ALTA, Utah – When an avalanche occurs, avalanche dogs are an invaluable tool, and many teams from across the West Coast are trained in Utah.
We’ve all heard that dogs are man’s best friend, but down in Little Cottonwood Canyon, at the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue Avalanche Dog Training School, there’s a group of dogs training to be more than just faithful companions.
“These dogs are a great tool for us,” said Andy Van Houten, president of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. “They have proven themselves over the past few years as we have seen an increase in backcountry users.”
In addition to teams from Utah, the school welcomes students from across the West Coast, including teams from Colorado, Idaho, and California.
One of the 16 teams is Maia and Zak from Keystone Ski Resort in Colorado.
“Maia is one and a half years old, a golden retriever,” said Zak Bloom, Maia’s dog handler. “She’s done very well this week.”
The one-year-old is a friendly school star who loves the camera, but while it’s fun in the snow for her, saving lives is no laughing matter.
“We spent all week burying ourselves in the snow and letting these dogs find us,” Brown said. “I just hope everyone moves forward with the idea that we can hopefully save someone.”
Golden retrievers like Maia are one of a variety of dog breeds that build their resumes.
“What we’re usually looking for is some sort of hunting breed,” Van Houten said. “We want a dog that’s pretty weather resistant, and then we also want a dog that’s going to work hard and can be trained.”
Being friendly is also part of the mission.
“We do a lot of customer interaction here at the resort and we do a lot of outreach training, so we want friendly dogs,” Van Houten explained. “If you’re at the resorts, come say hi to the managers, we’ll be happy to explain what we’re doing.”
If training on the ground is one thing, training in the air is the mission of the last day of training.
“What we’re doing is we’re loading hot teams here in the lower mountain,” Van Houten said. “We fly them to a site on the hill to simulate flight in a live rescue.”
As the training week comes to an end and the dogs master their aerial rescue skills, dogs like these will be ready to save lives in an emergency.