Pooch’s are a man’s best friend. If you don’t like puppies you should stop reading. Hell, you should check yourself. I’m serious. This is no place for cat people. (Main image: CARDA/Kim Kercher)
Our four legged furry friends are a critical part of avalanche rescue operations for both ski patrol and search and rescue, used because of their ability to identify human scent and find avalanche victims in combined effort with transceiver based search.
We did a bit of digging around at DOGLOTION (pun intended) to find out what goes into training these hounds and how they get to reach certified status.
All dogs used in avalanche search and rescue are trained by the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), a non-profit organisation founded in 1978.
CARDA began when Bruce Watt, a professional Whistler patroller, was buried in a post control avalanche. The unfortunate incident got Watt thinking retrieval efficacy and together with help from Whistler Blackcomb staff and another patroller Rod Pendlebury, based out of Fernie, the two began dog-training courses in conjunction with the RMCP. Eventually, with further help from the Provincial Emergency Program, the groups crafted a training manual and CARDA was born.
Dog breeds suitable for avalanche rescue typically include ‘herding breeds’ like Labradors, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, and German Shepherds. These dogs are perfect because they are intelligent and of a suitable size and temperament to be work dogs.
Pooches are trained using the ‘imprint method’, meaning they are taught to associate a game of tug-of-war with a toy as an award for their behaviour.
They don’t begin their training until a year old and at eight months they go to a week assessment course with CARDA where trainers from the RCMP assess dogs for suitability to work.  The pupps are taught progressive exercises that build toward them identifying a scent and digging through snow to find their handler.
Once pupps pass their winter curriculum they receive ‘in training’ status and go for their full CARDA certification the following winter. If certified the dogs revisit tests each winter to retain their qualifications and continue their training. Puppy handlers are equally carefully selected. Handlers are required to have their Operations Level One cert, an 80-hour first aid certification, to be registered with the Provincial Emergency Air program, and be an active member of a winter mountain rescue group. Once trained dogs typically conduct rescue exercises two times a week.
You’re not allowed to ever pat them or extend a command as they are working animals and work in a team with their handler only.
The speed at which an avalanche rescue dog finds a person buried is obviously critical, with around 90 per cent of avy victims surviving if recovered in the first fifteen minutes disregarding any significant trauma. Survival chance drastically reduces there after. Expert pooches cut this time by sniffing for pools of human scent. If the victim is still conscious their scent is likely to be stronger due to stress and sweating and well generally freaking out. When a dog locates a scent it will bury its nose in the snow to confirm and start digging. The dogs are trained to work in an outward pattern in to locate scents. They’re so clever.
Unfortunately, most avy retrievals are for deceased victims. This is largely due to dog rescue teams being located in a vicinity that takes longer than 15 minutes to reach a debris zone. Often dogs are brought in when an avalanche is identified in which it is not clear if there is human involvement in addition to ensure all victims are retrieved. In Fernie 2000, a CARDA trained avy dog Keno successfully conducted the first live recovery of a person from an avalanche in Canadian history.
There are currently three avy teams operating in Whistler, Anne Kennedy & Seren, Anton Horvath & Zeus and Yvonne Thornton & Bekka.
 CARDA (2016) ‘CARDA History’, Available at, http://www.carda.ca/.
 Vince Shuley (2014) ‘The Canine Factor’ Pique News Magazine. Available at, http://www.piquenewsmagazine.com/whistler/the-canine-factor/Content?oid=2542932.
And hey, if you’re really a cat person at the core, I guess there’s always this…