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For Avalanche Rescue Dogs, Speed Is The Essence Of Success

Vail-Avy-Dogs The Vail avalanche dog crew reports for duty. (Scott Britmeier/Vail Avalanche Rescue Dogs)

If caught in an avalanche, it’s likely that “man’s (and woman’s) best friend” will be the hero of the search-and-rescue operation that saves lives. Although the cuteness factor of Instagram puppies gets likes, these dogs have serious jobs.

The popularity of going into the “backcountry,” “sidecountry” or “slackcountry” has grown exponentially in recent years, as more and more winter resorts on or abutting U.S. Forest Service land have accommodated people’s right to use public lands.

With more skiers and riders in unpatrolled, virgin territory comes an increase in avalanches – and subsequent rescue missions.

The speed at which an avalanche victim can be located is critical to saving lives, according to the American Avalanche Institute. About 90 percent of victims survive if found in the first 15 minutes after burial (that rate drops to 30 percent in the next 15 minutes), and that’s where the trained avalanche rescue dog and its handler come to the fore.

Avy dogs ride lifts, snowmobiles, even helicopters to get where they are needed. (Vail Avalanche Rescue Dogs/Facebook)

A common sights these days is an “avy dog” riding with its handler up the chairlift, on a snowmobile, in a helicopter, on the handler’s shoulders or running alongside. If an avalanche occurs, the speediest mode of transport gets them right to work at the site.

Avy dogs know how to navigate deep snow. (Jake Hutchinson)

A trained avalanche dog can search 2.5 acres in about 30 minutes, while it would take 20 humans with probes about four hours to cover the same area. The canines search for “pools of scent” given off by buried humans. If they find strong pools, the dogs begin to dig, signaling rescue workers were to concentrate their efforts.

“Sporting” breeds of dogs – German Shepherds, Labradors, Golden Retrievers and Border Collies – make the best avalanche rescue dogs. These breeds have strong drives to locate prey, retrieve, hunt and accept praise -- without being overly aggressive. In addition, these breeds generally can get around in snow and handle the extreme winter weather, according to Ski Utah

Ready to go to work saving lives. (Steven Pass Avalanche Rescue Dogs/Facebook)

Most avalanche awareness, evaluation and rescue operations are located in the West, with its steep, high altitude terrain and preponderance of Forest Service land. Annual refresher training courses abound, especially in the the Rockies, Sierra and Cascades. Utilizing dogs to find avalanche victims has been going on for at least three decades. In 1993, Washington’s Stevens Pass had one of the first pack of avy dogs in the U.S. to start digging. In New Hampshire, the Mount Washington Avalanche Center  employs avy dog Lily Carus on the above-treeline slopes, chutes and ravines of the Northeast’s highest peak.

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