COPPER MOUNTAIN — One of the most loyal members of the Copper Mountain ski patrol is a 4-year-old with big floppy ears, beautiful golden hair and a penchant for tumbling onto his back to roll around in the snow before work.
He’s a golden retriever named Mason, and he’s one of Copper’s five trained avalanche rescue dogs.
Mason spends his days hanging out in the ski patrol’s on-mountain “duty stations,” listening to classic rock on Sirius XM Satellite Radio with his co-workers — human and canine — until it’s time to practice his avalanche rescue skills. He’s a shameless camera hound, and when a visitor shows up, he doesn’t wait for an introduction. He immediately walks over and licks hands.
When his handler leaves the duty station to make a run on the mountain, Mason goes to a window to watch her put on her skis. When she skis off, he curls up on a chair and takes a nap. It’s a patrol dog’s life.
Mason enjoys practicing his skills because he thinks he playing, but it’s a very serious responsibility. Ski area patrollers spend a lot of time mitigating avalanche risk, so slides within area boundaries are extremely rare, but patrollers and their avalanche dogs are sometimes called into the backcountry by county sheriffs to assist on search-and-rescue missions.
That happened this week near Telluride, when two avalanche dogs and their handlers joined a search outside the ski area that eventually turned up the body of a Telluride man, Colorado’s fifth avalanche fatality this winter.
Many of Colorado’s ski areas employ dogs to work on the ski patrol, to be mascots or both. They help give the patrol a human face by giving it a canine one, too. Meka, a black Lab avalanche dog who works at Aspen Highlands with patroller Lori Spence, loves to sing. Meka especially enjoys howling like a hound dog to “Ooh La La” by the Faces when Spence’s husband plays it on the guitar.
Loveland Ski Area has two avalanche dogs, but its most popular canine character is Parker the Snow Dog. He’s a 6-year-old Bernese mountain dog who serves as the area’s mascot, greeting guests in the base area and traveling to Denver for ski shows.
Then there’s Powder the Safety Dog at Steamboat, a 2-year-old Saint Bernard who roams the base area greeting guests and posing for pictures while promoting mountain safety. He thinks he’s more popular than Steamboat icon Billy Kidd.
Mason interacts with the public at Copper Mountain, too.
“He has this big smile, and he rolls in the snow at the bottom of lifts every morning,” said his handler, Abby Seymour. “A lot of times people will be walking by and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, is this his first time out this season?’ It’s like, ‘No, this is every day. He’s really excited and happy to be here.’ He just loves the snow.”
Visitors often stop by patrol duty stations asking if they can meet an avalanche dog.
“They have heard of avalanche dogs, so they come in thinking they can meet a friendly dog like Mason,” Seymour said. “A lot of times, that turns into me talking to the kids like, ‘Hey, do you know what an avalanche dog does? Do you know what an avalanche is?’ ”
The primary training exercise for avalanche dogs involves burying people posing as victims for them to find, then letting the dogs use their acute sense of smell to find the people.
“The human scent percolates up through the snow, and they are trained to find the most concentrated human scent that they can,” Seymour said. “I have heard of a dog who found someone buried 15 feet down through the snow.”
When it’s time for a training exercise, Seymour takes Mason to the general area where someone is buried. She asks Mason, “Are you ready to go to work?” Then she issues a command: “Search!” Off he goes.
After he finds the buried person and digs him out, which takes only a few seconds, Mason and the “victim” play tug-of-war with a dog toy or some sort of cloth Mason can wrap his teeth around.
“Basically it’s a big game for him,” Seymour said. “Playing the game tug is really what motivates him. It’s like the ultimate fun thing for him. He knows, ‘When I find this person, I get to play the best game ever.’ ”
Still, it’s an important skill to practice.
“I liken it to a soccer team where you don’t just show up for the game and expect to perform, you have to train in between (games) and keep those skills up,” Seymour said. “We try and do something every day.”
While Seymour is Mason’s handler and they live together at Copper and walk to work five days a week, she is not his owner. Mason used to belong to Copper patroller Chris Gray, who died suddenly in August of 2017 due to an undiagnosed heart condition. Mason’s ownership passed to Gray’s parents, who live in Breckenridge.
“They are very supportive of Mason and the program,” Seymour said. “They know Mason loves to work. We do go and see the Grays pretty much once a week and have dinner with them so they can spend time with him and he can see them, because obviously he loves them and they are his family, too.”
At the end of the day, patrollers “sweep” the mountain, checking trails to make sure there isn’t an injured skier nobody noticed during the day and that nothing else is amiss. It might be Mason’s favorite part of the day, and he likes to sprint down the mountain.
“Sometimes on the flats we’ll race and he’s keeping up with me as fast as I can go. He knows the sweeps almost better than I do,” Seymour added.
He’s apt to take a moment to roll around in the snow when the opportunity presents itself, too.