In the 1930's the Swiss Army began training dogs to assist with avalanche rescue. Since that time many other nations have added rescue dogs to their Search and Rescue operations. Here in Canada more and more ski hills have teams on staff to assist when necessary.
In Western Canada volunteer avalanche rescue dog teams are an important part of the search and rescue service following an avalanche incident. According to CARDA (the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association) search and rescue dog teams can be more effective than a human probe line. "The dog teams can search an area of approximately 1 Ha in 30 min. for a coarse search, and 1-2 hrs. for a fine search. In comparison, a probe line would take 4 hrs for a coarse search, and 20 hrs for a fine search"
I spoke with Liz Wiltzen, CMH hiking guide and human element of one such avalanche rescue dog team, about the training and testing process that she and her dog Lily went through to get validated by CARDA.
JC: Liz, what inspired you to train Lily as an avalanche rescue dog?
LW: Her passion for searching. When she was four months old a friend and I played a game with her where we gave her my friend's daughter's teddy bear and asked Lily to find the little girl. She shot off into the woods and found her immediately and was so excited by the game that she wanted to play over and over.
She just seems more alive when she's barking and waiting for a search. I can feel her enthusiasm for it and her joy when she finds what we're after.
JC: What was the training process that the two of you went through?
LW: Fellow trainees and I would sleep with sweaters and other articles to get them heavily scented and then bury them for her to find. We started out with shallow searches and gradually increased the depth. Often I would lightly bury a friend in the snow for Lily to find. The key there was to ensure that whomever Lily found really celebrated the success of the find with her.
A big part of the trianing was to make the success really, really rewarding. To make finding a person be the best thing that could ever possibly happen it was critical that it was really fun for her. And now, it's the best game in the world for her.
JC: What was the process of the testing you went through as a team?
LW: At the age of 10 months Lily was evaluated by CARDA to see if she had the drive to be a rescue dog. They determined that she did and that she would be a good candidate for the program.
So we trained on our own for the next 8 months before we attended a winter training course offered by CARDA. After successfully completing that first round we were considered a 'team in training'.
We underwent a year of self-directed training before attending another week-long course where we could have chosen to be tested. I wasn't confident we were ready to test at that time, so we opted out, giving us another full year to train. At the next year's training course, I felt we were much more solid and ready to go. We were evaluated and validated at that time.
We constantly train and practice and each team must be validated every 12 months to remain active.
JC: What sort of qualifications did you, as the handler, have to have in order to be considered?
LW: I had to have my advanced first aid and my Avi 1 (CAA Level 1) training. In addition, my skiing ability and backcountry ski touring experience were factored in.
JC: You and Lily are different from a lot of the other CARDA teams because you are not a ski patroller or guide.(NB Liz is a talented artist and personal coach, and spent several years working as a heli-hiking guide for CMH.) Why did you commit to the idea of validating and being an on-call resource?
LW: Lily and I are fortunate to have close friends with avalanche dogs so we had great resources for coaching and training. For my part, having validated and being on call is just a great way to help people. We've not been called out to an avalanche scene yet, but we're here and ready to go and assist people any way that we can.
Learn more about CMH Heli-Skiing and our commitment to mountain safety visit our website at www.cmhski.com.
For more information on CARDA, please visit their website at www.carda.bc.ca.