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Avalanche Dog: The only Lee Canyon Ski Patrol member with four legs

(George Romero/KSNV)

It's a winter playground right in our own backyard. Lee Canyon is where generations of Southern Nevadans have learned to ski and snowboard. This year, a new team member is on board to help keep the mountain safe and she's only 48 pounds.

She's a 10-month-old black lab puppy named Lida. She rides the lift with her handler, Michelle French, and gets right to work as the resort's very first avalanche dog.

"She can search 8 times faster than one human," said Michelle.

Michelle and her husband Greg are with the Lee Canyon Ski Patrol. They privately purchased and trained Lida to help out with their duties on the mountain. Lida is bred from a long line of search and rescue and ski patrol pups. As it turns out, she's a natural.

"We've not had a program here at Lee Canyon. They usually bring dogs from town but those dogs have gotten really cold, their feet get cold, whereas you can tell she loves the stuff so much," said Michelle.

Lida's training comes as accidents across the country are making news. According to Avalanche.org, 19 people have died in the United States this season. Professional skier, Amie Engerbretson, survived her own close call in Utah two years ago. A hiker caught her entire ordeal on camera.

"I had snow pushed up against my goggles and I didn't know how deep I was but I couldn't move a muscle," said Engerbretson.

Those harrowing moments are why Amie is a big supporter of any tool that keeps skiers safe. That includes dogs like Lida.

"They are really well trained, and held to a high standard," said Engerbretson.

Lee Canyon has been the scene of its own tragedy. In 2005, a 13-year-old boy was swept right off the chairlift by a rare, in-bounds avalanche. Despite a frantic search, he didn't make it.

Veteran rescue workers know that real emergencies are chaotic scenes.

"A lot of resources, a lot of people, a lot of things going on. So we try to practice where there's a lot of people around so she stays focused on the task and she doesn't get distracted," said Greg French.

To give us a better understanding of what Lida can do, Michelle and Greg demonstrate.

"This is a game, and she doesn't get the toy until she digs and barks," said Greg.

Michelle practices by being buried in snow while Greg covers Lida's eyes. It's a game of hide and seek that teaches a valuable skill. It doesn't take long for Lida to find the right spot.

"If someone does get buried within the first 15 minutes they have a 90% chance of living... in 30 minutes it drops down to 30%," said Michelle.

While Lida is stationed at the resort, she could be called into action anywhere on the mountain. It's expected that her training will be complete by next winter.

In case you're wondering, this dog-wonder gets up and down the mountain courtesy of her human handlers, running with Michelle or riding on Greg. She's considered a Lee Canyon good will ambassador.

"This is my first service dog and I'm learning as much as she's learning," said Michelle.

Of course Lida is part of an entire team of rescue workers on the mountain who would assist in an avalanche. But she's expensive. The French's estimate they'll spend upwards of 5-8 thousand dollars getting her fully trained. If you'd like to help support their efforts, shirts are on sale up at the ski resort. It says B.A.R.K. which stands for Bristlecone Avalanche Rescue Kanines... with a k.

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