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The Rule for These Dogs: Let Them Do Their Mission, Fast!

rescuers with avalanche dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • More people die from avalanches in Colorado than anywhere in the U.S., including Alaska
  • Hide-and-seek and tug-of-war are two games avalanche dog handlers engage in for successful training to find skiers and others trapped in snow
  • Successful search-and-rescue missions depend on simulated exercises and hide-and-seek games played with avalanche dogs in irregular ways, varying in location and time spent on single exercises
  • Before handlers get a dog to work with, they train for a year without one; dog and handler teams are required to recertify annually

By Dr. Becker

Most dogs love a good game of hide-and-seek, as well as tug-of-war. That’s the game plan of “avalanche dog” trainers, who know that more than just a game, teaching their dogs the art of seeking and finding can potentially be a matter of life and death.

Keena is a 6-month-old black Lab being prepped by her owner, Doug Lesch, to be a search-and-rescue dog. Training on the snowy but sunny slopes of Copper Mountain Resort, which is nestled at the bottom of a U-shaped bend on Interstate 70 southwest of Silverthorne, Colorado, both man and dog are having a great time.

But this is a particular kind of training that involves not just snow, but lots of it, because as an avalanche or “avy” dog, Keena’s role is to learn how to get the job done as quickly as possible; Lesch’s task is to make the “rescue” scenarios as enticing and rewarding for his favorite canine as possible.

A Copper Mountain employee, playing an avalanche victim and hiding behind a snow bank, holds a tug-of-war toy that will be Keena’s “prize.”

Lesch, 29, gets Keena ready with excited encouragement just before he lets go of the dog and lets her fly down the crest of snow to retrieve the toy. Then they both celebrate with a game of tug-of-war.

This is just one “game” devised by trainers to simulate real-life situations. That way, when a disaster happens, both dog and trainer will be ready.

Training Avalanche Dogs

Lesch, who studied animal sciences at Colorado University, has been a ski patroller since 2011 and an avalanche dog handler for two seasons. The more he worked with the well-trained avy dogs on Copper Mountain, the more he knew he wanted one of his own, and dreamed of doing his own training, too.

Those training exercises involve a lot of stints in the snow-covered mountains surrounding the area. Sometimes he and his dog for the day would work above ground; other times he would be the one hiding in a snowbound hole, clutching the decoy toy. Relating his experience that led him to this point, he explained:

“When we go out on a mission, it's a big game of hide-and-seek for them. They don't understand the severity of the situation. They just know that when they find a human scent, they are going to have the biggest party of tug-of-war they've ever had.”1

Soon after Lesch and his wife lost their pet Lab to lymphoma, he met Keena (then 8 weeks old). Keena’s parents were both avy dogs: Luna at Beaver Creek Resort and Max at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area.

In working mode, Keena literally keeps her nose to the ground. As soon as she successfully finds one toy, she’s ready for the next one, along with the inevitable “It’s mine; no, it’s mine” game.

Exercises for Keena, as well as other avalanche dogs, involve other contests of hide-and-seek. Her next phase of training will involve “blind” versions that will necessitate Keena having to sniff out someone hiding in an unexpected location to get the toy. The Gazette notes:

“Atop debris, dogs do what humans cannot: With their noses, they sense what cannot be seen. Studies have shown that chances for survival buried in the snow drop significantly after 15 minutes, and more often than not on missions, dogs are sniffing out dead bodies.”2

Real-Life Rescue Scenarios

The Gazette, based in Colorado Springs, described some of the premises behind trainers’ methods:

“Success, handlers say, depends on play time. Between simulated exercises and live missions, hide and seek should be regularly played in irregular ways, with games varying in location, stretching for longer periods and beginning at any time of the day — accounting for the unpredictability of when a mission begins and ends.”3

Over several months, avy dogs are trained in multiple simulated training exercises, Keena is sponsored by Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, which offers certification for dogs for official missions with nearby authorities.

If all goes as Lesch hopes, Keena will be ready by age 2 to take the certification test, which, not surprisingly, involves a simulated search-and-rescue scenario, after which she’ll be ready to take on missions in areas of Colorado where more people die from avalanches than anywhere in the U.S.

John Reller, who has earned his reputation as “the dogfather” after more than 20 years as an avalanche dog handler and owner, says very few dogs are true working dogs. “Picking the right dog from the start with a high drive and focused energy is very important. Once you do that, the training becomes easier.”4

‘Training Against the Clock’

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC)5 says 275 people have been killed in Colorado by avalanches since 1950 — that’s about one person every seven years. This outstrips even Alaska, which, over the same amount of time, has seen 150 deaths.

The typical victim is a 25- to 40-year-old skilled male skier. Fatalities often take place in the backcountry although they can also occur on groomed slopes.The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) said:

“During the 2013 [to 20]14 ski season, there were 35 fatalities from avalanches in the United States — all of them occurring in the backcountry, outside of ski area boundaries, according to statistics compiled by NSAA and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).”6

Matt Norfleet, a 17-year ski patroller, who currently works with Rio, a 5-year-old golden retriever, says that one of the hard parts about being in this line of rescue is that by the time they’re called up, time is already against them.

Timing is crucial, since a half hour can make all the difference to someone buried under snow. After that, chances of survival are minimal.

Wylee, an 8-year-old border collie, can search a football-sized avalanche area in the space of five or 10 minutes, which the Seattle Times says would take 50 people with poles in a probe line to cover the same snow-packed ground.

Craig Noble, a ski patrol and dog supervisor at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows Resort in Olympic Valley, California, chases the snow from California to Chile and Australia and is on skis 220 days a year. He asserted:

“The fastest thing is a dog — faster than a beacon or echo. We respond to a lot of avalanches that don’t involve any people. But we don’t know that before we leave. We just get there and get the dogs working.”7

At 42 pounds, Wylee is about half the size of most other avalanche dogs, typically Labradors or golden retrievers, which is why Noble says he chose him. So they don’t get tired before they start working, patrollers carry their dogs to search sites, along with 60-pound backpacks filled with the shovels, probes, headlamps, water and other equipment necessary for a rescue.

Intensive Training for Both Dogs and Their Handlers

Noble takes annual classes from the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), held at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia and other locations, and shares what he’s learned with other ski patrollers at Squaw Valley and Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado.

In the process, he’s helped bring those locations’ dog programs up to CARDA standards, and says he finds it easier to train dogs than people. Every dog and handler team is required to recertify annually. Before handlers get a dog to work with, they train for a year without one.

Sometimes employees at ski locations help with training by wearing clothes from thrift stores. It’s a “generic” way to train the dogs to detect a human scent, so when search time comes, patrollers don’t have to waste time providing their dogs with a lost skier’s scent.

However, ski patrollers aren’t required to use a dog. In fact, there are six patrollers for every dog team at Squaw Alpine. For instance, dogs don’t go on the patrollers’ early-morning excursions to blast snow off sketchy-looking mountains so it doesn’t fall at the wrong time.

Reller said the first avy dog he ever worked with retired after 13 seasons of accompanying a ski team, but he still looked longingly out the window. He was eager to get out there, but physically limited a true testament of all avalanche dog spirits, perpetually willing even when the body is no longer able. “Until their last day,” Reller said, "all they want to do is work and have fun finding people.”8

That’s the level of dedication Letch says he wants to experience with Keena — himself with the knowledge that the work is literally time sensitive and serious as life and death, and Keena with the boundless, go-get-’em attitude that makes their journey together such a success. “It’s a weird, crazy cool relationship,” Letch concluded.9