Meet Avalanche Dog Heroes: Piper and Friends, the cutest heroes on the mountain.
The scenic wilderness areas in the Mount Rainier region are a winter wonderland. The beauty of the backcountry areas offers a majestic setting. It’s so spectacular it’s easy to get caught up in the scenery but the ugly truth is, avalanches pose a real safety concern during the winter.
Recently we had time to connect with Sara Cohen, Program Director for Crystal Mountain Avalanche Rescue Dogs to learn more about the hardest working and cutest canines on the mountain this season.
What is Crystal Mountain Avalanche Rescue Dogs Program?
Crystal Mountain’s Avalanche Rescue Dog Program has been active for nearly 30 years. Since its start, the professional ski patrollers at Crystal have trained search dogs as an additional resource during an avalanche response. The dogs are trained to find human scent coming from underneath the snow. Primary training and work occur at Crystal Mountain, but at the height of their certification are available for backcountry responses anywhere in the Cascades. The Crystal Mountain Avalanche Rescue Dogs is a member of Back Country Avalanche Rescue K-9 (B.A.R.K) group, a collective of professional ski patrollers and avalanche rescue dogs. Other BARK ski area members include Stevens Pass, Mt. Hood Meadows, and Alpental. Teams are trained to work with local county Search and Rescue Sheriff Deputies to respond to remote avalanche accidents. The dog teams consist of a skilled professional ski patroller and a highly trained working dog who was raised training at Crystal. Over the last three decades, several generations of solid working dogs have played a key role in avalanche recovery.
Meet Sara Cohen, Piper and friends Charlie and Iggy
Sara Cohen is the Program Director for Crystal Mountain Avalanche Rescue Dogs. She is also a lead guide at Alpine Ascents International. Piper and Sara operate as a certified team. Sara has been the Program Director at Crystal Mountain Avalanche Rescue Dogs for 9 years, pro patrolling for 12, and Piper is her second avalanche rescue dog. She is also a certified dog trainer and offers unique expertise in training and behavior beyond the learned techniques in the avalanche dog specialty.
The newest team in the making, Charlie and Iggy
Charlie is a first-time handler and Iggy just turned 1 a couple of months ago. Iggy started in the avalanche rescue dog program as a puppy. The program worked closely with Charlie and the dog breeder on puppy selection, general requirements, and training commitment. This team is not yet certified or experienced, but they are shining examples of how people can learn to become a handler and train their dogs to be an avalanche rescue dog.
What kind of time goes into training these working dogs?
The process of training spans the entire lifetime of the working dog. From when they are only a few weeks old and still with their mother, they are being assessed to see if they will be a good fit for this work and begin being exposed to early neurological stimulation and development tools. After appropriate puppy selection, foundation training begins. The are many behaviors that need to be fluent for both the search work and the day to day operations of being at a busy ski area. Travel techniques of teaching the dog to move with their skiing handler takes many hours to proof. The process to initial search certification takes about 2-3 years, and then the following 8 years in the dogs’ career is focused on keeping behaviors sharp and always being ready for a call-out. Physical conditioning and year-round training require a lifetime-long focus for a working dog.
What can the public do to help?
There are five things people can do to learn more about the CM Avalanche Dogs and help.
- Give the dogs space when you see them on the mountain. You might see one of the Avalanche Rescue Dogs while skiing at Crystal. The ski area is their training zone and where they operate daily, they need both the dogs and trainers and the public to move safely around one another. Training is always happening with these dogs. Perhaps you will see them loading a lift, running next to their skiing handler, or working a search drill. It is important that you are respectful and help set the dogs up for success: please do not approach or distract the dogs by yelling or barking at the dogs, or calling the dog’s name. Distraction and skiing too close to the dogs is a major safety concern for the working team. Please give the dogs plenty of space and check your speed when skiing past a team. A ski edge to a dog’s leg from skiing too close or colliding with a dog can cause a cut that can result in a career-ending injury.
- Donate, The dogs at Crystal are part of Cascade Mountain Rescue Dogs (CMRD), a 501 (c) 3 that supports the training and care of rescue dogs who train to be ready to respond anywhere in Washington State.
- Buy swag and rock the cause. Seasonal apparel sales help raise funds for the program. Every year they offer a new design created in the partnership between our handlers and local artists. Merchandise is available for purchase in the Aid Room at Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol and shirts are at Country Animal Veterinary Hospital in Enumclaw. Shipping is available and we charge a $10 flat rate for orders up to $75 and $12 for orders above $75. Free pickup is available at Patrol, so order today and pick up the next time you’re around the mountain!
- Buy a book Avalanche Dog Heroes, is a book that tells the story of Piper, a friendly Border Collie who came to the mountain as a smart but timid shelter dog, who heads off to school on a chairlift to meet her canine classmates. Over a season they romp together through the snow, learning and practicing the skills they need to be avalanche rescue dogs and earn their rescue certification. The book also teaches readers the warning signs and conditions that cause an avalanche, the four types of avalanches, and the basics of avalanche safety.
- Join the conversation and follow the story of Sara, Piper, Charlie, Iggy and the rest of the team by connecting via the socials.
To learn more about winter safety visit https://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/winter-safety.htm