The nose knows

Avalanche dog finds the unlucky, brings them home

Posted: Sunday, March 14, 2004

First, Lenka Craigova, a 10-year-old Juneau girl, crawled into the snow cave on East Bowl at Eaglecrest Ski Area. A crowd of skiers watched under calm, gray skies Saturday afternoon.

Then her father, Jim Craig, filled the opening with blocks of snow and shoveled snow back into the ditch that led to the cave until Lenka was utterly buried. Bamboo stakes a few feet away helped mark the spot.

"It's like the magician who uses his own wife to saw in half. I use my own kid," Craig said, his thoughts also turning to Edgar Allan Poe's stories of premature burial.

Then Sandy, a 10-year-old golden retriever, charged down the slope, splashing through the snow just ahead of his trainer on skis, Patti Burnett. Sandy ran through the bystanders, paused a bit beyond where Lenka was buried, turned and began to dig out the snow above her. Soon only Sandy's wagging tail was visible.

Sandy has been trained since an early age to find people under snow. His trainers, Patti and Dan Burnett of Frisco, Colo., assume the dog can distinguish between the smells of people above the snow pack, which is porous, and someone under it. Sandy can detect the smell of a person who is 10 feet under the surface, Dan Burnett said.

They were in Juneau last week to train with Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search, the SEADOGS. The Burnetts are members of Summit County Rescue Group and Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado. Patti Burnett is author of "Avalanche! Hasty Search," a guide to the care and training of avalanche search and rescue dogs.

On Saturday at Eaglecrest, the Burnetts gave three demonstrations of Sandy's skill.

"Since he was a small puppy, he's been trained to play this hide-and-seek game," Dan Burnett said.

As Sandy dug out Lenka with his paws, Patti Burnett helped with a shovel.

"We forgot to bring the reward," Patti said. "How about a snowball?"

Sandy took it, but seemed grateful when a bystander came up with a dog biscuit.

"Whenever I hear Patti and Sandy coming up, the first thing that comes to mind is this is so nice to have a dog that rescues people who are trapped in an avalanche," Lenka said afterward. "... I just trust the dog a lot."

The Burnetts began training Sandy when he was 2 months old. They would run away and jump in a hole. He would follow. They made it progressively more difficult, with deeper holes, then by covering them with a tarp, then with snow. Eventually, Sandy could find people who were buried under snow.

Eaglecrest works hard to make sure it won't need the services of dogs like Sandy. Dan Burnett said of the 36 times he's retrieved people who were buried in an avalanche, only one was alive.

"It's incumbent on Eaglecrest to make sure the (avalanche) hazard on the ski area is low, irrespective of the snow pack's instability," said Peter Carter, a member of the Eaglecrest Ski Patrol. "Any time the hazard isn't low, the ski area has to do something about that."

Eaglecrest compiles information on the weather, the snow pack and nearby avalanches on a daily basis. The ski patrol deliberately triggers avalanches before the ski area opens for the day, to remove the hazards.

Carter said avalanche conditions are posted outside the ski patrol rooms at the Eaglecrest lodge and on top of the mountain.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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