Kirby, a 9-year-old border collie, has been an avalanche dog at Big Sky since he was a puppy. He comes to work four days a week and is highly trained. In addition to Kirby, there are five other avalanche dogs in the program and two puppies in training. They are an integral part of the ski patrol rescue team.
Kirby’s owner and handler Casey Heerdt has been ski patrolling at Big Sky for 13 winters and is one of two avalanche forecasters for the mountain’s north side. He trains regularly with Kirby-looking for a buried article of clothing, for example, or even a person purposely hidden in a snow cave.
You can meet the avalanche dogs and see a demonstration at 4:30 p.m. every Saturday night in the Mountain Village.
Q & A with Dog Handler Casey Heerdt
Why did you want to have an avalanche dog?
I liked the companionship of having a dog, but I wanted him to work-to be dedicated to something. I got a border collie because they are working animals, and they are driven to work for a master.
What is Kirby like during training?
He’s so focused when I start him, I can’t touch him. He’s searching for that human scent. When he gets the scent, he’ll look at me, and when he gets the strongest scent, he’ll paw at the ground. He gets frustrated when [the snow is too firm to] dig, and he’ll bark. Once he barks, I’ll pull him away from it, and then he comes back. That’s how I know I’m at the strongest scent.
What is Kirby’s typical day of work like?
We show up at the locker room, and I put Kirby in the kennel outside. After I get my stuff together I come out and put his vest on, and then we walk to the morning meeting. … From there, we jump on Swifty. From the top of Swifty to Challenger, I’ll run him through the woods nice and slow. We ride Challenger, and at the top, Kirby walks into the shack, walks over to his kennel, and opens the door with his nose. He is kenneled most of the day unless we’re training. If it’s a powder day we’ll go skiing. At the end of the day we’ll ski the Headwater’s Ridge.
Why are the dogs kenneled all day?
They need to be charged and ready to go. They can’t be getting stepped on, or eating off the floors in the shack. They need to be 100 percent. They can’t be tired out from playing Frisbee or with the other dogs. It’s just a part of the job. The dogs know that.
What kind of training do you do with him now?
More than anything, I work obedience with him almost every day. Once or twice a month we do article drills-someone else can take an article [of clothing] and bury it and Kirby and I can go look for it a few hours later. Occasionally we’ll do runaways, where someone runs away and they hide behind a tree or snowbank and then we start the dog.
What do you like about it?
It’s a ton of work, but I love having the companionship. I got so lucky with Kirby. He’s such a good dog, I could take him anywhere and he would be 100 percent on the slope at all times.
– Emily Stifler Wolfe
Emily Stifler Wolfe is a freelance writer based in Bozeman and a former ski patroller in Big Sky.