As winter approaches, folks begin planning annual ski and snowboarding trips all over the world. They’ve probably never given the first thought to the search and rescue canines that specialize in saving avalanche victims. Dog forbid they ever have to. Commonly referred to as Avalanche or Avi-Dogs, these pups are specially trained to locate victims buried beneath the snow quickly and efficiently using their incredible sense of smell.
In an avalanche the number one factor that determines the likelihood of survival is the speed in which victims are located. The First Special Response Group reported on a 1992 Swiss study that stated a 90% survival rate if victims are located within the first 15 minutes after an avalanche. This rate falls exponentially with each passing minute to a dismal 3% survival rate for those discovered after 2 hours.
According to the FSRG, one well trained search dog is equivalent to twenty human foot searchers. An efficient avalanche dog can search one hectare (an area one yard by one yard) in under 30 minutes, while human searchers with probes would need four hours to search the same space. The canine heroes that dedicate their working lives to avalanche rescue must be highly trained and pass a yearly or bi-yearly validation exam with their handlers.
Wasatch Backcountry Rescue is a non-profit organization in Salt Lake City, Utah dedicated to mountain and avalanche rescue. They train and provide dogs to search and rescue teams across the state and beyond. When it comes to preparing these pooches for service, the WBR means business. They select pups from litters born only in January or February in order to provide 8 – 9 months of training before their first full winter.
The pups are initially classified as Level C or Candidate Rescue Dogs, and progress up to Level A or Advanced Rescue Dogs throughout their careers. Level A dogs must be at least 18 months old and their handlers must be full time employees at WBR member ski resorts in order to test for this ranking.
The test requires handlers to deliver their dogs to the scene of the simulated avalanche quickly and safely and locate all 3 “victims” within 20 minutes of arriving. The evaluation is always held at a site unknown to the rescue team, and requires exceptional skill and physical fitness on behalf of the handler and the dog.
Avi-dogs provide a vital service to ski resorts and areas of the world prone to avalanches. If trained avalanche rescue teams are not within minutes of an accident site, chances are search results will yield the discovery of a deceased person rather than a survivor, according to searchdogs.co. The training, skill and dedication of the trainer is also imperative to the success of the team. Dog and handler must work seamlessly together in extremely stressful situations.
The next time you take to the mountains for a relaxing ski weekend, be sure to ask if there is a local Avi-team nearby. Nothing beats the peace of mind of knowing that a furry rescuer with 220 million scent receptors (versus our measly 5 million) is ready to spring into action to sniff you out should the unthinkable happen.
featured image via Frederic Bergeron, foxgrovetollers.com