The cuteness of a service dog is so alluring, their gentle nature and sure understanding of the human condition is something we can all relate to. Jackson Hole is known for being dog friendly in town and on the local hiking trails, but Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has its very own dog pack that is so much more than your average pet.
Jake Elkins is the head of ski patrol at JHMR and he now has his 4th avalanche dog. She’s a golden retriever named Cornice. The dogs are hardly shy of royalty on the mountain and their presence is followed by kids and dog lovers alike, chasing after their waggly little tails.
The dogs get VIP seating on the tram, (even on powder days) and that means putting a bench down one side. They spend the majority of their work days sitting on the couch in the patrol shack at the top of the mountain in Corbet’s Cabin. The patrollers rest their weary legs on a picnic bench, but the dogs get the couch!
The premise of an avalanche dog is, not surprisingly, to help find people in avalanches. Their acute sense of smell, rigorous training and natural desire for field trial is what make them such effective search dogs in an avalanche. They’re able to find an essence of human scent that could be buried meters deep within moments of being on site.
Cornice looks like a really sweet girl, and she really is, but Elkins was sure to let me know that she took an enormous amount of training for her to be as calm as she is. Elkin’s commitment to his animals is truly amazing. Consistency, training, and daily commitment is hours and hours above the normal standards of pet care. Elkins was able to take a field trained dog bred for hunting and field training, (i.e. very high energy), and make her as gentle as a family dog and as hard working as a serious mountain rescue worker. I asked Jake what the difference between what he does for training versus the average person training their puppy. He spoke to the fact that his dog is handled very consistently with the same rewards/lifestyle/work every day.
The process of finding the right dog begins with finding the right owner. Elkins was pretty direct when he said that he and his wife don’t have kids, they have dogs. He was interviewed rigorously for each dog that he has owned, and says “Honestly, a field trial dog can be too much dog for search and rescue.” The caveat is that Elkins is also a hunter, and therefore his dog is also a hunting dog (mainly field birds like pheasant, grouse, and some ducks). Elkins starts the training right away when they receive the dog at 8 weeks old. They begin socializing them around the ski resort, letting people pet him (when they ask and when he sits!). It’s a beautiful thing to see a working dog who can also live with a family and integrate into the ski culture.
Jake said he likes the retriever breeds for their consistent drive to find and fetch. Their size also helps too, so they’re not too big to carry and too little to make a run for it. These handlers are very particular about where they get their dogs from, and what lines their families are a part of.
The beauty about these dogs vs. other avalanche rescue dogs is that they’re able to be in a home and cared for like a pet. Some avalanche dogs are not really pet dogs and live more of a working lifestyle, and not because of any other reason than that’s what they’re bred to do. That’s what their purpose is, and don’t get me wrong, they love what they do! But the special feel of the Jackson Hole dogs is their tender touch, undoubtedly bestowed upon them by their qualified handler/trainers.
So eat your heart out, Jackson’s finest employees, (certainly the cutest) are ready and waiting for hard work when the moment arises. Tune in next week for a post about the details of the training process and how these dogs really find people buried in snow.