When it comes to avalanches, man’s best friend proves his worth

Posted By: The Ski Channel on October 13, 2009 6:06 am

Are you a dog person? Well, even if you’re more of a cat person, all of us who spend a significant time in the snowy mountains have to tip our hats to the dogs. Avalanche rescue dogs have saved more lives than would have ever been possible with just human rescuers. In the mid 1930′s, the Swiss Army began training dogs to sniff out humans that may have been buried in the snowpack, and digging them up. Given the fact that a) dogs have two more legs than we do and b) they have 2 billion smell receptors versus our 40 million (that’s 100,000 times stronger), our best friends can speed up an avalanche search in a major way. Dale Atkins, Vice President of the Avalanche Rescue Commission was kind enough to speak with me recently. He provided me with some staggering numbers. While one human rescuer conducting a standard probe-pole avalanche search can cover an average of 50 square meters an hour, a dog doing a coarse search (a rough, preliminary search) can cover an average of 10,000 square meters an hour! If the dog is doing a more fine, thorough, search, he can cover about 5,000 sq meters an hour. That means one dog can do the job of between 100 and 200 people. That is incredible. We can now see why when the dogs are added to the probe-pole search and the avalanche beacon search, our chances of surviving the avalanche skyrocket.

When we picture rescue dogs, a lot of us remember those cartoons with the big St. Bernards, carrying the liquor to warm up the stranded snow trekker. When it comes to avalanche rescue however, Beethoven is simply too big and slow. Labradors, collies and german shepherds are the best for this type of rescue work.

Stay tuned to The Ski Channel because one of our upcoming programs, Destination: Mammoth, will feature a segment on the Mammoth Avalanche Rescue Dogs, and you’ll get to see how they train. Aside from being really interesting to watch, the dogs are quite cute too. They’re enough to make any cat person reconsider their allegiance.