The mountain is getting ready for ski season, and so is the pack of Telluride Avalanche Dogs (TAD). Six dogs have run the mountain in the past couple of years, including Quill, Lady Bee, Sadie, Mona, Stella and Wiley.
The first avalanche dog to roam the hill — a yellow lab named Lady Jane Daiquiri Watenpaws — was in 1986. Lady Jane's owner and handler was Gary Richard, who helped start the TAD program in 2012, along with his wife Kim and other ski patrol handlers. The organization was certified and recognized as a nonprofit in 2014.
Kim explained that they started pursuing the avalanche rescue dog program "for safety and the community."
"Since we got the program going, it just gets better and better," she said.
The program is always looking for ways to improve. During 2019-20, a new training tool was implemented.
"The device enables us to create dog holes using a large tube that inflates, then is buried, then deflated. It leaves a hole in the snow that is used for mock avalanche scenarios," Kim explained in a recent TAD newsletter.
During the 2019-20 ski season, the dogs worked alongside the Telluride Ski Patrol, like any other year. However, because of the pandemic, the ski patrol had to do a few things differently.
"Ski patrollers weren't allowed in the shacks unless we were staggered," Kim said.
Typically, skiers are allowed to visit the dogs in the shacks and ski patrol offices, but that wasn’t the case during the pandemic. The educational events and demonstrations with the dogs were also canceled. This was unfortunate, Kim explained, because the dogs act as a bridge between skiers and mountain safety.
"Everyone loves the dogs, and it opens up the channels of education," she said.
Ski patrol members use the dogs to teach kids, visitors and community members about avalanche safety. People come to see the dogs and leave with a better understanding of the mountain.
"If a kid gets scared, they can come in and warm up in the patrol station, and all the dogs will cozy right up to them. They're just great to have around in general," said Scott Pittenger, Telski’s director of mountain operations.
The pandemic also caused the brief discontinuation of the Telluride Avalanche Dog Donation Pass. With a donation of $20, people can receive a custom pass for their pets, though it doesn’t necessarily provide any lift access.
“It does go to a really good cause. Those dogs save lives. They are an important part of ski patrol and are regarded as part of our team," Pittenger said.
The money from the pass program and other donations goes toward vet bills, food, yearlong care, and provides funds for the dog even after they are retired from the program. Kim recalled an instance when a dog blew out their knee, and the surgery cost around $20,000.
Currently, there are five dogs that are actively a part of the program. In past years there have been six, but Wiley, a 14-year-old male yellow lab, recently retired. Kim hinted that a new dog might be joining the team this year.
One of the most important skills a dog can learn in the avalanche dog program is obedience, Kim explained.
"The obedience piece is key. If they don't have that, it kind of starts unraveling because you need to be able to control your dog with or without a leash. They fly in helicopters and have to be able to load in and out of the helicopter, and a lot of times they only go by hand signals," she said.
While the dogs are friendly and enjoy love and attention, they have a job to do on the mountain. The dogs play a vital role in safety on and off the slopes. Once the dogs have gone through extensive training and have developed their skills, they can aid in various types of search and rescue situations.
"Sometimes people get lost in the backcountry, and the dogs go on searches there, and they've also been called to do searches in the river," Kim said.
However, most of the time, the dogs work on the mountain. Currently, Telski and ski patrol is conducting avalanche mitigation. Pittenger advised people to stay off the mountain so that snowmakers don't have to worry about people walking around unseen.
Next week, Kim and Lady Bee, who belongs to both the Richards, will join the ski patrol members already working on the mountain. Dogs and handlers alike are excited to start the ski season finally.
Kim's ideal expectations for the season are to have a "healthy fleet of dogs."
"Hopefully, they won't have to go out and find someone buried in an avalanche," she said. "But if so, and if we have a big winter, they're going to be ready and able to go on a drop of a hat."
For more information about the program and the Telluride Avalanche Dog Donation Pass, visit tellurideavalanchedogs.org.