Imagine you’re skiing with a friend when suddenly, a slope breaks loose, and you find yourself trying to outrun it. You are fortunate enough to get out of its path, but your companion is not. What do you do? Even with the best equipment and training, time is of the essence.
Once the authorities are notified, the rescue effort begins in earnest. First responders determine whether the terrain is safe to access, and then a ski patrol team steps in to help. One member of that team is especially trained to find the human scent of someone who is buried under the snow: an avalanche dog.
Small Stature, Solid Temperament
Avalanche dogs live with their primary handlers, who typically own the dogs. Secondary handlers may also pitch in when needed. Historically, labradors retrievers have been used because they want to find something and bring it back to their owner. But other breeds may also be suitable, and herding breeds tend to do well in this line of work.
“What we’re looking for are purpose-bred puppies,” says Sara Cohen, program director of the Avalanche Dogs Rescue Program at the Crystal Mountain ski area.
In other words, they want dogs that are bred for work, not pets.
Size matters because a handler will often carry the dog when they ski to a search site or pack it on the back of a snowmobile, so they look for dogs that are on the smaller end of the spectrum for the breed. If a dog has to run to a site, larger dogs may more easily become tired and may not work as well once they arrive. Smaller size can also contribute to overall longevity.
Temperament is important as well. Handlers want a dog that prefers its person or handler and is willing to work for reinforcement such as food, play or praise. However, handlers also have to be aware of overly ambitious dogs that may hurt themselves through overwork in an effort to please. When it comes to teamwork and safety, “the human has to make smart decisions about what is best for the dog,” Sara says.
Training and Certification
It takes two to three years to certify a dog in this type of rescue work. Sara’s border collie, Piper, is a 5-year-old avalanche rescue dog that works alongside three other dogs at Crystal Mountain. In her position as program director, Sara facilitates training for both the dogs and their handlers as they progress toward certification.
“Certification and standardization of skills and training are important to assess the dog’s skill level,” Sara says.
With this standardization, they can measure a dog’s ability to recover burials (known as an “alert to victims”) within a set amount of time.
The dogs are expected to find people at an avalanche site.
“Where it gets tricky is when we know there’s been an avalanche, but we don’t know if there’s anyone in there,” Sara says. “Usually it’s a family reporting that someone didn’t come back, and then we assess whether to mobilize and initiate a backcountry rescue.”
The alert for a human scent does not differ whether the person survived the avalanche or has perished. The rescue team’s response is the same.
“They’ll shovel the person out and try to resuscitate them if possible,” Sara says.
If it’s been several days, other agencies get involved, and the person is presumed dead. It becomes a recovery operation rather than a rescue.
Working Dog Encounters
The avalanche dogs are approachable, but Sara emphasized that when they are out in a ski area, they are working, and they are readily identifiable as such. Although the dogs are trained to navigate and respond to well-meaning human attention, they should not be interrupted at work. The bond between the dog and its handler is sacrosanct, and having to stop and respond to petting is not always conducive to the mission. This is similar to a service dog, whose job is to help their owner, so the dog must maintain full concentration on that task.
When Retirement Comes
The retirement age for rescue dogs is based on each individual dog, but it’s usually between 8 and 12 years old, with 10 about average, Sara says. After retirement, because the dogs of an avalanche rescue team grew up together, they visit the ski area and still live with their handlers. Some dogs may ride the gondola at Crystal Mountain, for example, which is a good opportunity for them to connect with the public after their working years, Sara says. Otherwise, they live an ordinary dog’s life after their years of service.
Avalanche Dog Programs
There are various avalanche rescue dog programs in the Cascades including ones at Alpental and Stevens Pass. Most rely on private contributions to maintain their operations, and T-shirt and book sales provide funding. Other programs offer events and sell branded merchandise. For more information on Cascade Mountain Rescue Dogs, visit CMRescueDogs.org.
How to Stay Safe in Avalanche Country
Although avalanches are relatively rare, they do happen throughout the year, and it’s important to know how to avoid them.
“When there is a big storm cycle, it doesn’t take much to bury a 6-foot person,” Sara says.
She recommends the following:
First and foremost for skiers: Observe the signage. It’s posted as a result of the need to mitigate hazards, not to deny skiers the pleasure of fresh powder.
Take advantage of the Northwest Avalanche Center’s forecasting information, which is exceptional and can be accessed at NWAC.us.
For those who want to ski in the backcountry, take an Avalanche Level 1 three-day course, which teaches general rescue skills and transceiver use along with how to outfit yourself with the right equipment. Information about where the course is offered locally is available on the Northwest Avalanche Center website.
The BARK Collective
Alpental BARK (Backcountry Avalanche Rescue K9s) is a local volunteer group of Avalanche K9 Rescue Teams formed in 2004. The non-profit organization is dedicated to reducing avalanche related injury and death as well as supporting and providing avalanche education. The organization’s motto is: “In dogs we trust!”
The BARK organization provides training and certification preparation for dogs and their handlers in addition to training with law enforcement agencies. Standardized training allows handlers to measure a dog’s readiness to do avalanche rescue work, and raising public awareness of the risk may alleviate the need for rescue.
Ron Linde has long been part of the ski patrol at the Summit at Snoqualmie’s Alpental ski area, and he became part of the avalanche dog rescue program there several years ago after he acquired his Brittany, Etta, who is now 8 years old.
Ron and his dog trained at Alpental initially with instructors from Switzerland, and he says, “People come to Snoqualmie from all over North America and the world to train.”
Some trainers use the “Swiss Method,” which has four phases and starts with a simple “hide and seek.” The second phase makes the dog work a little harder for the “find” and encourages digging. The third phase introduces a “stranger” to the exercise, and the stranger and the handler act as a team to encourage the dog towards a hole. The fourth phase eliminates the handler; the stranger enters the hole, and the handler releases the K9 until it displays the desired alert and is rewarded.