When Scout the Labrador Retriever was a puppy, she loved her wool blanket toy. Her owner, Bill Vore, would drag it around as she chased it. Then they would play hide-and-seek with it out in the snow. Sounds like a devoted owner having fun with his pup, but it was far more than that. Vore is a ski patroller at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, and Scout, now almost two years old, is his avalanche dog.
Dogs Are Essential for Search and Rescue
Avalanche dogs locate people buried under the snow after an avalanche. You might think avalanche risk is rare, but according to avalanche.org, a joint venture between the American Avalanche Association and the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center, there were 37 avalanche deaths in the 2020-2021 season. The danger is real, and although safety technology exists, like avalanche beacons and heat sensing drones, avalanche dogs are still an essential component of search and rescue.
The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s avalanche dog program has been running since 1979. According to Vore, who is in his thirteenth season as a ski patroller and his sixth year as an avalanche dog handler, the dogs at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort are needed two or three times a year, sometimes more depending on the danger level. He says although the dogs help with local search and rescue after an avalanche in the backcountry or side country, their main focus is work inside the resort grounds.
He explains, “People who go skiing at ski resorts don’t normally carry avalanche gear, primarily an avalanche beacon. That’s your primary source of safety in avalanche terrain. So, people who are skiing inside the ski resorts and have the unfortunate situation of being caught in an avalanche, our only way to find these people is with the help of a dog. I mean, not with their help. The dog does all the work, and we just kind of follow them around.”
It’s All a Game to the Dogs
Although their work can save lives, it’s all a game of hide-and-seek to the dogs. It starts when they’re puppies like Scout with her wool blanket. The owner drags the toy along the floor for the pup to chase and catch. Then, when they get it, they enjoy a rousing game of tug-of-war. It’s all to tap into the dog’s hunt and prey drives. From there, the owner takes the games outside, hiding behind bushes and eventually in snow caves.
“Once they move on to snow,” says Vore, “we dig holes in the snow and leave the door of that snow cave open. Then the next time we’ll put a block of snow in that doorway. Then the next time we’ll put two blocks of snow in that doorway. And eventually we’ll build it so that the whole entryway is a wall of snow blocks and if they paw it, it falls down. And then you progressively make it harder and harder to get through that wall. And then the dogs just realize, if I dig a little bit, I get to find that person, I get to play the game.”
And the game is everything to these dogs. Scout is governed by her stomach, and Vore says if Scout has the opportunity to eat, she’ll eat. “But her drive for finding someone under the snow and playing with them once she finds them is above anything else. We did a drill the other day where a guy sat down in the middle of our training site and he was eating his lunch, and to be very honest with you, I thought she was going to stop and try to steal his sandwich. But she kept looking for the person under the snow because she knows when she finds that person, she gets to play tug.”
Seeking Human Scent
As they search the snow, the dogs are using their noses to find hidden human scent. Unlike with the sport of scent work, the dogs aren’t trained to a particular odor. Rather, they learn to seek human scent through the training process. The way Vore sees it, the dogs associate each human they can see with that human’s distinct smell. “But somewhere they smell a human and they can’t see him. And they follow that scent picture to an area on the ground. Then they dig a little bit and they get more of that scent, and they dig a little more and get more of that scent until they pinpoint the location where that person is buried under the snow.”
At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, the dogs are trained to alert to the scent of a buried person by digging with two paws and barking. It’s impossible to miss. But the dogs have other more subtle cues when they’re working a scent and it’s the handler’s job to watch for them. For example, a dog might zig zag back and forth as they zero in on a scent cone. Vore says, “If you watch a dog long enough, you can pick up really weird subtle characteristics. Like my dog, when she’s really pinpointing and really trying to find scent, her tail’s just spinning around like a top.”
Challenges on the Job
Vore and his fellow avalanche dog handlers are all ski patrollers, and their first responsibility is mountain safety and taking care of the guests. Dog training is something they fit in when and as often as they can. When their handlers are on duty, the dogs spend their time relaxing on couches in the duty stations and eating meals provided by Nulo, the team sponsor. Vore says it’s a really good life. “If you believe in reincarnation, come back as an avalanche dog.”
But there are all kinds of challenges too. The handlers need to keep their dog’s out of the way of co-workers. Vore explains, “If we don’t have a ton of time to go out and train, they get kind of bored and they’ll let you know. They’ll bark at you or they’ll start to be mischievous. We get these dogs because of their drive to work which can be a double-edged sword.”
These daring dogs ride up the mountains on chairlifts, and down on snowmobiles, sleds, and even on their skiing handlers’ shoulders. They travel in helicopters to backcountry search sites. But it’s the dangers close to home that can cause the most trouble. From waffles on the ground at the waffle stand on top of the mountain to people wanting to throw sticks or snowballs for the dogs, Vore and his colleagues have their hands full. Vore’s biggest fear is Scout being hit by a skier. It’s not common, but every year he hears of at least one dog in the avalanche dog community who got hit and no longer works.
But despite all the challenges, it’s worth it for Vore. Every time he walks into the building, he’s rewarded when Scout sits up and starts wagging her tail. “To be able to incorporate your work with your dog is the best thing in the world. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when it’s very, very, very hard to have my dog at work. It is very stressful. But that reward I get of bringing her to work and having that bond is like no other. I don’t know of any other professions where you can do that.”