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CARDA’s 2011 winter training course

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February 24, 2011, By Rebecca Edwards, ARTICLE, ACTIVITIES “If you don’t look like an idiot you are doing it wrong,” says avalanche search and rescue dog instructor Jay Pugh, as he shows the 2011 rookie avalanche dogs and handlers the foundation of all their training – “the raving loony drill.”

LESSON ONE: THE RAVING LOONY DRILL This is the game of tug that your dog wishes he could do all day. It’s frantic, noisy and energetic – and, when done right, should leave you and the dog out of breath. The drill is performed with a piece of human clothing, crucially teaching the dogs that seeking out human scent will lead to their favourite game – even if it’s at the scene of an avalanche. Pugh bends down, gives one end of a sweater to Golden Retriever ‘Chili’ and spends the next 20 seconds running around with the dog, whooping and praising him as they energetically fling the rag around (always side to side or back and forth – never up and down – to avoid neck injuries). Chili has years of experience with his handler, Blackcomb Mountain Ski Patroller Gwen Milley, but is still thrilled to be playing this game. Chili finally gets the rag, and he struts around proudly.

CARDA The Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) is a volunteer-led, not-for-profit organization that since 1978 has trained dog-handler teams to search for avalanche victims. There are currently 36 validated teams based in ski resorts, search and rescue teams and backcountry ski operations, and their ability to quickly locate avalanche victims makes them invaluable every winter. Each winter, CARDA holds a week-long course to train beginner dogs (aged one to two years) and to validate or re-validate older dogs and their handlers. This year’s beginner’s course, held at Fernie Alpine Resort in B.C., included Blackcomb ski patroller Corey Brealey, with his Greyhound/Collie cross, ‘Orbit’; Nick Smith (also a Blackcomb ski patroller) with his Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, ‘Bidgee’; Canadian Avalanche Centre forecaster and ski guide Ilya Storm with his Toller, ‘Skeena’; Revelstoke Ski Patroller Troy Leahey with his Labrador Retriever, ‘Penny’; Ron Smeele and his German Shepherd ‘Paco’; Bree Korabanik of Castle Mountain Resort in Alberta and German Shepherd ‘Aurora’ and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort patroller Adam Sheriff with Brooke, a German Shepherd.

LEARNING TO SEARCH The first exercise is a ‘master runaway,’ in which the dog is held back while the handler waves the rag in front of them, building excitement in the dog, before running off noisily waving the rag in the air and hiding. The dog is released, and shoots off to find its alpha, who rewards them with the loony drill. Next, the dog finds other people, then digs people out of snow caves blocked with snow – loosely at first, then more densely packed. Finally, the search moves on to backpacks or human scented clothes that give off a fainter scent and further test the dogs’ abilities. All seven puppies showed enough progression and promise to pass the week’s course and were given ‘in-training’ status. For their year of training, the handlers will practice regular searches for people and articles buried deeper and deeper in the snow, always with the same reward of play and praise. Next January, the teams will return to try to pass the validation test of finding up to four human-scented articles in a mock avalanche field of 100 by 100 metres. Validated dog-handler teams can take part in RCMP-led search missions.

TIMELY REMINDER Just one day after this year’s training course, the ski community had another reminder of the importance of avalanche dogs. A rare in-bounds avalanche in an open area at Fernie Alpine Resort left four skiers partially buried but uninjured, and ski patrollers concerned that other skiers/riders could be buried. Resort spokesman Matt Mosteller said that the resort’s three avalanche dogs arrived on the scene within minutes and were able to search the area, quickly pronouncing it clear. “They are a vital part of our snow safety team,” said Mosteller. “They have a sense of smell that no human has, and they can cover much more ground more quickly and effectively. We are very, very proud of our handlers and dogs.”

TRY IT AT HOME CARDA trains its dogs and handlers to work in life-or-death situations. But their basic training techniques can also be used to exercise your dog’s mind and scent-search skills. • Have a friend take the leash and hide from your dog while out on a walk and praise him vigorously when he finds you. • Command your dog to stay, then hide a soft toy or old rag. At first hide it within view, then make it a little harder each time, praising him when he finds it. • Remember: when playing tug, never pull your dog’s head up and down, only side to side or back and forwards.

RELATED READING Avalanche rescue dogs dogsincanada.com/service Scenting success Rebecca Edwards is a journalist based in Fernie, B.C. who became interested in avalanche rescue dogs through a love for skiing and her chocolate Lab, Bryn. Photos by Todd Weselake This article is exclusive to dogsincanada.com. Click here to learn more about our print edition.

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