Skiing Safety Tip: Look for the Avalanche Rescue Dogs Who Save Lives

A golden retriever rescue dog in the snow and being lifted into a gondola

Have you ever looked at your dog, thought something along the lines of “you’re so perfect, it’s like you descended from heaven,” and stared into their inexplicably adoring eyes?

Well, the Heavenly Avalanche Rescue Dogs might just put your pup’s Earth Angel title to the test.

Nearly all resorts in the area have a ski patrol team, many that include dogs who are trained for the specific — and rare — instance in which an avalanche threatens the safety of humans on the hills.

Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe lays claim to a 60-person ski patrol team and seven avalanche rescue dogs, who are known as the HARD team. And it goes generations-deep.

A ski patrol team member in a red coat works with a black lab in the snow
Photo courtesy of Heavenly Avalanche Rescue Dogs

Ryan McParland is a ski patrol member and dog handler and told California’s KCRA 3 News that the dog program developed in the late ’80s and early ’90s. 

“It’s like an additional resource for us as a trained professional rescue group to help if a situation goes awry in the case of an avalanche condition,” McParland told KCRA. 

Just like all kinds of rescue dogs, these pups are trained to use their agility and sense of smell to find and rescue people trapped in snow — and they can do it faster than any team of measly, old humans.

Part of this, the American Kennel Club shares, is thanks to a dog’s natural instinct to see these rescue missions as a game. 

Avalanche rescue dogs are trained from an early age to hone in on their hide-and-seek skills, tapping into the dog’s hunting and prey drives. But those innate sensibilities are far from carnivorous; they are simply urgent — and life-saving.

“You progressively make it harder and harder to get through that wall [of snow],” Bill Vore, a ski patrol handler from another ski resort — Jackson Hole Mountain Resort — told the AKC about the dogs’ training regimen. 

“And then the dogs just realize, if I dig a little bit, I get to find that person, I get to play the game.” 

A golden retriever descends from a ski gondola via harness
Photo courtesy of Heavenly Avalanche Rescue Dogs

The canines fit to undergo this rigorous training are usually high-energy, obedient dogs who are in good physical condition and are extremely loyal. 

They must be; it’s up to them to save victims who have fallen prey to avalanches. While it may seem uncommon, there were 30 avalanche deaths reported by the American Avalanche Association and the US Forest Service National Avalanche Center in the 2022–2023 season. 

“People who go skiing at resorts don’t normally carry avalanche gear,” Vore told the AKC. “Our only way to find these people is with the help of a dog. I mean, not with their help. The dog does all the work, and we just kind of follow them around.”

While there are a number of ski resorts across the country who boast skilled rescue dog teams, the Heavenly Ski Patrol has gained a bit of a cult following.

The team of seven is made up of some extremely good girls and boys: Golden retrievers Peak, Yuba, Zephyr, and Althea; a black Labrador named Vader; a German Shepherd called Shiya; and an Australian Shepherd named Wheeler. 

Six dogs sit on snow mobiles and sleds in the mountains of Northern California
Photo courtesy of Heavenly Avalanche Rescue Dogs

Their training exercises and adventures are documented on social media, showing the pups in action — or sporting some spiffy outdoor gear. In fact, the dogs even make an appearance in the resort’s safety videos, educating visitors how to safely enjoy the facilities.

During the off-seasons, dogs continue training — but their social media and community admiration also earn them dollars — which they donate to organizations and individuals within the local Lake Tahoe community.

“The Heavenly Patrol Fund was created at the turn of the century when an injured patroller needed support,” the team’s nonprofit arm explains on its website.

In its over two decades of service, the fund has donated nearly $300,000 to people and organizations in Lake Tahoe.

“The Heavenly Ski Patrol Fund was established for the benevolent purpose of raising funds to support a variety of charitable needs within the community.”

The fund’s beneficiaries include over 20 organizations, like the Team Tahoe Special Olympics, Tahoe Paws, SOS Outreach, Keep Tahoe Blue. 

Hosting fundraiser events (which include some very high-profile pup meet-and-greets), the Heavenly Ski Patrol shows how dogs can be used for good, in the snow, in the sky — and beyond.

Header images courtesy of Heavenly Avalanche Rescue Dogs

Article Details

December 6, 2023 1:56 PM
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