Maverick the dog

Search and Rescue: Hard Working German Shepherd Learning the Ropes on the Mountain

By Jordan Nailon / jnailon@chronline.com

WHITE PASS — Observant skiers and snowboarders at White Pass Ski Area will notice a new set of tracks crisscrossing the mountainside for the foreseeable future. That’s because Maverick the Avalanche Dog has recently joined the Pro Patrol rescue team.

Maverick is a 7-month-old purebred German Shepherd owned by Pro Patrol team member Michael Hildebrand.

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Michael Hildebrand and his canine companion Maverick sit on a ski lift Monday afternoon at the White Pass Ski Area.

Jared Wenzelburger / jwenzelburger@chronline.com

Hildebrand, of Yakima, says he had to convince his girlfriend to let him get the dog but it has been fairly easy sledding since then.

“We plan on getting Maverick certified, and I’ll get certified as his handler as well. We’ll do most of the on-the-hill training,” said Hildebrand, who noted that Maverick’s training will take two years.

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Michael Hildebrand and his canine companion Maverick rest after a run Monday afternoon at the White Pass Ski Area.

Jared Wenzelburger / jwenzelburger@chronline.com

According to Ski Patrol Director Chris Talbot, the last time that White Pass had its own avalanche search and rescue dog was in the early 1990s. Even then, that dog was never fully trained and never completed its certification.

Hildebrand says he was inspired to take on the responsibility of owning, training and working with Maverick after he noticed that most other regional ski areas already had their own avalanche dogs on duty.

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Michael Hildebrand and his canine companion Maverick sit inside the new Ski Patrol Lodge Monday afternoon at the White Pass Ski Area.

Jared Wenzelburger / jwenzelburger@chronline.com

“I figured, ‘Why don’t we have a dog?’ Plus, I just think it’s great to have dogs up on the mountain,” said Hildebrand. “On weekends and holidays it can get crazy. People just love coming up to say hi.”

One area where Hildebrand has already found a helping hand with his fledgling rescue pooch is with Maverick’s veterinary care. Volunteer ski patrol member and veterinarian Ken Lust has donated his services at Summitview Cowiche Veterinary Clinic in Yakima County in order to keep Maverick in great condition.

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Maverick, the avalanche rescue dog, sits in the snow Monday afternoon at the White Pass Ski Area.

Jared Wenzelburger / jwenzelburger@chronline.com

Those veterinary services came in handy last week when a slipup with another handler on the slopes slashed Maverick’s hind leg all the way to the bone and required five stitches. On Monday, Maverick was outfitted with a bandage but otherwise appeared no worse for the wear as he eagerly pulled Hildebrand around the slopes.

While Maverick has already proven to be a hit with the masses, his handlers at the Ski Patrol are quick to remind visitors that he is in fact a working dog. It’s just that he prefers to work for snowballs and kibble instead of cold hard cash.

“We try to cause all the avalanches so other people don’t cause them,” said Hildebrand, who noted the use of explosives and top ridge ski cutting as typical methods for triggering intentional avalanches.

Despite those efforts, avalanches are still a very real threat on the mountainside. Just last year, a man was killed in an avalanche after adventuring just outside of the ski area boundaries.

“He’s another tool to help look for people,” said Hildebrand. “They say these dogs can pick up human scent 10 feet under snow.”

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Michael Hildebrand is led on skis by Maverick Monday afternoon at the White Pass Ski Area.

Jared Wenzelburger / jwenzelburger@chronline.com

Talbot noted that time is the most critical factor working against a person caught up in an avalanche.

“If you can make it to them within 15 minutes, they’ve got a pretty good chance of making it. After that, the chances go down dramatically,” said Talbot, who has served as Ski Patrol director since 2004. “But Maverick can cover a lot more ground than us, which is good when time is of the essence.”

Hildebrand says that the first few weeks of working with his new partner has been an adventure in both learning and patience. They are slowly becoming familiar with each other’s tendencies when traversing the slopes, and Maverick has even gotten the hang of hopping on the mechanical ski lift for a ride toward the summit.

“We’re learning every day and so is he,” said Hildebrand. “Mainly it’s just learning how much patience you have to have with the dog all day, every day.”

Hildebrand explained that his avalanche dog education work extends beyond himself as he’s working to make sure multiple Pro Patrol employees and Ski Patrol volunteers are comfortable working with Maverick so that he’s always ready to be deployed. He admits that he’s also having to convince some folks of Maverick’s merits along the way.

“Not everyone around here is a big believer in using him as a tool, but I’m trying to spread the world and get people to know that their noses really do work,” said Hildebrand. “Besides, it’s pretty great to be able to bring your dog to work every day.”

Keep up with Maverick’s snow adventures on Instagram by following his personal account, @mavy_the_avy_dog.

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Michael Hildebrand leads Maverick Monday afternoon at the White Pass Ski Area.

Jared Wenzelburger / jwenzelburger@chronline.com