Vail’s original avalanche dog, Henry, dies at age 15

John LaConte
Vail Daily
Henry locates owner and ski patroller Chris Reeder's glove during a training exercise in 2009 at the top of Vail Mountain. The dog was laid to rest on Sunday at age 15.
Vail Daily file photo

The most recognizable dog in Vail, Henry Reeder, was laid to rest Sunday, his family has announced.

Like many larger-than-life personalities, Henry was known by many names and titles — Vail’s first avalanche dog, the Dogfather, the Henry’s Hut and Henry’s Legacy Bourbon namesake — but at home, with the Reeders, he was called Hank.

The dog became a living legend on Vail Mountain for his poise on the job with the Vail Ski Patrol, where he quickly gained a reputation for being able to sniff out anyone who was brave enough to bury themselves underneath a thick layer of snow in an attempt to hide from the dog near his domain at ski patrol headquarters.

If you were there, hiding in the snow, motionless and cold and wondering if you were going to be the one who finally stumped Henry, then that means you were only moments away from having a warm lick on the nose.

Hugh Evans, an original member of the 10th Mountain Division, gives Vail’s first avalanche dog, Henry, some love before getting a picture with Vail Ski Patrol at the top of Vail Mountain.

It was Vail Ski Patroller Chris “Mongo” Reeder’s idea to try out an avalanche dog program at Vail. He and his wife, Lisa, had formed a life in the mountains together, with their first daughter born in 2003, a second in 2004, and when the kids were 2 and 3 years old, the family was ready to add another new member, but of the K9 variety.

In 2007, the family drove to Michigan and found Henry.

The golden retriever was part of a big litter and was one of the last dogs left, having already watched his brothers and sisters find families.

The classic scene where the dog adopts the humans, not the other way around, played out when the Reeders arrived.

“There were only two dogs left in the litter,” Lisa Reeder said. “The other dog was kind of aloof, wandering around, and (Henry) would just not let us go.”

The person who had put the dogs up for adoption knew the dog might have the potential to do something public facing or work-related.

“She was thinking Henry could do something with 4H, or something with the public” Lisa said.

She had no idea. Within a few years, Henry was a celebrity at Vail.

“Henry’s Legacy,” a video about Henry published by Vail Mountain in 2018, told about Henry’s experience from his perspective, with the narrator playing the part of Henry.

“Patrollers at the time could be a little intimidating, but when I was around, suddenly people became more interested in our work,” the narrator says, from Henry’s perspective. “They stopped by more often, and not just when there was an emergency.”

The avalanche dog program expanded, and now there are plenty of dogs on Vail Mountain.

“I let them know when they put on their vest, they’ve got a job to do,” the narrator says.

But while Henry was well known as a working dog and member of the ski patrol on Vail Mountain, it didn’t stop there, the Reeders said.

The dog, upon coming home in the evenings, got to work with the kids, intuiting how their days went at school, and what their needs might be.

“He was able to communicate with us so well, without saying anything,” said Molly Reeder, Chris and Lisa’s youngest daughter. “He always knew that he was there to protect Emma and me, and he was there to make us happy and make our lives special. He was so good at non-verbal communication. I felt like he could listen to what we were saying, and he understood.”

Henry the avalanche dog attracts guests atop Vail Mountain. The dog became an ambassador of Vail Mountain during his more than 10 years of service to the ski patrol.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Molly is now a senior in high school and says she had been spending as much time as possible with Henry in recent years. She said she knew the dog was special, and the fact that he made it to her senior year, after her sister had gone off to college, is one more indicator that Henry knew he was still on the job as a family dog, and his watch was coming to its end.

“He was there when my sister and I needed him, through our whole life, and now we’re kind of growing up and I feel like he was thinking ‘I’ve done my job, I grew up with them their whole lives and made them happy, and now I can rest,’” Molly said.

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