A Day in the Life: Maia the Avy Pup

January 03, 2024 Written by: Aiden Doane

Morning walks for Keystone Resort ski patroller Zak Bloom and his golden retriever Maia look different from most people’s AM stroll. After a ride up the mountain on a gondola or snowmobile, Zak and Maia can be found skiing the cat track, a relatively flat style of ski trail, inspecting the slopes and preparing to open the resort to the public. 

Last spring, the pair passed their Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (C-RAD) test, making them qualified and available for avalanche search and rescue missions. Through years of training, Zak and Maia have developed the skills and trust in one another to be able to locate avalanche victims buried beneath feet of snow. 

Zak began training for avalanche dog work long before Maia was even a puppy.  He shadowed patrollers with avalanche dogs and audited an avalanche training course. “You can go to school and pretty much just learn,” he said. “You go and you stand next to all the people that are running their dogs and you just ask questions and take notes.”

When he was ready for a dog of his own, Zak worked with a breeder to find the right pup for the job.  

“Every time I’d go to see Maia’s litter I’d bring a new object,” Zak said. He tossed things like car keys, a 360 camera, and even a frozen pheasant near the pups to test their dispositions.

“The thing I noticed about Maia was that she was more likely than anyone else in her litter to go and grab the item and walk away with it. Which kind of told me that she’s curious but also told me that she was gonna be a lot of work,” Zak said with a laugh.

Maia went home with Zak at 8 weeks old and began avalanche-specific training just one week later. She started riding 4-wheelers and getting comfortable around helicopters while learning to sit and stay. 

Basic tasks like a “runaway” built Maia’s foundation to be able to find people beneath the snow.

“You kind of psych the dog up and you run around the corner,” said Zak. “The dog comes around the corner and hits the toy and we have the best tug.”

Using tug as a reward, trainers take advantage of the dog’s prey drive to teach them more challenging and complicated skills. Trainers start running further away or make it so the dog can’t see them leave. The dogs’ skills grow from there, eventually being able to sniff out and locate people under snow. 

Avy Dog Training Scenario

To pass their Level A C-RAD validation, Zak and Maia simulated an avalanche rescue scenario. They had to locate an unknown number of victims under as much as 6’ of snow in an area larger than a football field. Zak says they were able to pass because of all the people who volunteered to be buried in snow to help them practice and because they were so in tune with each other. 

“All of these dogs are so smart and they play off their handlers really well,” he said. “If you’re having a stressful or a hard time, they’ll probably realize it. We try to keep a ‘calm is cool, fast is slow, smooth is steady’ demeanor.”

Training with and without goggles

Now that they’re C-RAD validated, Maia and Zak continue to train daily. Between helping injured skiers and snowboarders and mitigating hazards on the slopes, Zak is sure to carve out time in his day to keep up Maia’s skills. 

“If I notice that she’s struggling with her dig, for example, I will modify a drill. We don’t have to bury someone in a giant hole for her to not really want to dig,” Zak explained. He emphasized the importance of returning to the basics, even if it feels like they’re taking a step back.

“A frustrated dog doesn’t really learn anything or is less prone to learn quickly. It’s important to set them up for a bit of success while you’re doing it.”

Every day that Zak and Maia go to work, they are prepared to help others. In addition to their work with the Keystone Ski Patrol, Zak and Maia are members of Flight For Life Colorado, a critical care transport provider that supports search and rescue agencies with aerial searches and avalanche deployment. 

“You’ve just got to be prepared,” said Zak. “Going into the backcountry on your own is one thing, but when you bring a dog with you, you have to know that you can keep them safe and warm.”

Avy Dog

Maia often wears Rex Specs goggles on the mountain to protect her eyes from wind and sun. Intense UV radiation due to Colorado’s high elevations and reflection off the snow can be damaging to dog’s eyes and increase their susceptibility to pannus, an autoimmune disease that damages the cornea and can lead to blindness. 

In addition to goggles, Maia wears Ear Pro when working around a helicopter. 

“It’s really hard to train a dog to be happy around a landing helicopter when you’re wrestling them to the ground to protect their ears and their eyes,” said Zak. 

“The first time I put goggles on her and she could watch the helicopter land, it was way more peaceful for all of us.”

Whether training, or waiting to be deployed, Zak feels lucky to work with Maia. “She loves having a job,” he said. “She has a powerful mind and it’s so cool to be able to watch her use it.” The best part for both of them though, is getting to go to work with their best friend.

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