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Avalanche Rescue Dogs Are a Thing. That’s a Very Good Boy.   

Every January, ski patrol teams from across the country gather in Utah to train their secret weapons: avalanche dogs. And there’s no better place to train than at an elite academy known as the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue International Dog School

Equipped with world-class sniffers and the ability to dig fast—even through hard-packed snow—dogs are rapidly becoming one of the patrollers’ most valuable tools for avalanche rescue. When someone gets buried in an avalanche, the snow immediately sets up like concrete, leaving the victim trapped with just a small pocket of breathable air. While people often do survive avalanches if they end up atop the snow, those who get buried rarely make it more than 15 minutes. In places with deep snowpack and steep slopes, slides can involve hundreds of tons of snow, which makes burials particularly likely. To get victims out alive, ski patrollers have to move extremely quickly to organize a rescue, locate the skier, and dig them out. 

To help with those latter two tasks, many of the nation’s top ski patrol teams employ at least one avalanche rescue dog. Golden retrievers are popular, though all types of dogs can qualify. The main prerequisites are a thick coat, a tough constitution, and a willingness to learn fast and work hard. 

To hone those dogs’ skills, the patrollers—and their pups—travel to Salt Lake City each January to attend the four-day International Dog School run by Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. Teams travel from resorts in Colorado, California and beyond to learn from one another and get their dogs trained on the latest avalanche rescue methods. 

The dogs spend the week learning commands, practicing their skills, and simulating rescues—including helicopter fly-ins. The teams then take turns burying ski patrollers in the snow and timing the dogs to see how fast they can dig them out. When they’re not saving lives, the dogs play another important role at the ski resort. Friendly and approachable, they make perfect ambassadors for avalanche safety. So if you see a patrol dog at your local ski hill, don’t be afraid to go up and say hi. Then, rest assured that if the worst were to happen, you’d be in good hands—er, paws

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