Dogs of the Day
by Carie Broecker
Tucker digs feverishly in the snow. He knows he will get a reward when he finds the buried “victim.” Tucker has been training for avalanche search and rescue since he was eight weeks old. He started by playing hide-and-seek with his guardian, Peter York, the CEO of Squaw Valley Avalanche Rescue Dog & Education Fund.
At first, it was simple. Peter would run and hide behind a tree, and Tucker watched while being held by a second person. He would then bound after Peter and get a toy, praise, and a game of tug of war as a reward when he found him. Gradually, the game became more and more difficult, with Peter hiding further away and down a ravine, covered with snow. Then it wasn’t Peter hiding anymore—it was someone else, and when Tucker found this missing person, the missing person would then reward Tucker, creating “victim loyalty.” Within two years, Tucker was able to search an expansive area, and by sense of smell alone was able to detect a person buried in the snow. Tucker is ten years old now. He has been working on the mountain and playing an integral role with the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol his whole life.
The Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows avalanche rescue dog programs grew out of necessity. In 1982, a deadly avalanche hit the Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, killing seven people. That tragedy spurred an overhaul of the ski patrol rescue programs in the Sierra.
Bill Foster, an avid dog-lover, became involved with the Alpine Meadows Avalanche Rescue dog program in the late 80s and was instrumental in helping the program flourish. Bill knew the importance of using dogs as search and rescue tools. He also knew the dogs needed to be exceptional. Training needed to be rigorous, and only the cream of the crop would work on the mountain. Lives depended on it.
Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley have since merged under common ownership, and their search dog programs train together. They have adopted the Canadian Standard of avalanche rescue, which they consider to be the gold standard in the industry
There is an inherit danger in playing and working in the snow. Whether you are skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, or snowmobiling—or even just living or visiting snow country—you are at risk of being caught in an avalanche.
There are currently six avalanche rescue dogs at Squaw Valley and seven at Alpine Meadows. Before the ‘82 avalanche there were no trained dogs at either resort. Tucker and the rest of the Squaw dog rescue team—Boomer, Boon, Murphy, Kaya, and Wylee—are trained to save lives. At any given time there are usually two dogs with their ski patrol handlers on the lower mountain and one dog and handler on the upper mountain, all ready to respond to an emergency at a moment’s notice. The dogs are also on call to respond to board a helicopter and respond to avalanche emergencies in the greater Tahoe area.
These remarkable dogs can board and ride a chair lift, ride on a snowmobile, board a helicopter, or ride on their handler’s shoulders while the handler skis. The handlers must conserve the dog’s energy, so if he is needed for an emergency he can give it all he’s got to recover the victims.
Unlike wilderness search and rescue dogs who find a missing person and then run back to their handler to report the find, avalanche dogs are taught to begin digging immediately once a scent is detected. When victims are buried in an avalanche, time is of the essence. Chances of survival decrease significantly every 15 minutes. After an hour chances of survival are slim.
This is why rescue dogs are an essential part of any avalanche search team’s resources. It would take 115 to 400 people probing a 10,000-square-foot area to be as efficient as one well-trained search dog.
Other important rescue tools include an avalanche transceiver, shovel, probe, and RECCO® system. The system uses a reflector integrated into clothes, boots, and helmets, and a detector that can locate the reflector from 200 meters away. The best chance of survival in an avalanche is for your companion to find you with their safety equipment and dig you out immediately. Your next best chance of survival is to have a nearby search dog team respond to your emergency
Searching avalanche sites is dangerous business. With search and rescue dogs, the handlers ask the dogs to search the site, while the handlers and emergency teams stay out of harm’s way. This is to protect human life as much as possible. The dog is typically always in sight of his handler, and once the dog makes a find, the rescue team moves in to complete the rescue. The ski patrol puts their lives and the lives of one of their closest friends, their dog, on the line every day.
Sadly, Alpine Meadows patroller Bill Foster passed away in the line of duty when he was buried by an avalanche on December 24, 2012 after 28 years on the job. Bill was a long-time dog handler at Alpine, raising two Golden Retrievers who worked their entire careers at Alpine.
Bill Foster’s legacy lives on in people like Peter York and the rest of the dedicated Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski patrol teams. Peter grew up in Tahoe City and has skied at Squaw Valley his whole life. Like many of the other ski patrollers, he has a passion for saving lives and educating people about staying safe while enjoying the outdoors. During the off-season, when the snow has melted, Peter works for CALFIRE fighting wildfires. For rugged outdoorsmen like Peter York, saving lives is a way of life.
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows now have one of the strongest rescue dog programs in the country. Guests on the mountain have emergency help at the ready should the need arise, thanks to the Squaw Valley Rescue Dog Team: Will and Boomer, Erik and Boon, Ben and Kaya, Eric and Murphy, Pete and Tucker, and Craig and Wylee; as well as the Alpine Meadows Avalanche Rescue Dog Team: Chase and Ike, Jeremy and Jackson, Sean and Sherman, Brian and Shooter. In training are Allison and Clancy, Rick and Kilo, and Collin and Walter.
Bill Foster Adoption Room
In September 2013, the Humane Society of Truckee Tahoe (HSTT) opened a brand new state-of-the-art animal shelter with their partner, the Town of Truckee. This new shelter has allowed the partnership to increase their rescue and adoptions by 200 percent within just a few short months of opening their doors.
As part of the fund-raising campaign held by HSTT to raise their half of the $6,500,000 design-and-construction price tag, people and businesses had the opportunity to sponsor rooms within the facility and name that area.
As fervent supporters of HSTT for many years, and because of their deep love for dogs, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows saw a natural fit in sponsoring one of the adoptable-dog rooms in memory of beloved ski-patroller, Bill Foster, who was passionate about dogs and instrumental in developing and refining the ski areas’ rescue dog program.
Along with many community members who loved Bill, Squaw Valley made a sizeable donation to the new shelter and officially named dog adoption room #10 “The Bill Foster/Alpine Meadows Dog Adoption Room.” This room will see thousands of dogs as they await their forever homes.
The Humane Society of Truckee Tahoe is a no-kill 501(c)3 organization dedicated to saving and improving the lives of pets through adoptions, community spay/neuter services and humane education programs.