Training avalanche dogs

This is Part II of a TVN series on working dogs.

Earlier this month, 20 teams of avalanche dogs and their handlers convened at Grand Targhee Resort for the American Avalanche Institute’s annual four-day canine course, originally the brainchild of Jason O’Neill.

“The workshop went really well. We had more teams than ever,” O’Neill said last week.

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Now in its thirteenth year, the workshop drew 20 teams of dogs and handlers from across the west.

Before coming to Teton Valley, O’Neill worked as a ski patroller at Whitewater Ski Resort, where he learned the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association’s criteria, then adapted the program and brought it to Grand Targhee. The annual workshop has grown over the last decade and a half; it started with Grand Targhee and Jackson Hole patrollers working their dogs together, then teams from around the region started joining, and now that the course is offered by AAI, it brings in patrollers from across the west.

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Dogs with high energy and an intense prey drive are best suited for work as avalanche dogs.

High-drive, energetic working dogs are the best candidates for avalanche dogs—the workshop attendees were primarily German shepherd, retrievers, and cattle dogs. O’Neill explained that the process of training an avalanche dog is pretty straightforward. Inexperienced teams progress through the workshop, first learning to find live runaways (an exciting game of hide-and-seek) then live burials, then buried articles (pieces of scented wool), while the more seasoned dogs get to work more complex problems.

“The dog’s the easy side. The real challenge is not training the dog, it’s training the other end of the lead,” O’Neill said. “We’re just ski patrollers who have dogs. Most people in the course have no formal dog training background, which is why the focus of the course is teaching patrollers the basics like consistency and repetition.”

Former and current Grand Targhee ski patrollers who learned O’Neill’s methods now help him teach the AAI course. Instructors also include other AAI employees and trainers from other avalanche dog organizations.

Patroller Becca Parkinson said she enjoyed being a part of the workshop and likes the methods because rather than having rigid training protocol, students work with their dogs’ personalities to find out how to do fast, effective searches.

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Instructor Jason O'Neill says that Grand Targhee Resort's management is extremely supportive of avalanche dog training.

Training at a ski resort is ideal, O’Neill explained. Teams are able to practice search scenarios in live avalanche paths that have been controlled for safety, yielding hard-packed fields of debris that exactly replicate the kinds of situation where an avalanche dog would be used. It’s hard to find those conditions anywhere else.

One might assume that big resorts with plenty of resources and a large ski patrol would be better suited to maintaining a cadet of avalanche dogs, but O’Neill said that actually smaller resorts are often better, because patrol sees a much lower number of crashes and other first aid needs, does less daily avalanche mitigation work, and has ample space for teams to do drills. O’Neill said that Grand Targhee in particular has been extremely accommodating and supportive of its avalanche dog teams by providing the venue for trainings and by plowing snow into dense piles that mimic debris for dogs to practice in during the workshop.

O’Neill acknowledged that a ski patroller who has an avalanche dog is taking on more work.

“It’s a whole other level of patrol,” he said. “They put in a lot of effort.”

After patrollers have taken their young dogs through the course, they still run drills almost daily. A drill could be only 15 or so minutes but it reinforces the dog’s training. Other skills beside search are essential for patrol dogs: they need to be able to heel while skiing, stay under control in a crowd, and ride a chair lift. That last skill just takes repetition.

“You start them on a park bench,” O’Neill said. “They learn the ‘get up’ command and get comfortable jumping onto uneven surfaces. You can practice in your yard and the dog learns to trust you. Soon they’ll do it anywhere.”

He added that even riding an ATV or a snowmobile is good practice for riding chair lifts.

Three alumni of the Grand Targhee dog program also serve on Teton County Idaho Search and Rescue and help to augment other agencies that don’t have their own dogs.

“We often work with other counties—we’re a resource for other teams,” O’Neill said.

The most recent snow search that O’Neill and his dog, Tuka, participated in was a snowmobile-triggered avalanche in Island Park in January 2018. The conditions were so dangerous that rescuers weren’t dispatched until the next morning, and had to snowmobile eight miles into the backcountry through hazardous terrain. The victim was buried shallowly and while his partners hadn’t been able to find him, Tuka hunted him down in minutes. Unfortunately the victim did not survive.

There are big benefits to using dogs in search and rescue situations, especially when the person caught in a slide isn’t wearing a transceiver. O’Neill said a good dog can work an entire slide path in minutes and find the person quickly, when a group of people in a probe line could take hours. Using a dog also means putting fewer people in the line of fire if dangerous conditions still exist.

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A young golden retriever from Mt Baldy Resort in California learns the basics of hide-and-seek during the American Avalanche Institute’s K-9 Training Course at Grand Targhee.

“Being really diligent in training can give you a faster, more efficient dog and that makes a big difference in searches,” O’Neill said.

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