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Rescue Dogs
Man's Best Friends in the Wilderness

While a dog in training was going through a practice drill at Alta one Sunday morning, dogs and their handlers were being tested in a real life situation just one canyon over. There had been an avalanche and people were missing.

Because of their keen sense of smell and ability to pick up a scent that might be buried several feet under snow, dogs have been an integral part of rescue operations since the late seventies.

Gordon Allcott, former Alta ski patroller said, "I'd like to think I had something to do with bringing dogs to Alta." Having been a part of the ski resort and patrol since the 1940s, Allcott went on a rescue training mission in Europe in the 1970s and came back with the idea of using dogs to search out victims of avalanches.

The dogs that get to wear the ski patrol vest are working dogs that are carefully selected for the job and go through strict training before they are certified as rescue dogs.

"We don't want a dog that lies on his back and wants his belly scratched", said Alta Ski Patroller Bjorn Nilsson. "We want a dog that wants to GO! "The dog needs to have some fight in him," said Alta Ski Patroller Clark Maughan.

Related Resources
Avalanche Infomation
It is sometimes hard for the rest of the family to understand that this dog is a working dog, and the ski patroller must train the family on how to treat the dog. "We have to separate the working dog from the pet dog. The working dog doesn't get cuddled like a pet would," said Nilsson. "We try and make his work the most fun that he has all day," said Maughan. After a drill, the dog gets lots of praise and a good old tug of war with a rope toy.

Puppies are selected to be patrol dogs based on heredity as well as behavior and temperament. Maughan's dog, Jake comes from a long line of champion dogs. "We went down to the breeder and met the mom," he said. "She was a good looking dog as were the pups, so we decided to go with that line."

Before being selected, the puppy goes through a series of aptitude tests to determine if they meet the criteria to be a search dog. "We want to see if they will chase a ball or wad of paper. Or if they are afraid of loud noises. They can't be gun shy because of the explosives used for avalanche control," said Maughan.

And Jake fit the bill.

Like several of the dogs who have worked at Alta, Maughan's dog, Jake and Nilsson's dog, Ricki were named after avalanche victims from a previous season.

A typical day for a rescue dog includes exercise as well as obedience and socialization practice and some sort of drill.

"It can be a simple drill where we bury an article of clothing like a glove or even a backpack," said Alta Ski Patroller Bruce Remmington.

Or it can be a live burial. A volunteer is buried in a pre-dug hole and the dog has to find the spot and dig the person out. The hole is shallow and is packed closed with chunks of snow.

"We are always looking for someone to use in the drills," said Maughan. "We don't want to use the same people, we want to get the dog used to finding strangers," said Nilsson. "It was fun," said Ann, a volunteer victim. "I heard scratching above my head and I wasn't sure just where he was digging. Then all of a sudden this nose popped through the snow! It took him about 10 minutes to find me."

Had she been an actual victim, she would probably have survived. People found within 15 minutes have a 92 percent chance of living.

The dogs are introduced to other dogs and other handlers that they don't normally see on a day to day basis to determine whether or not they will get along. Many times when the dogs and their handlers are called to a rescue, it is with another team, such as one from another resort or from the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue organization.

Obedience training consists of testing the dog's ability to do the basic commands: sit, stay, down, etc. They must also do drills where they weave in and out of other dogs to see if there are any aggressive tendencies.

After months of training and at least 18 months of age, the dogs can get certified. The test is set up at another resort where people other than those who were involved in its training are evaluating the dog.

"The test consists of one live burial and at least one scented item in a 100 square yard slide path," said Remmington. "The dog has to retrieve the victim within 20 minutes. The scented item is a bonus."

Most of the dogs that make it as far as the certification test do pass. Only a very small percentage fails. "They are allowed to re-test once in the same year, then they can try again next season," said Remmington. If they fail that third time, the handler is advised to find another dog.

There are currently four dogs that are part of Alta's patrol crew, and at least two of them are at the resort daily.

In the event of an avalanche, which we see often in the Wasatch, the rescue dog could mean life or death to anyone trapped. And they are very good at what they do.

Winter, 2006

Backroads of Utah
by Theresa A. Husarik

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