A closer look at the Avalanche Rescue Dog Program at Stevens Pass

The Avalanche Rescue Dog Program has been at Stevens Pass since the 1990s and is an essential piece of mountain operations at the ski resort.

“We currently have five dogs that make up our program, one is actually retired now but she still comes to work,” Angela Seidling, the director of ski patrol at Stevens Pass, said. “We have one who is fully certified and ready to be deployed if we ever need her and then we have three dogs in training, two are two years old and one is one year old.”

Seidling said that Stevens Pass has 220 avalanche paths and that ski patrol and mountain crews work hard to make sure the resort is safe for skiers and snowboarders. She said they come in early to do avalanche mitigation and use explosives and ski cutting to set off avalanches.

“We make the avalanches happen before we open to the public but that’s not to say that an avalanche can’t happen in or around the ski area, even after we’ve done avalanche control,” she said.

Seidling said in the 17 years she has been at Stevens Pass they haven’t had an incident where a person was buried in bounds.

“We’ve deployed dogs in bounds to search debris piles that we felt confident that people weren’t in but it’s always nice to send a dog through a debris pile to make sure that nobody’s involved with it if we don’t actually have a witness to the event,” she said.

If there were an avalanche, the dogs in the program are trained to find people who may be buried underneath the snow.

“The avalanche rescue dogs are trained to be able to find people if they’re buried in an avalanche,“ she said. “The reason this is really important at ski resorts is that most people that are here riding today probably aren’t riding with avalanche transceivers on their body and turned on.”

Seidling said avalanche dogs are the quickest way to find someone if they are buried in an avalanche. She said the dogs are not just used at Stevens Pass but at other resorts and for rescues in the backcountry.

“Dogs and handlers would be deployed to go and search debris piles,” she said. While it is a very serious matter, for the dogs the training and finding people is one big game.

“When we train we try to create this as like the best game in the world for the dogs,” she said. “We reinforce it with positive things, so food rewards, tug rewards the dogs love it, they get really excited to train because it is just a big game. Luckily, the work they’re doing is almost always training.”

It takes at least three seasons for a dog to be fully trained and they start at just eight weeks old with their handler.

“It’s really important for a handler to have a strong bond with their puppy right from the very start and since the game involves hide and seek with what should be their favorite person, they should want to do anything to get to that person,” she said.

Seidling explained that once the puppy can find their person efficiently, they move on to adding other people.

“At first, that baby step is having two people in the hole, one is their handler and then we introduce a new person and the new person in the snow cave is the one that gives them the reward,” she said. “After that, we just start using other people and hopefully by that point they’re so motivated to play the game and get the reward that they’re excited to search for anybody.”

KIRO 7 crashed one of the training sessions with Olive, one of the rescue dogs, and she was able to quickly find two ski patrollers who were buried in snow caves on the slopes.

The program is a non-profit so they do need support and you can do that by purchasing one of their avalanche dog t-shirts at ski patrol or by calling 206-812-4510. The funds go to buying dog food, training, and education.