How avalanche dogs help the Sun Valley Ski Patrol be prepared for anything.
Syringa jumps on the chairlift and sits in a rare moment of calm as the high-speed quad flies toward the top of the mountain. She seems perfectly at home, her mini Sun Valley Ski Patrol vest fitting perfectly. Her eager eyes scan the terrain below, pausing only to give a few licks to her neighbor’s cheek. This dog has no hesitation and no fear. At the top of the Christmas chairlift, her energy kicks in again and she jumps off, following her owner and friend, Steve Daigh, down the snow to the ski patrol shack.
Syringa is like an exposed nerve. She is a ball of energy that never stops moving. It is that eager energy and her incredible nose that make her perfect for her job. She was meant to be an
Syringa, a pudelpointer, is an upland hunting dog. First bred in the 1800’s, pudelpointers are a cross between poodles and pointers. Pudelpointers are known for the intelligence, human attachment, obedience to owner and natural retrieving abilities of poodles, and the hunting skills, sensitive nose and fiery attitude of pointers.
When 20-year Sun Valley Ski Patrolman (SVSP) Steve Daigh started researching getting a bird dog as a hunting partner, a Pudelpointer was the obvious choice. It was a natural progression to train her as an avalanche dog as well.
“It took an initial two months for avalanche training, though it seemed like all winter,” Steve said with a twinkle in his eye. Now six years old, Syringa completed the rigorous training with several other SVSP dogs; Bob Jost’s Murphy, Ryan Yates’ Tucker, and Tim East’s Tilly.
The dogs have two certification processes. The first is the National Search and Rescue Association and the second is the National Search Dog Alliance. The dogs and their owners learn about points of interest, signals, tracking the dog’s trail and the difference between alerts and distractions. Many of the tests take place in large fields with articles of clothing buried as distractions. The dog then has 20 minutes to find the “victim.” The idea is to train the dog to overlook the distractions and to train the owner to distinguish between when the dog has found a distraction or an actual point of interest. Steve says, “Digging is a basic indicator of an alert for Syringa. Her bark is also a clue. It means there is more than an article of clothing, so she gets excited and aggressive.”
The dogs must be recertified every two years, with the owners logging all training, which includes practice with volunteers on Baldy. Steve works with the other patrolmen to practice at least once a month to keep their dogs fresh and prepared.
Having Syringa and her avy dog counterparts on the mountain is an important part of readiness and preparedness for the Patrol. According to Steve, “Avalanche dogs on Baldy are useful because of the quick access from the top of the mountain. They have access to almost anywhere. Especially if it is a quick, daytime avalanche and you are unsure if anyone was caught in it, dogs are more than useful.”
Syringa has never seen any real action, but Steve has trust in his dog and in his training. “I know she is ready. If something happened right now, she would be entirely ready and I know that. I am prepared, she is prepared. I have trust in my dog.” Steve and Syringa are also volunteers for the Blaine County Search and Rescue. With skis, skins, food and water readily packed in the back of their truck, they are always on call and always available, on the mountain or in the backcountry.