Picture a mountain rescue dog, and the traditional image is a faithful St. Bernard plodding valiantly into a blizzard to bring relief and a welcome tot of brandy to avalanched skiers and stormbound winter travellers.
But the fact is, St. Bernards have had only limited employment as rescue dogs. Breeds such as German Shepherds, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers are the dogs of choice for mountain rescue teams.
So it was that I found myself looking up into the friendly, panting face of Lily, a Golden Retriever cross who had come to rescue me from an “avalanche” on the slopes of Fernie Alpine Resort in British Columbia.
I’d been buried in the snow as part of an exercise for the resort’s ski patrol team, and it was Lily’s task as one of the team’s avalanche rescue dogs to both find me and dig me out as fast as possible.
In a real rescue situation, an avalanched skier would be grateful to have a trained dog such as Lily on hand. An avalanche dog can search one hectare (2.5 acres) in approximately 30 minutes, while 20 humans using avalanche probes would take around four hours to cover an equivalent area.
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The speed with which an “avy dog” locates an avalanche victim is absolutely vital, since around 90 percent of avalanche victims will survive if recovered in the first 15 minutes after burial, provided they haven’t suffered fatal trauma. This drops to 30 percent after a half-hour and just 10 percent after two hours.
The dog searches for “pools” of human scent — if still conscious, the buried victim will give off especially strong scent, as he is highly likely to be panicking and even sweating despite the cold. The odor rises up through the snowpack before being carried away on the breeze, and when a dog finds a potential scent, she’ll bury her snout and head into the snow to try to locate it more accurately. If the scent intensifies, the dog will start to dig, and human rescuers will come along and assist with shovels; if the scent becomes weaker, the dog will work outward from the area to try to locate a stronger scent.
As Lily’s handler, Kirk Gutzman, told me before the exercise, “The tricky part as a handler is to be able to recognize if your dog is interested in a spot because there’s someone buried beneath it, or has just found a surface scent — for instance, where a fellow rescuer may have fallen over and put some human scent on the snow surface.”
Kirsty Morris, a friend I was skiing with while in Fernie, had hung around to watch the free show. She told me what had been happening on the surface as I tried to keep warm in a snow hole dug especially for the exercise.
Lily had been brought to the scene of the “avalanche” at high speed on Kirk’s snowmobile, and as soon as it stopped, “she jumped off, sniffed the air for a few seconds and then headed almost straight toward where you were buried,” said Kirsty. “After a bit of sniffing around in the general area of the snowhole, she then homed in on you and started digging — the whole thing took less than a minute.”
Happy as I am to see her, Lily isn’t really that interested in me — it’s the sweater that I’ve taken down the hole with me that she’s after, and the game of tug-of-war we have with it as a reward for her efforts.
Lily has learned to track the scent of the human clutching the sweater, since in a real-life avalanche she would be searching for similar odors given off by a buried victim. She will do a practice rescue like this twice a week throughout the winter.
It was after seeing an avalanche rescue dog in action at Fernie that Kirk was encouraged to get into “avy dog” work. “The first successful avalanche dog rescue in Canada took place here in Fernie in 2000, when a buried skier was dug out alive thanks largely to the work of the dog,” says Kirk. “I was a member of the ski patrol team at the time. I got Lily a couple of years later with the intention of working her as an avy dog, and at two months old she began her training.”
Kirk went on to explain that for puppies, all the training is based on praise — obedience training doesn’t begin until a dog is a year old. When Lily was eight months, she and Kirk attended a weekend assessment course with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), where trainers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assessed dogs for their suitability.
Lily was deemed to have the right stuff, so there followed more training and eventually a weeklong winter course involving everything from recognizing human scents to learning to ride on ski lifts and snowmobiles and in helicopters.
Lily and Kirk successfully completed the works to become a “team in training” for a full year, followed by another weeklong winter course, which they passed to become a fully certified avalanche rescue dog team and validated members of CARDA. “So as you can see, it’s actually taken us quite a long time to come and rescue you!” laughed Kirk.
During the ski season, Fernie’s rescue dogs travel to work with their owners bright and early every morning, hitting the slopes well before the first skiers of the day arrive. Their kennels sit on the mountain at an elevation of over 6,000 feet. Ready to go into instant action, they will always be called out to any avalanche on the ski hill, irrespective of whether anyone is thought to have been buried or not.
Naturally enough, Fernie’s avalanche dogs are a popular feature of the local ski scene and receive a lot of attention when they’re on duty — after all, it’s not every day you see a dog riding along on a ski lift. They’re discouraged by their handlers from letting this go to their heads, though, because when all’s said and done, the avy dogs, unlike most of the people they meet every day, are in the resort to do a job. Their work is becoming more and more important as increasing numbers of skiers and boarders head away from groomed trails and “out of bounds” into potential avalanche terrain.