Avalanche dog handling is much more than just a job.Today, it's an inseparable part of mountain rescue and indeed, of the Alpine imagination: avalanche rescue dogs and their handlers are a symbiotic team, essential to rescuing people in the mountain environment.
Admired by adults and loved by children, avalanche rescue dogs, most commonly from the St Bernard breed, have been a symbol of the mountains since the 18th century. Appearing in the form of soft toys, postcards or even in flesh and bone during traditional celebrations, the "dog with the barrel" is well known far outside of the Alps.
The legend of rescue dogs began in 1709 when the monks of the Hospice du Grand St Bernard decided to use their dogs' hardiness and sense of smell to rescue missing travellers. It wasn't until the Schilthorn disaster in 1938 that avalanche rescue dogs really came into existence. 18 young people were carried off by a snow slide close to the charming Swiss village. 17 were found by men, and the 18th was found by a mongrel dog accompanying the rescue party. Two years later, the first "avalanche rescue dog" training programme took place in Switzerland.
Since 1940, the mission has become much more codified and professional. However, one aspect has remained the same: the interdependent relationship between a dog and its handler. The latter has to constantly listen to their animal and maintain a very close bond with them. A great deal of time needs to be dedicated to this every day and throughout the year. Above all else, dog-handlers are mountain folk who love their dog!
Contrary to what you might think, avalanche dog handling is not a profession in the sense that you can make a living from it. It is a specialism that mountain professionals take on as an extra responsibility. This means the dog handlers are generally members of the ski patrol and rescue teams, ski lift employees, firefighters, police officers or even riot police. It is an extra investment dedicated to helping others.
To become avalanche rescuers, the future handler and their dog must carry out a year's training. The pair is only put to work after having obtained the prized diploma issued by the National Association of Snow and Avalanche Study. In order to receive this qualification, the dog handler must master the likes of downhill skiing in all snow types, knowledge of the mountain environment and even ski touring.
As the dog's abilities are developed over time, the choice of puppy is obviously a crucial factor. The most commonly used breeds are: Border Collie, Belgian Shepherd, Labrador, German Shepherd or Golden Retriever.
Once chosen, the puppy begins their education by spending around three months on three areas: obedience, sociability and play. The latter is essential because the principle of avalanche rescue is based on the three tenets: "Search, Find, Play".
In general, dogs can find someone buried in up to 4 metres of snow. However, in Austria and in the USA, dogs have been known to recover victims buried up to 12 metres deep.
Once their training is complete and the pair is declared fit for avalanche rescue, a number of training programmes take place throughout the winter and summer season in order to maintain the dog's skills, responses and good practice, as well as those of the handler.
In the field, the dog handler and their animal work, as a priority, in the ski area on the request of the ski patrol service manager.
The duo may be taken to work outside the ski area, in a "mountain zone", but only on request of the local authority and acting as reinforcement to the High-Mountain search and rescue teams.
Depending on their health and energy, an avalanche rescue dog's career usually lasts around 10 years. Once retired, the dogs aren't abandoned but finish out their days peacefully at the heart of the home in which they have lived their whole life.
These dogs have truly earned their reputation as "Man's best friend" in people's hearts and in the mountain imagination. If their handlers know how to take proper care of them, then the dogs will return the favour by saving the lives of many lost or reckless people.
However, it is always better to meet an avalanche rescue dog in the streets of the resort rather than during an avalanche so... be careful!
For further information:
Association Nationale pour l'Etude de la Neige et des Avalanches