Big Mountain’s Growing Puppy Patrol

Cleo, an 8-month-old border collie, is being trained as an avalanche recovery dog, the second at Whitefish Mountain Resort

By Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon
Keagan Zoellner works with 8-month-old Cleo, Whitefish Mountain Resort's newest avalanche dog, on Jan. 24, 2019.

Ski patrollers in the United States might make upwards of $20,000 a season, depending on experience, training and the market they’re working in. But Whitefish Mountain Resort newest patroller, Cleo, isn’t even making that much. Her financial situation has gotten so tight after taking this new job that she’s had to move in with one of her co-workers.

But despite that, Cleo is excited about her job, and she’s OK with her current living situation, because Cleo is an 8-month-old border collie and the newest member of Whitefish Mountain Resort’s avalanche dog team.

For Cleo, a pat on the head and some play time is all she needs after a job well done.

Cleo is the second avalanche and mountain rescue dog, joining 5-year-old Jett, who came to Big Mountain in 2015 and has since been certified by the National Search Dog Alliance.

Dogs have an unparalleled ability to nose out humans in snow and debris, and the trait has led search-and-rescue teams to enlist their skills for years. In an avalanche, the scent of human perspiration can travel through the air, with dogs able to pick it up. Dogs can also cover more ground than humans. For example, it takes a dog about 20 minutes to sniff out one square acre to determine if someone is beneath the snow. Meanwhile, it would take 30 to 40 people upwards of four hours to search that same area using probes. It usually takes two seasons for a dog to be trained and certified.

Avalanche dogs have been earning their keep in the Intermountain West in recent weeks, too. Avalanche dogs found two skiers who were trapped in an inbounds avalanche at New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley on Jan. 17. Both skiers, however, later succumbed to their injuries. Avalanche dogs were also helpful during recent incidents in Utah and Colorado.

So far, Jett has not had to respond to any incidents within the boundaries of Whitefish Mountain Resort. However, he was called upon during the search for Dr. Jonathan Scott Torgerson, who was caught and killed in a slide in the backcountry last February.

Cleo’s trainer, patrol partner and roommate is Keagan Zoellner, who has been a patroller for five years. Zoellner has also worked with Jett and his primary trainer, Lloyd Morsett. Cleo and Jett come from the same rescue shelter in Utah.

Zoellner said she was looking for a dog that would not only be good on the mountain but also fit in with her family, including two kids, ages 5 and 7, back home. So far Cleo has been a perfect match.

A few times a week, Zoellner brings Cleo up to the mountain for training. Because Cleo is so young, the training, for now, is pretty simple. Another patroller will usually hide in a snowbank with Cleo’s favorite toy — a rubber chew toy on a rope — and Cleo will sniff the pretend victim out. When she finds the victim and the toy, she gets to play.

“We train her to find people in the snow and we try to make that her favorite game,” Zoellner said.

Zoellner said the ski patrol at Whitefish Mountain Resort is also working with other resorts to come up with a training regimen so the dogs can help find people in treewells.

Cleo is also a good ambassador for ski safety, Zoellner said. People often want to pet the dog and ask why she’s at the mountain, giving the patrollers a chance to talk about avalanche safety. In many ways, being a symbol for safety is as much Cleo and Jett’s job as it is sniffing out trapped skiers and riders.

“We train for the worst and hope that we never have to use that training,” Zoellner said.