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A furry friend has the best chance of saving lives in avalanches

A furry friend has the best chance of saving lives in avalanches
Posted at 5:39 PM, Mar 22, 2023

Sprinting through the snow and working for a tough tug, is usually where you can find Frank. While this adorable black lab plopping through powder may look like fun and games, he's actually an avalanche dog in Snowbird, Utah. Marguerite Van Komen has spent 17 years on ski patrol and has had Frank since he was just 49 days old.

"Basically, right now, this is a pretty scented area. A lot of people hangout in this area, so he's trying to discriminate between surface scent and live scent," Van Komen said. "We train to go very fast to the scene of an accident. That's why he's small. He's 55 pounds, so that I can carry him very fast, ski very fast to where the avalanche is."

Now, nearly 8 ½ years later, he's a senior dog at Snowbird alpine resort and proving how these animals can save lives. 

As the president of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, a non-profit working in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City, Andy VanHouten knows how important avalanche rapid response is.

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"One of the coolest things that I've ever seen, is when you see these dogs perform at the highest level and you realize what they are capable of," VanHouten said. "Unless it happens at the resort right here, when we get flown out into the backcountry for rescue, we're looking at a 60-to-90 minute window and unfortunately, someone buried in an avalanche normally has about 15 to 20 minutes. Thirty minutes is kind of the high end of actual survivability, so anything beyond that is pushing it."

He says dogs like Frank can search much more quickly than people.

"These guys can cover terrain way faster than we can. Avalanche debris inherently is really difficult to travel on. It's a refrigerator-to-car size chunks of snow, it's crevasses, it's tough maneuvering. And these guys can cover ground, like, 400 times faster than we can," VanHouten said.

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An avalanche dog can search about 2.5 acres of terrain in 30 minutes, but that would take a person up to 4 hours. 

"He makes life a lot easier for us here at Snowbird. He can do the job of 40 ski patrolmen in the same amount of time," Van Komen said.

As an experienced pup, Frank has trained in places like Switzerland and Canada. He knows when he's on the mountain with Van Komen, his training is all about hide and seek. And if he finds human scent, he gets a reward.

"Well he found the article, so this is how we reward the dogs. They get to play a game of tug of war," Van Komen said.

Like the dozens of avalanche dogs throughout the country, and spread across the globe, Frank is working every day to serve and protect his mountain community.