Most 10-month-old puppies have almost figured out leash-walking and can finally be trusted at home alone, but golden retriever Neve [Nev-ee] has a few extra accomplishments under her collar. She’s as comfortable on a chair lift as any Copper Mountain skier, she sits confidently atop a snowmobile as it charges up snowy slopes, and now she is learning how to stay calm aboard rescue helicopters as they traverse Colorado’s vast wilderness. One day soon, Neve will join dozens of dogs as a member of Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (C-RAD), a non-profit organization that trains and validates dog teams for avalanche rescue.
C-RAD took shape in 1987 after the devastating “Peak 7” avalanche killed four people in Breckenridge. The slide left 20-foot-high piles of debris across 23 acres. Three days of search and rescue efforts were arduous, highlighting the need for more efficient, specialized resources. A local newspaper reported that few of the skiers that day were armed with appropriate search and rescue gear, and while dogs were eventually deployed to help, they were too late to save lives. Today, avalanche beacons and digital transceivers are the first line of defense if you’re buried in backcountry debris, but the next best chance at survival is being sniffed out by a well-trained avalanche dog.
Puppy Neve’s owner and trainer is Nick Slaton, who spent the past five years handling avalanche res-cue dog Recco, a golden retriever who served for 11 years and was a bonafide legend in the rescue community. During her career, Recco was deployed on nearly 100 rescue missions, and Slaton says, “She just accelerated every-one’s expectations of what these dogs can do, and set the bar much higher. These dogs are all so talented, and the teamwork that can happen is amazing to see, but Recco just stepped it up in the right direction.”
When Slaton first joined C-RAD, he was new to the avalanche rescue world and had plenty to learn, but the six-year-old golden retriever was an excellent teacher and became his shadow. She taught Slaton that each dog communicates its findings in a unique way; some dogs bark, but Recco preferred digging. “I learned that as a handler I needed to keep my eyes on her constantly,” Slaton explains. “If I see her digging, it’s very obvious to me something is there. It was another level of that trust and communication.”
Recco passed away in September 2020, and as he remembers his old friend, Slaton says, “As much as we’ve talked about how great she was at search and rescue, and how solid she was on the working side, she was also the sweetest, most loving at-home dog.” It won’t be easy for Neve to fill the void left by Recco, but Slaton is confident that his new companion has what it takes to be a bold, strong rescue dog.
He says that by teaching Neve simple, low-risk actions, like jumping on the play set at a playground, she will be far more comfortable listening to commands and taking action when the time comes to load into a helicopter during a high-stress situation. He says, “I pick her up and put her on my shoulders to build our bond and our trust, to make sure she does what I ask of her and that she does it confidently.”
Slaton will spend the next couple years preparing Neve to become C-RAD validated, a process that ensures a dog team is skilled in handling an avalanche scene; validated teams must be prepared to interview witnesses, efficiently find all buried victims, and extract them. As Neve gets older and approaches her vali-dation test, her training will get more intense, according to Greg Dumas, who serves on C-RAD’s board of directors and is a handler on a C-RAD validated team with his five-year-old German shepherd Sasha. Now that Sasha is a vali-dated dog, Dumas arranges weekly trainings, setting up burial drills to keep her drive high and tap into her special skillset, but for dogs below the age of three, trainings are much more frequent and intense — and all of that training culminates in the all-important validation test.
Dogs and handlers perform their simulated avalanche search in a 100-meter-by-100-meter site where between one and three human beings are buried beneath the snow, waiting patiently for rescue. Each C-RAD team has 20 minutes to execute all of the necessary tasks and successfully clear the scene, and at the end of the test, the dogs win the ultimate reward: a rough and raucous game of tug of war. “If you’re boring and you’re just waving a dog toy around, that’s not exciting,” Dumas says. “You have to dig into your 13-year-old-girl sleepover voice and act like a dying animal that’s losing its mind.”
Slaton says that tug of war is a key element of avalanche rescue. “It’s the game that they love the most,” he explains. “It brings back the canine instincts of fighting each other in the pack — of pulling meat off the bone. So, if we can use that as our specific reward for these drills and then in the real-life thing too, that’s how we can make sure these dogs continue to play the game so well and so often.”
C-RAD success relies on a dog’s natural instincts and abilities, but none more than their keen sense of smell. According to a 2015 TED-Ed talk by Alexandra Horowitz, professor and head of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, dogs smell separately with each nostril, allowing them to rapidly pinpoint the direction of a smell’s source, which makes them invaluable life-saving tools in avalanche res-cue deployment. “A person who is buried is emitting scent that rises up through the snow, and the dog is trained to locate the strongest point of scent,” Dumas says. “I’m waiting for my dog to indicate to me that they have the strongest scent possible, and that’s where I start probing.”
Most C-RAD validated handlers, including Dumas and Slaton, are employed at Colorado ski areas and think of their dogs as co-workers. If an avalanche occurs within their designated ski area, they are already on the scene and able to quickly respond, and if an avalanche occurs in nearby backcountry, they deploy alongside a skilled avalanche technician. “That call translates into a whole trick-le-down series of events, which could mean that my dog and I are flown in and on the scene within 30 minutes,” Dumas says. “Of course, 30 minutes buried in snow usually means that someone is deceased, but there’s always that window of opportunity, and that’s our ultimate goal: to be that resource that could potentially save someone’s life.”
As Slaton starts Neve on her journey to C-RAD excellence, he is excited to watch the puppy follow in Recco’s footsteps, and just hopes he can keep up. He is using lessons learned from Recco as a guide, most notably the importance of patience, which he hopes to carry through his training with Neve. “These dogs can do amazing things, if we can only understand them,” Slaton says. “We are the dumb end of the leash.”