Technical Bulletin #5 - K-9 Ski Patrollers: Avalanche Rescue Dogs

You’ve finished AC routes for the morning, made a few nice powder turns while raising the perimeter rope line, and finally made it back to the top station for a little coffee and snack.  You’re starting to thaw out, when the call comes in: “Avalanche!  Back Bowl, possibly 2 caught.”  A plan is quickly put together, a hasty team out the door, followed by you, with your K-9 ski patrol partner.  You want your dog fresh at the slide path, how are you going to get there?  Snowmobile, toboggan, carry, let him run?  How long will fumes affect your dog’s scent detection?  How much scent contamination will already be at the site from other searchers, skiing public?  You arrive on site, check the wind conditions, point your partner, and say, ‘Search!’  Will all your training pay off?  Today it’s just a training drill, but tomorrow, it could be the real thing.

At the top of many ski areas, it’s usually not hard to find the friendliest members of the ski patrol.  Sitting in patrol bump stations, or greeting guests at the top of lifts, Avalanche Rescue Dogs eagerly wait for the moment their handler will take them out and give them their ‘Search’ command.  Avalanche Dog programs are as varied as the ski areas they work at, but the end goal is the same: finding avalanche burial victims as quickly as possible.

Working as an Avalanche Rescue dog involves more than just belly rubs and having pictures taken with guests.  Avalanche dogs are constantly training, in everything from obedience, to riding chair lifts, snowmobiles, and helicopters, to search drills.  Many dogs will attend an Avalanche Dog School at some point, such as the WBR International Dog School, or Steven’s Pass Swiss Dog School.  Dogs undergo testing for certification or mission readiness.

Methods vary, but search training involves various progressions.  An initial runaway game, with an easy find and fun tug reward, will eventually progress to digging excited strangers out of deep holes, to uncovering a backpack thick with human scent.  Having the right reward and plenty of excitement in training will motivate the Avalanche Rescue dog to keep playing the game.  

If a dog is ready, the ‘Search’ command will have it working the avalanche path, sniffing for human scent.  Handlers are paying attention to wind patterns, trying to get their dogs downwind of potential burials.  Snow density will affect how readily scent can reach the surface, and wind direction, speed, and variations will affect how it travels.  Proper staging of gear and extra rescuers can reduce scent contamination.  

Handling an Avalanche Rescue Dog brings its own challenges and joys.  Much time is spent training, digging holes, and talking about avalanche rescue with curious guests.  Preventing and taking care of injuries can be timely and costly.  The reward of seeing your dog progress, do a deeper dig, or have a successful search make the hard work worth it.  Handlers learn a lot from their dogs as well: how important good ‘victims’ are in a dogs’ training, how snowpack and changes in winds make a big difference in scent detection, and to remember to have fun, we’re working in the snow!  

Next time you meet an avalanche dog, stop and say hi, it’s probably worked hard to be where it is!

Submitted by Shannon Maguire, Pro Patroller, Sierra-At-Tahoe, APP Board Member

View photos and brief bios of APP Patroller's rescue dogs here.

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