The ski patrol dogs have a seasonal job, winter comes in fast and they work hard day in and day out to help keep the slopes safe for guests visiting Alyeska Resort. The dogs are always on property to back up the patrol as they conduct avalanche mitigation work, in the event of an accident the dogs would be on scene in an instant to help find and dig out the victims. The winter time is a great time to be a working dog in Alaska, but what to do in the summer? When the ski resort closes the dogs go on summer vacation, but the training continues.
”It’s very important for the dogs to stay active with their training,” says Brian McGorry of the Alyeska Ski Patrol and lead dog handler, “they need to practice their skills at least once a week to stay on top of their game.” Training includes running patterns, heeling while moving at a fast pace, search and recovery along with balance and pose.
”The dogs are bred to be bird hunting dogs,” explains McGorry, “they have a natural ability to want to search and recover, we take the hunting instinct and turn it into a rescue instinct.”
The training session starts after a rigorous hike up Max’s, this gives the dogs a solid work out not to mention the fact that they just like hiking. Once in the training area the dogs run figure eight patterns on the handlers command. It’s very important for the dogs to recognize and respond to their handlers unique whistles, claps and other signals. Next the handler with run the same pattern with the dog at their heels, when they stop the dog sits to the left heel of the handler and remains quite, this is an old hunting technique that teaches discipline. Next, the fun and games really start, the search and rescue training is the most fun for dogs and handlers. Each dog has a unique reward. Yuki, the youngest dog, is strictly food motivated and loves treats. Fundy loves his green ball more than life itself while Zuka has and old sweater tied into knots that he wouldn’t trade for the world. The dogs know the scent of their rewards, the trainers then hide and the dogs need to search for their rewards.
There are three different scenarios that the dogs play out when finding the victim/reward. They either, sit and wait, stand and bark or run back to the handler and escort the handler back to the victim/reward. “It’s all a big game for the these guys,” Says McGorry, “all Fundy cares about is getting me to the victim as soon as possible so he can get back to chewing on his green ball.” In a real life scenario the dogs would use human scent or an article of clothing to find their victim/reward. Training concludes with a balance and pose exercise which has the dogs run through tubes and along ladders. This helps the dogs to focus on their movement and balance. The new Chair 6 towers have made for the perfect obstacle course this summer.
The Alyeska Ski Patrol uses Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers exclusively. This breed of dog is extremely intelligent, high energy and relatively easy to train. The dogs love to be as active as possible, they love the water and snow and they have a natural instinct for search and recover. The dogs are partnered with individual handlers for the life of the dog. Each handler is responsible for training and exercising the dog. Sometimes volunteer handlers are brought in to care for the dogs when the main handler is unable to. These dogs are a huge asset to the Alyeska Ski Patrol. The dog program is one of the top programs in the country. These training techniques have been used by different patrols from Aspen to Switzerland in different search and rescue dog programs.