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Squaw Dogs Head to Vancouver Olympics

Tucker is your typical golden retriever who likes to roll in the snow and chase balls. He and his owner, Pete York of the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol, also work together on avalanche rescue operations and will travel to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to assist with security. By Olivia Dwyer

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Tucker enjoys pats on the head, chasing balls, and avalanche rescue operations.The ladies love Tucker. So do the grown men, children of all ages, and…

Tucker enjoys pats on the head, chasing balls, and avalanche rescue operations.

The ladies love Tucker. So do the grown men, children of all ages, and anyone with a camera phone or a spare hand. I’m riding up the Gold Coast Funitel at Squaw Valley with the golden retriever and his handler, ski patroller Pete York, and I’m learning that it’s hard to conduct an interview when you’re seated next to a good-looking dog.

But Tucker is more than just York’s best friend and the darling of Squaw visitors. He is also trained in avalanche rescue, which is why he and York have been invited to assist the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) with security operations at the Vancouver Olympics. Four other canines of the Squaw Valley Avalanche Rescue Dog Team and four more handlers will travel with them.

Pete York and Tucker have patrolled Squaw together for six years.Puppies at workYork tells me that he met Tucker when the dog was eight weeks old,…

Pete York and Tucker have patrolled Squaw together for six years.

Puppies at work
York tells me that he met Tucker when the dog was eight weeks old, and the pair have spent the six years since training together in avalanche rescue. “The dogs are another tool in the toolbox for organized rescue,” York says. “We use as many tools as possible to have the best possible outcome.”

The handlers look for a puppy that is playful and high energy, unafraid of loud noises. As the dogs get older, the handler will start doing “runaways,” simple training exercises where he runs and hides behind a tree. They progress to “open coffin” runaways, being covered in snow, and eventually, live burials. Squaw Valley tests all of its dogs against the CARDA standards, which means any dog on the team is capable of finding a scented piece of clothing buried under 70 centimeters of snow over night in an area 100 meters square.

Adoring fans have the chance to pet Tucker when he rides the Funitel to work.Always workingAs I follow York and Tucker from the Funitel to a patrol…

Adoring fans have the chance to pet Tucker when he rides the Funitel to work.

Always working
As I follow York and Tucker from the Funitel to a patrol shack at the base of the Gold Coast lift, Tucker runs ahead to throw himself in the snow and roll in the joy of the powder day. To my untrained eye, he acts like any other happy-go-lucky dog, although he is certainly more attentive to York’s commands than most dogs I know.

But York explains that Tucker is always tracking the people around him, tracking scents coming from above and below the snow surface. Tucker’s resting heartbeat is about 30 beats per minute less than a house pet, making him an elite athlete in comparison. These are indicators of what the dogs are capable of in the event of an avalanche. “We send them out and keep an eye on them, but we’ve got other things to do,” York says. “They give us the opportunity to rapidly locate people.”

“Inside? But there’s all this snow to roll in…”

Avalanche ready
“The dog program is literally an insurance program for the mountain,” York says. Squaw Valley uses the Recco avalanche rescue system, encourages people to carry beacons on big powder days, and other snow safety protocols. But the dogs are always on call. It takes 20 searchers on foot four hours to search two acres—but a dog can cover the same area in 30 minutes. And every minute counts after an avalanche, when the chances of survival drop after a 15 to 30 minute window. “We’ve been on quite a few calls,” York says. Quoting a CARDA colleague, he says, “The dogs are like the fire department: They’re called often but rarely needed. The same thing applies.”

York and Tucker warm up in a patrol shack at Gold Coast.Security detailCARDA invited the Squaw dogs to assist at the 2010 Olympics in part to…

York and Tucker warm up in a patrol shack at Gold Coast.

Security detail
CARDA invited the Squaw dogs to assist at the 2010 Olympics in part to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Olympics at Squaw Valley. When the dogs and their handlers go to Vancouver, they will essentially watch the backs of the Canadian Army and other security forces working in the backcountry. The dogs teams will also be responsible for public safety, and respond to potential calls from skiers, riders, snowmobilers and hikers caught in avalanches. “We were excited and quite honored to be invited by CARDA,” York says. “We’ll be stationed at different venues with their people and we’ll be there for security forces, athletes and the public, ready to assist.”