How Avalanche Rescue Dogs Get Trained

cardadogsPos­sess­ing 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,