At the start of this season, the avalanche control team at Lake Louise was joined by Tim Ricci, an experienced patroller who had previously worked on the snow safety teams at Marmot Basin near Jasper and Mt. Norquay in Banff. Along with his experience, Tim also brought his dog Cholo, and the two of them were on their way to becoming a certified avalanche rescue team with the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA). Cholo is a purebred yellow lab, weighs about 35kg, and is about two-and-a-half years old.
Tim and Cholo had started on this path when Cholo was a six-month-old puppy, and two years later, on February 2 of this year, they passed their final exam to lose their “team in training” status and become fully validated with CARDA. There are only thirty or so validated teams in Canada, with most in B.C., a few in Alberta, and one in the Yukon. Becoming an avalanche dog handler is a decision that is usually made before a puppy is acquired, since breed and temperament are important factors to consider when choosing a pup. There’s more info on dog selection at the CARDA website: http://www.carda.bc.ca/education/
Even though Tim and Cholo are now a validated team, it doesn’t mean the training has come to an end, and when things are a little slower in the avalanche control world, there is opportunity to continue to develop the skills of both dog and handler. Yesterday was one of those days at Lake Louise, so we went about setting up a scenario in which the dog would have to find two buried “victims”. Using live people in scenarios (rather than just a scented article of clothing) is better, since it more closely mimics the real thing, and it also allows the “victim”, once rescued, to reward the dog with play and enthusiastic encouragement, all of which reinforce the search drive in the dog.
Two holes were dug around the bottom of East Bowl (ER 1) – one a shallow ditch, and the other a small cave. In the ditch, a patroller lay down on her stomach, leaving an air pocket around her face and a radio in her hand, and the snow was shovelled in on top of her. I went into the small cave, which was just large enough to allow some movement and the taking of some photos, and it then had its narrow entrance covered and smoothed over on top.
We both had with us articles of clothing that had been scented (don’t ask) to help the dog and to use as a play toy once the dog had located us. Once we were in place, the dog was brought to the scene and a search commenced. The buried patroller was lower on the slope and therefore closer to the dog, which picked up her scent quite quickly and went right to the burial spot. Once the dog started to dig in the snow, other patrollers (the rescue team) took it as their cue to dig as well, and the patroller was re-introduced to daylight in a matter of seconds.
Once she was uncovered, Cholo continued the search, and picked up my scent about thirty feet or so from where I was in my little cave. I had my camera in one hand, and the scented article in the other, ready to reward Cholo when he found me. The snow blocking the cave entrance began to fall in, and suddenly Cholo’s head peered in. Once he saw me, he began to dig like crazy and eventually ended up in the cave with me, making things even more cozy, and trying to drag me out of the hole. I crawled out of the hole while playing with Cholo, and once back on top let him drag me down the slope.
The reward for a good search is critical. Tim instructed us to be over the top and act like idiots when praising Cholo, with the idea being that there is no greater moment in the dog’s life than when he finds a buried victim. He said that if we didn’t make other people turn and stare with our praise, then we weren’t being idiotic enough! There’s little question that as a handler you want your search dog to be very enthusiastic when it comes to finding people buried in the snow. In fact, I remember a search scenario that occurred in Brownshirt a number of years ago that involved both the Lake Louise patrol as well as the parks service and their dog team. The dog was in training, and when it uncovered the dummy we had used as a buried victim, the dog was so into it he ripped the head and arms clean off the dummy’s body.