One of the new employees of Alyeska Resort does not know how to ski. She takes a nap at work. And she gets paid in treats and toys.
Stormy, a 16 week old golden retriever, recently returned to the ski resort and is in training to become an avalanche rescue dog that could save lives in an emergency.
When Stormy is fully trained, she will become a serious safety asset for Alyeska. Search and rescue dogs can smell someone buried in an avalanche even if they are covered in feet of snow.
An avalanche rescue dog “can clear a large search area in about 20 minutes, where it would take a sounding line like two to three hours,” said Cody Burns, assistant director of the ski patrol and master of Stormy.
The chances of surviving an avalanche burial drop sharply after about 15 minutes, so having a dog there can increase the chances of survival. For this reason, avalanche dogs are common in resorts across the country.
For now, however, much of Stormy’s day involves playing time, Burns said. She walked around the treatment room on Thursday while holding her red plush toy, digging her sharp teeth away from Burns when he tried to grab her during a tug of war game .
“You are so good,” Burns said, ruffling Stormy’s ears.
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Burns has been around rescue dogs for most of his life. His mother trained search and rescue dogs for decades, and Burns followed in her footsteps working with avalanche dogs at a resort in California before moving to Alaska. Stormy is the first rescue dog he trained alone.
“I always dreamed of having a dog that I could take to work with me and train to help find people,” he said.
He traveled to California a few months ago to meet a litter of puppies and brought Stormy home with him.
“I pretty much had a choice of scope,” he said. “She is the most active and courageous puppy of all the puppies… which is perfect for what I need as she has to keep looking no matter what the conditions are.”
Stormy comes from a long line of working dogs, Burns said. His parents and grandparents were hunting dogs and participated in the American Kennel Club field trials. While any breed of dog can be trained to search and rescue, Burns said scavengers are commonly used due to their high prey, limitless energy, and fearlessness.
There have never been any injuries or deaths from avalanches in Alyeska, said Ben Napolitano, mountain marketing manager. The resort triggers avalanches so they happen in a controlled fashion instead of being triggered by skiers or falling naturally, Napolitano said.
Because of this mitigation, the risk of experiencing an avalanche is lower at a station, but it is never zero, he said.
Many resort guests don’t wear avalanche beacons or safety gear that can help researchers pinpoint their location, Burns said. So if there was an avalanche, dogs would be the best bet to find someone, Burns said.
The entire process of training an avalanche rescue dog can take years, but Burns hopes to achieve Stormy certification by the spring of 2023. There is no national certification process, but some organizations do. search and rescue have their own rating levels.
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In Alyeska, Stormy started learning to jump on a chairlift so that she could eventually climb to the top of the mountain. She also learns basic obedience training – she can sit, lie down and play dead.
And she started a basic version of research training. Someone is holding her while Burns runs and hides behind a building or around the corner. When Stormy finds him, she is rewarded with her toy.
Search and rescue training involves a progression of concealment and search, becoming more difficult with additional distance, barriers, and different people or objects acting as the target find.
Eventually, Stormy will bark as an alert when she finds the item or person she is looking for, Burns said. The goal is for her to be trained to work with any member of the ski patrol staff to ensure the fastest response in an emergency.
Stormy’s main focus will always be a toy. Burns said the toys are used as motivation and reward, which makes her anxious to do the search and rescue exercises. For her, serious work is fun.