The canine avalanche team has two equally important members: the dog and the handler. The goal is for the team to quickly locate people who have been buried by an avalanche. Quick response, thorough searching, and safety are all important elements of a response to an avalanche accident. In order for a team to have the skills necessary to safely and effectively search a slide site they need to develop a variety of skills.
Avalanche search dogs are one tool used to find lost persons buried in snow slides. Probe pole teams and transceivers (if used by the buried person) are about the only other options used to find slide victims until the snowpack melts. The sense of urgency during a search for a person buried by an avalanche cannot be understated. Survival statistics tell us that 90% of slide victims are alive at the fifteen minute mark. After 35 minutes the survival rate is at 30% and quickly drops after that. Unless trained personnel and dogs are on hand near a slide incident itís quite likely that search results will be to find a deceased person. Even though this is likely, we attempt to train with the same sense of urgency that would be encountered in an actual search, including the various distractions that may be on hand during a mission.
Training a canine search team for avalanche rescue or recovery is a simple concept that may take repeated seasons to master. As in wilderness Search and Rescue (SAR) training, the handler/dog relationship is crucial to the success of the team. If the dog isn't motivated to find people and work with the handler, training progress will be impossible. Selecting the appropriate dog for search work is an important yet often overlooked aspect of canine SAR team training.
When a handler and dog first begin avalanche training, the idea is to begin as simply as possible. The goal is to make the search problem easy for the dog and to get it used to searching below the snow surface. The handler runs away from the dog (held by a second person) and jumps into a shallow trench so that he/she is out of the dog's vision. The dog is released to find the handler. If the dog is interested in what the handler is doing (and believe me, most are!), it will quickly go to the place where the handler jumped out of sight.
After this starting point, a series of problems are set up for the team: the length of time the dog is held after the handler is out of sight is increased, then a small amount of snow -- just a inch or two -- is used to cover the handler in the trench. This gets the dog used to the idea that people can be under the snow. At this point, the training takes a small step back: now the handler holds the dog and other people are used as subjects for the dog to find.
Eventually, the team's skills develop to the point where a person or persons (multiple burials are not uncommon in training and real missions) are concealed out of sight of both dog and handler. A search area is defined and the team is released to search their assignment. It's an impressive sight to see an avalanche search dog team work a slope and within moments locate someone that's buried up to six feet below the surface!
As a team becomes more experienced, distractions are introduced to better emulate the confusion and environment of a real avalanche rescue situation. At a real avalanche search, there will most likely be many people at the site and walking around in the search area. Probe pole teams may be working, snow cats or snowmobiles may be running, people will be shouting, and equipment will be scattered throughout the area. The dog and handler must be able to work quickly and confidently in the area, ignoring these distractions. Sometimes such difficult distractions such as dog biscuits, favorite toys, and human urine are included in our training. The competent team will be able to bypass these with a minimum of wasted time.
In order for a team to be successful, the dog needs to give a clear indication that it has found
a strong scent source. This indication is called an alert.
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