ALTA, Wyo. — The most unusual thing about Otter Calder riding Grand Targhee Resort's ski lifts is that Otter walks on four legs and eats and drinks from a bowl.
Otter is one of five avalanche rescue dogs working with the resort's Ski Patrol.
Those ski lift rides aren't all that unusual for Otter, who is used to riding onboard helicopters and snowmobiles and atop the shoulders of two-legged Ski Patrol members.
Since 1993, the resort has employed rescue dogs as an added degree of safety. Most days, the dogs are never called upon to do anything more serious than complete training exercises and demonstrate their skills to dozens of adoring children.
They're trained to be able to save lives, though. In the event of an avalanche, patrollers would depend on the dogs to find people who otherwise could not be located by human rescuers.
To keep the dogs' skills sharp, Ski Patrol Director Joe Calder sleeps with old wool sweaters and blankets for three or four days straight. Then he buries the material on the mountain, outside the presence of the dogs.
A day or two later, Calder will hoist Otter, or another dog, on his shoulders and carry him to an area close to where the wool is buried. It's up to Otter, or Murphy or Burdock, to ignore the people above the snow, zero in on the human scent of the buried wool and dig it up without Calder's help.
The release command is the word "search."
"I've seen dogs working in one area hit on a scent from a mile away," Calder said. "Their sense of smell is like being able to distinguish one eye dropper of liquid in an Olympic swimming pool."
The training starts simply enough.
Patroller Jason O'Neill, who heads Targhee's canine program, said common games of fetch and hide-and-seek establish the foundation for a dog's skills.
Once those tasks are mastered, patrollers start to partially bury people in the hide-and-seek games. Eventually, they work up to the point where the "victim" is fully buried and the dogs complete the rescue blind — keying in on human scent. They never actually see the person being buried.
"It's pretty natural for a dog to dig and investigate different scents," O'Neill said. "What we're really doing is honing in on a dog's natural instincts."
Once the initial recovery skills are developed, the dogs complete more rigorous exercises and participate in training offered by North American national rescue associations.
Targhee's dogs haven't saved anyone at the resort.
But they have been tested outside the resort.
Targhee's patrol entered interagency agreements that allow the dogs to be called in for rescue and recovery operations in Grand Teton National Park and nearby national forests.
In the program's 18-year history, Targhee dogs have recovered four bodies from the mountains near the resort. In April, Otter and other Targhee dogs were involved in a six-day search of Grand Teton National Park. That effort aided in the recovery of the bodies of two skiers who were killed in an avalanche.
Normally, things are much more enjoyable for the dogs.
"The biggest part of the job they do is public relations," Calder said. "People always want to have their pictures taken, and kids love meeting the dogs."
Ten-year-old Teton County resident Gabe Fischer was among the children who attended a recent rescue demonstration with patroller Kevin Vallade and his dog, Burdock.
"First of all, humans have a 10 times worse sense of smell than dogs," Gabe said. "Burdock can probably smell all the way to the top of Dreamcatcher (at the mountain's summit)."
Gabe said he loves all of the dogs but feels especially close to Otter.
The boy said he ran into some trouble on the mountain a year or so ago and Otter was there when the Ski Patrol arrived.
Gabe didn't remember when the incident happened — he said he fell and was buried a little — but recalled Otter's name without being prompted.
"The coolest thing I like is that you know they are man's best friend, and now they can save a life, too," Gabe said.