Victim’s best friend: savvy ‘avy’ dogs


I have just skied down a chute and am buried under more than a meter of snow. I have a two-way radio on and an avalanche rescue beacon. After 20 minutes of deathlike silence, I can finally hear a dog barking in the distance. I’ve done a lot of back-country skiing in my life, but this is the first time I’ve ever had to be rescued.

I’m a “live burial” victim, all part of a regular day at Wasatch Backcountry Rescue’s dog school in Deer Valley, Utah, where dogs learn how to rescue a variety of outdoor enthusiasts, including snowmobilers, skiers, climbers, snowboarders, snowshoers, hikers and hunters who are caught in avalanches. In Utah, there are over 100 unintentional human-triggered avalanches per year, making avalanches responsible for taking more lives than any other natural hazard.

When I was put into this hole, they left me there a while to “wait for my scent to rise.” The rescue dog, which is trained to pick up scents of old, sweaty skiers under the snow, will dig me out. That is, of course, if he finds me. He shouldn’t have too many problems, though. I haven’t showered in days.

These St. Bernards of yesteryear are now black Labradors, golden retrievers and the occasional German shepherd. They’ve all come to dog school to become avalanche dogs — known to the savvy as “avy dogs.”

Dean Cardinale, president of the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue, helps coordinate this three-day dog school, which includes training sessions in dog obedience, agility, ranging, helicopter and bark alert. The dogs love to ski, ride chairlifts and helicopters — true ski bums putting their graduate degrees to good use.

The dogs are separated into groups depending on what they are learning. I have to admit that the group of puppies is a little iffy. They seem far more interested in playing, slobbering and looking as cute as possible than in rescuing anyone. Luckily, until they are 18 months old, they are only considered “candidates.”

The live burial rescue is the final goal of dog school. Each dog and handler, as a team, must pass a test before they can become avalanche dogs and actually go out and rescue people. This particular test was an A-level test being taken by a black lab named Binx and his handler, Jonathan, from Alta, Utah. Level A dogs can work either inside or outside the ski area boundary. Binx and Jonathan have 20 minutes to find me, another victim and two articles of clothing buried at different spots in the snow. Binx is a veteran, Jonathan is not. My faith lies with the dog.

Twenty minutes is a very small window for rescuing someone, as half of all buried victims die of asphyxiation within the first 25 minutes, and almost all will be dead within two hours. Dog and handler must act quickly.

But the more I watched the teams work, the more I realized that the dog cannot do his work alone. Dog and handler are equally dependent on each other for a successful rescue. The handler, through commands and hand signals, helps direct the dog so he can do his work. Nose to the ground, a dog “shows interest” through barking, a snap of the head when he catches a scent, or continual sniffing around the same area. From there, the handler considers factors such as visual aids and wind direction to decide whether to encourage the dog to pursue and dig.

Finally, I hear a muffled barking above me — Binx indicating that he has found his smelly victim. But as I lie there cramped and cold, a dummy victim in a simulated rescue, I feel a tingling of excitement when that beautiful black nose pokes through the snow into my hole. Binx backs out of the hole and barks a confirmation to Jonathan before returning to dig for me a little more. This time, he sticks his entire head into the hole and nuzzles me before backing out again and giving a long and excited victory bark.

Binx and Jonathan then go on to recover another body and two clothing articles to complete their A-level test with flying colors. That’s one savvy avy dog — and handler.