Dogs use heightened senses to assist crews in avalanche rescues

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SALT LAKE CITY -- When someone is buried in an avalanche, members of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue are often the ones called in to help, and the effort of that team is benefited by its canine companions.

On Wednesday, the dogs and their handlers hit the slopes at Brighton for avalanche rescue training. Wasatch Backcountry Rescue members serve on the ski patrols at all of the major resorts in Utah. They also work under the direction of sheriff's office search and rescue teams in Cache, Morgan, Salt Lake, Summit, Utah and Wasatch counties when they're deployed outside the resort boundaries.

"The dogs are excellent once they're on scene of very quickly doing their job and doing their best to find the people that are buried in the snow," said Jeff Fericks, a member of Wasatch Backcountry Rescue.

Being injured or trapped in an avalanche is serious business, but training for a backcountry rescue is fun for the dogs.

"The dog starts to see that this is a game for them," said Ari Theodore, another member of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue team. "They associate the work with a game. So it's more like a hide and seek, so they're going to go find that person buried under the snow."

The dogs enter their prime at about 5 years old and can work for several years after that. The team spent its day on the hill introducing some of its newest members to the work they'll be doing.

"We're basically getting puppies used to working around (a helicopter) with a spinning disc, lots of noise, lots of wind, and getting into a foreign environment," Theodore said.

The people who take part in this specialized rapid response unit say that they do it because they want to help people who are trapped in the backcountry.

"It's fun, it's difficult, but it's also important for the community here throughout the Central Wasatch range that there's people like us that are willing to go out there and do this to pull our friends out of the snow," Fericks said.

Wasatch Backcountry Rescue also assists people who are injured while skiing, snowboarding or snowmobiling in Utah's backcountry. Rescuers are reminding people that avalanche danger is high right now and to check avalanche forecasts before heading out.


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Geoff Liesik


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