'Brave and Friendly' Golden Retriever Puppy Training to Become Avalanche Rescue Dog in Alaska

Stormy the golden retriever is playing hide-and-seek and riding chairlifts to start her avalanche rescue dog training at Alyeska Resort in Alaska

golden retriever puppy learning to be avalanche dog
Photo: Sam Kikuchi

A golden retriever puppy is bringing smiles and safety to a resort in Alaska.

Four-month-old Stormy is training to be an avalanche rescue dog at Alyeska Resort in Girdwood, Alaska. To help keep its 1,610 skiable acres as safe as possible for guests, Alyeska Resort has a dog team that can quickly sniff out individuals that get lost or buried in snow.

"Avalanche rescue dogs have a long history of increasing safety margins at ski resorts around the world. These trained rescue dogs are able to clear an avalanche path of human scent quickly and effectively," Ben Napolitano, the resort's mountain communications manager, told PEOPLE.

"Dogs are able to enhance our ability to find buried victims by using their noses to search for any scent coming from under the snow. They are able to clear an area in a matter of 15-20 minutes, which would take a human-powered search multiple hours," he added.

Last year the resort started looking for a new puppy for their rescue dog team and found a perfect match in Stormy. The canine is a purebred golden retriever from Ridgecrest, California, and comes from a line of goldens with working dog positions.

golden retriever puppy learning to be avalanche dog
Sam Kikuchi

While some may be shocked by the transition from California sun to the snow and cold of Alaska, Stormy embraced it with open paws.

"Stormy is strong, brave, and friendly. She isn't afraid to try new things or meet new people, and she loves to learn. She is highly motivated for food, which makes training her easy. She is full of energy and loves to work no matter what the weather is doing or what the conditions are like," Cody Burns — Stormy's caretaker and trainer — said, adding that "she has the best nose out of any puppy I've worked with."

Since Stormy is still young, Burns' training sessions with the pup focus on mastering basic obedience and skills first, so he and Stormy have a strong foundation to build off as they progress to more complicated work.

golden retriever puppy learning to be avalanche dog
Sam Kikuchi

"We practice search exercises every single morning, and then we load the chairlifts later in the day. We try to make a visit to each patrol station on the mountain, where she has a kennel to keep her warm and dry," Burns said of a typical day with Stormy.

"We also train to ride on snowmachines for quick transport around the base area. The goal right now is basic obedience and getting her used to traveling around the mountain in as many ways as possible," he added.

Right now, Stormy's rescue practice is mostly playing educational games of hide-and-seek.

"Stormy's favorite part of each day is training, which probably feels more like play than work to her. We practice basic hide and seek exercises that we call "runaways." I have another patroller hang on to her harness while I get her as excited as possible with her favorite toy. While she is all riled up, I quickly run and hide behind the corner of a building or behind an object while the patroller hangs on to her. The patroller releases her, and she runs full speed to my location, then she gets rewarded with her favorite toy," Burns explained.

golden retriever puppy learning to be avalanche dog
Sam Kikuchi

"We are conditioning her to recognize that her job is to look for people, and it is by far the most rewarding aspect of her training. As she perfects these easy runaway drills, we will make them progressively harder. Eventually, I will run and jump inside a snow cave with no snow covering the door. Then we will eventually cover the door with snow blocks to simulate being buried under the snow. She'll get to the point where we can bury someone inside a snow cave in an acre of terrain, and she will be able to pinpoint their precise location," he added about the training process.

In Stormy's short time on the mountain, the pup has become an Alyeska celebrity.

"We can't go anywhere without people yelling and calling her name," Burns said, adding that the puppy brings "joy and smiles" wherever she goes and loves to take pictures with guests.

golden retriever puppy learning to be avalanche dog
Sam Kikuchi

When she is off the slopes, Stormy "enjoys playing outside every chance she gets."

"She loves to use her nose to explore new places and things. Training her is a constant process, and even when we aren't at work, we are focused on obedience and skills. But to her, it's all fun and games," Burns said.

He expects that Stormy will be fully trained by 2023. After she is certified, she will be stationed at the mountain's top patrol shack, where she can help respond to any incident.

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