If you were caught in an avalanche, and you heard the scratching of a rescue dog coming to find you, you’d probably feel the same way I do. You’d love avalanche rescue dogs. At Crystal Mountain, avi dogs are part of the patrol. We currently have seven dogs wearing the cross, including four fully certified dogs, two operational dogs ready to take their certification tests and one avalanche puppy in training. They’re just as much part of the crew as anyone else. And they work for scraps. Well, some of them work for leather gloves and others work for knobby pull toys. But they all love to search.
Avalanche rescue dogs are trained to find people buried in avalanches. Monks living high in the Alps were the first to utilize dogs for their rescue capabilities, and at Crystal we’ve had dogs for over 25 years. Whenever an unwitnessed avalanche happens anywhere at Crystal,
whether a small slough below Rock Face (word to the wise: NOT a good place to stop and take a photo) or a bigger slide in the backcountry, we bring the dogs. Most often the dogs are used to “rule out” the possibility of a human burial. If a fully certified dog, such as Cirrus or Kala, says no one’s buried in there, then we trust them. They’re that good.
We’ve also used the dogs in bigger avalanches, even taking the dogs to the site of deadly slides in Mt. Rainier National Park, the Alpental backcountry and Mt. Baker, as well as one in a closed area at Crystal several years ago. With the BARK Backountry Avalanche Rescue K-9 program now in place, all avi dogs in Washington State follow the same training and certification program, allowing dogs and handlers to travel beyond their ski area boundaries and search wherever needed.
As I’ve mentioned before, when traveling in avalanche terrain, you should always wear a transceiver and ski/ride with a partner that can find you and dig you out. If you’re in a remote location, even the best avi dog still has to get to the scene of the slide to start his or her search. After ten minutes of burial the odds of survival are pretty slim. Of course, if you happen to have an avalanche rescue dog with you, the dog will most likely beat the human searcher.
Sadly, dogs are also used for body recovery. By the time a dog can reach a buried victim, it’s often too late. The value in training dogs lies in their ability to search avalanche debris in a fraction of the time it would take humans to carefully probe the scene. What could take hours, or even days, for a probe line, a dog could search in a matter of minutes. The faster the dogs and searchers get off the scene, the fewer the chances are of another slide coming down and burying the rescue team. Dogs are an essential tool in this way.
Avalanche dogs search for human scent percolating up from the snow. I’ve heard skiers joke about carrying sausage in their pocket, “just in case.” But food would most likely distract a dog, who has been trained to ignore non-human scents and focus only on those coming up from the snow. If you’re worried about getting caught in an avalanche, you should wear a transceiver and ski with a partner.
But if you’re looking for an excuse not to bathe or wash your stinky poly-pro more often, you could always try the, “I’m increasing my odds of being found by a dog,” excuse and take the high road.
Training an avalanche dog takes years of diligence and patience. People always ask me how their dogs can get on the patrol, to which I always tell them they must first get on the ski patrol themselves. At Crystal, we only train dogs that belong to one of us. We start training at a very young age, getting puppies used to the life, smells and machines of a ski area. These dogs quickly master the art of the on/off switch. When they’re needed, they must be fully “on,” but most of the day these dogs spend in a kennel in the patrol shack. There’s no whining in avalanche dog work.
Dog handlers manage to squeeze in training in between all their other patrol duties. Often handlers come in to train their dogs on their days off, knowing that the privilege of bringing their dog to work with them is a labor of love. Not only are these dogs masters of obedience (my late dog,
Rocket, used to salute me every time I whispered his name), they can also load a chairlift with ease, shake hands and wag tails with curious kids, and find a victim buried several feet below the surface in a matter of minutes. And if you play your cards right, they can even do your taxes and write the Great American Novel.
High-five Avalanche Rescue Dogs. And high-five avi dog handlers. Not only are you the best looking thing in a ski patrol uniform, you also perform a worthy service.
Crystal Mountain Avi Dogs even have their own Facebook page. They’re so very 2011. Check it out!