6 things you may not know about avalanche dogs

Those golden retrievers you see around Northstar California aren’t simply for publicity and petting. They actually have a job to do around North Lake Tahoe, and a very important job at that.

So meet the Northstar Avalanche Rescue Dogs. Starting their service soon after they’re born, and continuing well into their life, "avy dogs" are a ski resort’s smartest, hardest working personnel. We recently caught up with a few of them, including Northstar’s certified avalanche dogs, Bandit and Ruckus, and the newest trainees, Yuma and Micah. Read below from Northstar California ski patrolman and avalanche dog handler, Kurt Gale, who shares 6 things you may not know about Northstar California’s avalanche dogs.

Northstar Avalanche Rescue Dogs program is a non-profit. The Northstar Avalanche Dogs program is going into its fourth year as a non-profit through Northstar's National Ski Patrol program. As a non-profit, it depends largely on donations, but also through fundraisers and through the sale of apparel. So when you're buying that avalanche dog swag, it's helping support our non-profit program.

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It takes at least one year for a dog in training to be certified. A dog in training will typically begin its training at the beginning of a ski season, and then be certified for the following ski season. However, once a dog is certified, the training continues throughout their service as avalanche dogs, getting re-tested every two years.

Dogs can start training as early as just a few weeks old. In the first few months of development, dogs in training are spending time getting acclimated to the ski resort, essentially getting used to the sights and sounds of it. Then, it’s at about six months old when the dogs start to more actively use their nose and develop their senses. This is when the training progresses and becomes more rigorous.

Avalanche dog tests involve a customized winter version of hide-and-go-seek. When testing avalanche dogs, a number of different scenarios are set up in which the dog has to find and unbury a variety of articles, such as wool sweaters that hold human scent. That leads up to a live burial scenario, in which the dog has to find a person who has been buried below the surface of the snow.

Avalanche dogs are typically of a working breed. Avalanche dogs typically consist of breeds like labradors, German shepherds, and golden retrievers (or cross-breeds including these types). At Northstar, they’re all golden retrievers. Avalanche dogs must have a great nose and sense for hunting, which retrievers are of course known for. After all, they don’t call them retrievers for nothing. Also, at a ski resort like Northstar California, they have to be good with people, since they are often interacting with guests on the mountain in between training.

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Avalanche dogs are an asset for local authorities. When avalanche dogs are put into an active service situation, it’s typically outside of the ski resort. The Northstar Avalanche Dogs program works with local authorities like Placer County and Care Flight, in which they’d fly a helicopter to Northstar to pick up a dog and their handler to transport to the search location.  

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The Tahoe Ascent Staff represents everyone from snowboard instructors to ski patrol to chefs and more. They are locals who know the 4-1-1 on North Lake Tahoe, but also experts in their own fields, providing unique, and often behind-the-scenes perspectives of both the area and their areas of expertise.