DEC 14, 2022
Avalanche Rescue Dogs
by Brooklyn Bacon
Used around the world, avalanche rescue dogs are highly trained, undergoing a minimum of two years of training before attempting a validation exam. Utilizing their hunter and prey instinct to locate people, the dogs are extremely beneficial in situations of unwitnessed avalanches, where the number of victims may be unknown.
In Canada, the CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) is in charge of the training, testing, and certifying of teams. After meeting all prerequisites, but before official training begins, teams composed of one handler and one dog, are required to attend a two day spring assessment. It is here that teams are assessed for suitability with each other and the rescue line of work. Confidence and a desire to please is essential in dogs as it drives their inclination to search. Any signs of aggression towards humans or other dogs is not accepted and the team will be denied, regardless of the dogs searching ability.
While there isn’t a specific breed required for the program, purebreds with a hunting or herding background, or those able to withstand the cold, do tend to excel. The dogs need to be very friendly and love people, strangers, and friends alike. Being frequently around people, there can be no risk of biting even in startling situations such as getting hit by a ski school student. Often, St. Bernard’s are first to come to mind when thinking of avalanche rescue. While known for being the first avalanche rescue dogs, they were actually bred for protecting livestock in the alps. Their massive size also isn’t conducive to fitting into helicopters.
Not every dog gets accepted into the program and makes it through training. If starting from puppies, (6 months to 2 years old) full training can take up to two or three years and must be maintained on a consistent and regular basis through CARDA afterwards. Handlers are expected to spend lots of time with their dogs to develop a strong bond, help imprint the dogs search drive, instill confidence, and acclimatize the dog to the work environment.
The Training Process
1. Potential Team in Training
This is valid for 18 months and involves attending a mandatory spring course to assess and potentially result in recommendation of the team to winter training.
2. Team in Training
Valid for 12 months, this level can include potential teams training after they pass the spring assessment or, previously validated handlers with new dogs. This step involves attending the winter training course.
3. Avalanche Rescue Dog Team
Valid for 12 months, this includes teams that have been in training for one year or previously validated handlers with new dogs. This step Involves passing the validation exam.
4. Senior Avalanche Rescue Dog Team
Valid for 12 months, this opportunity is given to teams that demonstrate advanced abilities in complex search situations and who’s handlers have shown expertise in all areas of avalanche rescue.
Teams must be validated to be considered operational. New teams must complete two winter training sessions before a validation opportunity is given. The exception being new dogs with previously validated handlers only need to pass one winter training session. Re-validation must be done within 12 months of previous validation and a winter training session must be done every two years. The Validation Test involves a search problem, obedience test, and a backcountry ski test for assessing the handlers ability and competence in avalanche terrain. This is a week-long evaluation and tests are only done when the handlers are deemed ready.
Spring and Winter Courses
The spring course is used to assess if a handler and dog will be a good team and perform well in avalanche rescue. The dogs are mainly tested for their hunting (searching) and prey (pinpointing) drive.
The winter course has handlers attend lectures and general meetings where they learn to read their dogs body language and the best way to reward them. The dogs and handlers are then trained how to work together to search for people under snow and the basics of winter travel together. This is where the dogs are taught how to use their hunting drive as opposed to being tested for it like in the spring course. As the week goes on, situations are made more difficult by increasing the time between having someone hide (these people are called a quarry) and the dog being sent to search. Eventually the dog will be taught to search without ever seeing the quarry and increasing the amount of quarries to locate. The walls to the man made, hollowed out piles of snow (called quinzees) where the volunteers hide is also slowly thickened until eventually shallow grave burials are used for training. Overall, handlers and dogs learn to move and cooperate as a team while understanding the fundamentals of obedience. Near the end of the course, teams are shown what to expect for the validation process and a plan is made to bring the team up to a validation standard by the next year. If allowed to continue on the program they are then given the Team in Training Status.
A large problematic area for teams, referred to as “The Gap”, is the year between the first puppy training course and the second year validation. Trainers, who are on their own for the most part after puppy training, need to be able to identify and fix problems to progress training before the test. By the time validation comes around, only fine tuning should be needed with the team.
Common problems often include, not being aware of expectations, dogs not knowing how to search for articles under the snow as opposed to live people used in the courses, and dogs not being treated as working dogs. This often results in training negligence due to no hierarchy ever being established. Lastly, problems also arise from teams arriving with major problems and hoping to solve them before the test.
In order to help resolve these problems, the CARDA has been making changes to assist teams. One of these involves having the handlers backcountry ski test done before even beginning with the CARDA. The spring course has also been extended to second year handlers looking for reassessment on training and teaching regarding how to have a working dog within families has also been added. Regardless of all this, consistent training must be done with the dogs in order to establish routine. Without it, training is lost and bad habits are often gained.
Skiing with the dogs
There are three main methods used:
1. Snow plowing with the dogs between the handlers legs. (Helps protect them from other skiers and is good on long, busy, groomed runs)
2. The follow command, where the handler will advance down the slope then signal the dog to follow. (Good for steep slopes)
3. On the handlers shoulders while skiing. (Difficult but good for long descents)
The working life of an avalanche rescue dog is typically 8-10 years if starting around the age of 1½ to 2 years old and depending on the breed/injuries and life changes. Handlers need to be able to recognize the signs of aging in their dogs. The first sign is often stiffness and soreness after physical exertion, as well as having the dog become more picky about the way it moves through avalanche debris. In these situations the handler needs to learn to play to the strengths of the aging dog. For example, having younger dogs cover areas of more priority with the older one do lower priority areas.
Older dogs can also confirm areas of interest shown by younger dogs which is valuable in heavily contaminated areas. The dog’s working life can be extended through medication and diet, but there comes a point where the handler needs to decide whether to keep being a handler after their partner’s retirement. Afterall, another rescue dog does equal another 10 year commitment.
If continuing with handling, another choice is when to start the new dog. The trainer must choose either after retirement of the older one or alongside the last two years of the older dog's working life. Doing it along the last two years allows for no break in the team’s active status, and allows the older dog to teach the younger one pack hierarchy, but can cause problems due to the handlers attention now being divided among both dogs. Training needs to be completed with the younger dog while maintaining the older ones and looking after its aging health and fitness. Some trainers will wait past retirement to become a one dog family again before getting another dog. That way there is only one dog to give attention to. It can be some time before the retired dog passes though, as most have a few more years of life after retirement, meaning there will be a few years of inactive status with the handler.
Second Hand Dog Handler Syndrome
Very common among handlers, this occurs when the new dog is expected to behave and act the same as the old one. Often it's easy to forget what training a puppy was like and unrealistic expectations can be made. The challenge is getting the handler to understand that they are starting over and need to take small steps.
Training to become an avalanche rescue team requires a lot of physical and mental commitment, much of which starts before courses even begin. Both handlers and dogs are expected to meet many pre-requirements before training to ensure rescues are only executed by highly experienced teams. The bond created through the process of becoming a certified avalanche rescue team is life changing, leaving only the most passionate; and dedicated teams patrolling our mountains and ensuring that we get home safe.