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Ava is tense with anticipation, sensing her handler Ty’s excitement and nervousness. She is intent and aware of the wind and the falling snow, turning her face into the breeze and sniffing keenly, beginning to piece together a picture of what is about to unfold on the slope below.
Ty holds her attention for a moment, then sets her to work. “Ava, search!” and she’s off. Confident in her nose and her task, she moves deliberately, hunting the scent that will lead to a buried subject and her reward. She moves into the wind. With a subtle head raise, and then a deliberate change of direction, she focuses, then closes in on the scent. She circles briefly, face in the snow to investigate, a paw here and a few digs, then one more move and commitment. She digs furiously, moving the few feet of soft snow quickly and without effort, intent on what lies below. Her reward: A game of tug.
Around 25 people die in avalanches in the United States each year, nearly all of them in the backcountry or outside of managed ski area boundaries. A person fully buried in an avalanche has a very good chance to survive if located and extricated within 15 minutes. After that the survival rate drops sharply. Rescue by a ski buddy – someone who witnessed the slide — brings the best chance of a positive outcome. In the absence of proper rescue gear and trained companions, avalanche search dogs offer the best chance of quick, live recovery.
Avalanche dogs are air-scenting dogs, meaning they are trained to locate the scent of any human in a specific area. Detecting a scent in the breeze, they seek its origin. Avalanche dogs have been taught that the scent source is often buried in the snow. As opposed to a human rescuer, a dog doesn’t need a “last seen” starting point. Nor does the dog need an article of known scent or scent trail to work from. Ava simply hunts for human scent in the air. She’s trained to separate the scent of people on the surface from that of buried victims.
A well trained and confident dog team working in good conditions can cover about the same amount of terrain as about 400 people in an organized probe line, providing a much greater chance of locating the victim alive.
Why do resort ski patrols put the time, effort and financial commitments into these dogs if most avalanche accidents occur outside the ropes? Count the ways:
The first is peace of mind. Steep, snow covered mountains present a number of challenges to ski patrols. While avalanche forecast and mitigation programs do an outstanding job of providing the safest recreation environment possible, patrollers operate with a small level of uncertainty. Trained rescue dogs, with their handlers, provide a rapid, precise response to any inbounds avalanche. Most of the time, this response simply verifies that no one has been caught and buried. That provides a peace of mind about suspending search operations. It’s not just a matter of saving time and money – searchers are often themselves exposed to avalanche danger. It’s good to know when they’re not needed.
Second, many ski patrols provide expert avalanche resources to local search-and-rescue (SAR) agencies – in most areas that’s the Sheriff’s office. SAR groups are grateful for help from the ski patrol. The patrol is often situated closer to potential accident sites, giving them a head start to the scene. In return, the patrol can call for help from collaborating agencies, for instance in the form of helicopter evacuation.
Third is public relations. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t love seeing a dog hanging out on alert at PHQ, riding lifts, bounding through powder, and meeting resort guests. Many resorts feature avy dogs prominently in their PR and social media. Everyone considers the dogs to be full-fledged, uniformed pro patrollers.
Last, dogs respond to non-avalanche searches. They’ve located and saved people from tree wells, tracked lost skiers after dark and have even been known to comfort an injured guest.
Training begins when a pup is seven weeks old. The first few months are spent building behavioral and environmental foundations, setting the dog up for the strange world in which it will exist. Snowcats, chair lifts, helicopters, explosives and ski edges are just a few of the things a dog must become comfortable around to be a functioning team member. During this time, we begin to imprint human scent and reward, starting with a simple game of hide and seek. We avoid formal obedience training in this phase and just start to teach the pup good manners.
Next steps depend on the season and individual puppy development, but once on snow, we continue the hide and seek game, now using large snow caves. While an assistant holds the pup back, the handler “gins” or teases him, then jumps into the snow cave. The pup is immediately released with the search command. As soon as the pup comes into the cave, the handler rewards and praises him. This phase could continue for days or weeks depending on the dog. Once the game is firmly understood and established, we move to phase two.
Then we move away from visual pursuit and introduce hidden subjects. The phase starts exactly the same way as the previous one – an assistant holds the pup, while the handler does the ginning. Once the handler is in the cave, a third assistant covers the cave entrance with snow blocks. At first we leave some air space for visual confirmation and easy scent dispersal. Once released, the pup may be confused, but some just dive right in, figuring out that the reward and praise require some work.
The third phase of the progression brings a significant modification: the assistant and the handler switch places. This removes the factor of loyalty to the handler and switches emphasis to the reward. A dog with high prey drive (a highly desired trait in air scent work) easily makes this transition and disregards the handler. A dog with dependency issues requires more patience. During this time, it is crucial that the handler disengage from the reward process, to prevent issues down range with find verification.
The fourth phase takes away pursuit entirely. In this phase the quarry stands in the mouth of the snow cave, doing the ginning from afar. Once the quarry is in the hole and covered, the handler releases the dog with the search command. This step should be repeated in many different locations, over multiple training sessions, before moving on.
The last phase is the final evolution to scent work. These drills are performed blind: no ginning, no visual cues. Just the dog and its nose. These drills start in small search areas with minimal distraction and progress to the complex and even ludicrous.
This is a very oversimplified view of a winter or more training a dog from puppy to pro. There is a lot of time, blood, sweat and tears involved and the patrollers and other handlers who make these commitments should be commended. Dog training involves more work for them on an already busy day, and can be a thankless process. Nearly all handlers volunteer for the extra duty and take the responsibility seriously. They train hard, ready to respond when called.
Next time you see a dog on the slope, please ask the handler first if it is okay to approach or pet him. Step out of your skis to avoid dogs getting cut, and thank both handler and dog for all they do. It’s a labor of love for most, and many handlers are on a second or third dog. Don’t forget to buy a t-shirt or hat to help the patrol keep the dog program afloat. Avalanche dog programs at most ski resorts have a dedicated nonprofit to support the pups. Avalanche dogs have to eat, too.