Tali the Patrol dog tests her talents

Did you know your pup’s nose has about 220 million olfactory receptors? These receptors (compared to about six million in humans) are in charge of detecting odor molecules. When they pick up the smelly molecules, they’re analyzed by part of your furry friend’s brain that is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.

Ski Patrol dogs, having a naturally fine-tuned sense of smell, are specially trained to use this talent in avalanche search and rescue. From underneath the snow, the human scent actually rises about one foot per minute, so it doesn’t take trained patrol dogs long to find their targets.

Tali is a nine-year-old border collie/English setter mix who has been on the Breckenridge Ski Patrol for nearly seven years. She is the go-to girl when it comes to avalanche search and rescue, so I decided I’d put her talents to the test via a snow cave avalanche simulation.

Hunter and TaliTali’s services have not been needed at the resort, thanks to Breckenridge Ski Patrol’s successful avalanche mitigation program. Still, practicing with the snow cave technique keeps Tali’s skills sharp for when her expertise is needed. Having dogs on the team is a game changer – especially if the person needing help isn’t wearing a beacon.

The caves are designed to mimic an avalanche situation, as a thick barrier of snow is between the subject and the search team. With the help of Hunter Mortensen, lead technician on Breckenridge Ski Patrol, I started my snow cave adventure.

Hunter kept Tali in the Ski Patrol hut and we started on the trek to the cave. Once we arrived, he gave me Tali’s rope toy to hold (as it’s the reward for finding me).

Tali in search modeI had to initially climb upwards and then slide feet-first into the snow cave. The opening is relatively small, but it gets a bit larger in the actual cave space. It’s roughly the size of a small bathtub, with enough headroom to sit comfortably cross-legged. Once I was settled, Hunter gingerly placed pieces of packed snow on the entrance of the cave, making sure to seal the hole tightly, as an actual avalanche would fill any spare opening.Tali to the rescue!

So finally, I was sealed in the cave. It was astoundingly quiet. During this time, Hunter let Tali loose to find me. I held onto Tali’s rope toy and waited a few minutes. The first sounds I heard were Tali’s excited barking, letting Hunter know that she had found me. Then the digging started. She pawed at the entrance to the cave and waited patiently as Hunter dug away the large pieces to reveal the cave’s chute. Once the chute was big enough for her to fit into, she carefully climbed into the cave to retrieve her toy.And just like that, Tali found me in a matter of minutes! She is very playful and loves to play with her rope, so as a reward for her work, I played with her and let her ‘pull’ me out of the cave chute. She did a great job and it was amazing to see her exercise her Patrol dog talents.

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