How Do Avalanche Rescue Dogs Work?

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By Ene Sepp.

Ene has worked at ski resorts in Estonia and New Zealand. Currently she works as a ski patroller in Colorado and although she does not have an avy dog, she loves to help with the training and be around the pups! You can follow her on goodreads.

When I am asked how I ended up working as a ski patroller, my answer is: dogs.

More specifically, avalanche rescue dogs!

Avalanches are something that look powerful on the movie screen. They are also majestic when seen in the real life, at least from safe distance.

Getting caught by an avalanche is something you do not want to experience firsthand.

It is incredibly hard to find a person who gets buried in the snow. Even harder if the person does not wear a transceiver.

For them, there is one last hope – avalanche-rescue dog!

What happens when there is an avalanche?

Avalanche rescue dogs or avy dogs work closely with their handler, usually a ski patroller or a member of a search and rescue team.

I have been lucky to work alongside several dog teams, get to know them and even more, learn from them!

Time to search

One of the first things I learned, was to avoid using words like “Work” or “Search” around some dogs. Those words are used by some handlers to get their dog ready for search! No need to hype the pup up when there is nothing happening.

And when they are set off to search, the dogs are honestly like rockets, flying around the snow field, checking with handler and then – alerting as soon as they locate someone. It is one of the most fascinating things to watch!

The dog is encouraged to keep on searching until the handler can be certain from the cues the dog gives, that there are no more buried victims.

Getting a call to deploy is one of the most dreaded calls for the handler, but they are ready to respond.

Being ready does not come naturally, it takes a lot of training. And of course it makes one wonder, how do you teach a dog to locate people who might be buried under meters of snow on unfamiliar terrain?

Follow the scent!

Dogs rely on their excellent sense of smell! Humans have about 6 million olfactory receptors in their noses, while dogs have up to 300 million!

An avalanche dog learns to follow human scent, that is a mixture of bacteria, hormones, dead skin, sweat and soap! Thanks to the combination of olfactory receptors and scent, the dog can pinpoint the victim in a matter of minutes.

Can every dog become a hero dog?

The ideal avalanche rescue dog is agile and has a strong hunting drive.

Sure, some English Bulldogs could be the right size, but let’s be honest, they would rather chill on a cozy couch than sniff around fields of snow.

Avy dogs I have met have been Golden Retrievers, Labradors, German Shepherds and Australian Shepherds.

They don’t have to have a fancy pedigree though. Dogs from shelters can also become excellent avy dogs if they have the drive to work and great training.

Avalanche dogs must get along with other dogs and be non-aggressive towards people. They need to be bold and intelligent but cannot be reckless or disobedient.

Training starts early

For best results, future rescue dog training starts when they are just a couple months old.

It is always great to see new puppy in the crew! Beside all the cuddles and pets, they will learn basic commands but also get used to wearing a vest, riding on a snowmobile, and sitting on a skilift.

Sharing a chair with an avy pup is always highlight of the day. If you ever have a chance to do it, do not turn it down!

Just another fun game!

While for victims the whole process is literally life or death, for dogs it is more of a game, like hide and seek! When they find the person, they get a positive reward.

The reward is usually a special toy or game that they only get after the task has been successfully completed.

It does not have to be fancy or expensive toy from pet store.

For several of the dogs I have met, their ultimate reward is handler’s old glove!

Step by step

Working up to find someone who is buried in the snow takes time. At first, an object with human scent is covered with a bit of snow and dog will dig it out.

Over time, the object is going to be buried deeper. It makes it more challenging for the dog, but they learn what is expected of them.

Time to search for a real person!

One of the ways to see how avalanche dogs work – without being caught in avalanche – is to volunteer for training, to be a live victim!

I have volunteered to do that more times than I can count and I am always ready to jump in, if needed.

What do the volunteer victims do?

Whenever I get ready to be buried, I check with the handler to see if I need to act in some specific way. Some dogs are working on tugging, others need to learn to be more vocal with their alerts.

I might grab a toy with me to reward the dog and then its time to crawl into a man-made snow cave, also called a dog hole, that gets sealed with snow.

It is not as terrifying as you might think. The caves can be quite spacious, and I have fallen asleep couple times when waiting for the dog!

Hey, I have something!

And then, sooner than expected, I can hear paws on the snow and sniffing. Almost instantly the dog will bark to alert handler of the find and then they dig!

It’s such a funny but great feeling to know that the dog is working so hard to get to me, to save me, to get the desired reward!

1-2-3, the avy dog pops in my cave and I am saved! Another successful rescue mission is completed!

Found them!

The whole process is fun for the dog. They get to play, they get rewarded, they interact with people and other dogs.

Who wouldn’t love a job like that?