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Out Woofing It- Telluride Avalanche Dogs

By: Samantha Fields Alviani

By Samantha Fields Alviani

Every morning, Mona is up with the sun. She rests her black muzzle on the bed of her sleeping owner; she is somewhere between the quiet resting hours and an eagerness to shift to the jobs of the day. Her handler Erik Larsen gets suited up, a signal that acts as a light switch for Mona and her sense of duty; her vest and harness are pulled on, and she moves out of her role as companion and quickly, adeptly into the joy of her life’s function. For Mona and the rest of the Telluride Avalanche Dog team, including Lady Bee, Sadie, Doris, Wiley, and Bajuko, avalanche rescue training—and the mountain missions that come along with it—are all in a day’s work.

In the drifts of powder that blanket the San Juan Mountains, the Telluride Avalanche Dogs play a vital role in mountain rescue and safety education efforts in the Telluride community. From puppyhood, they’re trained to perform under pressure in rescue situations, providing a fast, effective means of locating buried avalanche victims—often faster and more effectively than their human counterparts. The team of handlers and patrollers works to train and foster hardworking, highly trained rescue teams with 365-day coverage for emergencies within the Telluride resort boundaries and around the region in its entirety; the close union of patroller and working animal is a source of endless inspiration for the community as a whole.

The role of the snow safety team and their wooly counterparts has become even more important with the expansion of the inbound terrain they service; in the last 15 years, the ski area—located in a class 1 avalanche area—has nearly doubled in size. The first dog was trained on the mountain in 1986. Now, the primary focus is to provide safety and emergency rescues to the ski mountain, but there are members of Telluride Search & Rescue that are able to respond to out-of- bounds avalanches as well. “We do our very best to mitigate all hazardous potential, but we can’t do it all,” explains Larsen, a snow safety team member and TAD dog handler. “For in-bounds guests stuck in an avalanche with no beacon or rescue gear, our dogs are their best chance at survival.”

 

Training starts with puppies as young as a few months old—usually retriever breeds like labs, shepherds, Belgian Malinois—breeds with longer noses and heightened olfactory sensation with the natural instinct to seek out and find. “The training starts the first day you get your puppy,” explains Larsen, a snow safety team member and TAD dog handler. “Mona was on the mountain when she was 3 months old getting used to her new world—becoming a working animal. She’s my pet, but she’s my pet after hours—when she’s up on the mountain, she knows what her purpose is, and she’s a wonderful, willing participant in those responsibilities.”

The first year of training focuses on socialization and obedience, both crucial elements to the dog’s safety, well-being and job performance. “We need them to do what they’ve observed in the wild, and what’s innate to their breed,” says Larsen. In the second year, there’s a transition to search and retrieve; a game that in this case, is ultimately life-saving. To them, it’s a natural response—but here, it requires a focus of that instinct, not to retrieve balls and sticks, but humans under snow. Series of runaway drills activate the receptors in each animal as they chase and find people on the mountain, in snow and in the season before snowfall. Once the dogs have established finding human scent, a reward is introduced—not food-based, but play- and gratitude-based. It’s about tapping into the reward center of each individual dog—once found, it’s what keeps the dog focused and satisfied. In the end, the reward isn’t just finding and saving someone; it’s what drives.

“We find that one thing that makes the animal go completely nuts,” explains Larsen. “Whether it’s a piece of rope or a toy animal, they all have their own thing. The act of tugging brings out a primal drive to hunt, kill find—it’s prey-based, even when used in a rescue scenario, and it keeps the animal focused. Ultimately, the reward is gratitude.”

At the start of each day, the dogs go to morning meetings like every patroller. From there, they get to the upper stations by snowmobile to conserve their energy; there are three primary high altitude stations where the dogs are assigned for rapid response. Whether working on exercises and drills or out on a search, the patrollers and snow safety team rely on the dogs to be coiled springs: not a tired dog being dispatched, but a dog at the ready for a “sweep,” or mission.

“The reality is that the recovery of avalanche victims plays a crucial role in the healing and grieving for family and friends. We have control over our safety and rescue programs, but people make their own decisions. If someone didn’t have a beacon, the only way we can detect a person is with a recco reflector tab—otherwise, the only shot for recovery is with our dogs. As that scent comes up through the snow, the dog will clue in and zone in, activating a digging drive. We rely on them as an integral part of our team in these missions,” Larsen says.

Mona, Lady Bee, Sadie, Doris, Wiley and Bajuko don’t just serve a role of search and rescue; they are a huge part of snow safety plans as a whole. TAD spends countless hours educating local and regional students on skier safety and calculated decision-making when recreating in and around the mountains of Telluride. The presence of the dogs in classrooms changes the tone of the educational process, promoting greater engagement and understanding. TAD assists the local animal shelters and vet clinics. The team of rescue dogs and handlers work in tandem with the San Miguel Sheriffʼs Department in other types of emergencies in addition to avalanche rescue, like missing persons, night searches and technical rescues.

Before Mona, Larsen had never owned an animal. Now, he can’t imagine going without the level of connection he has with these animals for the rest of his life. “It’s enriching to have a dog that’s willing to give its life for others; she’s a willing participant 365 days a year. Personally, it’s made room for lots of growth. You see an animal’s willingness to love, to work, to be social—and you learn from it yourself.” People come up the mountain just to see the dogs; they’re an active, cherished part of the local fabric. “There’s not one patroller you’d talk to that wouldn’t think our patrol body is made better by having these dogs on the mountain, having their pseudo-pet. It’s morale boosting, and people just like being around them.”

This work—to hold this job everyday—is what makes the dogs happiest. They live for it. Beyond the deeply felt joy amongst the dogs, it’s an absolute necessity for the community and for nearby mountain locales. They are companions with a rooted sense of duty; they have the privilege of living—and loving—their too- short lives.

“Sometimes it’s my dog that gets me up to go to work,” Larsen admits. “When that alarm goes off, she’s ready to go to work. It’s a really inspiring thing. We’ve trained this animal to be so devoted. Then, at  the end of our shifts, they run down the mountain with us—it’s pure elation to watch them, and it’s the best part of the day.”

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