The canine factor 

Avalanche dogs are essential to winter avalanche search and rescue efforts in Whistler

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JENNIFER COULTER - POWDER POOCH Future Canadian avalanche rescue dogs were in Whistler for training this month.
  • PHOTO BY JENNIFER COULTER
  • POWDER POOCH Future Canadian avalanche rescue dogs were in Whistler for training this month.

You may have seen these pooches hanging around ski patrol huts on the mountain and sometimes expertly hopping onto chairlifts, all the while wearing a bright orange jacket. Those jackets are the official uniform of Canada's avalanche dogs, the furry responders that assist in locating buried avalanche victims.

This week 28 dogs and their handlers were enrolled in a five-day course on Whistler Mountain as part of the annual Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) training program. Three different levels of training have been conducted from puppy beginners to advanced refreshers with the majority of the dog-handler teams being local to the Sea to Sky corridor.

Indeed CARDA dogs were utilized in the inbounds avalanche on Whistler Jan.11.

But before you rush out to sign up Buddy for his first lesson in avalanche safety, you'll need to go through some extensive training yourself.

"We require a lot of training on the handler end before we'll even look at a dog," said Jennifer Coulter, CARDA Instructor Coordinator.

"The vast majority (of our handlers) have a job in the avalanche industry. We require a high level of avalanche expertise before even starting to work a dog. A part of what we're looking for is taking avalanche experts and turning them into dog handlers, rather than taking people who are dog trainers and trying to turn them into avalanche experts."

Handlers must have completed the Canadian Avalanche Association Operations Level 1 course, an 80-hour first aid certification, be registered with the Provincial Emergency Air program and be an active member of a winter mountain rescue group.

The requirement for the dogs is that they need to be around one year of age at the time of the winter course and have completed basic obedience training, but CARDA instructors are still very selective about which dogs make it into the program.

"The preference is for dogs from within the hunting or herding groups," said Coulter.

"Examples are Labradors and golden retrievers from the hunting group, we have some border collies, German shepherds and Belgian shepherds from the herding group. Those make up most of our dogs because they're a suitable size and a suitable temperament for the work. They're also easier to train and have a high drive for retrieval and playing the tug-of-war game."

The puppy training consists of a method called "imprinting," whereby the puppy learns to associate playing tug-of-war as a reward for finding their handler. The exercises start simply, such as the handler hiding behind a tree, or snowbank, and eventually progress to the dog digging through the wall of a snow cave to find its handler inside.

"We want the reward for searching to be the most high value thing in the dog's life," said Coulter.

"They soon learn that if they use their nose to find human scent, they get to play this tug-of-war game. That's the basis of all the rest of our search work."

If successful in the winter course, the puppies will graduate to "In Training" status and return the next year to try out for official CARDA certification. Once validated, all dogs must return every year into the advanced group and continue their professional development in order to stay certified. While not all dogs make the cut, careful selection of candidates — both human and canine — ensures that most teams pass the required standard for CARDA.

In real rescue scenarios, avalanche dogs rarely have the opportunity to retrieve live victims. The response time can vary from minutes to hours depending on where the incident takes place, but the travel time for handler teams is often outside the 15 minute window of survival for buried victims. However, in December 2000 at Fernie Ski Resort, Robin Siggers and his dog Keno carried out the first live recovery by a dog team in Canadian history and validated CARDA's purpose. Dogs have since remained an integral part of avalanche rescue, both inside and outside the boundaries of ski resorts.

Many responses by dog teams in resorts are to clear sites. The aim is to make sure that in a case where an avalanche has already occurred, but it is unclear if there is human involvement, that no one is left behind.

Ski Patrol will perform transceiver and Recco searches immediately, but a dog team will usually be called in to make doubly sure there is no human buried in the slide. That means the dog can be working for a long time in the field with no reward.

"We want the dog to be always thinking, 'if I work a little harder and hang in there when the conditions are tough, I'll get to play that game,'" said Coulter.

"We're not looking to put our dogs in harm's way, but we do have to ask them to work when they're uncomfortable, sometimes in really tough conditions. We're asking them to brave really high winds, freezing temperatures, avalanche bombs going off and helicopters landing and taking off. There are dogs that just aren't interested when the conditions get that tough, but those dogs generally don't make it through our program."

For more information on the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association go to www.carda.ca.

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