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Avalanche rescue dogs

John Dakin
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
A well-trained avalanche dog can efficiently scour almost two and a half acres in 30 minutes.
Special to the Daily |

The following is part of a series of articles compiled by the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum and Hall of Fame that will take a closer look at the sport of alpine ski touring. The museum is located atop the Vail Village parking structure and features a treasure trove of ski history and heritage.

Suppose you were asked to conjure up a picture of a mountain rescue dog. The image that would most probably pop into your mind first is one of a faithful St. Bernard, wooden keg attached to its collar, plodding valiantly into the teeth of a blizzard to bring relief to stormbound winter travelers.

Since the early 18th century, monks living in the snowy and dangerous region of the St. Bernard Pass, a route through the Alps between Italy and Switzerland, used the canines to help with their rescue missions following bad snowstorms. Throughout the course of nearly 200 years, about 2,000 people, from lost children to Napoleon’s soldiers, were rescued because of these heroic dogs and their uncanny sense of direction and resistance to cold.

These days, however, St. Bernards have enjoyed only limited employment as rescue dogs. Due to a good deal of crossbreeding, they have become the domesticated dogs more commonly seen in suburban living rooms than on treacherous winter mountainsides. Breeds such as German shepherds, border collies, Labradors and golden retrievers are now the dogs of choice for mountain rescue teams.

Modern Rescue Dogs

The modern day version of the avalanche dog was first trained and utilized by the Swiss Army in the 1930s. Today, many ski resorts feature a canine staff, a team of highly trained rescue dogs that use their speed, on-snow agility and incredible sense of smell to locate buried avalanche victims faster than any other known alternative.

The dogs search for “pools” of human scent beneath the snow. If still conscious, then a buried victim will give off an especially strong scent, as they are highly likely to be panicking and even sweating, despite the cold.

If the dog catches a scent, then he buries his head in the snow to find a stronger scent. If that scent does get stronger, then he begins to dig to get to the source. If it gets weaker, then the dog works outward in an attempt to find a stronger scent.

To the dog, the search is a game and one he is determined to win. Training is geared toward the dog’s desire to play as initially, the handler teaches the dog to find something he really enjoys under the snow. At this point in the process, it is easy to build the dog’s confidence, providing plenty of time to search for the object, which is buried only a few inches under the snow.

Once this has been mastered, the dog is then trained to find objects progressively deeper and farther out, in shorter periods of time. Distractions are added, including equipment, people, food and the smell of urine. As the dog learns to ignore these distractions, objects, including people, are buried even deeper, in denser snow.

More distractions are added, and the dog must also learn to now contend with the wind, different weather conditions and a shorter time limit. This intense training regimen has enabled some dogs to accomplish prodigious feats of detection, reportedly finding victims buried as deep as 40 feet in Switzerland and 33 feet in the United States.

A well-trained avalanche dog can efficiently scour almost two and a half acres in 30 minutes. By comparison, 20 people require four hours to cover the same area. Like rescue and bomb-sniffing dogs in other situations, these canines are masters of their trade, able to be airlifted with their handlers within minutes of a reported avalanche.

The dog and the handler learn how to enter and exit helicopters as well as ride chairlifts. Dogs and handlers drill constantly to be ready to respond when an avalanche occurs and, if they can manage to locate a person within the first 15 minutes of burial, then the victim has a 90 percent chance of survival.

Saving avalanche victims is only part of the job for these dogs, however. When hikers get lost, exhausted or caught in a storm, they sometimes retreat to a snow cave to await rescue. Avalanche dogs are used to find these people who are at risk of injury or death by exposure. Younger and older people sometimes become injured and are covered by snow, making them impossible to spot with the human eye. Again, the dog’s sense of smell comes to the rescue.

So, when you hit the slopes this spring, you may notice man’s best friend riding the lifts, cruising around on the back of a snowmobile, running behind a skier or simply hanging out. Take the time to give them a good pet and a hug. After all, they are there to possibly help save your life.

The upcoming transformation of the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum will provide more space and modernized technology for the museum to tell stories like this. Please stop by the museum today at anytime between 4 and 6 p.m. to learn more about the upcoming transformation and how you can get involved.


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