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Avalanche Rescue Dogs

Gemma Johnstone March 29, 2021

The work of a trained avalanche rescue dog in winter backcountry and ski resort rescue missions can be life-saving. For the dogs, though, it’s all about it being a fun and rewarding experience.

Wondering why dogs have been trained to be involved in avalanche search and rescue work? It’s all about their noses. Their sense of smell is estimated to be 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than humans. So, if someone is buried under snow after an avalanche, an individual trained dog, with its sophisticated olfactory receptors, will cover the ground much more quickly and efficiently than a team of humans will.

Of course, every handler hopes that their dog will never have to be deployed to a real-life rescue situation, and, fortunately, some may never have to be during their career.  But constant training, an unbreakable bond with their handler, and the right drives are all crucial for preparing for that eventuality.

It Wouldn’t Work Without Those Working Drives

There are a wide variety of breeds that are trained for the job, but, if you have seen one out on the slopes, chances are, it is a dog with a strong work and play drive, lots of energy, and a desire to use their nose. Typically, it is the hunting, retrieving, and herding breeds that excel.

Heather Dent is a Supervising Ski Patroller and runs the Kirkword Rescue Avalanche Dog Foundation (KRAD) K9 training program. Currently, KRAD has two dogs in training and four validated dogs, including seven-year-old MoMo, Dent’s Australian Cattle Dog. MoMo has been with Dent since she was an eight-week-old puppy, and is her fourth dog from a specific bloodline.  At around seven months old she entered the K9 training program and has been working closely with Dent ever since. MoMo loves her work and is happy as long as she is spending her working days alongside Dent.  “The Australian Cattle Dogs are designed to push livestock across Australia for days, so they are pretty tough,” says Dent.  “MoMo’s work drive is very high and she just lives to work”.

There are other practicalities to consider when selecting a dog for the program.  My dog Annie, for example, with her propensity towards turning into a giant snowball in deep snow drifts and needing an insulating coat to keep the cold out, wouldn’t be a good candidate!

“The cattle dogs do have a certain type of double coat that will help repel the moisture, so she doesn’t really get the snowballing up on her coat too much. You’ll see other breeds where that can be a huge problem and can make a dog very miserable,” says Dent. MoMo is also the perfect size to sit on Dent’s shoulders heading down a slope when necessary. “I probably wouldn’t have much luck picking up a big Golden Retriever or Labrador and skiing them round the mountain, being five foot four inches!” she humorously points out.

Heather Dent is a Supervising Ski Patroller with avalanche rescue dog, MoMo

Photo credit: Bryan Troll

Getting Used to Mountain Life

Typically, dogs go through the validation process when they are around two-years-old.  Before this, dogs in training are being exposed to the mountain environment, working on general obedience training, learning how to use their nose as a life-saving tool, and building the bond with their handler.

“We expose our dogs to so many different situations. They ride on snowmobiles, snowcats, and chairlifts. We are running them along a ridge line with huge gusts of snow and, when it is really windy, a dog can go snow blind,” explains Dent.  “So, yes, they put their trust in us, but, more importantly, we have to trust the dogs when we are working them,“ she continues. 

The Training is All About Hide and Seek

Unsurprisingly, the main component of the training involves the dogs being able to discover the location of a human buried in the snow.  The level of difficulty is increased in terms of search area and depth of the snow cave as the dog’s training progresses. For the dogs, this has to be a fun and motivating task.  Hide and seek scent games are started from when they are just young puppies.  Once they find the person or item they have been searching for, they will be anticipating a reward.  The person hidden in a snow cave will typically be holding a toy for them to play with.  

Doug Shaw is a Ski Patroller and Avalanche Dog Handler who started the non-profit Alpine Avalanche Rescue Foundation (AARF) with the intention of supporting avalanche rescue and educational efforts in the state of California. His five-year-old Chocolate Labrador Retriever Huxley is also from a long line of high drive working dogs.   “His prey drive is what motivates him through tough search scenarios, and also the big reward,” says Shaw.  “To anthropomorphize,” he continues, “I think Huxley loves playing games and avalanche training is a game. We set up our training in a way that allows Huxley to problem solve, find the scent and pursue it. The end goal is to always have fun, move forward with training, and keep the rewards valuable.”  Huxley loves nothing more than a game of tug-o-war once he correctly sources a scent, but, for some dogs, other toys or even food rewards might be used.

The bond between dog and handler has to be incredibly strong. Handlers need to be able to read their dogs and know what their alerts are. In Dent’s case, she has taught MoMo to alert bark only if she gets a scent of a live human buried under the snow.  So, if she is just digging, it could be to find an item of clothing or piece of equipment.  If she barks, then Dent knows that there is a greater sense of urgency in the search.

Heather Dent is a Supervising Ski Patroller with avalanche rescue dog, MoMo

Photo credit: Bryan Troll

Achieving Avalanche Dog Validation

To become a validated search and rescue dog, it takes a lot of dedication and constant practice. Shaw explains that, for AARF validation, “the dog and handler must find one to three wool sweaters buried at 75cm deep (to simulate deep burial), a stinky backpack (to simulate a shallow burial), and an avalanche transceiver.”   He goes on to describe that “the validation requires the dog to work continuously without distractions for a minimum of 45-minutes. After this successful search scenario the dogs are allowed to take off their ‘in-training’ patch.”

KRAD validation is slightly different.  “We give the dogs a site dimension of approximately 150 yards squared, “ describes Dent. “They have thirty minutes to clear this site and there will be one to three people buried along with a beacon that the handler has to locate and get a probe pinpoint on.“

Avalanche Rescue Dog

Photo credit: Bryan Troll

The Life of a Working Avalanche Dog

If you have ever wondered what a typical winter’s day in the life of an avalanche dog is like, Shaw obliged me with a description.  He explains that it usually starts bright and early, around 4 am when they evaluate the weather conditions.  Once they reach the ski area Shaw says they “punch in, throw some explosives and test the snowpack. Huxley will travel with me to the top of the mountain, where he will be stationed for the day.”In the afternoon they do some obedience drills, set up practice problems for the following day, and even socialize with the guests at the resort.

The day ends around 4 pm. “We begin our process of sweeping the mountain, making sure everyone has left safely. Huxley likes to run down the trails with me at sweep, and especially during a snowstorm, he leaps and bounds out of the snow.” It certainly sounds like Huxley loves his job!

If you have the privilege of meeting an avalanche rescue dog when you are visiting a mountain resort, it’s important to remember they are working dogs with a job to do.  You should never pet them without permission, always give them a wide berth when you are on skis to minimize the risk of injury, and don’t be tempted to offer them any treats. 

Gemma Johnstone Contributor

Gemma is a writer and official dog nut. She is based in the Italian Alps with her rescue dog Annie and is currently studying towards an Advanced Diploma in Canine Behavior and Training.