I want to be reincarnated as an avalanche rescue dog. I mean think about it: You get to hit the slopes pretty much every day of the season, you and your best friend are always the first ones on the chair on a powder day, there’s treats, there’s petting, and even someone else to pick up your poop.
People literally fall out of their bindings to fawn over avy dogs. They are the rock stars (and movie stars) of ski areas, and many of them even have their own trading cards.
Matt Norfleet, a nine-year veteran patroller at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin, is a lead dog handler for the Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment Team. He has been named Patroller of the Year three times by his fellow patrollers at A-Basin, and last year he was nominated for the same recognition by Colorado Ski Country.
He also was awarded a National Ski Patrol Blue Merit Star for his role as the Incident Commander and his life-saving actions in what Tony Cammarata, patrol director at A-Basin, calls “one of the most incredible rescues our patrol team has ever had.”
In the off-season, Norfleet is a member of the gold medal winning U.S. National Rafting Team, and he and his dog Rio make regular visits to local schools to share safety tips with students. We recently caught up with Matt and Rio to learn more about life as an avy dog.
Do you carry doggie bags?
Yes, I carry bags for my dog. We try to be responsible dog owners and handlers especially on the ski hill.
Have you ever been caught without one?
I have, that’s when having a shovel comes in handy.
How long does it take to train a dog for avalanche rescue?
It depends on the dog, but we usually start obedience and some type of formal training when they are around five to six months old. The hope is that the dog and handler will be able to pass their certification tests within the next two years. We do some form of training almost every day during this period.
What commands do you teach?
We teach basic obedience commands – sit, stay, down, come – but when we get into avalanche-specific drills, we use “search” or “find”. This lets the dog know that we are trying to locate someone under the snow.
Tell us about the best dog you’ve had or worked with?
We’ve had some great dogs come through Arapahoe Basin, but Rio passed all her tests on the first try. She’s very adaptable to whatever you want to teach her, and she’s turning out to be a great avalanche dog.
How dangerous are search and rescue operations for the dogs? Are they at risk? How do you minimize that risk?
Typically if we are deployed, it usually means that the backcountry hazard is significant. This is a risk we manage by choosing safe routes of travel. For a handler, it means having a good relation with your dog and good obedience. Helicopters are always dangerous, which is why we train once a month on how to properly load and unload.
Do they have a special diet?
Our dogs just have a consistent diet, something for active dogs. The biggest problem we have is that they are at the ski area around the public who like to feed them people food. This can upset their stomachs, and distract them for training or deployments.
What breeds make the best avy dogs?
Breeds proven to be successful avalanche dogs are labs, Golden Retrievers, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, and Duck Tollers. There are a few others, and there have been some mixes that turn out to be great dogs, but these are the breeds that are recommended.
Where do you get the dogs?
We try to get dogs from reputable breeders, usually from hunting kennels. We want dogs that are bred to be working dogs and can use their noses.
What are some of the Do’s and Don’ts for folks who like to ski with their dogs in the backcountry?
Make sure you train you dog how to run with you on or off leash while you’re are on skis or a snowboard. Sharp edges can injure a dog badly. It’s also always a good idea to have good voice control over your dog when they are off leash in the backcountry.
Do avy dogs get to take sick days?
If Rio isn’t feeling well, then she can definitely stay home. If she is at work, she is on-call and we need her at her best.
Do the dogs have a 401K plan? Where do they retire?
Dogs that work at A-Basin do have some benefits while they are working here. After they have served some time as a certified working avalanche dog, they are allowed to come to work after they retire. We usually use them for PR purposes at that point.
Who gets more excited on a powder day, you or the dog?
I love a good powder day, but Rio’s energy level when it snows is hard to match!
Is that true Rio?
Is that all you ever have to say?