One of Alyeska Resort’s newest employees doesn’t know how to ski. She naps on the job. And she’s paid in treats and toys.
Stormy, a 16-week-old golden retriever, recently joined the ski resort and is in training to become an avalanche rescue dog that could save lives in an emergency.
When Stormy is fully trained, she will become a serious safety asset for Alyeska. Search and rescue dogs can smell someone buried by an avalanche even if they’re covered by feet of snow.
An avalanche rescue dog “can clear a big search area in about 20 minutes, where it would take a probe line like two to three hours,” said Cody Burns, the assistant ski patrol director and Stormy’s handler.
The chances for surviving an avalanche burial sharply drop after about 15 minutes, so having a dog on-site can increase the odds of survival. For that reason, avalanche dogs are common fixtures at resorts across the country.
For now, though, much of Stormy’s day involves playtime, said Burns. On Thursday, she raced around the aid room while holding her red stuffed toy, digging in her sharp teeth to pull it away from Burns when he tried to grab it during a game of tug-of-war.
“You’re so good,” Burns said as he tousled Stormy’s ears.
Burns has been around rescue dogs for most of his life. His mother trained search and rescue dogs for decades and Burns followed in her footsteps, working with avalanche dogs at a resort in California before moving to Alaska. Stormy is the first rescue dog he has trained on his own.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to have a dog that I can take to work with me and train to help find people,” he said.
He traveled to California a few months ago to meet a litter of puppies and brought Stormy home with him.
“I pretty much got the choice pick of the litter,” he said. “She is the most active and brave puppy out of the whole bunch of them ... which is perfect for what I need because she needs to keep searching no matter what the conditions are.”
Stormy came from a long line of working dogs, Burns said. Her parents and grandparents were hunting dogs and competed in American Kennel Club field trials. While any breed of dog can be trained in search and rescue, Burns said retrievers are commonly used because of their high prey drive, boundless energy and fearlessness.
There have never been any avalanche injuries or deaths at Alyeska, said Ben Napolitano, the mountain marketing manager. The resort triggers avalanches so they happen in a controlled manner instead of being set off by skiers or falling naturally, Napolitano said.
Because of that mitigation, the risk of experiencing an avalanche is lower at a resort, but it’s never zero, he said.
Many guests at resorts don’t wear avalanche beacons or safety gear that can help searchers pinpoint their location, Burns said. So if there was an avalanche, the dogs would be the best bet to find someone, Burns said.
The entire training process for an avalanche rescue dog can take years, but Burns hopes to get Stormy certified by the spring of 2023. There’s no national certification process, but some search and rescue organizations offer their own various levels of evaluation.
At Alyeska, Stormy has started learning how to jump onto a chairlift so she’ll eventually be able to ride to the top of the mountain. She’s also learning basic obedience training — she can sit, lie down and play dead.
And she’s started a basic version of search training. Someone holds her while Burns runs and hides behind a building or around the corner. When Stormy finds him, she’s rewarded with her toy.
Search and rescue training involves a progression of hiding and finding, becoming more challenging with additional distance, barriers and different people or items acting as the targeted find.
Eventually, Stormy will bark as an alert when she’s found the item or person she’s searching for, Burns said. The goal is for her to be trained to work with any member of the ski patrol staff to ensure the fastest response in an emergency.
Stormy’s main focus will always be a toy. Burns said toys are used as her motivation and reward, which makes her eager to do the search and rescue drills. For her, the serious work is fun.