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Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park

Avalanche Training - The Find


The Alert

The Find

The Reward

Training Safety

Once the dog has committed to digging and it's clear to the handler that the dog has a very strong alert, the handler must assist the dog. There are two reasons for this: First, a dog can really only dig for about 3/4 the length of its body before it runs out of working room; and second, while "normal" snow is easy to move, the snow that is deposited after a slide is not -- it becomes quite hard after being transported by an avalanche. Some people compare it to concrete because while it's moving the snow is fluid but when it stops it seems to "set up" just like when concrete cures.

Cooper makes a find at Stevens Pass - 62K Click for larger image: Cooper penetrates to the buried person while Dan gives encouragement. (62K)

While training and during a real search a handler must have a shovel and probe. The shovel is used to help move snow to give the dog room to work while the probe can be used around the immediate area where the dog is digging. During training it is very important that probing not take place near the buried person. The risk of injury to the buried subject is too high to justify an accidental poke with a probe. See Training Safety for more information.

Click for larger image: View from inside a snow cave. (40K)

view from inside a snow cave as a dog breaks through - 40K

During an actual search, a handler would call for help shoveling once the dog has strongly indicated it has located a strong scent source. Once helpers arrive at the point the dog alerts, the dog and handler should move out of the alert area and continue working if possible. At this point, there are many different things the team may decide to do. If there are other teams working in the area, they may be called to search the same area to confirm the find. If there are limited support resources on the search site, the handler may be involved in recovery. At this point it's pertinent to point out that it is likely that the avalanche dog team is most likely involved in recovering a body rather than a live person (ref: statistics on finds by teams in the U.S.).

Though it's likely that avalanche dog teams will be finding deceased subjects in actual avalanche accidents, it is important to train for the highest degree of urgency possible. In order to simulate the chaos and confusion that may be present during an avalanche rescue, training for intermediate and advanced dogs introduce a variety of distractions for the dog to contend with while working.

Click to enlarge image: Cooper makes a find with distractions of a photographer and people sitting over the location of the buried subject.(68K)

Dog makes a find with many distractions - 68K

Distractions may include such things such as noise from nearby people and machines, explosions from avalanche control work in the vicinity, positive and negative scent sources such as dog treats, fuel (such as that from overturned snowmobiles), or even human or canine urine in the search area. All of these factors may be present during a real search and have been documented for past searches at accidents. It's important to remember that the handler may be just as prone to distraction as the dog! For teams that are nearing readiness for avalanche rescue response, it's important to train with distractions to prepare as much as possible for the "real thing." Though it's difficult to duplicate the stress and confusion of an actual avalanche accident site, efforts must be made toward reproducing this environment.

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Text and photos copyright Dan Comden, 1995-2004 home Dan Comden
Seattle, WA U.S.A.
Email -- dan*@* (remove the asterisks around the "@" symbol)