Game of Fetch... Sometimes with a Buried Skier

A profile of Patroller Nick Slaton and his partner, avalanche dog Recco.

Nick Slaton takes what he learns from ski patrolling and uses it when he backcountry skis (or maybe it’s the other way around). Because he’s often in the area where avalanches would occur, he takes pride in working with a dog who’s trained to perform in this serious situation. Slaton is not the owner of Recco, yet he’s her third handler besides her actual dad, John Reller.  After she spends the day with him at work, she also spends three to four nights a week sleeping at his house. Her owner would like her to be a hard working dog and on top of her training whenever there’s an avalanche deployment, so the more time spent with her current handler, the better she’ll perform. Slaton shares his love for the training, Recco’s strengths performing during avalanche drills, and his love for her as just a dog, beyond her abilities as an avalanche pup.

What got you into training an avalanche dog?

I have always been interested in working with those dogs. They’re amazing animals and their skills could really make the difference in rescue during avalanche.  They have a great attitude towards “work,” which is like play for them.  These dogs hold amazing relationships with their handlers and the rest of the patrol staff, and they have a large impact on the moral at the work place.  When we’ve had a long day, it’s rewarding to come back to the duty station and see the happiness of a dog greeting you at the door.

 

What are Recco’s strengths? Weaknesses?

She has a strong sense of smell, excellent ability to dig, and excitement to keep playing this “game” over and over again.  She’s always excited to get out in the snow and dig around for whatever she can find. In many of the drills we run with her, after she finds all of the people we have buried, she will often go back and dig up the beacons and RECCO chips, which have very little to no scent at all (compared to a live human). It’s really impressive to see her dig up something that’s currently not related to a burial. 

 

What do you enjoy most about working with Recco?

In many respects, Recco has become my best friend and favorite co-worker. She’ll ride up the chairlift with me in the morning, jump on the back of the snowmobile as we drive down in the evening, or run down the hill if she has some energy to burn. In the evenings, she’ll go back to being a regular dog: snoozing on the couch, performing well to earn some treats, and playing in the deep snow when we go out for walks.

 


I know that Recco is CRAD certified (Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment). What are the things you have to watch for during those scenes?

Recco and I certified with CRAD last March, and she’s pretty dialed with her job in a rescue scenario, but I’m the one learning from her. She is about 7 years old, and she has certified with three different ski patrollers and her owner. The biggest challenge for me is noticing her actions and movements around the debris of an avalanche. She will be sprinting around and making small gestures in different locations: a one paw dig and sniff in a certain area, making a quick turn as she’s working upwind searching for a scent, or a very determined two paw dig with an aggressive tail wag.  All of these signs tell me where someone could potentially be buried.  Picking up on these clues while making sure I am still able to travel safely in the avalanche area is my biggest weakness.  I am currently her handler, but she will often go on rescue missions with Reller (read the story about him here: http://www.coppercolorado.com/winter/blog/outsiders/sally-francklyn/copper-ski-patrol-profile-john).

 

Why does John Reller still want her to work as an avalanche dog, yet he's okay with not being the one who trains her?

Reller is still a volunteer of Copper Mountain Ski Patrol and also an active member of Summit County Search and Rescue, so he wants Recco to be at her best when the time comes for a real deployment.  He still does a lot of the training, but his own business keeps him occupied, so by allowing me to take Recco to work, she gets every chance possible to run through drills and keep her skills at peak performance.

 

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