Next time you hit the slopes, keep an eye out for the ski rescue dogs. They’ll be happy to dig you out of the snow.On a typical winter day, Henry is not called upon to save anyone’s life or to participate in a dramatic rescue. In fact, he’s one of the few members of the Vail Ski Patrol who will never bandage a wound or splint a joint, who is known to fall asleep on the job daily and who can’t even ski. Yet, he has a building at the resort named after him, and he’s arguably Vail’s single most popular employee. Henry also happens to be a golden retriever.
Virtually every Western and European ski resort has a canine staff, a team of highly trained rescue dogs who use their on-snow mobility and powerful sense of smell to locate buried avalanche victims — for whom time and oxygen are precious commodities — faster than any alternative option if the victim isn’t wearing an avalanche beacon or Recco chip. It is estimated that one dog and handler can do the job of 150 trained searchers. For decades these heroic dogs have been a behind-the-scenes safety net for recreational skiers, but in recent years they have increasingly developed a public persona. Fortunately, in-bounds avalanches (those occurring within the marked boundaries of a public ski resort) are rare, so Henry and his ilk spend most of their time training and serving as resort ambassadors. When they are not performing drills and exercises, they are out on the mountain, riding the lifts, cruising on the backs of snowmobiles, or even draped over the shoulders of their ski-patrol partners, attracting curious children and adults. They also go out into the community, visiting local schools to spread a safe-skiing message.
“They are PR puppies,” says Brent Redden, the patroller who co-founded the avalanche rescue-dog program eight years ago at Colorado’s Beaver Creek Resort, which has several dogs on its rescue team, including Redden’s black Lab, Blu, who lives with him full time. “Kids pet them all day, and we take them into schools about 20 times each year to talk to the kids about ski safety. It’s much different than in Europe, where the rescue dogs belong to the ski resort and live in the basement of the lodge, and the public might not even be able to pet them.” The U.S. model is fairly consistent: A patroller gets a puppy, often from a rescue group or shelter, then trains it, raises it and keeps it as a pet, while the resort foots the bill for food, training and medical expenses. When the dog retires, it becomes the patroller’s stay-at-home companion, and like a police K-9, when working, it has a one-on-one relationship with its handler.