Sundance Resort’s Avalance Rescue Dog Program: An Interview with Writer Joan DeMartin

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As our regular readers know, before we moved into pet writing in 2008, John and I were full-time travel writers. Although our assignments usually took us to warm weather destinations (not by chance!), one winter we had the opportunity to visit beautiful Sundance Resort near Provo, Utah. The ski resort, owned by Robert Redford and home of the Sundance Film Festival, is well-known for its downhill and cross-country facilities, all at the base of Mount Timpanogos.

I’ll always remember the resort for its pristine beauty, for the only downhill skiing lesson I’ve ever had, and, during one early morning, for the sounds of blasts in the distance, work to control the potentially deadly avalanches that can form during the winter months.

coverWhile ski resorts attempt to keep avalanche risk in check, accidents do happen–and that’s where avalanche rescue dogs come into play. Recently professional writer Joan DeMartin, whose work has been seen in many magazines as well as on her blog, Bocci’s Beefs, had the opportunity to write about the Avalanche Rescue Dog program at Sundance. In the January 2014 issue of Dog Fancy magazine (right), you’ll see Joan’s full-length feature about this very special program. DogTipper caught up with Joan to discuss her recent article on this fascinating program.

What inspired you to write about the Avalanche Rescue Dog (ARD) program at Sundance?

After attending the 2012 BlogPaws conference in Salt Lake City, I knew I had to stay at least one night at Sundance, since it was long a dream of mine to visit there and it is only an hour from SLC.  I pitched a writing assignment for FIDO Friendly for their Destinations section for the resort after learning that they had recently upped their “Fido-friendliness”, and while I was talking to employees about this aspect of the resort, they mentioned the ARD. I knew immediately it would be a good story given the unique nature of what the teams do and the high profile of the resort.

Additionally, I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Redford for several decades for many reasons, mainly because of his acting and directing choices and his creation of the Sundance Institute to support independent film makers. And he’s also a major environmentalist and has demonstrated that in the way he has so carefully developed his Utah property. He’s developed only 450 acres for recreational use out of 5000 he owns in that area. I practiced environmental law for over 14 years, and reading about Redford’s passion for the environment and what he was actually doing to protect it (he’s been on the board of the NRDC for over 30 years, I believe) helped inspire me to practice that area of law.

Did you witness any of the dog training?

Unfortunately, I visited during the summer, so I did not get to meet the dogs or handlers in person. However, I spent approximately 10-12 hours via phone calls talking with three of the current dog handlers and the Director of Mountain Operations for Sundance, and took over 50 pages of notes!

Are ARD programs common among ski resorts?

Yes! All resorts in the Wasatch Mountain range, for example, employ some number of human-dog rescue teams. The number typically depends on the size of the resort (acreage for snow sports), the average number of guests and the amount of avalanche prone territory with the resort boundaries. I don’t know about resorts across the country for sure, but I was told that most major ski resorts have ARD teams.

What’s a typical day like for an avalanche rescue dog when he’s not performing a rescue?

Since the ski patrol never knows what each day will bring, the humans and dogs must be prepared for anything from a quiet day to disaster.

Their day starts super-early-about 5:00am-ish-and can be a 12-14 hour day or longer, 5-7 days a week. The teams usually get at least one day off per week. If they’re not called out on a rescue or demonstration, the dogs are comfortably kenneled indoors at each patrol station near the top of the mountain summits. They are exercised, including play, and trained every three or four hours throughout the day. This includes at least one high energy rescue training session plus one obedience training session. The idea is that because of the extreme temperatures, lots of exercise in cold, snowy and windy conditions, the dogs really need their rest, so they can’t be hyped up all day. Additionally, the dog handlers are also members of the ski patrol and must go on their rounds to access conditions, rope off areas, etc. and if the dogs accompanied their handlers on each trip, they would not be rested and in prime shape for an emergency, if one should arise.

What most surprised you about the Sundance ARD program?

This answer sort of overlaps with the answer to Question #1. The most surprising thing I learned was how vital these dog teams are to saving lives in a disaster. Here’s why:  a 20-person human team without dogs using a “probe line” takes about four hours to search a 100 yard by 100 yard area for humans buried in an avalanche, but it takes one dog team only 20 minutes to cover the same area. And here’s the kicker: you really have to find most avalanche victims within 15 minutes of burial or the chances of finding them alive plummets to less than 30%. So the need for these highly trained dog teams is really a “no brainer”, but I didn’t know any of these statistics.

Another thing I was surprised by is the amount of time it takes to train a dog to Level A certification, the highest level an AR dog-human team can achieve. It’s really an 18-month to two-year process to reach the point where the team can actually test. Then it’s daily training  thereafter, even during the off-season, and the teams have to re-test every two years. This helps develop the kind of intense bond between handler and dog that in turn, facilitates the dog’s eagerness and excitement to do his job. The handler must really know and trust his or her dog for the team to excel: the handler must know what every wag of the tail, flick of the ears or even the way the dog is breathing means for that particular dog, or they could miss or delay a “live find”, which could quite literally mean the difference between life and death for a victim.

The Sundance Resort takes she safety of their employees and guests very seriously, and have employed rescue dog teams since the mid-1980’s. Sundance “believes that they are part of the dog rescue community” and that the “Sundance Resort dog program is really an international dog program”. Sundance ski patrol dog handlers train yearly with a school in Switzerland and Canada, and pride themselves of taking “the best of the best” from other programs and then allowing each handler to use the techniques that work best for their dog and them. Each team must maintain Level A certification-the highest level.

Sundance typically employs three to four dog handler teams each season, with the hope that all teams give four to five years or more of service. One team just retired at the end of the 2013 season after 10 years of service (Handler Tracy Christensen and dog Mick mentioned in the article.)

For More Information:joan-bocci

Photo credits:

Top photo/Joan DeMartin; author photo/Rachel Lauren Photography.

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About Paris Permenter & John Bigley

Paris Permenter and John Bigley are the award-winning authors of over 30 pet and travel books as well as the founders and publishers of CatTipper and DogTipper.

  • Joan DeMartin

    Thanks for the interview, Paris and John! The Sundance Resort and it’s avalanche dog/human rescue teams are amazing! It was an honor to talk with them and visit that gorgeous resort.

    • Thank you so much! Your interview not only brought back fond memories of a beautiful resort but it was fascinating to learn about these great dogs! Paris