Despite advancement in search and rescue technology, at Tahoe ski resorts avalanche dogs and their handlers are still an integral part of mountain safety.
At Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, skiers and snowboarders have no doubt seen the Sierra Avalanche Dogs around the mountain. Sure, they are cute. But they are much more than just furry friends. Operating alongside the Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Patrol team, they play an important role in mountain safety.
The Sierra Avalanche Dogs is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to training and utilizing avalanche rescue dogs. Operating alongside Sierra-at-Tahoe Ski Patrol, these dogs are valued team members who play an important role.
Possessing skills honed through highly-specialized training, Avalanche Rescue Dogs are invaluable members of all ski resort Search and Rescue teams. They can search out an entire area of avalanche terrain in only 30 minutes, which would take a human four hours to cover.
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.
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.
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 – only 20 to 30 percent of victims are 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.
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. The vast majority of avalanche deaths have occurred in the backcountry.
Avalanche rescue dogs are asked to do things that would scare most dogs: fly in helicopters, ride on snowmobiles, walk through deep mountain snow at night with the sun’s reflection off the moon as the main source of light, and get on their handler’s shoulders so they can be skied down the mountain.
These highly trained dogs can cover more ground much faster than their human counterparts. For instance, an avalanche dog can typically search 2.5 acres – roughly the area of two football fields – in about 30 minutes. To search the same area, it would take 20 people about eight times longer.
While people rely on long probe poles or beacons that can pick up radio frequencies from the victims’ transponders, an avalanche dog locates buried humans using just his or her keen sense of smell. T
The dogs have proved so successful that many ski resorts now station avalanche rescue dogs on the mountainside with their ski patrol teams. The dogs ride the lifts with their handlers and are prepared to climb onto snowmobiles or jump into helicopters to reach an avalanche site in minutes.
Avalanche dogs generally have careers that span 8 to 10 years. Their handlers have to keep a close eye on them and watch for signs of aging, pain or lameness. Then the dogs can retire into the warmth of home, content that they’ve done their job saving human lives.