Since the early 18th century, monks traveled the snowy St. Bernard Pass — a 49-mile route in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland — with the help of the passageway’s namesake dog.
The rescue dogs would reportedly dig through the snow to find trapped travelers while another went back to the monk’s hospice to alert them of the discovery. These dogs are credited with saving the lives of more than 2,000 people until the last recorded recovery in 1897, according to the Smithsonian.
Today, the role of the rescue dog looks a little bit different — but not much.
At ski resorts across the country, despite advancement in search and rescue technology, avalanche dogs and their handlers are still an integral part of mountain safety.
At Squaw and Alpine Meadows ski resorts, a team of a dozen ski patroller and dog pairs train daily with search and rescue exercises to find humans trapped beneath feet of snow.
“We’re taking a dog and teaching it that the game is to find the human scent hidden under the snow. It starts with a visual runaway with a little puppy, then you progress from there to the dog essentially searching exclusively with its nose,” says Chase Allstadt, head of the avalanche dog program at Alpine Meadows.
His dog Ike, a 10-year-old yellow lab, is now retired, but continues coming to the mountain in a “PR capacity,” says Allstadt with a chuckle.
Patience and dedication
To make the cut as an avalanche dog, the canine must meet rigorous standards when it comes to obedience, agility and search capabilities. They can ride on ski lifts, snowmobiles and are comfortable on their handlers’ shoulders as they ski down the mountain.
“We say it takes about 1,000 man hours just to get them up to speed for their first test,” explains Ben Stone, head of the Squaw Valley avalanche dog program and handler of 8-year-old Belgian Malinois, Kaya. “You have to be very patient and very dedicated.”
The dogs train almost every day with drills where they search to find pieces of human clothing buried deep in the snow or even other ski patrollers hidden in snow caves.
The dogs sniff out pools of human scent rising from the snowpack and carrying through the air. When the dogs locate a potential scent, they will shove their snouts in the snow to get a more accurate read, and begin digging if that scent intensifies.
“For them it’s all about making that the most fun game,” says Stone.
Games of tug-of-war and exuberant praise are rewards for a successful search.
‘We’re ready every time’
While the dogs may serve as cute furry ambassadors for the ski resorts, the work they perform can be a matter of life and death.
Around 93 percent of avalanche victims survive if they are dug out within 15 minutes of being buried, according to the National Geographic Society. Survival rates drop quickly, however, with only 20 to 30 percent of victims alive after 45 minutes and even less after two hours.
When the resorts get fresh powder, the ski patrollers are responsible for conducting avalanche control on the mountain by blasting explosives to trigger any potential slides.
“When the public is ready to be released onto those slopes we have the dogs and the handlers at the top, and we’re ready to roll in case we need to,” says Stone. “Luckily we don’t need that very often, but we’re ready every time.”
Since 2000, there have been 461 avalanche fatalities in the U.S. with an average of 29 per season, according to 2017 statistics from the National Ski Areas Association, but the vast majority has occurred in the backcountry.
Members of the Squaw and Alpine Meadows avalanche dog teams are all Placer County Sheriff volunteers that could be called in for a search and rescue mission at any time.
“Most of the real searches are outside of the ski boundary,” says Allstadt. “We could get picked up by a sheriff’s helicopter on the mountain and head into the backcountry.”
And while patrollers also use transceivers and RECCO technology to locate buried bodies, the dogs continue to be an effective tool for search and rescue.
“I don’t know that we really understand how capable these dogs are yet. I think that level of canine science is still pretty new,” says Allstadt. “I read an article the other day that said when a dog walks into a pizza parlor, it doesn’t smell pizza. It smells the flour, the salt, the yeast, the cheese.
“If we’re just starting to understand that, then we don’t know how capable this tool is.”