Avalanche Dogs at Ski Resorts
If you ask someone what kind of dog rescues you if you’re in the snow, the likely answer will be a Saint Bernard.
The image of the strong and brave Saint Bernard with a keg tied to his neck is pretty iconic. But dogs of other breeds, including Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Border Collies, are beginning showing up at ski resorts in the United States and Canada. These highly-trained dogs are vital for rescuing people caught in avalanches.
It’s All About the Sniffer
Many times people caught in avalanches haven’t sustained life-threatening injuries. It’s the lack of ventilation that’s the danger. There may be sufficient air for the victim to breathe, but the carbon dioxide that is exhaled gets trapped and the person can die from carbon dioxide poisoning. It is essential that at least an unblocked airway is cleared as quickly as possible.
And that’s where the dogs come in. These trained dogs, with their magnificently strong sense of smell, are able to pick up on the odor the trapped person emits. They follow their noses to the place the scent is strongest and begin digging. Their human handler and others on the rescue team know where to dig and can dig the trapped person out in time.
A Lifetime Career
The dogs trained to be avalanche dog—”avi” or “avy” dogs as they’re known—are picked out while they’re still puppies. They live with their handlers. They are taken to ski resorts and taught to get used to different people, snowmobiles, snowboards, skiers, and being on ski lifts.
Once acclimated to the unique environment of a ski resort, the dog is then trained for her job. Her trainer will lie down in a low, open hole and then it’s the dog’s job to find the trainer. Once she does, her trainer will reward her with a game of tug-of-war or a treat. The dogs are always rewarded so they don’t lose interest in their job.
How They Do It
If a rescue is needed, the handler will take the dog to the general area of the avalanche on a snowmobile, chairlift, or the handler will ski to the area with the dog running alongside or even running between the handler’s legs.
Once they reach the general area, the dog will use her sensitive nose to test the air, honing in on the strong human scent. As she begins to dig, she will change direction as needed to find the strongest scent. She can find the exact place the team needs to dig much faster than humans which gives the rescuers the precious minutes needed to save lives.
When not training or involved in a rescue, the avy dogs are ambassadors for the ski resort. They mingle with the guests, and many resorts allow children to have their pictures taken with the dogs. Some resorts even have trading cards for guests to collect with a picture of the dog on one side and their bio on the other. Some ski resorts require the children to recite a ski safety fact to get the card.
The dogs also accompany their trainers to schools and other venues to discuss ski and snow safety practices.
At the end of the day, the dogs go home with their handlers to continually strengthen the bond between dog and human.
Dogs enrich people’s lives in so many ways. The valuable canine members of ski patrol and rescue teams are just one more reminder of how remarkable these animals truly are.