Search and Rescue!

Training to be an Avalanche Dog Team

By Jay Pugh

Avalanche Dog

For the past twenty years I have been a search and rescue dog Instructor starting with CARDA (Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) a position that has been both a privilege and a lot of hard work.

Often I am asked “What does it take to be an avalanche dog handler?”

The answer is not a short one.

An avalanche dog team consist of two parts—the human handler and the dog. To be a successful and viable team both parts need to be evaluated. The process should really start with the interested party contacting CARDA, or for that matter any group in the desired profile and talking to an experienced handler. As an example CARDA is looking for people in the avalanche field who are strong skiers and willing to take the time and commitment to train a dog. The candidate should ask themselves two questions: “What am I going to be doing for the next five to ten years?” and, “Why do I want to do this?”

The process of training and then handling an avalanche dog is a long one. Most dogs start training at six months to one-year old and are retired somewhere around eight to ten years old. Training is an ongoing process that never ends throughout the career. A potential handler has to understand the level of the commitment. 

Spending the time and effort to train a dog is one thing. Being in a position to actually perform a search is another. There simply is no point to all the work put into training when the finished team is not in a position to respond. The wrong answer to the second question is, “Because my dog likes it.” We do not put ourselves in positions where our dog is the difference between life and death because we needed something for our pet to do.

Aspiring avalanche rescue dogs should be between six months to two years old. Any younger and the dog hasn’t matured enough; any older and there is too little working life left after the two full years of training.

Generally CARDA as well as many organizations in the States and elsewhere prefer that the potential handlers are somehow connected to the ski/avalanche industry, because the handler has to be in a good position to respond in a timely manner to an avalanche. Ski patrollers are common, as are those in forecasting positions with other institutions. It needs to be said that the potential handler must at least have the skill to ski down any slope in any snow condition. Fitness and backcountry mileage are essential. CARDA requires that all candidates possess a Canadian Avalanche Level 1 Certificate. This is an extensive (and expensive) week long course. 

If the potential candidate meets the entry requirements then the next step is the CARDA Spring Course held every May in Penticton, BC.

The CARDA Spring Course is a three-day, five-step process that tests the dog’s suitability for avalanche rescue work. This test was adopted from the RCMP when it became apparent that too many inappropriate dogs were coming in the program. It is a waste of time and effort for both the handlers and the organization to attempt to train dogs that are unsuitable. For this reason, the Spring Course has been successful. Fewer of the candidates who pass the evaluation prove unfit later on in the process.Page-42_graphic

Basically the tests are designed to measure the amount of hunting and prey drive in the dogs. Searching, to the wolf part of a dog’s mind, is hunting. Pinpointing the victim is the prey drive. All dogs have some level of these drives. These evaluation tests determine how much.

Over the centuries, dogs have been bred for many things besides hunting. There are breeds for everything from protection to lapdogs. The ones that tend to do the best in the search and rescue game are the hunting breeds. Labradors and golden retrievers are common in CARDA as is the excellent general-purpose German shepherd. There are also the herders (herding is a form of hunting) and a mix of cross breeds. The crosses usually have a hunting breed somewhere in the background.

It surprises many that there are two distinct breeds missing—the St. Bernard and the Husky. The St. Bernards have the distinction of being the first avalanche dogs in the 1700s (Barry did exist) but were actually bred to protect herds of sheep and cattle in the Alps. Furthermore, anyone who has ever tried to stuff a dog in a helicopter can tell you a Bernard would present logistical difficulties. The Husky is bred to pull sleds. They are notorious for being disinterested in searches.

The evaluation also determines if a dog is aggressive to other dogs or humans. These dogs are deemed dangerous and are not acceptable, regardless of how well they search. They must also be of appropriate size and able to handle cold conditions. Obedience is one of the training goals as high-drive dogs tend to be difficult house pets. While the drive should not be overridden by training, the dogs must have the temperament to be controllable in high stress situations.

The testing format is relatively simple. The dog is restrained by the evaluator and the handler/owner runs off waving the dog’s favorite rag toy over their head and acting as animated as possible. As soon as the handler drops out of sight the dog is released. The evaluator appraises how excited the dog is while the runaway is in process, how hard the dog looks for the handler and finally, how the dog responds when finding the handler.

Ironically, we use the dog’s instinct to grab a piece of the prey and tear it off as a reward for finding a person. Simply put, we are looking for a wild game of tug-of-war. Long rag toys are used instead of clothing or arms. As the evaluation process continues, a different person is introduced to do the runaway. The time between the runaway and releasing the dog is increased, as is the difficulty of the search.

The other thing the handlers are judged on is their ability to give the dogs what is needed to reward them. When it comes to rewarding the dog that has just found a simulated victim (quarry) we have a saying, “If you’re not acting like an idiot you’re doing it wrong.” The handler needs to put as much excitement into the dogs as possible. Both their own and, as we quarry for each other, any dog they hide for.

In the end, it all comes down to a pretty simple question. The evaluators ask themselves, “Do I want this dog searching for me?” 

It remains to be seen how many of the successful candidates will continue. There are life changes, health issues, and sometimes the candidate finds the commitment simply too much.

For the successful candidates who choose to carry on, the next step is to enroll in the CARDA Winter Course as a “Team In Training.”

When it comes

to rewarding the

dog…if you’re

not acting like

an idiot you’re

doing it wrong.

Terms used by CARDA to describe a dog’s performance:

Husky Search • This is a phrase meaning that the dog has

no interest in searching.

Seventy-five Percenter • This is a dog that is on the

border line. Three-quarters of the time it will do the job

but the other quarter it will lose focus. The evaluator must determine if the last quarter is something the dog will mature into or, in rare cases, can be trained into the dog.

Solid • A solid dog is one that performs all the tests well and with enthusiasm. They are fast and workmanlike in their approach.

Barn Burner • The most desirable dog. Extremely fast and

focused, they also tend to be difficult to hold back during

the runaways and are awesome at the tug-of-war.