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Avalanche Dogs Are Rare Breed

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Ski resort avalanche dogs and their handlers have become a critical part of search and rescue. Meet Taos’ newest team

By Jayme Moye / Photography by Malia Reeves

Juniper (aka June) is one of four avalanche rescue dogs who patrol the slopes of Taos.
Juniper (aka June) is one of four avalanche rescue dogs who patrol the slopes of Taos.

In a remote corner of New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley resort, a dog watches her owner. With the exception of this man and his colleague, who are both members of the area’s ski patrol, there is not another person in sight. Beyond stretches a vast snowfield, a seemingly endless sea of white. The man, Jordan Osterman, looks at his dog. “Juniper,” Osterman commands. “Search!”

Juniper springs into action. The golden retriever barrels through chest-high snow for some 200 yards and then skids to a stop. She darts right, then stops again. Juniper lifts her muzzle, sniffs the air and begins to circle. “She’s got it,” Osterman whispers.

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Within seconds, Juniper starts to dig, a rapid-fire motion that sends snow flying. The men ski over to watch. Juniper’s front end disappears into the hole, and they hear muffled laughter from within as she makes contact with the “victim.”

“She’s slobbering all over me,” the victim says, laughing as he crawls out of the hole. The ski patrollers high-five. Juniper wags her tail. The avalanche-dog-in-training has just recovered her first burial — using only her nose to lead the way.

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In one sense, Juniper is a typical pet. She is sweet and goofy, an avid swimmer and Osterman’s frequent trail-running partner in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. She sleeps on a plush cushion in Osterman’s bedroom and plays tug of war. But from the time she was 6 months old, Juniper, now nearly 3 years old, has been going to work with Osterman at Taos, a Class A avalanche resort due to its steep terrain. Juniper, along with the four other avalanche dogs at the resort, is capable of riding chairlifts and snowmobiles. She doesn’t spook when the ski patrol detonates explosives to clear the mountain of the type of snow that could slide. Most importantly, Juniper is learning to locate a person buried in an avalanche, with a level of precision and speed that’s not possible for her human counterparts.

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Osterman chose Juniper for this line of work based on her laid-back demeanor, which helps her stay calm inside the busy ski patrol cabin, and also for a trait he calls aloofness. “She never mobbed me like the other puppies in the litter,” he explains. “She seemed more independent.” That kind of independence, specifically non-attachment to her owner, is critical in an emergency situation when Juniper may be required to follow a command from a ski patroller other than Osterman.

Along with her natural abilities, Juniper has also responded exceptionally well to the training that hones her hunt drive, which is the ability to search based on smell, not sight. “She’s better at this than I had ever hoped or thought she’d be,” Osterman says, “and she makes me a better ski patroller, with more to offer the team.”

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