A nose for rescue: Squaw avalanche dogs headed to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics | NevadaAppeal.com

A nose for rescue: Squaw avalanche dogs headed to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics

Greyson Howard
Nevada Appeal News Service
Greyson Howard/Sierra Sun

OLYMPIC VALLEY – The muffled, rapid beat of digging comes first in the dim light under a layer of hard snow.

Then a paw breaks through, followed by an inquisitive snout, and daylight pours in.

The avalanche victim reaches out to Wylee, a 2-year-old boarder collie training as a rescue dog … and hands him a chew toy.

It’s all part of a simulation, training handlers and dogs alike at Squaw Valley USA in the rapid location and recovery of skiers and snowboarders caught in a slide.

The Squaw Valley Ski Patrol Avalanche Rescue Dog Team is elite, and their invitation to help in search and rescue operations at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games is a testament to that – the only invitation to such a group from the states.

“This is the highlight of all the handlers’ and dogs’ careers,” said Matt Calcutt, who will be coordinating the team in Vancouver. “It’s almost like the doggy Olympics.”

Four dogs and four handlers from the Squaw team get to go for two reasons, Calcutt said: They’ve trained with and met the high standards of the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association for years, and they’ll be representing Squaw in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympic Games.

Two handlers and their dogs, including Wylee and his handler, Craig Noble, were out earlier this month training on the mountain, sweeping for avalanche beacons and sniffing out buried objects – including one patroller volunteered to be buried by his superior.

Among the stringent standards from the Canadian group is a requirement that dogs can find scented items (pieces of clothing worn by patrollers for training purposes) buried overnight at 70 centimeters deep, Calcutt said.

“They (the handlers and dogs) need to get validation in dog searching, obedience, avalanche knowledge, they have to be able to forecast avalanche activity, and have to be able to travel in avalanche conditions,” Calcutt said.

So how do the handlers get the dogs up to snuff?

It’s all about “play, play, play,” Calcutt said.

“When they find something it’s the biggest reward of the dog’s life – we don’t give them this much attention at any other time,” Calcutt said, as Noble wrestled with Wylee after a successful find.

And the Squaw team has brought these standards in turn to the Placer County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Canine Team, working collaboratively with teams from other ski resorts and areas, as far away as Mammoth, Calif.