In January, three Ruffwear employees got the opportunity to head to Utah to attend the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue (WBR) International Avalanche Rescue Dog School. Started in 1982 and held once every other year since, this school is hosted by WBR – a professional organization incorporated in 1977 with the goal of providing life saving rescue services and educational opportunities to the general public. This group is made up of volunteers from various resorts, agencies and backcountry service companies operating in the Wasatch Range.
Twenty-eight ski patrollers and their dogs traveled from around the country to attend this premier avi dog school. This year’s school was held at the Alta and Snowbird ski resorts in Little Cottonwood Canyon, just a stone’s throw away, yet seemingly far removed, from the bustle of Salt Lake City, Utah.
If there were ever a perfect site for an avalanche rescue training ground, this is it. Held mostly outdoors, the backdrop for the class sites were jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Little and Big Cottonwood Canyons are home to some of North America’s finest backcountry ski terrain. When you mix this with extremely easy access, steep terrain and dry snow, you have a backcountry skiers’ mecca where the need for avalanche awareness and rescue groups is essential.
We would need days (and maybe weeks!) to share every detail from this trip. We could fill pages upon pages with the experiences and lessons learned from this school. It was very eye-opening into the hard work, sacrifices and dedication every instructor, ski patroller and dog put into this week and into their work ensuring that they are ready for any situation that may arise.
The theme for Day One was… man it’s cold! After a wonderful and warm breakfast in the Peruvian Lodge, the teams headed outside where the temps were hovering right around 0 degrees Fahrenheit for a general obedience and socialization session. The twenty-eight dogs and handlers were then divided into groups based on experience – A dogs (most experienced), B dogs (intermediate) and the puppy/beginner class. Most of the first day’s drills focused on various snow-burial based exercises designed to encourage the dogs to locate a buried victim via the scent that rises through the snow, dig to the victim (and in some cases provide a bark alert) and to enter the snow pit where the victim is located.
In between drills, the goal was to keep the dogs (and us humans) warm! Here’s a tip for keeping a dog warm in cold, windy temps in the snow:
- Dig a small snow pit
- Lay a dog bed at the bottom to provide insulation from the snow
- Throw a dog coat (or two!) on your dog and let them hunker down in the pit
Day One’s main takeaway – how do you get a dog interested in finding a victim buried in the snow? The dog has to think that they are playing the coolest game on earth. It really is all about the reward they get when they get into the hole. To do this, the victim takes the dog’s favorite tug toy, fetch toy or food reward into the hole with them. When the dog gets there, the victim provides an extremely enthusiastic reward. As Hutch Foster from Park City Avalanche Rescue Dogs puts it, “If you’re not a little embarrassed when you are rewarding your dog, you’re doing it wrong.”
Check out this great video from Park City Avalanche Dogs explaining these drills in detail:
Day Two was a continuation of the phased drills based around locating and digging out buried avalanche victims. As volunteers at WBR, we stayed just as busy as the patrollers. Our role involved lots of shoveling – cleaning out the snow holes, covering up victims in the snow and even being buried ourselves to lay and wait for the sound of paws scratching at the mouth of the snow pit and the welcome site of a cold wet nose breaking through to rescue you.
Here’s a little clip I took of Hank from Copper Mountain locating me in one of the drills.
Day Three was the big day – helicopter drills! Fortunately by this point, the temperatures warmed back up to comfortable Wasatch temps in the mid-twenties. Life Flight and AirMed both dedicated their time at no cost to volunteer to fly drills all day. Every handler and dog had the opportunity to fly from the Alta resort parking lot into the backcountry where they landed and went straight into a buried victim drill. This is as real as it gets.
Here’s a short video of the chopper coming in for a landing in the backcountry.
Day Four, our last day, was another packed day of drills including obedience training, bark alert training, more helicopter flight time and a highway patrol drill involving a buried car with victims inside. What really hit home on this day was the sheer scale of the community that comes together to support this school and the resources that are donated at no cost to make it happen. This involved the local authorities donating manpower and resources to close off the main canyon road and redirect traffic, bringing in and burying a totaled car off the side of the road, Life Flight and Air Link providing two days of non-stop flight time at no cost to WBR and the many volunteers and instructors who worked tirelessly to pull off a top-notch learning experience.
Every patroller and dog left WBR with something unique to take home and think about. For us, it was the reassurance and affirmation of why we do what we do here at Ruffwear. The reminder that the products we are making and constantly refining are making an impact in the safety and comfort of all dogs – including these incredible dogs who are working daily in harsh, cold environments with hazards constantly present. We left with invaluable product feedback and more importantly, we made some great friends who share the same unconditional love for their four-legged sidekicks as we do.
To see more photos, visit our Pinterest board dedicated to the WBR Avalanche Dog School – http://pinterest.com/ruffwear/wbr-avalanche-rescue-dog-school/
We’d like to thank WBR and all of the participants for allowing Ruffwear to join them for an incredible week. If your local ski resort or any resort you visit has an avalanche rescue dog program, make sure to stop by the patrol shack and say hi to these four-legged heroes and their dedicated humans.