Village Talk

Ruff Love

Schooling the latest pack of avalanche rescue pups at Vail and Beaver Creek

By Devon O'Neil November 28, 2022 Published in the Winter/Spring 2023 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

Beaver Creek Ski Patrol’s Toby Harrison and Ruby

The most popular group of workers at Vail and Beaver Creek welcomed three recruits this summer. Like their colleagues, each has a fluffy tail and the potential to save your life if something bad happens.

We are talking, of course, about avalanche-rescue puppies Telli, Ruby, and Moxie. The first two—a golden retriever and black lab, respectively—started work with Beaver Creek Ski Patrol, while Moxie, Telli’s sister, reported for duty at Vail. Each brings a special working-dog pedigree and traits that fit the gig. Just ask their owner-handlers.

“Moxie is really sweet and friendly,” says John Alfond, a 14-year Vail ski patroller whose first avalanche dog, Rocky, retired last spring. “She loves all people and all dogs. But at the same time, she’s curious, adventurous, and not really afraid of too much.”

“Ruby has such a calm temperament and hardly ever barks,” says sixth-year Beaver Creek patroller Toby Harrison, who came to the valley by way of the Kansas City suburbs. “But when she sees motion, she gets wound up. Her attention turns, she points her ears and nose, and gets ready to take off running.”

“Telli has a good drive and is very engaged for a young puppy, but, also, if we’re chilling, she just wants to relax,” says Gavin Mastell, an Oklahoman who grew up around bird-hunting dogs and is in his fourth year on Beaver Creek’s patrol. “She wants to learn and listens well. Her attention span isn’t very long, though.”

Harrison and Ruby with BC patroller Gavin Mastell and Telli

All three dogs were born in Colorado to breeders with a track record for producing successful working dogs, including avalanche dogs. And all three were slated to start a special puppy training program with the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment (C-RAD) program this fall. It usually takes two years for a dog to become qualified to search for buried avalanche victims. For months prior to enrollment in C-RAD’s avalanche puppy preschool, their handlers focused on the basics: obedience, socialization, and tracking people who run away from them in a grass field—a drill that eventually leads to finding people in snow caves and, later, under avalanche debris. “It all builds on the same principle,” grins Harrison, “which is to find the fun human with the toy.”

Like Mastell, Harrison’s avalanche dog is his first dog, period. Before being approved as dog handlers, both had to interview with Chris Johnson, who leads Beaver Creek’s patrol-dog program, and Patrol Director Addy McCord. Once accepted, they chose between a lab or golden and hoped for a solid fit with their new partner/roommate/best friend. “A lot of the appeal to me is being able to take Ruby anywhere and knowing that she has a greater purpose than just hanging around with me all day,” Harrison says.
Ruby and Telli join the Beav’s three veteran, C-RAD-validated dogs: Luna, Trigger, and Piper. All five are female. This contrasts with the parity of the K9 crew at Vail, where one of the other two validated dogs on staff, Fred, is a boy (sadly, Henry, Vail’s original patrol dog, crossed over the rainbow bridge at 15 late this fall).

Vail Ski Patrol’s Moxie

No matter the gender, any new dog handler has the same bottom-line goals for their pup: “I want Telli to be an incredible dog, who I can rely on and who can rely on me,” Mastell says. “And hopefully get some saves.”

Make a Date at Dogtown

Sundays, Jan 8–Mar 19, 10:30–11:30 a.m.
Atop Vail Mountain, outside Ski Patrol Headquarters at the confluence of Chairs 4 and 5, Vail Ski Patrol hosts a free demo at the squad’s avalanche-dog training ground: Dogtown. The snowfield riddled with hidey-holes known as quinzees is where the search work happens, then there’s an Insta-worthy meet-and-greet with the aww-inspired crowd.

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