Bridger dogs the last line of defense in avalanches

Graham Turnage and avalanche dog Erna pause for a moment at Bridger Bowl ski area.

By BECKY HATTERSLEY/Montana State News

Erna, a two year old yellow lab, works with her human partner Graham Turnage on the Bridger Bowl Ski Patrol. She is one of five avalanche dogs at Bridger Bowl, and each day for the past 30 years, she and other dogs like her, are stationed on the hill at the top of the Pierre’s Knob and Bridger lifts.

Erna’s red vest does two things. It’s a harness that would enable her to be evacuated from a stalled lift if need be, and it identifies her as a ski patrol dog, something that she and her handler put a lot of time into. The training process usually takes two years and culminates with a certification test through the local search and rescue.

“The first year is all about obedience training and ski etiquette so that they can co-exist with the public,” said Turnage.

The second season begins the recovery training. Turnage described the process: “It starts with the ‘runaway’ where the handler runs away into a pre-dug hole while the dog watches.” A partner says “search” and the dog finds his handler, who then rewards it with a game of tug of war. This process continues until they have mastered the blind search, where the dog looks for multiple buried people and objects in an unfamiliar scene full of distractions.

“The avalanche dogs are looking for human scent under the snow, which is actually the smell of our naturally exfoliated dead skin cells,” said Turnage.

Erna is laid back and calm in the patrol shack, but it’s a different story out on the hill. Erna and Turnage take a run together and she lights up, barking at him out of excitement along the way. He calls her back and has her “heel,” staying next to him on the runs.

“They go a hundred miles an hour all the time if you let them. It’s the handler’s job to slow them down, keep them safe,” Turnage says. She gets a lot of attention on the way down as she showcases one of the many ways she contributes to the mountain, “They are also great for public relations.”

Bridger Bowl dogs are the personal dogs of their handlers and work the same work week that they do. The dogs get their veterinary bills covered for any work related injuries and they get their winter dog food covered. They don’t know they’re working though.

“It’s all a game to them,” said Turnage.

Turnage has been an avalanche dog handler for 10 years. “Erna is my second dog. I did a season without a dog and I felt like someone took away my transceiver. It’s comforting to have them, and quite rewarding. They are impressive partners and also good comic relief.”

He stresses that the bond between the handler and the dog is very close.

“We spend so much time with them, and we need to be able to read each other. I have to strive to always be positive. She knows if I’m bummed and she knows if I’m happy.”

Turnage has to be able to read Erna too, especially when they are working on searches. He describes her alert: “It’s this two pawed pounce, and then I know she’s made a find, she’s not just sniffing anymore.”

Turnage says that the dogs on the hill are “mostly an insurance policy.” In-bounds areas are avalanche controlled and the expert terrain on the mountain, such as Schlasman’s lift and the Ridge Hike, require transceivers.

“In the case of an event, we are of course going to do a transceiver search, but our dogs are the best chance of a live recovery.”

Quick response time is important, with avalanche victims having the best chances if they are recovered in the first 15 minutes according to Turnage. When asked about Erna’s capabilities, he said “It depends on the debris, but I would put her up against most people with a transceiver.”

The dogs are very focused when they hear their “search” command. They are trained to keep their endurance up, they have to be thorough and able to complete a systematic 30-minute search, even after they have found the all the people.

“A human find is the best find, they get less excited over finding the buried articles, such as clothing” said Turnage. “They are so focused, in a recent training, 12 dogs ignored a ham sandwich set out as a distraction and remained tuned into the human scent buried in the snow.”

These dogs don’t just stick to the resort scene either, all the Bridger Bowl dogs are part of an interagency program with Search and Rescue and the other area ski resort’s dogs.

“It’s a great collaboration, they call whoever is available,” said Turnage.

Edited by Matthew York.

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