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A ruff, ruff life

St. Bernard puppy Heidi joins the Timberline team

The newest employee at Timberline Lodge is rolling around in a snow bank. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - At 11 weeks old, Heidi is the most recent St. Bernard to join the staff at Timberline Lodge. She joins four-year-old Bruno as a greeter and ambassador for the lodge.

No one seems annoyed. No one even seems surprised. And it’s not because this particular staffer is enjoying special privileges or perks.

It’s simply because she’s so darn cute. Cute, as in pull out your cell phone and take a picture. Cute, as in get down on your tummy so you can have a closer look. Cute, as in completely forget why you came to Timberline.

“She is so stinking adorable. I can’t even handle it,” said Heather Balogh-Rochfort of Denver, who was visiting the lodge last week. “I’m never going to ski today. I’m just going to want to play with puppies all day.”OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Heidi (left) and Bruno spend their days at Timberline Lodge greeting guests and spreading goodwill in the historic lodge on Mount Hood.

But this isn’t just any ordinary puppy.

At 11 weeks old, Heidi is the latest in a long and distinguished line of St. Bernard puppies to pad through the halls of the historic Mount Hood ski resort. Part proud mascot and part gentle ambassador, the breed has been a part of the Timberline story since the lodge’s 1937 founding. For a time, huskies took over the role, but popular demand brought back the St. Bernards in the 1960s. A tradition developed of calling the dogs Heidi and Bruno, and Timberline’s newest Heidi is believed to be the 11th of her name.

Longtime Timberline staff members Leslie and Scott Skellenger have taken on the task of being Heidi’s caregivers. Wes Gagnon, the lodge’s food and beverage director, cares for Heidi’s 120-pound co-worker, 4-year-old Bruno.

Little Heidi may technically be one of the hotel’s mascots, gracing Timberline marketing materials and social media pages, but to the Skellengers, the attachment goes far deeper.

“We’re excited and we’re blessed,” said Scott, Timberline’s assistant general manager. “She becomes one of our family.”

Self-described “dog people,” the couple has four other canine companions, three of which are rescue dogs. The Skellengers have also cared for two previous Heidis, including one they raised from puppyhood. Their first Heidi was a St. Bernard who retired from the hotel during an era when the dogs remained on the property at all times. Management began to rethink that approach in the mid-1990s as the resort’s popularity grew, realizing how constant exposure to the public could be overwhelming for the dogs.

As a solution, they turned to veteran lodge employees such as the Skellengers to help create a healthier, happier environment for the dogs. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Leslie and Scott Skellenger work at Timberline and are serving as Heidis caregivers; she is the third Heidi the couple has hosted.

Now, the dogs have schedules that mirror their two-legged caregivers, coming to work with them in the morning and heading home again with them at night. While on property, Heidi and Bruno cozy up in the offices of their respective caregivers, appearing on occasion to spread a bit of mountain cheer. When that happens, expect to hear a chorus of oohs and awws, followed by a shuffling stampede of ski boots and the rapid firing of camera phones.

“The dogs carry such an air,” Scott said. “They’re magnets.”

On a recent snowy day, Bruno and Heidi said a brief hello to guests who were gathered around Timberline’s roaring fireplaces. Bruno donned a whiskey barrel on his collar, a prop that pays homage to the old story about St. Bernards carrying liquor through treacherous mountain passes to revive snowbound travelers.

Unimpressed with this nod to her ancestors’ heroism, Heidi chewed on her barrel.

“They just make you want to hug them,” said Lisa Rowan of Portland as she watched the doggy duo in action.

Hugs will certainly be in Heidi’s future, but a major part of the Skellengers responsibilities are making sure that Heidi’s time at the lodge is as high quality as possible – for everyone, including the guests.

There are certain pressures that come with exposure to a public place, such as loud and unexpected noises. And unfortunately, not all visitors are dog-savvy. It’s not uncommon for guests to grow boisterous around the dogs, pet them vigorously or to put their faces squarely into the dogs’ muzzles. These are the sorts of stressful situations that rule out a rescue dog for the role, Leslie explained, and she has developed a few a polite phrases to remind guests about how to be thoughtful around Timberline's furriest staffers. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Everywhere she goes Heidi attracts a lot of attention from Timberline guests. Here, Leslie Skellenger holds Heidi as teenage guests snap photos.

“We love the fact that she gets to come here and provide all these memories for people, but at the same time she has to be cared for so she can be successful at her job,” Leslie said.

As Heidi grows, she will find fresh ways to fit into a time-honored heritage. Through the years, the dogs have been called upon to lend their alpine look to photo and film shoots. They’ve helped pop the question to unsuspecting brides-to-be, with engagement rings tied to their collars. Now, the hotel is trying out a new program where guests can even snowshoe with the dogs.

“Some people have been coming back here for years and have seen the dogs,” Leslie said.

“That’s their memory,” Scott said.

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