour first aid ticket: A Canadian avalanche association ITP Level 1, and must be assessed from an ACMG guide for snow skills and terrain travel. Then there is the daily training of the actual dog. I would say I put well over 500 hours a year training my dog. Teaching them to run behind me while I ski. Teaching them to search. Teaching them obedience that will pass the test.
Wilderdog: How hard was it to teach them to get on and off the chairlift calmly?
Jamie: Pretty easy. Dogs love jumping up on couches or chairs, so this is just a moving couch. Its more of - can the handler be calm.
Wilderdog: Are there specific breeds better equipped for the job than others?
Jamie: Any working line breed that is size and drive appropriate can be a good fit for SAR work. Like German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Malinois, Border Collies.
Wilderdog: What does an avalanche dog do in the off-season?
Jamie: My avalanche dogs have both been certified with BC Search Dog Association. They have searched for missing people in wilderness. There really isn’t an off-season. There is a season with snow and one without - we are training in all seasons/weather/environments. We train a lot!
Wilderdog: Do the dogs get cold at all?
Jamie: Yes they do. Sometimes their feet get irritated by the snow so we often put dog booties on them OR put paw wax on to give them a bit of a buffer from the elements and help their paws stay healthy. They do a lot of running in the snow. It is extremely important to take care of your K9 partner. On dog courses they can get cold in their kennels so its important to have some bedding that will keep your buddy warm. Most of all, Its important to acclimatize them to the weather!
Wilderdog: What are the dogs' favorite part of their work day?
Jamie: Waking up. Everyday is the best day, ultimately if it’s going for a ski or a search.
Wilderdog: What advice would you have for other people looking to get into ski patrol or Search and Rescue work?
Jamie: DO IT! It’s hard work and pays virtually nothing, but the experiences you will have and the friendships you will build will be worth it all.
It has been my greatest joy bringing people back to their family. Without Search and Rescue volunteers, many people would lose their lives. I personally have had a family member go missing and I am forever thankful to the volunteers who took the time to look for my grandfather. Now I repay the favour for other families. If there are openings in your local communities' SAR group, do inquire what it takes to get on the team. It is so rewarding to help people in need. I will be doing this for a long, long time. I am hooked.
Jamie is a member of Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) and British Columbia Search Dog Association (BCDSA).