Possessing skills honed through highly specialized training, avalanche rescue dogs are invaluable members of Search and Rescue teams.
Did you know that one dog can search out an entire hectare of avalanche terrain in only 30 minutes? It would take a human four hours to cover the equivalent.
The Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) is one organization that trains and maintains a qualified fleet of avalanche rescue dogs. If you’ve ever wondered what’s behind training programs like CARDA’s, read on.
The Clymb: Can any dog become an avalanche rescue dog?
CARDA: Every member dog requires a dedicated handler who knows their stuff. Typically, handlers are members of a Search and Rescue team and already possess the first aid knowledge, avalanche awareness (by way of courses and certifications), and backcountry experience. If this matches your lifestyle, then you might be able to introduce your dog to the field.
The Clymb: What makes a good avalanche rescue dog?
CARDA: A good avalanche rescue dog needs to have a strong drive for hunting prey. From the dog’s perspective, searching for a victim is an awful lot like hunting, in which pinpointing the victim is the prey aspect. Breeds like Labradors, German Shepherds, and Golden Retrievers (or cross-breeds including these types) typically make good candidates. Since herding is a form of hunting, herding dogs can also be successful avalanche rescue dogs.
Dogs must also be non-aggressive towards humans and other dogs. They must be able to handle the cold and have a grasp on obedience commands and hand signals. These canines need to be able to maintain control in extremely stressful scenarios.
The Clymb: When does the training begin?
CARDA: Most trainee avalanche rescue dogs start the learning process at the ripe age of six to twelve months. If successful, they will typically hold their post until the reach eight to ten years. It takes two full years of training for the dog to get up to speed, and training is ongoing throughout their career.
The first step is a first year puppy course. After a year passes, the dog undergoes a second year validation. This gives the handler a year to work on skills with their dog—which is actually not much time, considering that there is only one winter season in a year! Owners need to be extra diligent, ensuring that their dogs are undergoing continuous training so that they enter their second year validation prepared and ready to go.
The Clymb: What is the second year validation?
CARDA: The second year validation is a week long, and involves a number of tests for both the handler and the dog. One of these tests requires the dog to retrieve an item buried in the snow. These items smell like humans and are buried 30 inches beneath the snow, which is quite a ways down for a dog. Training to prepare for this task has its challenges—for one, finding objects that smell enough like a human to get the dog stimulated. In training, the burial depth should start off somewhat shallow, gradually increasing until it’s a full 30 inches down.
The Clymb: What happens after the second year validation?
CARDA: To attain “Senior Dog Handler” status, a handler needs to undergo an intensive course, which takes place deep in the backcountry. This setting tries to replicate a real avalanche scenario, with all the distractions and complexities that come with it.
In real avalanche situations, rescue teams might need to camp out overnight. There can be multiple burials. There might be distractions or false-leads. Avalanche dogs will need to be able to play nicely with other dogs. The dogs are fully challenged in this course to see if they are up to snuff.
The Clymb: When does the dog graduate?
CARDA: Dog and handler teams are re-validated each and every year to ensure that training is consistent and ongoing. Validation sessions involve increasingly difficult situations, and the team is encouraged to take on more of a leadership role.
The Clymb: Can a dog flunk out of the program?
CARDA: Being an avalanche rescue dog requires certain attitudes, aptitudes and disposition. It is simply not suited for every dog. Both the dog and handler are heavily screened prior to embarking on the training program to ensure that time isn’t wasted training teams that don’t have a chance of making it to the finish line. CARDA does its best to recognize gaps in training and testing, and works to fill those to make the program as efficient and effective as possible. Even the teams that do make the cut occasionally have to drop out. Life circumstances change, people move, health changes over time, and so forth.
The Clymb: How does the dog get around the mountain?
CARDA: There are three main methods for getting the dog around the mountain.
The first: the handler snowplows down the hill (think a very wide pizza), with the dog running between its handler’s legs. Snowplowing is especially useful in busy areas, because it keeps the dog separated from other skiers.
The second: the dog is taught to follow commands and runs down the slope after its handler. This is often used in steeper pitches.
The third: the dog straddles the handler’s shoulders, with the handler doing the work and the dog coming along for the ride. This method is used to prevent exhausting a dog over long travel periods.
The Clymb: Are the dogs socialized as pets?
CARDA: Trainers determine how much socialization their dog gets, whether they are more of a family dog or a working dog. The process is not nearly as strict as it is for police dogs, but at the end of the day, they need to be absolutely certain that on the scene of an avalanche, the dog’s attention will be directed to two people, and two people only: its handler and the victim.
Interested in learning more? Check out CARDA’s website, http://www.carda.ca