Snow and Avalanche Center 2009 Avalanche News

Snow rescues easy fetch game for dogs
4:00AM Saturday Aug 08, 2009

A series of avalanches causing two deaths in the Southern Alps of New Zealand this winter have kept snow rescue dogs busy sniffing out trapped people.

An Australian heliskier was killed on July 24 in an avalanche on Ragged Range, near Methven, and snowboarder Ryan Campbell was swept away and buried outside the Coronet Peak skifield boundary near Queenstown on Sunday.

When a person becomes trapped by an avalanche, their best hope for survival - aside from a personal locator beacon - is a rescue dog, whose agility, speed and sense of smell can mean the difference between life and death.

LandSAR avalanche dog co-ordinator Karyn Heald, who works at Mt Hutt skifield, said the dogs were trained through a hide-and-seek game.

That game starts with the young dog being held while their handler runs a short distance away, and the dog getting "super excited" before they are released to run to their handler.

The training progresses to the owner standing in an open hole for the dog to find, up to the testing stage where the dog must find two buried people and an item in 20 minutes.

A dog's sense of smell was 800 times sharper than a human's, and they found people through a scent "cone" that rose out of the snow, which the dog would strike as they ran past or over it.

"For a dog, it's actually quite easy to sniff out a person buried in the snow."

Having four legs made them much faster at covering ground than people, Ms Heald said.

Weather conditions, contamination and wind could affect the dogs' ability to work, as was the case in Mr Campbell's death, but 9-year-old labrador Ella took only five minutes to indicate where he was buried, her Remarkables skifield handler Brent MacDonald said.

People had already searched the area by the time Ella arrived, which meant there were numerous human scents on the snow.

First off, Ella did a "coarse" run over the snow, sniffing out the scents, before she began a "fine" run to narrow down where Mr Campbell was.

By that time, searchers had traced a signal from his cellphone to determine his position.

It was hard to say whether arriving sooner could have saved Mr Campbell's life, Mr MacDonald said.

"After 18 minutes [under the snow], the chance of survival is pretty slim," he said.

Eight-year-old Blizzard, a female border collie who works at Treble Cone skifield in Wanaka, has never needed to rescue anyone from an avalanche, but is trained three to four times a week just in case.

Handler Matt Gunn said Blizzard had been involved in six operations where she was used to check avalanche areas for potentially trapped skiers.

Her ability to cover a large area and confirm if there was anyone under the snow meant far less work for human searchers, Mr Gunn said.

"It's always satisfying when the dog works over a large area of debris and confirms there's nothing in it."


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