Heavenly’s Avalanche Dogs – More than Just Cute


We all have at least one EpicMix Photo with them. We all aww and talk in baby voices when we see them. But these pups are out there for more than just their cuteness. They are the Heavenly avalanche rescue dogs, and they mean serious business from day one.

Think your pup has what it takes to be an avalanche dog? Not so quickly. There are several steps and requirements to meet before that red vest is granted.

We caught up with Heavenly ski patroller Colton Terry to see what exactly it takes. Colton is the handler for Summit, an adorable golden retriever who I know from first-hand experience is a talented rescue dog.

Top five characteristics of a good avalanche dog-
1. Good Prey Drive, which is their desire and drive to locate a victim.
2. Good Victim Loyalty, which will help them to better identify a victims location. With good victim loyalty, they will not leave the area until the handler comes and investigates what they have found. It helps eliminate false indications.
3. High energy is a plus. This gives them the ability to search for extended periods of time.
4. An obedient dog is a must. Professional rescues are very serious and involve a lot of distractions and people. The dog needs to stay focused on the task at hand.
5. Good physical condition. Avalanche rescue can be very demanding on a dog and requires good physical fitness and agility. This would cover general health, which would include a good sense of smell.

First things first, not every dog owner can enter their dog in the program. The requirements for a dog to enter the program mainly lie with the performance and involvement of the prospective handler. The handler must be involved as an alternate handler for one of the current avalanche dogs and must also be actively involved with the snow safety program and have knowledge of Heavenly’s rescue procedures and protocols. Meaning, if you are not a ski patroller or potential patroller, your dog will have to remain a casual, hide-and-seek, expert.

As far as the dog, the main point for consideration in the program is very strict obedience.  Puppies are required to attend a minimum of eight weeks of obedience training before they are allowed on the hill. Normally, young dogs are about five to six months old before starting. Prior to the dog being introduced to the pack, the current team members will observe the working relationship between the handler and dog to decide whether an appropriate level of obedience has been reached. The puppies are expected to be able to complete basic travel tasks safely, such as riding a chair on the lift and riding a snowmobile. 

There is no discrimination on the breed or gender of a potential avalanche dog. The only requirement is that all females must be spayed so that other dogs on the team are not easily distracted while on a search. Sporting breeds work best for this type of work because of their energy, heartiness, and natural ability to track with their nose. There are many different breeds and mixes that are current avalanche dogs around the world with German Sheppard’s, Collies, Labradors, and Golden Retrievers being the most prevalent.

The general search progression is not that different from hide-and-seek. A specific toy that has been designated primarily for avalanche training is used every time, with a consistent release technique practiced no matter how remedial the game.

For on-site training, when the dogs reach the rescue site they are asked if they are “ready to go to work.” This raises their excitement and energy level.  When the collar is taken off, they are given the command to “search.” From this point, they will grid the search area with techniques developed by each individual team. The handler’s job is to get the dog in the scent cone, which means downwind of where they think the most likely burial area is located. The handler’s job is to notice a dog’s alert to a scent and to then notice a dog’s indication of a buried victim. “It’s easy for the dog. It’s the handler’s ability to effectively direct the animal that takes time and practice.”

Validated members of the avalanche rescue team must perform a search consisting of at least two buried victims with an article of clothing in a 200’x200’ rescue site. The dog must complete finding the location of the victims within 15 minutes. After that point, a search training session is performed about every week with the dogs, ranging from single burials, multiple burials, or clothing article searches, which simulate a deep burial. Frequent basic obedience training with the dogs is a continuous must.

So, the next time you are out on the mountain and see one of these dogs, give it a pat and thank the dog and its handler for all the hard work that has gone into training for those emergency situations, because there is a lot more that goes into being an avalanche rescue dog than you might initially think.

For an inside look at the dogs in action, click here! Beware….cute dogs at work!!!



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