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Ruffwear Takes Design to New Heights for Ski Patrol and SAR

Long a household name for dog lovers, the leading retailer of adventure gear for dogs has lofty goals to make life for avalanche dogs and search & rescue dog teams easier and safer than ever.

Ruffwear, a brand dedicated to making sure that your pup enjoys escaping into nature just as much as you do, has made a name for itself in the outdoor industry by designing “performance dog gear” for the everyday adventure dog. From harness and leashes to life jackets and booties, Ruffwear offers all the gear necessary to share your experiences with your furry friends up mountains, across rivers, through mud, over rock, below the beating sun and deep in the snow.

Broadening its focus beyond the needs of household dogs, 2008 marked the beginning of Ruffwear’s venture into the mountains to learn from avalanche dog teams, and has continued to foster relationships with ski patrol organizations across the country. These relationships have helped Ruffwear explore new terrain designing speciality gear for avalanche dog teams.

“Working together with these teams and understanding the vital role gear plays in their jobs, Ruffwear has been able to design new gear and update existing pieces to make the job of handler and dog easier and safer”, says Ruffwear spokeswoman Kate Ketschek. “The Ruffwear team designs and updates products to meet the needs and solve the problems that these groups face during everyday work and in rescue scenarios.”

Ruffwear’s line of avalanche safety gear is born out of first-hand experiences in the mountains, right alongside the ski patrol crews and dog teams on which they base their designs. Ruffwear staff members have attended and participated in dog team trainings since they very beginning, volunteering as organizers and participants in the rigorous courses that keep avalanche safety crews at the top of their game. These experiences give Ruffwear designers an authentic peek into the daily lives of mountain dog teams and the extreme conditions in which they serve.

We caught a chairlift with Greg Freyberg, Speciality Product Line Manager for Ruffwear, to learn more about how Ruffwear has expanded into the mountain safety market and the organizations that it works with to motivate its designs. Freyburg began working with Ruffwear in 2009 as Brand Manager, and has since taken on the dog team program while fostering relationships with more than 50 avalanche safety organizations that inspire and test Ruffwear gear.

What are some of the organizations that Ruffwear works with?

One of the foundational working dog groups we work with is the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue. They are the leading alpine avalanche search and rescue group in the U.S. Their membership is made up of avalanche search dog teams from ten resorts in the greater Salt Lake City area. Their primary purpose is rapid response for avalanche rescue, winter related mountain rescue, and medical evacuation incidents using trained professionals and search and rescue dogs.
Their secondary purpose is to educate local backcountry users in safe techniques for mountain travel, plus the equipment and methods used for self rescue in case of an incident.

Another group of hard working dogs and handlers that we have a long history working with is Conservation Canines. This group rescues shelter dogs and trains them through positive toy reward to track endangered species around the world. These dog teams are constantly out in extreme environments, putting Ruffwear gear to the test and providing us valuable feedback on product performance.

In what kinds of environments are your products being tested? What do Ruffwear products endure in these environments?

We have an extensive network of product testers and the avalanche dog teams and Conservation Canines are part of our testing group. All products are tested throughout the product development process. These hard working dog teams can often times put more wear and tear on a product in one month’s time than the average customer may put on the same gear in a year or two of use. Conservation Canines has tested our Swamp Cooler® coats tracking tigers in Vietnam. Our WebMaster Pro® Harness is an official uniform piece for avalanche dog patrollers nationwide. They are exposed to extreme cold, wet and, windy environments. We rely on this daily use and continuous feedback to make sure we are making the best gear out there.

Describe a typical day for an avalanche dog team that Ruffwear supports. What are some of the responsibilities of working dogs and their handlers?

The typical day of an avalanche dog team starts early. Arriving at the ski area long before it opens to the public and staying long after the public leave, these teams typically gear up and load the chair to the top of the mountain. To do this safely, the handlers rely on the handle of the WebMaster Pro® Harness to assist their dogs in the chair loading. It provides a secure way to stay connected to the dog while riding the chair and also assist in unloading the chair safely. The dog teams are then stationed at key patrol stations around the mountain to assure close proximity to any in-bounds or out of bounds avalanche activity. While stationed, the patrollers will conduct training drills to keep the dog’s skills sharp. At periodic times throughout the day, the teams will rotate between stations to keep them psychically fit, and mentally fresh in the event of being called out. In addition to their lifesaving training and skills, these teams often act as on mountain ambassadors for their resort. There is real peace of mind with the public knowing these teams are there and ready if needed.

What is the most important piece of gear that Ruffwear has engineered so far when it comes to safety for the working dogs and their handlers?

I believe the most important piece of Ruffwear gear engineered so far for avalanche dogs and their handlers is the WebMaster Pro Harness. This harness is the result of literally years of working directly with dog team handlers to learn what they want and need in a safe and secure uniform harness.

Ruffwear has worked closely with avalanche dog teams to determine their safety needs. What are some Ruffwear products that have been born out of these observations in the field?

The Patroller Leash. A patrol director’s wife had made him a leash that would fit around his waist when he wasn’t using it. A handler will often leash the dog up on the way to an incident, so that the dog stays safe and doesn’t waste energy running around. When ready to activate, the leash comes off so the dog can do his/her job searching. For safety purposes, the handler needs to always know where the leash is and have it ready to deploy.

The Web Master Pro also came out of Ruffwear’s work with resort avalanche dogs. They needed something professional to wear when on duty so the public knew they were working dogs. Space for patches to be sewn on and pockets for necessities like waste bags, a leash, treats and the dogs’ trading cards to hand out to guests. Metal buckles were needed for safety as well. Since the dogs are lifted via the harness’ handle onto the chair lift multiple times a day, handlers requested metal buckles for safety and security.

What interests you personally about studying the working dog?

In the nine-plus years that I have been working with working dogs, watching them do their job has never gotten old. As an avid skier and former ski instructor, I work and play in areas where potential avalanche conditions exist. I appreciate the hard work and training that goes into these teams in the event they are needed. I continued to be fascinated by their amazing sense of smell, focus on their work, and reward. All the dogs Ruffwear is involved with work for a positive reward. They are very focused and work really hard… for that they are rewarded with play!

What’s next for Ruffwear gear?

Until earlier this year (2017), Ruffwear’s focus on the working dog world has been primarily limited to the avalanche dog community. We have learned a lot about what they need and in turn, have developed products for them. We hope to take that experience and expand it to support other amazing working dog groups.

We are thrilled to be developing products for a number of other key working dogs such as service dogs, police dogs etc.—we have some exciting new gear in development! As we have done with our entire product line, we hope to take the latest in fabrics, hardware and construction techniques from the outdoor industry to build the next generation of working dog equipment. I believe this will be evident in a great new product we are in development for the guide dog community. Stay tuned for that…

Lucie Hanes