“Dogs have this talent and ability to smell things that we can’t, so we are depending on them to do this thing that we aren’t able to do. The two of us truly have to work together to accomplish a goal.”
Becca Parkinson, a veteran Grand Targhee Avalanche Dogs team member since 2008, has seen firsthand just how crucial dogs are to the rescue process, lending a set of skills and senses that their human counterparts just don’t have. Becca and Ivy, her five-year-old red lab, are one of the most senior teams for Targhee’s ski patrol K9 unit and have participated in several efforts to clear and recover skiers who have found themselves in harm’s way in the Tetons.
“I had always grown up with dogs and loved dogs, but this job is just such a cool and different way to interact with a dog. When you are training them for this larger purpose, you develop a whole new kind of relationship and become more of a team, reading their body language, observing what makes them tick, watching them learn new things. It’s incredibly rewarding,” she said.
Grand Targhee Avalanche Dogs (GTK9) is a nonprofit organization that operates at Grand Targhee Resort as part of the ski patrol division to bring an additional level of service and safety to local skiers. The team is made up of human and dog pairs who are trained to work together to search avalanche areas for skiers. The humans are experienced Targhee ski patrollers who have been invited to join the K9 unit. Their dogs are adopted as puppies, fully owned and cared for by their handler, and then trained for rescue. Since the United States doesn’t have a national certifying body for avalanche dogs, many organizations like GTK9 have adopted training programs based on international entities like Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), which Targhee has partnered with for many years to ensure their dogs are ready for service.
In fact, GTK9 sends some of its handler/dog teams to Canada every year for extended training with CARDA, an opportunity that Becca and Ivy have been table to take advantage of alongside teammates Casey and Mikko. Casey, a Targhee ski patroller for the past 5 seasons, and Mikko, a three-year-old yellow lab, have been part of GTK9 since 2016, with Mikko earning his validation just over a year ago. One of the special things about GTK9 is that there are always handlers and dogs working at every level -- puppies in training, then a first round of certification, then advanced training -- ensuring that the program can operate at the highest levels while safeguarding longevity by prepping the next generation of dogs.
Puppies in training are essentially taught a game of hide-and-seek, learning to sniff out and track down their human who hides out of sight and then being rewarded with a game of tug. From there the game gets harder with the handler hiding in a cave and eventually burying an “article,” which is a piece of wool that smells like the handler. More advanced training means added complexity to the game like including multiple dogs in the search, multiple articles to find, and even teaching the dog to reach the search site by riding on a new kind of vehicle, like a snowmobile, all while staying focused on the task at hand.
For handlers like Casey and Becca, the ability to potentially save a life is the greatest reward, but since rescues (thankfully) happen fairly infrequently, it’s often the day to day training victories that keep them going.
“It’s so exciting when your dog learns something new and you get to watch it finally click. When we first started doing articles training, Mikko had a very soft mouth and wouldn’t really bite down and tug to pull the articles out of the snow. That first time when he not only located the article but bit down and pulled it out was just so exciting for me. He was already so good at using his nose, but once that clicked I knew that he was ready and could really do this job, and everything just came full circle for me,” said Casey.
Of course avalanche dogs like Ivy and Mikko often work and train in extreme conditions, riding through frigid temps, sniffing and running through windswept terrain, digging in icy snowpack, and squinting through the sun’s reflection on the snow, which means protective gear like Rex Specs helps them stay in the zone to do their work rather than focusing on the elements around them — and staying on-task and working quickly is one of the most important skills these handler/dog teams can develop together.
While neither pair has been part of a live rescue to date -- most of their calls include “clearing” an avalanche scene to make sure no one is buried in a slide -- Becca and Ivy have been the key team in completing a recovery. While Becca feels confident that in that particular situation a search with just humans would have likely turned up the buried individual at some point, having well-trained dogs on the scene meant they were able to more quickly locate the person and get his body off the mountain before dark on that same day. Since the victim wasn’t wearing a beacon, they were entirely reliant on the dogs’ noses to find him, and Ivy’s ability to efficiently sniff him out saved the team enormous amounts of energy and resources and also helped the victim’s family avoid the added pain of a prolonged search.
So while active rescues aren’t a regular occurrence for the GTK9 team, they understand the importance of being prepared and staying at the top of their training at all times. In fact, Targhee has even become a resource for other organizations to continue their own teams’ educations. This year Casey will start serving as an assistant instructor for the American Avalanche Institute, and there are several teams coming to Targhee to train for an upcoming event.
It’s clear that in this line of work, success comes when it’s more than just a job. As Casey said, “I was attracted to the GTK9 because of the awesome people involved, and I was inspired by their dogs. Just seeing the knowledge this team has and their passion for the task at hand makes it an incredibly special community.”