Sun Valley Avalanche Dog Program Part 2

Sun Valley Avalanche Dog Program Part 2

A Day in the Life of a Sun Valley Avalanche Dog and their Handler

Winter days start early for Sun Valley Ski Patroller Sarah Linville and her Avalanche Search Dog Blaze. Up at 5:45 am, the pair go through their morning routine in the dark pre-dawn hours at their home in Hailey. The thirty-minute drive from Hailey to the base of Warm Springs has them clocking in at 7:30 am and gearing up for the day. “We both put on our uniforms in the boot room and load onto Warm Spring’s Challenger lift,” Linville says, “heading up to the patrol shack on top of Baldy to attend the morning meeting and hopefully catch the sunrise.”

Blaze catching a beautiful sunrise before a busy day of work ahead.

Depending on the weather and snow conditions, the Ski Patrol’s morning meeting lays out the general plan for the day. Giving individual patrollers assignments for the day and addressing any safety issues. “Blaze is allowed to roam the shack during the meeting,” Sarah explains, “he likes to say hello to all his favorite people and ask for scratches and pets.” Blaze comes to work four days a week and on any day that the patrol is conducting avalanche mitigation work on the mountain and/or the Sawtooth Avalanche Center rates the avalanche danger high for the surrounding area.

Blaze and his fellow Avy Dog in training Wally, training hard on a snowy day on Bald Mountain

After the morning ski patrol meeting Sarah puts Blaze in his kennel, which is in the cozy “wood room” in the back of the patrol shack, and heads out onto the hill for morning set-up work around 8:30am. “During the time I’m away from Blaze setting up fence lines and signs, checking trade routes and opening gates to get the mountain ready for the 9am opening,” Sarah says, “Blaze is in his warm kennel happily eating his special Nulo dog food and relaxing.”

After setting up, which on a typical day takes the patrol anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour and a half, Linville returns to the patrol shack, takes Blaze out of his kennel, and does some important obedience training. “Currently we’re working on walking through crowded areas without a leash and long ‘sit and stays’ from a distance,” Sarah says. “As an avalanche search dog, Blaze needs to be able to stay in place while distracting things are happening, even when I’m out of sight,” she explains, “It’s important that Blaze understands he can’t release himself from a command until I give him the ‘release word.’”  

All work and some play!

After the obedience training, it’s on to search training for Blaze, the location of which depends on what specific skills they’re targeting that day, but there is a designated dog-training area on top of Baldy behind Lookout Lodge. “The groomers are nice enough to push multiple piles of snow into the area that we call quinzees,” explains Linville. These piles of snow create good hiding places or holes to bury the “quarry” or search objects that Blaze can find, simulating a burial in avalanche debris.

These daily training sessions are all based on Blaze’s previous training and tailored towards the handler’s goals for their dog on a weekly, monthly, and seasonal basis. The training can be simple or complex, depending on the amount of time and preparation the handler has on any day and the amount of patrol work or situations happening on the mountain. The training sessions always require at least one other patroller so Sarah is quick to point out how essential the help and support of her coworkers is to both Blaze and her.

Blaze training with fellow Ski Patrol members

“I usually download Blaze around 3pm on the Challenger lift back to the base of Warm Springs,” Sarah says, “where he spends the next hour and a half napping in the warm boot room while we close down the mountain and perform our end of day sweeps.” Now that sounds like a pretty good way to end the workday!

Since avalanche search dog handlers are all patrollers first, having a set weekly syllabus or training schedule is difficult since the patrollers must respond to injuries and other duties to help keep the mountain safe for guests. Each week the different avalanche search dog handlers check in with Linville, the K-9 search team director, and go over the goals each handler has for their dog’s training. There are no strict rules or deadlines due to the fluctuating work patterns so inherent to being a ski patroller. “We can’t control when accidents or weather events happen and they will always take priority, Linville says, however, we are required to record ‘training-plans’ for each dog which outline specific training intentions and goals we’re working on, along with ‘training logs’ which describe how the training actually went.”

So next time you’re up on Baldy, keep an eye out for Blaze and his furry friends. You can find the avalanche search dogs at all the patrol shacks on Baldy, which include Patrol Headquarters on top of Baldy, Jake’s Yurt behind Lookout Lodge, and the Seattle Ridge Patrol Shack.

All in a day's work!

If you are lucky enough to see Blaze and his buddies, you should always ask the handler before touching, petting, or extending a hand toward these patrol dogs, even if the dog is unleashed. The dogs are on the job when they’re on the mountain and you don’t want to distract them without checking first. They’re also dogs, and while most of them are extremely friendly and well-trained, they each have their own quirks and personalities and can be especially sensitive with kids. And please don’t interfere in any active training as it’s critical that the search dogs stay focused when they’re working hard to keep people safe.