All work and lots of play in an avalanche dog’s world |

All work and lots of play in an avalanche dog’s world

Erica Gilbertson with her avy-dog-in-training, Charlie.
Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

At Winter Park Resort, light shines through yellow trees as a young golden retriever bounds across the grass beside the chairlifts. Charlie the dog plays an exuberant game of tug of war with her owner, Erica Gilbertson. 

Charlie wags her tail triumphantly as she wrests her toy away. The dog is having fun and training at the same time. Charlie isn’t a regular pet, and tug of war isn’t a simple game; she’s practicing for the day she may have to help pull out a buried avalanche victim. 

“Charlie girl” as Gilbertson calls her, is the newest member of the Winter Park Ski Patrol Dog Team. Seven-month-old Charlie romps in her red vest as Gilbert explains her journey as an avalanche dog handler.

“When I got on (ski) patrol, it was a dream of mine to become a dog handler, so I was … getting myself trained to become an avalanche expert,” said Gilbertson. “I’ve been working closely for the last six years with Nate Bash and Rico LaRocca, who are the founders of the dog team. They’re avalanche expert dog handlers.”

Although Gilbertson is a seasoned handler, Charlie is the first avalanche dog that’s officially hers. Charlie is now a lithe, active dog, but she started out in California as a ball of fluff in a family of search and rescue dogs.

 “I decided to go with (this breeder) because she has background in search and rescue. Some of her dogs are placed at resorts in California for avalanche work,” Gilbertson said.  “They do all kinds of puppy tests when they’re six to seven weeks old … to evaluate how they handle certain scenarios.”

Puppies are examined for their temperament, toughness, eagerness to work and their bond with humans.

 “Charlie was chosen for me out of a litter of 12. She tested excellent in all the categories I needed her to,” Gilbertson said. “I was pretty excited when I got to pick her up.”

After Charlie passed her initial evaluation with flying colors last April, Gilbertson headed to California to retrieve her and brought her to the Rockies. Only a few months old, Charlie was eager to explore her snowy home.

“We like to start them out the younger the better, so they can get the foundation and the exposure to the atmosphere of being a patrol dog, which is different from a regular dog that gets to hang out and go on hikes,” Gilbertson said. “These dogs are exposed to thousands of people a day when they’re on the mountain. They have to have certain manners.”

Although Charlie is Gilberston’s first working dog, she’s not the only dog at home.

“She has two older brothers that are just regular dogs. They get to be home and hang out,” she said. “They like to go hiking and fishing and camping.”

While her brothers relax, Charlie romps through the resort.

“She’s getting used to all the scenarios … all the sights and smells. It’s difficult from your typical home life,” Gilbertson said.

Charlie has practiced tug of war, tag, loading the ski lift, loping between Gilbertson’s skis, and riding the gondola and ski area vehicles. This past spring, Gilbertson took her out on snowmobiles.

“Their work is very play-driven; we like to call the game their ‘paycheck.’ As long as they’re having a good time, work’s a big game!” Gilberston said. “The more fun they’re having, the more success they’re having. … Hopefully, it’s always just play.”

Meg Soyars/Sky-Hi News

Work is fun and games, but it also prepares the avalanche dog-in-training for the day she may be called to save a life. It will take her three years to be a fully validated avalanche dog.

“Your first year, you work on obedience, manners, exposing them to the mountain and getting them used to that lifestyle. If she passes her obedience in that setting, she gets to move on to the next level, which is getting her inbounds for year two,” said Gilbertson. “So if something were to happen, we can have that quick response on mountain.”

Inbounds means Charlie is certified to rescue people within Winter Park Resort, including the extreme terrain that the patrol team mitigates. The team uses explosives to trigger controlled avalanches, so they don’t happen unexpectedly, but avalanche risk is always present, even inside the resort boundaries.

During year three, Charlie will train for state validation through Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment.

“When we set up the Winter Park Ski Patrol dog team, it was important that we were able to be useful resource for the community and the state, not just the resort,” said Gilbertson. “Once we become a validated team, we’ll be able to assist local sheriffs to help victims who are outside the Winter Park boundaries.”

The team currently has two validated dogs that climb into the helicopter when the sheriff requests rescue dogs to the backcountry: Emma owned by Brian Roman and Biskit owned by Rico LaRocca. Gravy, another Winter Park dog-in-training, will soon receive his validation. Charlie is next in line.

During her advanced training, Charlie will practice loading in a Flight for Life helicopter, plus searching in simulated scenarios where a human is actually buried.

“We make ‘dog holes.’ It’s a nice, roomy sized hole under the ground. From above, you wouldn’t even notice a hole, but it fits a human in there,” said Gilbertson. “We build a wall of snow blocks so the dog can’t see, just use their nose.”

A dog’s nose can be 100,000 times stronger than a human’s. Their sense of smell is essential if a victim doesn’t have an avalanche beacon that signals their location.

“Once they catch that smell, they usually end up digging and you know the dog has a find. We try to do that (exercise) two or three times a week to keep them sharp and ready,” Gilbertson said.

She explained that dogs with a “strong prey drive,” such as retrievers, border collies and German shepherds, are best suited for this work. They are determined to find their target (in this case an avalanche victim). A game of tug of war with a rope is their reward, instead of treats.

There’s another reason four-legged patrollers are in Gilbertson’s crew — speed. According to Winter Park Resort’s website, avalanche dogs can search 2.5 acres in 30 minutes, where 20 humans would need four hours to search the same terrain. Since a victim’s chance of survival drops astronomically after 15 to 30 minutes, dogs mean the difference between life and death.

Just as important as athleticism, the dogs must want to help their handler and the person buried. Praise is their greatest reward.

“The bond between the dog and handler is something pretty incredible to watch develop,” Gilbertson said. “I’ve always had a sense to help people and rescue people, and the dog is such an awesome resource. Plus, who doesn’t love dogs!”

Her bond with Charlie is strengthened by the fact the dog is more than a worker — she’s family. Since Winter Park’s dog team is an independent nonprofit that operates through donations and fundraisers, the resort doesn’t own the dogs.

“At the end of the day, these dogs are ours. We’re the ones making sure they’re healthy and taken care of. We feed them, we have days off together where we just do normal things that dogs do,” Gilbertson said.

The pair’s future is bright. This week, they are at avalanche dog school to hone the skills Charlie has gained at the resort. Once the snow flies, Charlie will ride the lift to the summit for the first time and get her paws in powder. 

Gilbertson is excited for their first official winter season. “We played in the snow for a couple times before it melted and I think she’s addicted to it,” she said. “I can’t wait for her to run in it again!”

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