Back in January, on a frigid afternoon at Keystone Resort in Colorado, I met Kenya and her owner/handler Sy Meheen. Kenya is a certified Avalanche dog and, along with Annie and Zoey, two certified Golden Retrievers and their handlers, she and Sy are an important part of the Keystone Emergency Services team. They are also outstanding safety ambassadors for the mountain.
Meet and Greet
Most of us will never see an avalanche dog at work. Thank goodness. I love skiing and I love life. Consequently, I have a healthy respect for the power and horror of cascading snow. I have no interest in being swept away, thus no reason to think I’ll ever meet Kenya or her peers while they’re working.
Instead, I met Kenya and Sy at Keystone’s weekly Meet Our Avy Dog event in River Run Village. This is a free event held each Thursday from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. to educate guests about snowsport and winter safety.
That’s A Good Dog
The first thing I notice when I meet Kenya, is that she’s smaller than I expected and a little shy. She’s a quiet girl, more content sitting alone on her pillow in the corner than being forced to interact with an enthusiastic dog lover (me).
But with Sy’s encouragement she obligingly gets up and lets me pet her. It’s not that she doesn’t like affection, but she’s a professional, trained and always at the ready.
As sweet and demurring as Kenya is, Sy is outgoing and enthusiastic. Which is good, because I had a lot of questions for him. I have no plans to train a rescue dog, but I sure wanted to know how its done.
The Ideal Dog
An avalanche dog should be athletic and agile. It should like the cold and have a lot of stamina. An ideal dog should also have a strong play drive and be eager to please.
Most trainers prefer to work with puppies, but older dogs can be trained as well. Dogs which have a strong prey drive, that is the motivation to pick up a scent and track it, are good candidates.
Size matters, too. An avalanche dog has to be big enough to cover rough, snowy terrain, but small enough to fit in a helicopter and be carried by its handler, if necessary. In general, most avy dogs are between 35 and 75 pounds. Gender doesn’t matter, as both males and females work equally well. Popular breeds for search and rescue work include labradors, golden retrievers, border collies, Australian shepherds and German shepherds.
While Kenya is a black lab, pointer and retriever mix, two dogs in training at Keystone, Flash and Cedar, are border collies.
The Learning Curve
Avalanche dog training begins with obedience and play-based exercises. When the dogs are ready, they move into search training. Search training starts with “hide and seek” and progresses into more difficult and advanced scenarios. Dogs are rewarded with a favorite toy (not treats, like my spoiled dog), and are usually ready for certification at age three. Handlers certify at the same time as their dog and are tested on their own avalanche awareness and search skills. It really is a team effort.
Training continues for both dog and handler throughout the dog’s career. Over the course of this career, the dog and handler will usually participate in a rescue between two and ten times each winter. Much of this depends upon the volatility of the seasonal snowpack. The work isn’t easy and most dogs retire from search and rescue at about age 8, transitioning into education and public relations roles.
You’re A Star
Kenya is currently transitioning into her new job as one of Keystone’s four-legged ambassadors. If you do meet Kenya, or one of the other avy dogs, ask for a trading card. Each card has a dog’s photo and statistics on the front. On the back you’ll find the Skiers/Riders Responsibility Code and a listing of websites for avalanche awareness and education.
An Invaluable Resource
As cute and lovable as these dogs are, their job is serious. According to Sy, a skilled search and rescue dog is an invaluable resource for retrieving people buried in an avalanche, especially if they don’t have beacons. Dogs can cover more ground and find the burial location much faster than a human. It’s an important and difficult job.
And it’s so cool that dogs can do it.
Attention Parents of Collectors
Keystone is not the only resort with avalanche dog trading cards. Other resorts, including Arapahoe Basin in Colorado and Heavenly in Nevada and California, also have cards for their dogs and use the dogs for public safety events. If your kids are collectors, or just love dogs, ask at your favorite resort. It’s a great way to reinforce snowsports safety with all children.
Many thanks to Sy Meheen for patiently answering my questions and sharing his knowledge. Cheers!
- Surprising Keystone: Bigger, Better and Fun for Everyone, February 4, 2013.
- Take Time Out for Tubing, February 13, 2013.
- Why My Family Loves Skiing at Keystone, Colorado, November 4, 2011.
- Cross Country Ski Etiquette: No Mean Dogs, March 21, 2012.
- Decision Points, May 8, 2012.
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