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These dogs are on patrol…just in case
Saturday, April 4, 2015


                Chances are you’re going to be out of luck if you want the seat in the sun in the Sun Valley Ski Patrol’s shack on top of Baldy.

                Jake, a 60-pound Lab-German shorthair mix, has claimed that seat as his own. And you’ll find the 1 and a half-year-old curled up there when he’s not working.

                Jake is one of two Lab mixes in training to be full-fledged avalanche dog. Though his handler Mike Lloyd hopes he’ll never be needed, he’s among the prime tools ski patrollers will turn to should someone be buried in an avalanche of snow.

“The dogs’ passion is to find the victim,” said Lloyd, director of the 67-member Sun Valley Ski Patrol. “Dogs can find a victim four times faster than human searchers, even when the victim is wearing an avalanche transceiver. If the dogs can get there in two, three minutes—even eight minutes, that gives the victim a 75 percent better chance of survival.”

 Sun Valley began using avalanche dogs in the early 1980s and the Ski Patrol tries to have at least two or three certified dogs on hand at all times.

Four-footed patrollers named Murphy, Syringa and Josie accompany their handlers to work five days a week. And they’re asked to come in on their days off when the avalanche danger is high.

They’ve been called on to help with searches for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers in the Prairie Creek and Baker Creek area north of Ketchum. And it was Kintla, a 3-year-old black lab owned by Patroller Troy Quesnel, who found a skier upside down in some pine trees on the side of Upper River Run following a New Year’s Day snowstorm in 2004.

 “The avalanche dog program is critical to the Sun Valley Ski Patrol and our guests,” said Patrol Supervisor Bryant Dunn. “We’re constantly training dogs to operate as search and rescue dogs. And the dogs add a lot of personality to the program. Jake, for instance, is relentless in his desire to play fetch and hunt. He has a sweet disposition. And it’s amazing to see what positions he falls asleep in when he’s curled up in the chair.”

                Lloyd got Jake, who doubles as a hunting dog, from a litter born in Twin Falls. He worked with him at home, hiding things in holes. When he began bringing him to work, he’d grab him by his ski patrol vest to lift him up onto the chair for a ride to the top of the mountain. Eventually, Jake figured it out and began jumping on their chair unassisted.

                Two months ago, Jake and Kobi—Mollie McLam’s Lab-German Shepherd mix--attended a three-day training workshop near Driggs where they practiced jumping on helicopters should they be needed in the backcountry and learned how to stay out of the way of skiers going to the scene of an accident. They also practiced rescues with smoke bombs that showed their handlers how the human scent rises through the snowpack before being carried away by a breeze.

Both subsequently passed a Blaine County Search and Rescue K9 Unit Level I Avalanche test. The test examined them for such skills as being able to sit and stay for long periods of time, ignoring distractions and finding two victims buried on an acre of snow within 20 minutes.

“There’s a lot more to it than having them than search for people,” said Lloyd. “For instance, you have to get them to and from a scene of an accident successfully. And they have to be social—we take them to schools because the kids love them and it’s good PR for the company.”

The typical person might think of a St. Bernard, a keg of brandy under his neck, when they think of mountain rescue dogs. But St. Bernards weren’t built for rescue work, said Lloyd.

Kobi, on the other hand, can’t be called off a scent once he’s on it. He can be by your side one instant and two miles down the road the next if he gets whiff of a scent, said McLam, who assisted with the search for two Boise women lost in the Craters of the Moon National Monument in September 2013.

“Dogs smell 40 times better than humans,” she said. “If we have 5 million scent glands, a dog has anywhere from 125 million to 300 million scent glands.”

Ninety-pound Kobi is “a big ham” who loves to be on the move and has no trouble accompanying McLam, who grew up in Fairfield, on 12-mile horseback rides.

Though he hates to sit still, he will content himself sitting outside the Ski Patrol shack chewing on a tennis ball where he can watch skiers come up the Lookout Express and Christmas chairs.

But give him the signal and it’s like turning the light switch from off to on. He’s ready to go.

“When I put on his Ski Patrol vest in the morning, he’s excited because he knows he gets to go to work. It’s like putting on a work uniform,” McLam said. “It’s a definite plus having him around. When I’m stressed, just having him there is a big boost.”

Lloyd and McLam don’t train Jake and Kobi every day because they don’t want the training to get mundane. But three times a week they’ll dig a few holes in the snow and solicit skiers who are willing to crawl into the holes to act as victims.

One recent afternoon Jake hopped on a snowmobile in front of Lloyd who took him to the scene of a make-believe avalanche ski patrollers had created off the cat track above Lookout Restaurant.

 His nose twitching, Jake immediately honed in on the right pile. He started scratching at the snow furiously. Breaking through, he grabbed the pull toy Sarah Imle was holding.

“Good dog. Good search dog,” Lloyd said, playing tug of war for 30 seconds with his dog.

“This is one big game for Jake so the most important thing you can do is have a big celebration,” he said. “But you don’t celebrate too long if you have a second victim you need to find.”

Within seconds, Jake finds the second victim—Harrison Black—and another celebration ensues.

About 90 percent of avalanche victims will survive if found within 15 minutes, provided they haven’t suffered fatal trauma. Just 30 percent survive after a half-hour and 10 percent after two hours. It could take 20 humans using avalanche probes four hours to cover the 2.5 acres a dog can cover in a half-hour.

“It’s fun working with these dogs, but you have to make sure you’re totally dedicated to that dog and the program,” said Lloyd.

“You need to be all in,” agreed McLam. “If you’re searching, you need that dog to be all in. After all, we’re talking a matter of life and death.”

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