I was having a pint at the Thirsty Squirrel, a mountain pub set at the base of Solitude ski resort in Utah, about 30 minutes outside of Salt Lake City. In the corner of the room, near our table, I noticed a couple of dog beds on the floor. The area around the animal bedding was roped off. There was a sign that read, “Working dogs at rest.” The beds were empty, which was probably a good thing for the dogs, as ropes and warning signs are no match for my zealous canine fever. I can’t let sleeping dogs lie because look at that face!
“That’s where the avalanche dogs go when their owners drink beer,” a local told me. The dog-bed enclave was reserved specifically for the resort’s team of search-and-rescue canines, more commonly referred to as avalanche dogs. These dogs, I learned, are extensively trained to locate and recover victims in snowy, mountainous terrain. The animals possess superhero-level skills with which they protect human lives. And they can ride the ski lift like a boss.
Avalanche dogs, which undergo highly specialized training, sniff out skiers buried in mountain snow. A typical rescue goes like this: In the event of a slide or an avalanche, 9-1-1 dispatchers contact the county sheriff, who then gets in touch with Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR). WBR is a nonprofit organization that trains the dogs and coordinates rescues. When people get caught in snow slides or avalanches, the dogs are dispatched along with volunteer rescue workers, and they rush to recover victims.
According to a Solitude representative, “The most critical aspect of a safe rescue and recovery of an avalanche victim is time. Dog teams enable us to locate, recover, and evacuate victims quickly.” One team of dogs can do the job of more than 150 human searchers using probes in rock-hard avalanche debris. The dogs can pick up the scent of humans under thick layers of snow, and they can navigate through dangerous and severe weather conditions more quickly and safely than people.
WBR now has more than 30 highly trained rescue dogs, which work at 15 Utah ski resorts. Three of those dogs are at Solitude. Meet Piper, Izzy, and Ninja.
When they’re not saving people from snowy danger, they’re living the local-celeb lifestyle. On January 26, the pet-friendly Hotel Monaco Salt Lake City hosted an Avalanche Dog Appreciation Day for Solitude’s dogs and their handlers. The photogenic pooches took some pictures with visitors and enjoyed pampering and treats courtesy of Healthy Pets.
During the rest of the season, the dogs lounge like pros in that roped-off VIP area at the Thirsty Squirrel. When they’re taking a break from keeping the slopes safe, you’ll find Piper, Izzy, and Ninja recharging in the manner of many a seasoned skier: kicking back with the locals in the corner of a dark, cozy bar, among warm friends and cold brews.
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