Avalanche dogs return as skiers take to the hills | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Avalanche dogs return as skiers take to the hills

While a typical Tahoe ski resort can have hundreds of avalanches per year, almost all of them are triggered by morning ski patrollers who, using explosives and rifles, clear the mountain of danger long before any tourists or ski bums hit the slopes.

But in the unlikely scenario of a resort avalanche, search-and-rescue dogs can play a vital role in finding victims.

“They are sort of an insurance policy, and fortunately we don’t have to use that insurance much, ” said Larry Heywood, director of mountain operations at Alpine Meadows, which has one of the largest search-and-rescue programs in the Tahoe area with ten dogs-nine Golden Retrievers and one yellow Labrador.

In an avalanche rescue, time is of the essence. Assuming the victim is not seriously injured or killed in the massive flow of thundering snow, chances of survival decrease by 50 percent after the first half hour, Heywood said.

Using the ability of smell, these dogs can find people ten times faster than a team of trained humans, even if the victim is wearing an avalanche beacon.

Most avalanche dogs are of medium size, because large dogs would sink into the snow and small dogs would be unable to perform the task as efficiently, said Dave Paradyse, director of risk management at Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

Although there is no one breed of search-and-rescue dog, Golden Retrievers seem to be at the top of the list.

It makes sense when you realize that training begins as a game of hide-and-seek. After all retrieve is in their name.

“These dogs have great desire to please their masters,” Heywood said.

Other popular dogs are German shepherds and yellow and black Labradors.

It takes two years to train a search-and-rescue dog. Starting as pups, preferably between two and five months old, they learn to harness their sense of smell, which is essential to finding buried victims.

“You can see them wiggle their noses,” Heywood said. “It is very exciting for the handler when the dog figures it out.”

After the dog grasps the concept of smell, the training becomes significantly more complicated. The dogs are trained to wander in a zig-zag pattern to locate the human scent, which could be blowing in the opposite direction. Wind and the depth at which a human is hidden beneath the snow both play intricate roles in the time it will take for a search-and-rescue dog to locate a victim.

The dogs detect human scent through body heat. If for some reason body heat gets trapped under the snow and is unable to escape, the dogs may not be able to locate the victim, Paradyse said.

No human has survived an avalanche burial in excess of two meters.

Each search and rescue dog at Alpine Meadows, Squaw Valley USA and Kirkwood Mountain Resort is owned by a ski patroller, known as a handler.

The dogs work with their handlers to locate the victims, but are themselves unaware of avalanche dangers. This is why the dogs must be extremely adept at following directions. Perhaps the most important command a search-and-rescue dog can learn is “stay.”

Beyond the dogs’ ability to find victims, they must be able to board the chairlifts and be people-friendly. According to Heywood, locals at Alpine Meadows know the search and rescue dogs by name.

The dogs work primarily with their owners but must also learn to take commands from other patrollers, who in an emergency may need to utilize the dogs’ skills.

While the dogs live a healthy life, they work extremely hard and there is a lot of physical activity. Additional dangers for search-and-rescue dogs include arthritis and the risk of getting cut by the edges of a ski or snowboard. Most dogs will work in search and rescue between five and seven years, said Curtis Crooks, assistant director for ski patrol at Squaw Valley USA. But in an exceptional case they can work as many as 10 years.

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