Whistler to host training session for avalanche dogs 

CARDA trained dogs will also be working with security teams during 2010 Olympics

Dog and handler teams have played a big role in finding people caught in recent avalanches in Whistler and elsewhere, and Whistler Mountain will soon host a training session for them.

The Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) will be holding its annual general training course on Whistler Mountain from Jan. 12 to 16.

Thirty teams will be in attendance and the experience level will vary between beginners and seasoned handlers, according to an e-mail statement by Jan Tindle, a Whistler avalanche forecaster and the course coordinator.

Tindle said the teams will be divided into a series of different sites and put through a variety of exercises to prepare them for the next search.

“The most experienced handlers will be doing more complex problems, like bigger search areas or areas that require two or three dog teams at once,” Tindle said. “Getting dogs working together on a site, there’ll be lots of different types of things.”

There’s only a certain kind of dog cut out for avalanche search and rescue, as she tells it. Dog species such as German shepherds, Labradors, border collies and golden retrievers are a common sight in such teams.

“Really any dog that, any working breed that can deal with the mountain environment,” Tindle said. “The big thing with search and rescue is they have to have a strong retrieve drive, they have to want to go out and find something and bring it back to their handler.”

It works like this: dogs are trained to seek out a human scent. Trainers teach them by using scented articles of clothing so that they can learn to look for anything under the snow with a human scent on it.

“They’ll indicate it, they’ll show interest,” Tindle said. “Each dog indicates differently but that’s up to the handler to learn how to read their dog.

“By the dog’s indication, that will tell the handler how the dog’s on to something. (If) the dog shows a strong indication then the handler or some other person will… see if they can find somebody down there.”

That training proved very useful in recent weeks with several incidents in B.C. mountains. The body of Steve Clark was found buried in an avalanche on Blackcomb Mountain on New Year’s Day, thanks to the efforts of handler Gwen Milley and her dog Chili, a golden retriever.

Closer to Vancouver, 21-year-old snowboarder James William Martin went missing on Mount Seymour on Dec. 27. After spending three nights there, one of the first search teams to reach him was Whistler handler Ian Bunbury and his dog Hector, a male border collie.

CARDA dogs are also likely to prove useful during the 2010 Olympics. VANOC is training 10 of the CARDA teams for the Helicopter External Transportation System (HETS), which will provide backup for RCMP security personnel working in avalanche-prone terrain.

“CARDA has always had a really close connection with the RCMP because we use a lot of the RCMP dog handlers in our training program,” Tindle said. “Security’s going to be all over the mountain where, really, they’re not going to be that visible, but they could be in avalanche-prone terrain. They need to have some avalanche dogs on standby in case something happens.”

CARDA is a civilian volunteer organization that aims to train “highly efficient” search and rescue teams throughout Canada.


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