The Avalanche Rescue Dogs have been searching the slopes of Stevens Pass and beyond since 1991, providing peace of mind for outdoor enthusiasts during nine months of the year.
By Tracy Campion
Bailey’s bright brown eyes are fixed intently on my jacket pocket. At some point in the last few months, that pocket held dog treats, and she can still smell them. She looks from my face to the pocket and back again. Her partner, Assistant Patrol Manager Angela Seidling, laughs, a brown ponytail falling to one side and her cheeks like burnished apples.
Bailey, 5, is one of seven Avalanche Rescue Dogs (affectionately referred to as “Avy Dogs”) on Stevens Pass. She always approaches her work with the same intensity, whether she’s searching for a missing person or for a child’s lost comfort item. The Avalanche Rescue Dogs have been searching the slopes of Stevens Pass and beyond since 1991. Three decades ago, there were only one dozen certified “Avy Dogs” nationwide. The Stevens Pass Rescue Dogs have been trailblazers since the inception of this program, training more than 20 dogs since 1993. The seven Avy Dogs who currently work at Stevens Pass are: Black Labrador Retrievers Bailey, Scout, Olive, and Sahale, chocolate Lab Josie, German Shepherd Zelda, and yellow Lab Nason.
Training to be an Avy Dog starts at an early age; Bailey has been part of the program since she came to live with Angela at eight weeks of age.
“Their first year, we work on basic training,” Angela explained. “Eventually, we train them on chairlifts, snowmobiles, and helicopters.” The training is so thorough that Bailey isn’t afraid of hearing explosives, fireworks, bombs, gunshots, or thunder.
The Stevens Pass Avy Dogs use the “Swiss Method” of training, which has four phases. It takes three years of training to become a certified Avalanche Rescue Dog. In-house certification is the first step, and it’s the minimum requirement for an Avy Dog; once a dog is Back Country Avalanche Rescue Canine (BARK) certified, they can respond to incidents throughout Washington.
“For training, we use a snow cave, and we make sure it’s the best place ever,” Angela said.
PHASE 1: Snow cave, door wide open. The dog is held and teased and the partner jumps into the hole in the cave.
PHASE 2: The handler is working with the dog again, teasing the dog and running, but the cave is blocked with snow.
PHASE 3: A second “victim” is added; now there are two people in the cave. The dog is rewarded by the new victim; their partner is already in the cave.
PHASE 4: The partner handles their own dog and the phase 3 victim is now the phase 4 victim.
“We facilitate the dogs at the start, but once we get to a certain level of training, we’re just trying to not mess them up,” Angela said.
Once she’s wearing her vest, Bailey knows she’s on duty. At just under 50 pounds, Bailey is a rescue dynamo who loves what she does – and Angela is equally dedicated to her job.
Angela used to be a teacher in Missoula, Montana, and moved to Washington in 2007 to be a mountain guide with the American Alpine Institute. During her first summer as a full-time guide with the institute, she also applied be a Stevens Pass ski instructor at a Seattle job fair, where someone suggested that she apply for ski patrol.
“The patrol director at the time, who hired me, is now the Vice President of Operations,” Angela said. “This is my eleventh season at Stevens, and my third as assistant manager.”
The Avy Dog teams have two shifts that span 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
“We do a lap with the dogs in the morning during set up,” Angela explained, “and then do a second run when we’re getting off the mountain, too.”
The snow season is seven months out of the year and Angela and Bailey do an additional three months patrolling the bike areas, where Bailey happily retrieves lost gloves all summer. Last summer, a young boy was playing by the chairlift when he lost his inflatable camping pillow.
“The pillow was green, and blended in with the other greenery, so no one could find it,” Angela recalled. “Bailey went right to it – she was so excited to find it! – and the little boy later wrote us a thank you letter for finding it.”
Bailey has trained with Angela on multiple avalanches in the ski area, searching debris piles that were known to not have human victims. The dogs are trained to find a human scent, whether that person is alive or deceased. “We’ll wear a wool sweater to train them, and then that sweater, when hidden, symbolizes a person that is no longer shedding skin rafts,” Angela said.
The seven Avy Dog teams each have a primary human partner; most teams have secondary partners, as well. “We all know each others’ dogs so well, and regardless of who they’re working with, we try to make this the most exciting game ever for them,” Angela explained.
Bailey is partnered with Angela, Josie, age 8, is with Liz, Scout, 4, is with Dan, Zelda, 2 ½, is with Chris, Nason, 8, is with Ryan, Olive, 11 months, is with Tony, and Sahale, also 11 months, is with Mike.
The dogs all know basic obedience, recall, stay, and can travel on skis. The commands Bailey knows include heel, out front, under, and behind, the latter two to ensure that a dog stays away from the ski edge. And Bailey is accustomed to being carried to a work site so that she doesn’t expend too much energy.
“The dogs are very trusting,” Angela said. “We’ve done chairlift evacuations where we’ve repelled out of the chair lift; I just said, ‘load up,’ and she looked down below and then got right into my lap. Our success is in forming that really strong bond.”
During their time on the slopes, Angela and Bailey have seen various wild animals, including a bear beneath the chairlift.
“Bailey gets fired up when she sees deer, but won’t leave a trail she’s tracking,” Angela said. When she senses bear, coyote, or big cats, though, Bailey doesn’t leave Angela’s side.
Whether it’s a recent avalanche, wildlife, or human distractions, the dogs need to be able to work with chaos. “They can get so focused that there could essentially be a circus there and they won’t disengage from their search,” Angela said. “Once, she was so focused on searching a debris pile that she almost got picked up by a loader!”
Bailey’s favorite part of her job is the stimulation and purpose of the routine. “Labs are happy and smart, so we want to find something that’s challenging for them,” Angela said. “We make this the best game ever for them. It’s cherished and special. They get so excited that they make the most insane noises!” she said with a laugh.
Avy Dogs typically work until they’re seven or eight, although some have worked until they’re 10. “There are still dogs around here who are 13 or 14; they’re retired, but they’re sill in uniform, doing PR around the people who love them,” Angela said.
And Angela’s favorite part of being on an Avalanche Rescue Dogs team?
“I love seeing them learn the game and progress,” she said. “It’s amazing to see them figure it out and ultimately do it on their own. They go from them relying on us to us relying completely on the dog. I love seeing that transition from who’s relying on who.”
The Avalanche Rescue Dogs are primarily supported by t-shirt sales, donations, and their annual fundraiser. They are proudly supported by Nutrisource, Mud Bay, and Ruffwear, which provides their gear.
JOIN THE AVALANCHE DOGS FOR THEIR ANNUAL FUNDRAISER!
February 6, 6-10:00 p.m.
Icicle Brewing, Leavenworth (935 Front Street)
Enjoy live music, live and silent auctions, and a raffle for lift tickets. The dogs will be at the patio area performing drills and demos. Avalanche Dogs t-shirts will also be for sale.