Avalanche rescue dogs

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There is no more breathtaking a vista than the winter mountains swathed in snow but often bathed in sunshine. They attract numerous hikers and skiers who sometimes forget that this can be a dangerous environment. While the weather may seem inviting, avalanches are always possible which is why considerable resources are made available to winter sports resorts. They include first-aid teams and ski-patrols, dog teams, local guides and efficient weather forecasting systems to evaluate threats.

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SAR dogs in action

Preventive measures are vital, but accidents are unavoidable and sometimes emergency-response teams need to be called into action. This is where search and rescue dogs come in.

Avalanche search and rescue is one of the few SAR disciplines where dogs need to be deployed immediately to make the most of their exceptional sense of smell, speed and tenacity.

Dogs are part of a team that also includes people responsible for plumbing depths and others for digging. All of these team members work parallel to each other, but initially dogs have the most important task.

One reason for this is the time factor, which is always critical in search and rescue missions in mountainous regions. The sooner the area can be explored, the greater the chance of finding survivors.

Dogs can explore the terrain faster than humans and their results are at least as good if not better. It will take twenty patrollers twenty hours to meticulously survey 2½ acres, whereas a dog can cover the same area in just two hours.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Selecting dog and handler

Depending on the country or the region, avalanche rescue dog teams are part of public emergency-response organisations, the armed forces or voluntary organisations such as ski patrollers.

Handlers are often highly skilled off-piste skiers with extensive experience of life in high mountains.

The Belgian Shepherd Dog (Malinois), the Labrador and the German Shepherd are the three preferred breeds in all types of search and rescue. There are several good reasons for this. Both are big and strong enough to work indefatigably in the snow. They are selected on the basis of physical attributes, health and mental traits. Interestingly, these dogs adapt very well to their new environment. After a few days they grow an abundant undercoat, the hair between their toes is worn down less, forming a sort of natural snowshoe, which increases the bearing surface, and the skin on their pads hardens, providing greater protection from the snow and the grit on the roads. The only point requiring special attention is the eyes, which have to be protected from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Eye lotion is applied during training and lengthy missions to help protect the dogs’ eyes.

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How do you train rescue dogs?

In our country, it takes approximately one year to train dogs for search and rescue. The complete process can be divided into three steps, although there are no precise boundaries and these can sometimes be combined.

Step 1: puppies 2 to 6 months old. From the age of 1.5 to 2 months, they undergo tests to select for dominant behavioral reactions compatible with their future tasks. Preference goes to puppies who enjoy playing with small objects and who are not frightened by sudden loud noises or strangers. It is indispensable that they like to bark. After this selection, the puppies are accustomed to their current environment, as well as the one in which they will be working. They must communicate a great deal with humans, from whom they must receive only positive signals. In this stage, play is used to train the puppies in basic obedience, both at home and outside.

The commands taught are: “Here”, “Go”, “Bark”, “No”, “Heel”

Step 2: puppies 6 to 8 months old. The young dogs undergo more stringent obedience training and complete preparation. At the same time and still through play, they learn to communicate with strangers for long periods of time without their handler. They learn to play with other humans and enjoy their company.

Step 3: puppies 8 to 12 months old. The dogs go through a special training cycle oriented towards search and location of victims of various catastrophes. Then, they take a professional aptitude test and begin working in their speciality area.

Andreïev

Pavel Valerievitch Andreïev
Rescuer and specialist in the handling
of mountain rescue dogs
Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations

Dog team training

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Dogs undergo many weeks of training in the mountains, based on a tried and tested programme, which may be fine-tuned to suit individual dogs.

The dogs gradually learn what is expected of them, while handlers learn to read their dog so they know when it is marking a spot. At the end of training, which generally takes a year or so, the dog teams are ready to go to work.

The teams hone their skills in regular training camps during the winter, which also gives handlers the opportunity to meet up and compare their experiences.

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Avalanche rescue dogs
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