Lily is like most puppies: curious, gangly and loves to chew. But every day she spends on the mountain gets her one step closer to performing the important work of finding a person buried in an avalanche.
It’s hard to imagine being able to test a brand new puppy’s propensity for finding a person buried in an avalanche, but from the moment Park City Mountain Resort (PCMR) ski patroller and dog handler Sierra Prothers met Lily, a scrappy Labrador-Pointer mix, she knew she was the one. “I dropped my keys on the floor and she immediately picked them up and brought them to me whereas many of the puppies I met before her shied away,” says Prothers. “Also, she really liked to play tug of war which is a typical reward for search and rescue dogs after they complete a recovery.”
Lily takes a stroll near the Jupiter chairlift with her handler Sierra Prothers, a third year PCMR patroller.
Like most search and rescue dogs, Lily will spend the next two years of her life training for Level A certification, determining she’s ready to participate in an actual recovery. Up to that point she’ll participate in hundreds of simulated drills, most involving patrollers acting as “victims” buried in snow caves two to six feet deep. A standard dog test may incorporate two such burials in an area the size of two football fields, as well as buried sweaters, backpacks and other items. The snow covering the buried patrollers or items is disguised completely with no surface clues visible. A successful dog team will locate and dig up “victims” within 20 minutes.
Time is obviously of the essence in an emergency avalanche situation, which is why search and rescue dogs are so valuable. In fact, a well-trained avalanche rescue dog is equivalent to approximately 20 experienced human searchers and can search the same area in an eighth of the time.
Sierra Prothers owns Lily—versus Lily being owned by PCMR, a scenario practiced by other resorts—though once she passes Level B certification in a year or so PCMR will lend Prothers financial support for dog food and vet check ups.
Owning a resort search and rescue dog represents a commitment of at least eight years with that particular resort for both dog and handler. Lily replaces Belle Starr who retired at the end of last season after spending 10 years at PCMR.
Lily and PCMR’s four other search and rescue dogs are indeed a cute and friendly bunch. And when they’re not working on drills, they are more than happy to meet guests and roll over for a good belly scratch. But since these dogs are on the job, it’s always a good practice to ask their handlers if you can approach them.
Melissa Fields is a Utah-based freelance writer. Her blog is utahvagabond.com.