Gabe Garcia releases his dog, Minga, to retrieve items thrown into a field in a directional control exercise during a Wasatch Backcountry Rescue training
Gabe Garcia releases his dog, Minga, to retrieve items thrown into a field in a directional control exercise during a Wasatch Backcountry Rescue training session for Friday near Red Pine Lodge at Canyons Resort. Garcia and Minga provide rescue services at Utah's Alta Ski Resort. They do continual training during the offseason in order to keep the dogs ready for snow season. (Christopher Reeves/Park Record)

"One canine team can do the job of more than 150 people searching with probes in rock-hard avalanche debris," according to Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, the nonprofit organization that trains rescue dog teams for all the mountain resorts and backcountry.

Those canine teams consisting of a dog and his or her handler train year-round in order to be in peak form come winter. August's training session took place at Canyons Resort on Friday near the top of the Red Pine Gondola.

Tracy Christensen, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue's president and longtime ski patroller and rescue dog handler at Sundance Resort, explained what goes into training the organization's dogs.

Training began on Friday with some important social time for everyone involved.

"We believe that this [socializing] is very important," Christensen said, adding that it can be valuable in an emergency if "those handlers know each other, but also that their dogs know each other and can work together."

"It's good to know what dogs get along with each other, if there's two dogs that aren't going to get along with each other, then we've got to keep those dogs separated -- especially in an emergency," he said.

After that, it's on to obedience specifically direction and control training with throw toys and retrieval of multiple objects quickly.

The year-round work will culminate in winter testing, when dogs and their handlers need to prove their mettle.

There are three levels of dogs at Wasatch Backcountry Rescue: C, B and A.


"The ultimate goal is a level A dog," Christensen said. "That's a rescue callout dog. They've met all the parameters, they've met our testing standards to be a backcountry rescue callout dog. We don't just send any dog team out onto a rescue they need to be a level A certified rescue dog."

The testing to become a level A rescue team is designed to simulate an actual emergency situation.

"They have to travel to a different ski resort," Christensen said, "so that simulates the stress and the anxiety of being off your resort, no home-field advantage."

"We'll take about a 100-by-100-yard square area, and then in that area we'll place between one and three victims," he said, "and we run it like a rescue call.

When the team arrives at the site, it first needs to determine the stability of the area and determine whether it's safe to enter. If necessary, they will call for additional resources, such as rescue, air and medical transport. There may be a witness to interview or decoy articles of clothing. All the while, the patroller needs to be assessing the situation while handling his or her dog.

The time limit is 20 minutes, after which the patroller must explain to a pair of observing instructors how his or her dog indicated and what the dog indicated on. But the ultimate question is did they fully clear the site?

"If they pass that successfully, that's a level A dog. We feel confident that we're sending a qualified team out into the backcountry that we can trust and that the county sheriff or anyone in need can trust at that point."

"It's a very stressful day, but nothing makes you prouder at the end of the day than when you pass that, because it's a team effort. The relationship you build between you and your dog is pure trust. I mean, you're relying on each other. He's helping you and you're helping him. When you pass as a team it's a very good feeling and the whole WBR is very stoked for every team that passes. Because it's an accomplishment, for sure," he said.

And being level A certified doesn't mean a team can rest on its laurels -- every dog needs to be recertified every two years.

Watching the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue dogs playing together, it's obvious they're a happy bunch, but they also are often in harm's way.

"To them this is just a giant playground. But, they put a lot of miles in on the ski resorts, they do a lot of running, they do a lot of downhill running, they're in the cold, it's hard on their joints, the lifting and jumping from the ski chairs, the snowmobiles, the cuts with the skis, the accidental falls, all that stuff. These dogs are at high risk," Christensen said.

"These dogs definitely pay their dues, but if these dogs could talk, they would say 'I wouldn't trade it for anything,'" he said.

Wasatch Backcountry Rescue's members include Park City Mountain Resort, Canyons Resort and Deer Valley Resort as well as Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Brighton, Snowbasin, the Wasatch Powderbird guides, Sundance Ski Resort, U.S. Forest Service, AirMed, Life Flight and the Utah Department of Transportation.