If you go skiing this year, you might just find yourself on a ski-lift with a dog. No, it’s not a dream, it’s an avalanche dog, and that dog is saving lives.
The winter season brings all kinds of snow fun to people and their families, but it also brings danger. There are lots of precautionary measures ski resorts take to keep their patrons safe from avalanches, but one of them is far more cute than the others. It involves the training and employment of furry canine heroes.
While avalanche dogs very rarely have to go on a search, they are highly effective when needed. This is why most Western and European resorts employ a canine staff. Time is extremely precious during an avalanche search–if a trapped person can be rescued in under 15 minutes, they have a 90% survival rate. In two hours an avalanche victim’s survival rate drops to just 30%, and in 4 hours, to a mere 10%.
Without an avalanche dog, it would take a team of 20 people with avalanche probes around four hours to search a 2.5 acre area. An avalanche dog, on the other hand, can search the same size area in about 30 minutes, and doesn’t need an avalanche probe, just his nose.
Avalanche rescue dogs, like this pup from Park City, Utah, (picture below) begin their training as early as 7-10 weeks of age. They are trained to detect and alert to any form of human scent buried beneath snow.
And if that picture wasn’t enough, check out this video of an avalanche puppy on the job.
In order to do their job, an avalanche dog must be trained to do more than just detect human scent. Part of becoming an avalanche dog means learning how to ride on ski lifts, snowmobiles, snowcats, helicopters, and even their handlers’ shoulders. Avalanche dogs must also be trained to run between their handler’s legs while they ski. This prevents the dog from being hit by other skiers, as well as coming into contact with the outer blades of the handler’s skis.
Practices typically consist of searching for hidden articles in the snow (like a wool sweater) or people hidden in snow caves or avalanche debris. In both practices the location of the article and/or person are sometimes unknown to both the handler and the dog. To the dogs, the search is like one giant game, with the biggest reward coming after they detect human scent beneath the snow: an epic tug game with their hooman.
While most people typically think of a big ol’ jolly St.Bernard with a barrel around its neck when they think of an avalanche dog, Retrievers, Border Collies, and German Shepards are far more common. While used historically, St. Bernards have been out of service on the Alps since the 1950’s.
In December of 2000 a Labrador/Border Collie mix named Keno and his handler Robin Siggers rescued a lift operator who had been buried in a pre-season avalanche for 20+ minutes. Keno was credited with the first live find by CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association), and was awarded “Service Dog of the Year” at the 34th annual Purina Animal Hall of Fame Ceremony in Toronto, Ontario. A memorial to to Keno stands at the top of Shakey’s Acres at the Fernie Alpine Resort, in British Columbia, Canada.
So next time you are on the slopes, keep your eyes peeled for an “avy dog.” Many resorts offer live demonstrations of the amazing work that their dogs have been trained to do, and often times they even let attendees participate!