For the last year Milo has been training for a game he'll hopefully never have to play. The black and white 14-month-old border collie is preparing to become an avalanche search and rescue dog at Eaglecrest Ski Area.
"He's not looking for a lost person," said Milo's handler, Jim Craig. "He's looking for a toy."
He said Milo is training to sniff out hikers and skiers buried under up to six feet of snow, but a successful recovery depends on a number of factors. The thickness of the snow and weather during the recovery can mean the difference between life and death, Craig said.
"It's not a slam dunk," he said. "The dog could have a cold, for gosh sakes. I really try to clarify with everyone that it's part of a whole quiver of assets."
Craig spends up to 20 hours a week working with Milo on the slopes and hopes to have the animal fully trained by the end of this year's ski season. Craig divides the time working with Milo between his full-time job at the state Department of Fish and Game and his work with the Eaglecrest ski patrol.
"It's almost like getting married or having a kid," Craig said. "It's a lifestyle change."
Craig said he and others created Avadogs Alaska to focus exclusively on avalanche search-and-rescue missions. "Our goal is to have a dog available at the top of the hill during periods of high avalanche danger," Craig said.
Avadogs Alaska solicited a number of organizations in the Lower 48 and Canada to develop a set of standards for testing, training and certification, he said.
"What we found was there really is no national standard for avalanche search dogs," Craig said. He said handlers must be certified as emergency medical technicians, trained in CPR and able to pass the Alaska State Troopers physical fitness test, among other requirements. Handlers also must be current or past members registered with the National Ski Patrol, Craig said.
While developing the plan, Craig said he got a lot of advice from Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, or SEADOGS, a Juneau-based group that participates in a variety of search-and-rescue missions. Mark O'Brien, of SEADOGS, said his organization has provided avalanche rescue dogs at Eaglecrest since the slope first opened, but having a full-time rescue dog at the slopes like Avadogs Alaska proposes "enhances the chance of rescue because time is critical."
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The conventional wisdom among avalanche experts is someone covered in snow has about 15 to 20 minutes of air. Having Milo at Eaglecrest will help in that effort, but Eaglecrest General Manager Kirk Duncan said he doesn't want it to create a false sense of security. He said those in the area who know how to deal with avalanche situations would likely have a better chance of digging a person out than leaving the scene to find a rescue dog.
"We're excited to be working with Avadogs," Duncan said. "We just don't want people to see it as a panacea."
Although his role at Eaglecrest is focused on skier safety, Milo is more than just a safety dog. He's quickly becoming a local celebrity. Craig said Milo has his own business card and e-mail address (email@example.com) and receives messages regularly from children.
Eaglecrest marketing director Jeffra Clough said Milo often can be found around the perimeter of the lodge when he's not up on the slopes training.
"He's well received because he's good around people," Clough said. "Avalanche dogs are usually very social dogs."
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.