One of those teams is comprised of the two full-time avalanche dogs, Penny and Bell, at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe. Penny, a rescued border collie, is almost entirely deaf. She receives commands via hand signals from her handler, Paulette Schneider, who has been with Mt. Rose ski patrol for about 20 years. Bell, a black Labrador retriever, works with handler Dallas Glass, who has been with Mt. Rose since 2006.
A well-trained rescue dog is equivalent to about 20 foot searchers and can search the same area in one-eighth of the time, Glass said. Ski patrol workers use the dogs as the number one team to go out in case of an avalanche scenario, Schneider added.
The canines are taught to search for “pools” of human scent rising up through the snow, Schneider said. For instance, when Penny finds a potential scent source she will bury her head in the snow trying to find it. If the human smell intensifies, she looks back at Schneider and wildly wags her tail. The wagging and digging that follow are the signal that she is getting closer to the source. If the scent becomes weaker, a trained dog will start to work outwards from the area to try and either pinpoint a stronger buried source or rule the scent out as surface odor left by human searchers.
“Trust in the dog’s instincts over the human searcher’s (instincts),” Schneider said.
As a guide to train their dogs, members of the Mt. Rose the ski patrol use the book “Avalanche/Hasty Search: The Care and Training of Avalanche Search and Rescue Dogs” by Patti Burnett, search and rescue dog handler and supervisor with the Copper Mountain ski patrol in Colorado. Specifically, they reward the dogs with play instead of food to show correct actions.
“When using food to reward the dogs they can become too focused on the food,” Schneider said.
The use of play helps the handlers train the dogs to locate the face of the victim under the snow. While training, they progress through multiple levels. The first is runaway, where the trainer simply runs away from the dog and hides so the dog gets used to finding missing people. Then the hiding progresses to actual snow caves being chopped out for someone to hide in for the dog to extend its locating skills. Trainers actually bury themselves underneath snow when they train the avalanche dogs. A handler helps the dogs find the trainer. The trainers try to make it as close to a real crisis as possible to try to convince the dogs of the needs of the people who are buried.
For a job well done, the animals are rewarded with playtime and praise. In Penny’s case, her favorite toy is a knotted rope; it is like her security blanket, Schneider said. This rope is used in her training by placing it near the trainer/victim’s face so Penny has incentive to dig toward the victim’s head. By pawing away at the snow, she gives the victim the ability to breathe until the human rescuers arrive.
For dog owners who are training a puppy, it is important to spend quality time together, Schneider said, and new owners should train with a professional. The avalanche dogs all attended an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen class to become certified to work with the public. Such classes are available through the Truckee Meadows Dog Training Club (www.tmdtc.org) and cost $12 to $15 per week and the Canine Good Citizen test is $15. If classes are cost or time prohibitive, Schneider and Glass said new owners should learn about and use the training techniques of a professional.