Avalanche Rescue Dogs are an integral part of any avalanche rescue team.
Their unique talents are unmatched by humans or by human science.
Thanks to Shannon Finch and the Sundance UT ski patrol staff (and dogs) for this article.
An avalanche dog is a dog that has been trained to find humans whom have been buried in an avalanche. The history of avalanche dogs goes back to the 1800s, Swiss monks would travel through the Alps of Switzerland and Germany to their different monasteries, often times a St. Bernard would lead the way. These St. Bernards would often find fallen Fathers; soon the Monks began to send the St. Bernards out with a rescue barrel attached to their necks to find and rescue the missing Fathers. It wasn't until the 1930s that the Swiss Army began to train canines specifically to rescue people caught in these dangerous avalanches. St. Bernard's were soon replaced with Shepherds and Retrievers, as they travel well, they are smart, they have an instinctive work ethic and have had much success in rescue work.
What is an Avalanche Dog? In order to define what an avalanche dog is I want to define what an avalanche dog is not. I've often heard the questions, "Your dog can smell avalanches?" or "How does your dog know that there is going to be an avalanche?" Though these dogs are highly trained animals they cannot predict an avalanche, they cannot smell a possible avalanche any better than you or I could. The last misconception about avalanche dogs I would like to dismiss is this: avalanche dogs are not ski patrol mascots.
So, why do we use Avalanche dogs? It's simple, they are much more efficient at finding avalanche victims than we are. For example, one dog can do the job of over 150 people in a probe line. A trained avalanche dog can search a 100 x 100 meter area in less than twenty minutes where it would take 3-4 hours for a course probe search to happen in that same area and 16-18 hours for a fine probe search. Chances of survival in a full burial avalanche decreases by 50% after just thirty minutes, so in any rescue effort timing is everything.
OK, so avalanche dogs are not mascots Why are they at ski resorts? Simply put, they are there for you; they are there for the general public, the skiers and the snowboarders. In the event that you find yourself in an avalanche in or around the ski resort without a beacon and a capable partner, your best chance of survival is one of these avalanche rescue dogs.
Are avalanche dogs the ultimate answer? Tracy Christensen, an avalanche rescue dog handler at Sundance Ski Resort in Utah says, "No, they are just one more piece to the whole rescue package." A handler and their dog make up a pretty unique team, the time and the training that goes into training these dogs is countless. Generally an avalanche dog begins training from day one. To the dog it is always a game, just a simple game of hide-n-seek, it is fun for the dog, it wants to play, it wants to work. It is the job of the handler to set the dog up for success.
A rescue dog is only as strong as it's handler, they truly are a team out in the search field. Dog handlers must have an extensive knowledge of avalanches, in training their dogs they set up burial drills as realistic as possible. A basic practice drill for an avalanche dog would include one to two people being buried in the snow in terrain that reflects possible avalanche paths. The handler will command the dog to go "search" the area. The handler is paying attention to likely burial areas, terrain traps, wind direction and most importantly signals and reactions from their dog.
As Tracy mentioned, these avalanche dogs are just one more piece to the whole rescue package, but when you understand what it is that they do, you can see what a vital piece they truly are. These are high mileage dogs, they work hard, they are subjected to cold weather, running down through deep snow pack, climbing uphill, being hit by skiers, being hit by chair lifts, and running their paws raw. So, next time you are at a ski resort and you happen to come across one of these heroic avalanche rescue dogs, feel free to introduce yourself, who knows the next time you meet they very well may be saving your life.
Also see MountainYahoos.com Avalanche Training for avalanche safety courses and Avalanche Gear for essential backcountry gear.