It’s a dog’s life
On a chilly morning in March, a few Breckenridge ski patrollers churned up snow 100 yards north of the Peak 8 patrol hut so it resembled an avalanche debris field.
Three feet below the surface of the snow, a willing volunteer waited to be rescued in a snow cave built by the crafty patrollers.
Then, the test began. Merrick, a 6-year-old golden retriever, was released into the field with the same goal as its handler – to find the volunteer.
Two minutes later, after circling the debris field looking for a scent, Merrick signaled to handler Karen Davis that he had found the volunteer.
Merrick was digging with two paws and wagging his tail in a circle.
Davis and two other patrollers joined the digging and, minutes later, the volunteer popped his head out of the snow cave, glad to see the sky after spending 15 minutes in the snow.
According to Joe Kanetsky, Breckenridge’s lead dog handler and founder of Breck’s 15-year-old dog patrol, a similar test is run for all of the dogs once a week.
Six dogs are part of Breck’s program, including eight-year-old Hunter.
Hunter was the golden retriever responsible for confirming the location of a snowmobiler killed on the side of Mount Guyot on March 10, after the rider’s body had been found with a probe.
“First of all, you need a smart, healthy dog,” Kanetsky said. “You need one with a good attitude, that likes people, just like any service dog.”
The majority of rescue dogs are golden retrievers, he said, as the popular breed not only possesses those traits, but also works well with different handlers.
As to how the dogs can find a victim buried deep in the snowpack, Kanetsky said it’s one of the great mysteries of ski patrolling.
“Dog’s can identify the scent in the most complex of situations,” Kanetsky said.
Dogs have even found an individual buried under a lift line full of people.
The human scent percolates through the snow, but once that scent reaches the surface, a dog’s ability to single it out is where the mystique comes in.
To complicate the situation, a true emergency situation can include multiple patrollers, medics and even spectators; yet, a well-trained dog can narrow a search by eliminating scents by isolating scents coming from inside the snow.
At times, a dog’s effort to follow a scent is so strong, the dog can look like a lasso around its neck was yanked, Kanetsky said.
“I’ve seen a dog walk up to a person sitting on the snow over a victim and nudge them out of the way to start digging,” he said.
That’s where a handler’s ability to interpret a dog’s reactions to the scents is useful.
In Merrick’s case, the two-paw dig is specific for people, while a one-paw dig usually signifies an object such as a ski pole or a backpack.
According to Davis, each dog will develop its own alert signal, which is something that comes about in the dogs’ extensive training.
Training is a long-term project, with basic discipline being taught in the first year of the dogs’ lives.This leads into games of hide-and-seek and, finally, on-snow training.
The eventual goal, Kanetsky said, is to have a dog capable of finding two victims buried under three to four feet of snow in a 100-by-100-foot debris field within 20 minutes.
Once heli-certified, a dog and its handler can respond to backcountry calls, and are often the first on the scene. Three of Breckenridge’s dogs are heli-certified, Kanetsky said.
The certification process ends once a dog-and-handler team is recognized by the ski patrols, the Rescue Group, the Summit County Sheriff’s Department and Flight for Life.
A certified dog’s training leads to additional helicopter drills, where Flight for Life will pick up a dog and the handler at one resort and take them to another to find a buried test subject – usually a patroller from the host resort.
In the tests, the buried volunteers are usually given room to move around and be comfortable.
Kanetsky noted, however, that an actual avalanche victim does not have the luxury of a snow cave to rest in while waiting to be rescued.
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