Avalanche dogs train for a week to learn lifesaving skills

When an avalanche happens, one invaluable tool is avalanche dogs.

Many teams from around the West Coast bring their dogs to Utah to get trained at Wasatch Backcountry Rescue’s Avalanche Dog Training school.

“These dogs are a great tool for us,” Andy Van Houten, President of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue said. “They’ve proven themselves valuable over the last several years as we’ve seen an increase in backcountry users.”

The school brings in students from all over the West Coast including teams from Colorado, Idaho and California.

One of the 16 teams are Maia and Zak from Keystone ski resort in Colorado.

“Maia’s a year and a half old, she’s a golden retriever,” said Zak Bloom, Maia’s handler. “She’s done very well this week.”

Maia is a friendly, camera-loving star in the school, but while it’s fun in the snow for her, saving lives is no laughing matter.

“We’ve spent all week burying each other in the snow and letting these dogs find us,” Bloom said. “Just hoping everybody progresses with the idea that we can hopefully save somebody.”

Golden retrievers like Maia are among a variety of dog breeds building their resumes.

“What we generally look for is kind of the hunting breed,” Van Houten said. “We want a dog that’s pretty resilient out in the harsh weather and then we also want a dog that’s gonna work hard [and] that’s trainable.”

Being friendly is also a part of the mission.

“We do a lot of interactions around the guests here at the resort and we do a lot of outreach education, so we want dogs that are friendly” Van Houten explained. “If you’re at the resorts, come up to say hi, talk to the handlers, we’re happy to explain what we do how it.”

While training on the ground is one thing, training in the air is the mission of the final day of training.

“We fly them up to a site on the hill to simulate getting flown into a live rescue,” Van Houten said.

As the week of training comes to a close and the dogs are mastering their air rescue skills, dogs like these will be ready to save lives in an emergency.

By Spencer Joseph, KSTU.